The most popular boy in my freshman class in high school was a certain Zoran. He was neither especially good-looking nor especially smart. But he had that special “something.” He had long hair. Not really long, just a bit over his ears. It was called “bitlsica” (the Beatles cut) and was modeled, of course, after the four band members of the Beatles. The year was 1964 and it was not a look commonly seen in our country. Teachers did not approve of it because it was considered to be a Western craze; parents did not like it either; and even some of the boys in the class bullied Zoran. I guess they were just jealous that he had the eye of all the girls. Zoran did not care much about what the old people thought, he was playing his electric guitar in a garage band and this was how a guitar player should look.
We were all fifteen then. The Beatles look and Beatles music were our thing.
We could listen to “our” kind of music on the radio. The radio was a magical source of music at a time when most households did not have a record player, that expensive and cumbersome machine for listening to vinyl. I remember that there was a daily program on Radio Zagreb from noon to one called “Listeners’ Choice,” which we always listened to and that’s where I heard the Beatles for the first time. Or we would listen to the legendary Radio Luxembourg, which used to air the latest hits. Later, starting in 1968, every Monday evening Radio Belgrade devoted its so-called “First Program” to rock ’n’ roll music in Yugoslavia.
This new band on the British and world music scene became a way of communicating, of being one with the world, while at the same time it gave us a sense of individualism, of looking different from our parents. It was more than a style of music, it was a style of life. We saw the photos of John, George, Paul, and Ringo in our daily press and on our TV screens. Of course, the phenomenon of a bunch of screaming teenage girls, running after the Beatles wherever they went, was depicted as scandalous and decadent, as the mass hysteria of kids. Perhaps it even was. But such popularity for a band of musicians—Beatlemania, as it was known—was novel to us. We congregated en masse only when we had to—for some state holiday, standing and listening to endless speeches. Or for a soccer match. Big rock concerts had not yet arrived in our neck of the woods.
Soon, however, all the boys were wearing their hair longer, thinking it would make the girls run after them like with the Beatles. In the provinces young men were even beaten up for having long hair and had it forcibly cut off. But that lasted for only a short time, because by the seventies, when I went to college, the fashion and the music had become unstoppable: to be in, a boy had to have long hair, and we girls had to have skirts short enough to wear as a mini, introduced to the world by the British designer Mary Quant around the same time. These skirts were indeed mini, causing our parents much more of a headache than a boy’s long hair. It was only when I had a daughter of my own that I could understand their fears. Like many a parent, my father believed that if girls dressed that way, they were more likely to expose themselves to sexual violence and therefore he strictly forbade me from wearing a mini. The problem was easily solved in Yugoslavia, like elsewhere in the world I guess; I would hide my miniskirt in my school bag and change into it later. We wore proper-length skirts to school but the mini was obligatory for going out, to a party or the movies.
It is interesting, if not paradoxical, that most such rock ’n’ roll musicians, or rockers (as they were called), were the sons of army officers, of the ruling class, the so-called red bourgeoisie. Perhaps they were more privileged and could afford musical instruments and vinyl, travel and be better informed. On the other hand, long hair and foreign music were a clear sign of rebellion against a father’s authority. One’s look was not as innocent as before—it became a statement.
For us it was perhaps the first notion that fashion could also be a sign of rebellion. For quite a while, long hair was considered if not a political provocation then at least a bad influence. However, as one’s look—that is, fashion—was the only sign of “deviation,” it was not seen as a threat to the system. Many youngsters in miniskirts and with bitlsica haircuts soon became members of the Communist Party. By the end of the sixties the musical Hair was staged in Belgrade, the first time ever in a Communist country. Deep Purple gave a concert in 1975 and the Rolling Stones in 1976. The explosion of local bands playing Yu-rock, as the local variety of rock ‘n’ roll was known, was inevitable.
But at the time when I first heard the Beatles, there were no cafés, no clubs, no places for us teenagers to meet, other than dance halls. I had my parents’ permission to go because the dancing was organized by the school and it was considered to be more of a dance school, not really an occasion for entertainment. It was a sad place, with benches lined up along one wall, and it was obvious that the dance hall also served as a venue for gymnastic and ballet exercises, Ping-Pong competitions, and occasional amateur recital performances. The smell of sweat and floor polish hung in the air. It wasn’t much fun sitting there with your back to the cold wall, listening to the crackling sound of vinyl records, under the watchful eye of a teacher worried that we might misbehave in some way, dance too close perhaps. The dancers among us were very few; we did not feel confident enough in our bodies to follow the steps of the waltz or tango; and they didn’t play rock music or the twist there. It was some time before rock ’n’ roll took over the dance halls, clubs, and private parties, allowing our bodies to move in a different way to a very different kind of beat.
One of the important elements in embracing Anglo-Saxon music, first and foremost rock ’n’ roll, was the language. By the age of fifteen, kids in Yugoslavia would have learned basic English at school. A foreign language was obligatory and usually the choice was among English, German, and French. In my generation, only a very few chose German, it clashed with what we learned in history class about the role of Fascist Germany during World War II. The French group was even smaller; the biggest was English. Some elementary schools had Russian as a subject, but even fewer kids studied that. As TV sets, those bulky boxes with small black-and-white screens, increasingly entered our homes, we were able to watch movies in the original, with subtitles in Serbo-Croatian, as the language was called back then. It was the same when we went to the cinema; all films were shown in their original language and the vast majority were Hollywood movies. This enabled us to get used to the sound of English—although with American pronunciation—and to expand our vocabulary. I remember the good feeling it gave us to listen to and understand the words of Beatles songs. It gave us a sense of self-confidence, even pride. The same was true of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, or rock ’n’ roll in general for those born just a few years before me. But for some reason, for my generation the music of the Beatles, and also the Rolling Stones, meant more. Maybe because it appeared just when we were growing up and we considered it our own. They were exciting in another way, too, even if the lyrics were banal and the melody rather simple, like “She loves me, yeah, yeah” or “I can’t get no satisfaction.” It was a distinctive sound that called for a different kind of dancing. It felt like a sudden rush of excitement filling your whole body, almost like a fever: it made you want to move your limbs.
Perhaps its biggest value was that it was so very different from what we in my country listened to in the sixties. There, music festivals were the most popular way of presenting light music, popular with the wider public. The singers were our first glimpse of stardom, they were our first celebrities. I still remember their names: Ivo Robić, Zdenka Vučković, Vice Vukov, Tereza Kesovija. A music festival was a big event, especially the one in Opatija, a small seaside resort that had been very fashionable among nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian nobility. At the time when Croatia was a part of that empire, it was known as Abbazia. The festival there started in 1958, organized by Yugoslav Radio and Television, a state institution, and was broadcast live.
I think that the most important thing about the Beatles for us growing up at that time was that their music was the exact opposite of the dominant festival music we were used to. Not so much in terms of musical style (some of their melodies could pass for a schlager, or light dancing melody), but rather because it became inseparable from their look and the way they played, creating what became their own specific style.
Now it seems as bizarre to be able to listen to the Beatles parallel with the festival in Opatija, as it was to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons or the movie Casablanca in the land of comrade Tito. The mixture of the two worlds colored my generation forever, in both good ways and bad. Good, because we enjoyed greater freedoms than our neighbors; bad, because we were sufficiently satisfied with these freedoms not to see beyond them, not to demand more, not to stand up and create a democratic political opposition when it was needed in the late eighties. While the whole of Europe celebrated the 1989 collapse of Communism, Yugoslavia was the only European state sliding toward breakup and war.
Slavenka Drakulić was born in Croatia in 1949. The author of several works of nonfiction and novels, she has written for the New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and numerous publications around the world.
From Café Europa Revisited, by Slavenka Drakulić, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Slavenka Drakulić.