Soundtrack to Our Lives

12 April 2024

Rebellion in the System: Musical Spaces of Freedom 1945–89
23.02.2024 – 23.02.2025

By Leszek Gnoiński

When Wojtek Słota and I were working on the film Beats of Freedom, we invited the acclaimed British journalist Chris Salewicz to join us; in the mid-1970s he was one of the first to write about the growing genre of punk rock in “New Musical Express”. Chris became the narrator of our story about Polish rock music of the communist era; even though he has a Polish-sounding surname, he didn’t speak a word of the language and had absolutely no knowledge of our music. When he arrived in Poland, we played him our own punk rock and new wave bands, translated their lyrics and explained the contexts in which they were created. He was genuinely shocked to discover that such music was allowed to be written and heard on our side of the Iron Curtain! As he listened to the lyrics, he said, “In many British punk bands, I only felt an unspecified anger. In Poland I heard real music of mutiny and revolt for the first time. I felt as though I was listening to real artists and not kids who’d just decided to play guitar one day – as it was in many cases in the UK.” He added during filming, “It’s not your parents who are the enemy – you are becoming the enemy of the system by playing this music.” These words were incredibly important – they revealed what music created during the communist era had become and what it meant to us.

As the Solidarity trade union was being formed, I was starting the last year of primary school; when martial law was introduced in late 1981, I was midway through my first year of high school. It was also a period of a boom of rock music in Poland. New bands popped up all over the place and rock became our generation’s music. Boys and girls (although far more often the former) my age sang lyrics reflecting my own vision of the world. The songs became the soundtrack to our reality – both those you could hear on official (read: pro-communist regime) radio stations and those played live and never recorded. There are famous photos of the Jarocin festival – the most important music event of the 1980s – showing a crowd of young people holding cassette players above their heads to record live music. This way we created a third – or perhaps even fourth? – cultural current: these tapes were copied by thousands of kids just like me. We didn’t need zines and samizdat, although I should say I still have a large collection of both accumulated through underground activities among my family. We obsessed over lyrics by Kazik Staszewski, Lech Janerka, Krzysiek Grabowski, Grzegorz Ciechowski, Kora, Paweł Gumola…

We lived and breathed this music; it was like religion to us. We listened to every sound and every word, over and over. It didn’t matter whether it was jazz (banned during Stalinism), rock’n’roll (renamed as big-beat to conceal its origins) or rock – the loud voice of the generation born in the 1960s. For people of our age, music became an escape from the grim, grey realities of living in a country beyond the Iron Curtain. It allowed us to feel free, notice colours and lose ourselves in our dreams, even for a moment.

This period is explored through the exhibition Rebellion in the System: Musical Spaces of Freedom 1945–89, opening at the Museum of Nowa Huta on 23 February. It casts an eye on music through the eyes of people for whom it was almost everything.

Leszek Gnoiński
Journalist, writer (author of biographies of Marek Piekarczyk and bands including Acid Drinkers, Republika, Myslovitz and Kult, co-author of the Encyclopaedia of Polish Rock), director and screenwriter of films including Beats of Freedom and Jarocin. Against the Stream. Co-creator of the Spichlerz Polskiego Rocka – a unique museum celebrating rock music in Poland. Małopolska Cultural Journalist of the Year in 2019; he presents Rockolekcje on Friday and Sunday evenings on Antyradio.

Photo from the collection of the Regional Museum of Jarocin / Włodzimierz Pniewski

The article published in the 1/2024 issue of “Kraków Culture” quarterly.



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