Romanian rock music under the communist regime

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.

For young Romanians living under communism, the biggest night of the week was “Youth Thursday”. Organized by youth clubs in schools, universities and factories, the dance parties launched some of the biggest Romanian rock and jazz bands of the time.

Unsurprisingly, the Romanian authorities weren’t too fond of the rock band boom of the 1960s, but they tolerated it – that is, until a band or band member emerged from the limits. But as Nicolae Ceaușescu – who served as head of state from 1967 to 1989 – clamped down on cultural freedoms, artists have had to use shrewd strategies to challenge an increasingly stifling system.

In 1969, the underground Club A event space opened in Bucharest. Originally intended for architecture students and their guests, the club hosted rock concerts, modern dance performances, poetry, folk and jazz nights. Incredibly, the club still exists today and is still run by students.

A year after opening, Club A held Bucharest’s first-ever music festival, which was technically a competition between rock bands. The festival lasted six days and took place throughout the city.

While music charts in the United States and throughout the West in the 1970s were dominated by Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Beatles, Romanian musicians were ordered to play the music according to the taste of the “most beloved son of the people”, Nicolae Ceaușescu.

The communist leader had returned home after a tour of China and North Korea, impressed by what he had seen: tens of thousands of young people crazy about communist ideology. Ceaușescu wanted to adopt the Asian model for Romania, with patriotic music as a central part of the plan. He also knew what he didn’t want: decadent Western music.

In 1971, singing in English was banned in Romania. Ceaușescu’s famous July Theses speech attacked creatives and intellectuals, calling for strict cultural reform. He also demanded that the groups only highlight the positive aspects of Romanian life at the time.

But rock bands quickly found solutions to bend the rules. The songs were written with lyrics based on classic poems, or without lyrics at all. The groups also used obscure Romanian translations of foreign hits to circumvent the gaze of the authorities. If the songs were written in Romanian, they often used totally nonsensical words that sounded like English when sung. The bands also dropped the term “rock”, considered subversive, identifying themselves instead as “instrumental-vocal musical ensembles”.

All of this helped keep rock music alive under extremely restrictive conditions. The era, immortalized by the archives of the Romanian Rock Museum, celebrates not only the bands that defied time, but also the spaces that helped them thrive.

Scroll down for more images from the archive.