In 1981, an obscure English punk band recorded a song whose cover by an Istrian punk band became famous in the former Yugoslavia. It took three decades and serendipity for the dots to connect.

With Barry Phillips (Demob) and Nenad Milić (Tito’s Bojs). Featuring music by Agent Tajne Sile, Defiance, Hladno Pivo, JazzIstra Orchestra, and Tito’s Bojs.

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Episode Transcript

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your promoter Peter Korchnak.

Like everywhere outside the English-speaking Northern Hemishphere world, punk rock in the former Yugoslavia was both a marginal affair and an import from the UK. Yugoslav music lovers were free to travel to the West and discover new trends there and buy records—including punk.

The first punk bands in Yugoslavia, Pankrti (The Bastards) from Ljubljana and Paraf (The Initials) from Rijeka, both of whom are now legendary, set the tone for the scene in 1976-77, about the time The Clash released their debut album.

With the speed of a guitar solo, the punk bug spread to Pula, Zagreb, Novi Sad, and Belgrade as well as Skopje and Sarajevo. Električni Orgazam (Electric Orgasm), Prljavo Kazalište (Dirty Theater), Termiti (Termites), and Zabranjeno Pušenje (No Smoking) all started out as punk bands before crescendoing into the various riffs of New Wave, as did Paraf. In the 1980s, dozens of additional punk bands emerged.

Again as everywhere, Yugoslav punks criticized and condemned the mainstream. This in Yugoslavia often took on the form of critiquing the socialist system itself, the police, the government, the ideology. But, as has been observed, not necessarily with the goal of bringing it down altogether; perhaps the Yugoslav punkers suspected the end of socialism would be the end of Yugoslavia. This is one reason [why] Pankrti and KUD Idijoti from Pula included the Italian communist anthem, “Bandiera Rossa,” on their albums or why Paraf sang “Živjela Jugoslavija!” (Long Live Yugoslavia). In other words, those of Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys, “If you love God, burn a church.”

The writer Jonathan Bousfield has described his first encounter with Yugoslav politics thusly: “I was walking behind a group of local teenagers in Trogir in 1985. One of them was carrying a small rucksack on which she had written, in felt pen, the words “Sex Pistols”, “The Doors”, and “Tito”, followed by a five-pointed star.”

Conversely, the regime tolerated punk and punk rockers because it was safer to keep them in view, releasing the steam here and there on albums or at live concerts, than to have them suppressed underground where they would plot who knows what.

That said, punks did see limits put on their works and experience some repression; the Nazi Punk affair from 1981 was a prominent example (note to self: a badge that says Nazi Punks Fuck Off! over a crossed-out swastika—don’t wear that in a socialist country).

“Punk rock in Yugoslavia emerged and developed as a way to blaspheme the government and…almost everything…that our parents’ generation believed in,” wrote Bosnian-in-Croatia writer, Miljenko Jergović, in the New York Times, in 2017 when Yugoslav punk was celebrating 40 years. “The artistry consisted in writing songs that would be more anti-establishment than any before but would not be censored. There was just one topic that was untouchable: Tito. Everything else was allowed. One could sing more or less openly against everything. Even against Communism.” End quote.

For context, in the Eastern-Bloc Czechoslovakia, only a handful of punk bands existed, unbeknownst to most people (reading about them today I’ve only heard of about a couple); in my part of the former country, Slovakia, there was literally one punk band, Zóna A, in the population of five million, formed in 1984 and not allowed to publish until after the commies were out.

“Simply put,” concluded Jergović, “in contrast to Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union, Tito did not think that young people with drums and guitars would bring down the state. And in the end, he was right.”

Musically—

BARRY PHILLIPS: Yugoslavian punk had very, very distinct DNA of Balkan folk. It seemed that wherever it came from in Yugoslavia had a different flavor and that tended to come from regional folk, so whether it was sevdah or klapa or tamburitza, you know?

PETER KORCHNAK: Barry Phillips was for a short period in the early 1980s the bassist for the punk band from Gloucester [glahsta], England called Demob.

At the time and for another thirty years, he knew nothing about Yugoslav punk.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I chased the dream to be a musician for 20 odd years, eventually giving up in the mid-90s, early to mid-90s.

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips spoke to me from his home in a village in the Scottish Highlands.

After his music career, Phillips spent most of his adult life in Sheffield, an industrial city in central England. He turned himself into a historian specializing in modern European history, authoritarianism and fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and oral history.

(By the way, founding Pankrti member, Gregor Tomc, is a sociology professor at the University of Ljubljana. As Phillips quips, “punk is not dead, it just got a PhD.”)

Then Phillips, the former punk rocker, joined the British Civil Service as a policy advisor and later a speech writer—his top credits include various secretaries of state and education as well as, in part, one Tony Blair—and most recently he worked as an education technology policy advisor to the European Union.

BARRY PHILLIPS: And then I dedicated about seven or eight years pretty much full time to either playing again, I went back to playing music in a French punk band—

PETER KORCHNAK: —until 12 years ago when things took a hard Yugoslav turn.

Before we get to that story, I want to dedicate a drum solo to Aleksandar, Kamilla, and Nina: thank you all for your recent headbanging contributions, you truly rock.

[SOUNDBITE]

Remembering Yugoslavia has been, is, and will remain independent—call it guerrilla, call it punk—thanks to contributions from people like Aleksandar, Kamilla, and Nina. So if you haven’t already, join this trio and many others on the stage and help keep the podcast (a)live.

Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and rock out with your card out and jam out with your clams out.

[SOUNDBITE]

BARRY PHILLIPS: 1976 When punk came along, I was what, fourteen, living in an ex-coal mining village down on the border between England and Wales, so very provincial kind of area. Punk was utterly my life fairly quickly. We would travel 50 miles to see every punk gig within that radius.

PETER KORCHNAK: Barry Phillips again.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I formed punk bands as you do in those kind of places (little tiny villages, there’s nothing else to do).

1980, a friend of mine had joined Demob and become the singer, and he asked me to join Demob.

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips played in another band, the Blitz Boys, which occasionally supported Demob and got some play on John Peel’s BBC show.

Demob was a “multi-racial, teenage street-punk band” formed in Gloucerster, England in 1978. Their first release was titled, “Anti-Police.” At one point they were support for U2.

BARRY PHILLIPS: Demob were building something of a reputation by 1980, some of it notorious. They were very much a street punk band as opposed to—although that wasn’t a phrase then—as opposed to the kind of art school punk side of things, very representative of being provincial, if you like.

PETER KORCHNAK: That notorious reputation had to do with fights breaking out at their shows. The “testosterone-fueled teenagers from a coal-mining culture,” as Phillips describes the members, “were no strangers to fists and boots.”

Some brawls were initiated by local motorbike gangs, others by skinheads. But it wasn’t just lunk heads and neo-Nazis who took issue with punk.

BARRY PHILLIPS: Something that’s missed now, and this is quite important to the story actually, is that back in ‘76, ‘77, we punks were really incredibly in the minority. If you listen to everybody now, everybody had some sympathy with punk or was into punk, but everybody hated us: the street kids hated us, the bikers hated us, the police hated us, the politicians hated us, older people hated us, everybody hated us. So we were very much a minority and that formed your identity very, very much. And I think it’s part of your identity that formed very early on and it kind of carries with you right through life having been that kind of minority or perhaps we were just kind of those kind of people.

We were teenagers, you know, when 15, 16, 17 years old, but almost everybody who hated us was was a mature adult, you know what I mean? But apart from the fact that our peers hated us anyway, the fact that there were questions asked in Parliament in Westminster about these punks, saying they were destroying society. Obviously the God Save the Queen, Sex Pistols record, was banned.

We were very much a minority, there was a fair amount of violence visited upon us even down in— well especially I think perhaps the provinces.

It’s very easy now to think that everybody was a punk because I look on Facebook and see lots of people my age who are all seem to have been into punk at the time, but I don’t remember that being the case then, I don’t remember hordes of people helping me out when I was getting jumped by groups of bikers or the street kids, the kind of tony kids who had the big [?] trousers and we’re into disco, you know, at the time.

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips played with Demob only for about a year, including on tours with Angelic Upstarts, Discharge, and Exploited, and—

BARRY PHILLIPS: I was very lucky to be in the band at the time that “No Room for You” EP was released. And I played on the tour to promote that.

PETER KORCHNAK: “No Room for You” ended up being Demob’s biggest hit, so to speak.

BARRY PHILLIPS: It was pretty obvious to me from the first time, that Miff wrote it, that was a cracking song. It had such a sing along chorus. It was one of those that was visceral, it really hit you straight in the gut. It wasn’t particularly cerebral, but it wasn’t stupid, either, you know. It wasn’t that lowest common denominator kind of thing.

So the song was about a venue that we used to go to, which was this old crumbling motel between the cities of Gloucester and Cheltenham, which is about 70 kilometers from Bristol and about 70 kilometers from Birmingham. And this old motel had this big kind of dance well, it wasn’t a big dance, it held about three or four hundred, but almost every punk band came to this venue called Wickham Lodge, and it was kind of our venue. The police used to turn up in undercover gear, which was just hilarious, because they would be so easy to spot all the time. But the place was pretty grungy, you know, but it was our place. And everybody played there. There was a lot of violence at the time. And there was a lot at Wickham Lodge, partly because of it being between the cities of Gloucester and Cheltenham, where the skinheads didn’t like each other and all of those things. But there would be one, two gigs there every single week, from about 1977 through 1979. You know, I mean, I can remember being there and seeing, in 1979, scene, Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes, and I counted the crowd as 44 people, that’s the kind of place we’re talking about.

And at the end of 1979, it closed down, much to our sorrow. So the song was actually about the closing down of that venue, it was our one kind of venue. They’ve got no room for you, is the kind of tagline to it.

I thought it was very cleverly written [INAUDIBLE] since because you could take it in many ways, you know, it had multiple applications. But it was a simple song. It’s straight, straight three chords kind of blue thing, with a rock ‘n’ roll baseline, and this military drumming. So I knew it was a good song. And it always, always went down really, really well with the crowds once we started playing it even before it was released. So it was a great live song. It’s sold out.

We had it pressed up in you know, you got it pressed up at those times in two or three thousands at a time. And it’s sold out each time it was pressed. I don’t know probably somewhere between seven and ten thousand in the end before the band split up, something like that.

But it was then picked up. And it was on the original Punk and Disorderly album, which is something of an iconic album.

PETER KORCHNAK: The 1982 compilation, Punk and Disorderly, featured sixteen songs by contemporary punk bands from the UK plus the only Americans on the album and the one band that was familiar to this punk ignoramus, the Dead Kennedys.

The now-classic compilation, which spawned two sequels, has been in hindsight described as “a landmark compilation”

and “a defining moment in early 80s punk.”

Punk and Disorderly reached number 48 in the UK Charts and spent eight months on the British indie chart, peaking at number 3.

With Punk and Disorderly, “No Room for You”—

BARRY PHILLIPS: —got a new lease of life. All of a sudden, that track was in the UK, the proper chart, not just the independent chart.

So that then I didn’t really think about it again after 1981, when I left the band.

PETER KORCHNAK: As Phillips went about his writing business in the ensuing decades, several bands around the world covered “No Room for You,” in their own languages no less.

In 1987, the Mexican legend Three Souls in My Mind made it into “El Tacon Dorado.”

In 1997, Pero Lovšin of Pankrti himself included a cover titled “Se spomnite pankerji” (Remember Punks) on his solo album, Zadnji Križarski Pohod.

[SOUNDBITE]

In 2001, the Basque band Kaotiko made their own version, “En el Barrio de Latón” for their album Mundo Kaotiko.

In 2002, the Portland, Oregon punk band Defiance included a pretty faithful cover of “No Room for You” on their album, Out of the Ashes. I lived in Portland from 2004 to 2019 and had no idea this band existed—that’s how no-punk I am.

I’m playing the song here with the kind permission of the band and the song’s author. Buy their music! All the social [Facebook / Instagram] and purchase links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

[SOUNDBITE – “No Room for You” (Cover) by Defiance]

PETER KORCHNAK: Pretty good, right?

In 2016, the English Texas-spoof band Badass Cowboys made a country-folk version.

And Phillips has found one additional Mexican version as well.

[SOUNDBITE]

So. In 1981 Phillips left Demob. Fast forward three decades to the summer of 2011. Prince William is married, Ratko Mladić is arrested, Osama bin Laden is dead—and Barry Phillips is reborn.

BARRY PHILLIPS: One night I find a video of a band from Lowell, Michigan, a band called Al & The Black Cats, playing “No Room for You” in a club in Zagreb—

[SOUNDBITE]

PETER KORCHNAK: YouTube user @juraOiOiOi, who runs a personal, punk-related website, “Oy, Jebo te Blog” posted the clip on June 1st, 2009. It has 2,300 views as of mid-August 2023.

BARRY PHILLIPS: And this was the first time I’d really thought about it for 30 years. So I just posted this—

PETER KORCHNAK: —on Facebook—

BARRY PHILLIPS: —tagging all of my friends who had anything to do with Demob and people from back— the old punks that were the young punks at nighttime, and tagged them and just said, “Look at this, you know, there’s a band covered our song.”

And [a] few minutes later, I got into my inbox a message from somebody who I’d never met before or heard from in Kragujevac who said, “You do know this song famous and Yugoslavia.”

Obviously, I had no idea whatsoever that this song was famous in Yugoslavia. And I must admit, I wasn’t I didn’t actually believe him to begin with. But I took it at face value, did some searches—

PETER KORCHNAK: —and found out there was one other cover version of “No Room for You.” The Croatian punk rock legend from Pula, KUD Idijoti (Cultural Artistic Society Idiots), covered the song with Croatian-language lyrics that roughly followed the original’s meaning.

The song “To nije mjesto za nas” (It’s Not a Place for Us) was the title track on KUD Idijoti’s third album, Glupost je neuništiva (Stupidity Is Indestructible), released in 1992.

“We don’t go there anymore / Those doors are closed to / People like us… I see different people here / They say it’s still the same / But all is different without us / It’s not a place for us,” sang KUD Idijoti a decade after Demob.

KUD Idijoti had started out in 1981. The acronym KUD, K-U-D, stands for kulturno-umjetničko društvo, which translates as cultural-artistic society. KUDs were and still are folklore music and dance groups across the former Yugoslavia.

KUD Idijoti released their first album in 1986 and the following year they won the Subotica Youth Festival. The band enjoyed great popularity during the 1990s, including in the post-Yugoslav abroad.

In 2012, the frontman, Branko Črnac Tusta, died from cancer and the band disbanded.

There are several uploads of both the original song by Demob and the cover by KUD Idijoti on YouTube. As of mid-August 2023, the most popular Demob video, featuring the single cover art, has 177,000 views. The most popular KUD Idijoti video, featuring the band photo, has 543,000 views (though to be fair, a great part of KUD Idijoti’s hits would have followed Tusta’s death). The actual music video spot, which may have been KUD Idijoti’s very first and is quite hilarious, has 33,000 views.

At any rate, Phillips was hooked.

BARRY PHILLIPS: Funnily enough, I was still working at the time on an education project. And I was sent to Belgrade quite soon after. And I was sat with two Croatian academics, both of whom were about, I would say, about 40 years old. And they started talking to me about what I’d done before because we were talking about creative education. And I mentioned Demob, and I asked them if they’d ever heard this song. And I played them the song and they both said, “Yeah, of course, we know that song,” meaning the KUD Idijoti version. And I said, “Well, ours was the original.”

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips being a historian, things snowballed from there.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I contacted the other members of the band. None of them knew anything about this at all, we had no idea whatsoever. So I just started making some inquiries, and literally, unsolicited fired off a few messages to people. I found emails and Facebook profiles, fired off messages thinking I might get one or two people to talk to me. And just about everybody in former Yugoslavia replied and said, “Oh, great, great to hear from you, come talk to me.”

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips writes the discovery “was as surreal as it was baffling and intriguing.”

Here you are, you know, minding your business. The old song surfaces, resurfaces in this fashion, a cover version that you had no idea existed, how did you feel?

BARRY PHILLIPS: It was spectacular, it really was. It gave me a new lease of life. I felt like a kid when it happened. You’re in your early 50s, or whatever it was, in late 40s, and all of a sudden, there was something that I hadn’t realized that I’d achieved. You know, it’s a bonus, a huge, huge life bonus.

I’d trained as a historian and I was making my living writing at the time, writing and researching basically, but not necessarily the things that I was that passionate about. So it pretty quickly became obvious to me that I needed to follow this through and track it down. It was such a perfect opportunity. I wasn’t expecting to try and find out everything about Yugoslavia but it was such a lens, it was kind of a key that opened doors to me, but it was also a lens through which to view this whole thing and understand a lot more about it.

So I don’t have the words for how exciting it was at the time. I don’t have the words for how rewarding it became afterwards. I don’t mean financially, obviously. But how rewarding in the amount that I’d learned from the people that I met in former Yugoslavia and the friendships I’ve made as well.

PETER KORCHNAK: When I first heard this story, it reminded me of Sixto Rodriguez who made music in Detroit in the 1960s, including the song “Sugar Man,” but did not make it as a musician so he worked as a construction worker for the rest of his life. About the time Phillips began his journey through Yugoslav punk, Rodriguez learned he had been super famous in South Africa for decades. There’s a great documentary about this called, Searching for Sugar Man, released in 2012. Rodriguez had died a few days before Phillips and I spoke.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I did [an] interview with a Russian guy the other week about the book. And he said, “It reminds me of Searching for Sugar Man, but his strange kind of Cold War punk version of.” I’d never watched Searching for Sugar Man. So we, my wife, and I, literally sat down and watched it about five days ago now.

PETER KORCHNAK: Tell us about the journey of discovery of Yugoslav punk rock and the book.

BARRY PHILLIPS: So I went into this very quickly with a book in mind. When I say very quickly, within a year or so of getting this message, and then doing a little bit of research into it, I thought there’s a book here.

Part of this was, I began a PhD about 15 years before and got two years into it and given it up because of work. And I was going to go back to the PhD and I thought, why am I doing a PhD? I don’t need to be called doctor this or a doctor that. Why don’t I spend that time doing something that I really, really want to do?

So what I tried to do was apply all of the same rigor that I would have applied to a PhD to this book. But I wanted it to be able to communicate with people who wouldn’t, wouldn’t necessarily ever see a PhD. But it was a much looser kind of discipline, in terms of how I was able to behave within that that kind of scaffolding. So I built up these networks through people who would put me in touch (journalists and music critics were incredibly helpful).

And then it was a case of plotting the journey to try and interview as many people as I could in the whatever it was, two and a half weeks. I made the decision that it needed to be done in one journey.

PETER KORCHNAK: The result of the journey is the book, In Search of Tito’s Punks: On the Road in the Country That No Longer Exists. Out now in hardcover from Intellect in Bristol and Chicago, the book is available for sale online and in every good bookstore. And check out the Remembering Yugoslavia Instagram for a giveaway of one copy.

The book is essentially three books in one. The travel bit is an account of Phillips’s trip, in 2017, to the punky parts of the former Yugoslavia using public transport; he went to Zagreb, Rijeka, and Pula; to Ljubljana; and to Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Kragujevac.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I felt it needed to be based around the centers of punk and the capitals of the northernmost states of the former Yugoslavia because those were the ones I could travel to at the time to get to the maximum number of people within the space of two and a half weeks or so.

PETER KORCHNAK: Secondly, there are full transcripts of long interviews with some of the greats of the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav music scene (Sale Veruda of KUD Idijoti, Pero Lovšin of Pankrti, and Darko Rundek of Haustor are probably the most prominent, and there’s also Robert Miff Smith of Demob who wrote “No Room for You,” Petar Janjatović, who has been on this show a couple of times, and music critics, promoters, and other musicians).

BARRY PHILLIPS: I just wanted to get the picture of what Yugoslavia had been during the time of punk what punk had been to them, and how their lives had changed since.

Pretty much everybody that I contacted had known the song. Pero Lovšin from Pankrti for instance, shot me back a message straightaway saying, “What a song! I’ve recorded it myself. And here’s my version of it.” You know, so…

Funnily enough, one of the only people who hadn’t heard it was— When we were in Ljubljana, I managed to time it to be there at Pankrti’s 40th anniversary gig, which was just phenomenal. And after I’d got the tickets, it was announced that the special guest was none other than one of my heroes, Glen Matlock, one of the original Sex Pistols and a fantastic bass player. And then Pero told me the day after that, he’d played Glenn the song and Glenn had never heard it. So the one person who’d never heard it was the English punk.

PETER KORCHNAK: Another storyline follows Phillips behind the scenes of some of the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, where he lived for about a decade. Like a good punk, he went against the advice of people in the former Yugoslavia telling him to avoid writing, even it was for English-speaking audiences, about politics and war.

BARRY PHILLIPS: It was within my own parameters, remember, so I didn’t have a PhD supervisor saying this is a crazy idea.

PETER KORCHNAK: Phillips originally wrote the book, posted an e-version online, and later got approached by a publisher, which trimmed the wordcount a bit.

At the end of the book, in a coda of sorts, Vinko Barić wrote a timeline of Yugoslav punk.

In a positive review, Nathan Brown over at Louder Than War wrote that the book was “very well written and properly researched” and that it “manages to simultaneously get under the skin of punk rock in the former Yugoslavia, while covering recent history and providing a travel guide cum road trip narrative while still being an enjoyable read.”

The punk poet Attila the Stockbroker heartily recommended the book in his column for the Morning Star, “the only English-language socialist daily newspaper in the world,” saying it is “beautifully written.”

The one flaw of the book is a pet peeve of mine, so I’m gonna step on a soap box for a minute. The flaw is not Phillips’s, let me be clear, it’s the publisher’s. I’m talking about the choice of type in the design. The book title rendered on the cover contains characters from the Russian alphabet—they are not in the Cyrillic alphabet! As so often elsewhere, including in the promotion of the movie Underground, they’re used instead of Latin letters to somehow supposedly convey communism: the Russian “I” which looks like a flipped Latin N to substitute that letter and “JA” which looks like a flipped R to substitute for R. It’s not only inaccurate, it’s cliche and to me personally annoying. And it makes the title read “I-I Sea-JA-ch of Tito’s Pu-I-ks.” Soapbox session over.

Either way, the journey has not ended with the book for Phillips.

BARRY PHILLIPS: I’ve continued researching this. I set up a Facebook group to go with the book, which we carry on sharing information about Yugoslav punk with the people who are in the book, but a whole bunch of other people as well, it’s about four or five hundred people now, no more. But I’m learning a lot from that still and I’m hoping that that’s also communicating to a lot of English-speaking people as well. So that’s continued for the last three, four years, and will continue.

My obsession has continued in that respect. I am still following everything through, I’m still in touch with almost all of the people and I’m still following new music that’s coming out from former Yugoslavia.

A whole new world opened up in 2013, 14, or whatever. So I’d got 30 odd years music to catch up with then. So I’m still catching up with bands from, you know, 1980, 81, 82. So I’m still discovering music from then as well. It’s like a kid in a sweet shop.

PETER KORCHNAK: Repetitor, Goribor, Pogon BGD, and M.O.R.T. are some of the active contemporary bands Phillips cited as his favorites.

But:

BARRY PHILLIPS: I haven’t added to my tattoo collection with any Yugoslav tattoos.

PETER KORCHNAK: A Croatian-language version of In Search of Tito’s Punks is due out in the spring of 2024. In the meantime—

BARRY PHILLIPS: I’m working on a couple of books of relevance to Yugoslavia at the moment. The one that’s following on from Tito’s Punks, at the moment it’s called, working title, In Search of Goths and Spomenik[s] and New Primitives.

As I said, I decided that geographically I was limited in the first visit. The plan is to go back to Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia but I also want to go to the southern states more and I’m particularly interested in the whole, more the kind of post-punk, darkeri, choral stuff, bands like Mizar, and the whole kind of crossover between the liturgical, Orthodox crossed with goth kind of thing. I want to look at the whole new primitive movement that was centered around Sarajevo, too.

PETER KORCHNAK: The other book Phillips is working on is about Scottish nurses who served in Serbia during World War I, one of whom was from the village where he lives now.

[SOUNDBITE – “Na morskome plavom žalu” by Agent Tajne Sile]

PETER KORCHNAK: That was Agent Tajne Sile with the cover of a song written for and made famous by Emir Kusturica’s debut film Sječaš li se Dolly Bell? (Do You Remember Dolly Bell?). “Na morskome plavom žalu” (At the Blue Beach) is about a boy who falls in love with a blonde at the coast. It’s one of my favorite 80s songs from the former Yugoslavia.

Agent Tajne Sile covers popular songs from that disappeared country. It is a side project of Nenad Milić, the frontman of Tito’s Bojs, a punk band from Rovinj, in Istria. In a way, Tito’s Bojs has carried on punk’s legacy decades after the genre (or dare I say movement) first flipped the world the bird.

Milić is from Karlovac, a town some 50 kilometers southwest from Zagreb. In part due to his father’s ethnicity as a Serb and in part due to the town being in the thick of war things, his family moved via Germany to Istria during the 90s war.

It was there, in 1998-99, that Milić started his own punk band and was its singer.

NENAD MILIĆ: It was a typical high school band. I was an outsider in the school because I came from another part of Croatia to Istria with all the refugees and then there was few other outsiders and we started the band just for fun in the school and then it went on to something more serious with the years. And then when you get serious your ideas got more serious and your views political and then the problems started.

PETER KORCHNAK: Why call it Tito’s Bojs?

NENAD MILIĆ: Because I’m a Yugoslavian kid, and I was kind of branded by Yugoslavia, marked, you know. And then you have the transfer as you’re 11, 12 years old boy into another system and you don’t understand what’s going on, you have a nice, you had a nice life, and parents work, and everything was kind of ideal, and then it’s a war there, and blah, blah, blah… It was a revolt with that name, you know, to show that we belong to that part of our selves, not to this one, what is happening now.

You need to imagine, we were 18 years old, it was ‘98, it was just three years after the war, and we all had bad experiences. There were still a lot of refugees in Istria, there was this post-war trauma. And as a punk rocker, what could be better to provocate [sic], you know, like, just eight years after the fall of Yugoslavia to call yourself? I think it was the best punk name at the moment in the Balkans, you know. We just didn’t have any promotions or label, we were [an] underground band. But you know, if there had been somebody who could push us out, I think we would be like Sex Pistols, you know, in all the newspapers, you know, wherever, with than name. Still, there isn’t a better name for a band.

PETER KORCHNAK: As more than one interlocutor in a recent documentary about the band said, and I’m not quite paraphrasing, it really took big cojones, jaja, to name a band after Tito in Croatia, especially while Tudjman was still alive and in power.

NENAD MILIĆ: We stand for freedom and liberty and, you know, expressing yourself and being what you are and being always in contradiction actually with yourself, what punk is and with the others, like always to be contrary if somebody says it’s black, you say it’s white. I think it’s the purpose of punk rock to always do to ask, to re-ask and to actually not to agree, right with the current political, economical or whatever situation. So you can’t be mainstream if you’re a punker, punk rocker.

If you’re 18 years old, your perspective and your vocabulary, everything isn’t so good as it is, if you are 31, okay. With 18 years old, you’re stupid, you know, and our music kind of was reflecting the daily problems we had, you know, with police or, you know, the regular punk rock themes, you know, against politicians and so on. Because Istria has this funny vibe, we were always trying to pack that in kind of liberating and relaxing sounds and good punk rock.

Just with the years the themes get— actually the same themes, but they got focused with better words and better, you know, better dictionary and better, you know, as you go on and read more that your songs getting better and are getting better.

But this is always the same themes, I think, in all the bands in the world, you know, daily problems, girls, politics, you know, revolt to the system, you know, ecology, it’s always the same problems we need to address, you know. Nothing’s changed.

PETER KORCHNAK: In “Mast i vlast” (Fat and Power), Tito’s Bojs sing of demagogues and thieving politicians. The song appeared on their debut album, Electro Istria, released in 2002 and re-released on the 20th anniversary last year; this live version is from the upcoming album Live in Ljubljana 2012.

[SOUNDBITE – “Mast i vlast” (Live) by Tito’s Bojs]

NENAD MILIĆ: From 2002 until 2006, we were gigging constantly and we had a lot of problems. We were beaten up, war veterans went in some villages or small towns went to the gigs with bombs or with guns, and our cars got destroyed after the gigs…

In 2002, as we started, there were still a lot of skinheads, Nazi skinheads around. Now, nowadays there is no skinheads more because there is no need of skinheads because you have only nationalists in Croatia and Serbia, so there’s no need for an extra sell of right-wing nationalists because everybody is a fucking nationalist. There’re not anymore punks, too, you know, in Croatia.

[In] 2007 we released our second album, and then we said, like, Fuck off, we need to go a little bit west. And then we started to play outside, Slovenia and Germany and Italy. And until 2009, we played only outside Croatia, we didn’t have any more gigs in Croatia, first of all, because we started to get boycotted and nobody wanted to organize our gigs.

[In] 2009, we had our first gig over in Serbia, Novi Sad, you know, that was stopped with special forces with snipers and with dogs, you know, and things like that. Skinheads were beating people up two streets away from the gig, and things like that.

So we said like, fuck off. We don’t want to go there too.

And then—

PETER KORCHNAK: —in 2011 Milić left Istria.

NENAD MILIĆ: It’s [a] usual thing to migrate if the situation is not working in your country. And in my country it’s not working for the last 31 years. It’s not the Istria like it was before; there is no difference now if you would go to Istria or another part of Croatia, it’s just Croatia, with all its bad and good sides.

I was at the breaking point where I couldn’t do anything with my life anymore in Istria because of my political views and everything, you know. Because those those are kind of serious years where you need to start think[ing] about your future and you know, earn some money and start and then doors were closed for me, you know.

PETER KORCHNAK: As Demob would say, “And do you know the reason / Why it all fell through / They got no room for you.”

NENAD MILIĆ: It’s not easy if you’re not politically correct, and I’m not politically politically correct.

PETER KORCHNAK: You’re a punk rocker, right?

NENAD MILIĆ: Yeah, it depends.

Today punk rock is going mainstream,it’s watered down it has nothing to do [any]more with with punk rock 30, 45, 50 years ago.

PETER KORCHNAK: After some time in the U.S. and Canada, Milić moved again to Germany in 2014. He spoke with me from that bastion of Yugos in Germany that’s Munich, where he works as a school teacher.

He told me Tito’s Bojs guitarist still lives in Istria, the bass player also lives in Croatia and has disavowed the band, and the drummer moved to Slovenia.

In the meantime, Milić has been re-releasing re-mastered versions of Tito’s Bojs albums on his label WTF Records.

NENAD MILIĆ: It’s a problem to release something in Croatia, because first of all, because of our heritage and our name. And secondly, it is the best way, you know, to do it yourself, you have the full control and as much as you invest and as much as you promote yourself, it’s getting back to you, you know, so you can’t blame anybody. Everything is in your hands.

PETER KORCHNAK: WTF Records releases and promotes music from the former Yugoslavia.

NENAD MILIĆ: You know, I have certain requirements for the bands, you know, they need to be left and nobody of their parents should be in any party. It’s hard, you can’t find bands like that, everybody has bloody hands down there.

PETER KORCHNAK: Tito’s Bojs ended up releasing three albums in all.

[SOUNDBITE]

“No Room for You” most likely got to the former Yugoslavia via the Punk and Disorderly compilation.

NENAD MILIĆ: I think there is not a single person in any Yugoslavia who didn’t has [sic] that compilation. It’s actually a really good compilation. If you listen to that compilation, that’s maybe one of the best songs.

And through that compilation I think KUD Idijoti got to that song too. Then they just covered it in Serbocroatian.

It’s kind of a punk anthem for us.

PETER KORCHNAK: Back in Yugoslav times, whether young musicians heard songs on the Italian or Luxembourgish radio or on records licensed in their country or brought in from trips abroad, there was sort of an unspoken competitiveness in copying their favorites and making the best copies possible. In fact, in the 1950s and 60s BYR, that’s Before Yugo Rock, verbatim copied Western music is what people played at shows and dances.

Milić, who goes by Ned O’Millick on some of his more recent work, was one of the people Phillips contacted for the book.

PETER KORCHNAK: What does it feel like, this guy from a band that made the anthem of punk rock, and it was big in the former Yugoslavia and Croatia. So how did that feel? And how did that friendship develop?

NENAD MILIĆ: It was kind of surreal, you know, like, What the fuck? You have some heroes or something like that, and then you achieve the point in your life where you can meet them or talk to them or play with them. You know, like, it’s always— the first time is always like, surreal, you know, like, you can’t believe it it’s kind of like, external body experience. It was the same, like when we played with Offspring in 2009, you know, they chose us to be the support band in Zagreb. And it was like also to meet them and play for them, you know, before them, I couldn’t believe it, you know? That was the same with Barry as we talked and, like, I can’t believe it, and I’m talking to the guy from Demob, which songs I was listening, you know, every day from morning until the evening, you know, in my mid-school, you know, like, when I was a young punk and I’m like, I’m talking now to him, you know?

And he also recorded a bass on my solo record, Ned O’Millick Cooperative, you know, he recorded the bass and he wrote those notes on the cover itself.

PETER KORCHNAK: In 2016, WTF Records released a compilation album of its own. Za Tebe (For You) features 25 covers of KUD Idijoti songs by various artists from across the former Yugoslavia, including Dubioza Kolektiv, Lažni Franc, Pankrti, Psihomodo Pop, and Rambo Amadeus, as well as the Horkestar choir and the City of Pula Brass Orchestra.

NENAD MILIĆ: It was kind of thing I needed to do because in Istria we played a lot in Pula and we were friends with Tusta, singer from KUD Idijoti, and the band, and they went to our concerts and we played with them a few times. And when we went to Pula, we get drunk with them and they came to our concerts and they were like local heroes and they were also, you know, like heroes for me, Tusta and everybody.

And as I went to Canada, 2012, Tusta was very ill, you know, and we like play human humanitarian concert for him. And his death catch me [sic] in Canada, and I was also there alone in Canada, you know, on the other side of the continent, and you know, like, one of your youth idols is dead, and you’re totally down and you can’t go to his, you know, funeral and you are there and it seemed like, the whole world fall apart [sic], you know.

And then 2014 I decided, okay, I need to do that, I need to do this tribute, you know, for not for punks in Yugoslavia, I need to do it for myself, you know, like I’m from Istria. And I owe that to myself and I owe that to that band. And then I started to call because we played a lot of heads a lot of contacts, I started to contact everybody around the Balkans, you know, big bands.

I done the compilation from my point of view, from my vision, through the stories I had with them and from the things I know about them, and from the bands I know they were friends with, and from the bands, they told me, as Tusta was alive, the bands he liked. And, you know, I wanted to tell the story with this compilation.

PETER KORCHNAK: KUD Idijoti’s cover of “No Room for You,” “To nije mjesto za nas,” fell to the Croatian rock legend Hladno Pivo (Cold Beer).

As with all the other songs from WTF Records you hear on today’s show, including the intro jingle riff, I’m playing it with the kind permission of Nenad Milić. Find the label on Bandcamp and buy their music! Links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/podcast.

The second part of the mix I’m going to leave you with today is a version performed by the JazzIstra Orchestra at a concert in Pula earlier this year featuring KUD Idijoti covers.

Goes to show, how far “No Room for You” and “To nije mjesto za nas” made it in the end.

[SOUNDBITE]

PETER KORCHNAK: Covers of a cover, we’ve gone full post-modern here. “To nije mjesto za nas” is fully part of the musical cannon in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Croatia and even more so in Istria.

And on some level, it all speaks to what Yugoslavia was about: take the best from the rest and make it ours. Kind of like America does. And on another level, it speaks to the fact that Yugoslav cultural production has enduring value.

I’ve been humming and singing “No Room for You” to myself for the past two weeks straight. It’s catchy, it’s got a good rhythm that is very helpful while doing yardwork (I sing the chorus, “they’ve got no room for you at all” to each weed before I pull it).

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

TADEJ ANCLIN: I really wanted to show people, those replicas, those 3D prints, you know, because the people go there for a purpose of living the Yugoslavia [sic]. And this was the best time.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the next installment of Inspired by Yugoslavia, I’ll talk to 3D makers of monuments and a graphic designer, and a hobbyist board game maker calls in.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, embeds, links to purchase all the music you’ve heard, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

While you’re there and before you go, take a moment to get a ticket for the show, there’s always room here for you and your support. Strum to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate and, as today’s chorus goes, rock out with your card out and jam out with your clams out!

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

Additional music courtesy of Defiance, Nenad Milić and WTF Records, and JazzIstra. Buy their music! All the links are at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

[SOUNDBITE]

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