Little Beat Different Issues is a new series focused on reissuing music from Eastern Europe previously unavailable on the Western market, brought to light by London-based collective Little Beat Different.
The label’s first release is a compilation of recordings made by Czech project ORM. Originally formed as a disco group in the late 70s, ORM became pioneers of funk and electronic dance music in former Czechoslovakia. This compilation cherry-picks tracks from 4 different albums released between 1979 and 1984.
Check LBD’s exclusive interview with ORM below, a rather interesting conversation where they explain the difficulties of releasing music during the Communist period and how they manage to smuggle the tapes to America.
And while you are reading, Little Beat Different have also prepared a special rare groove and library music mixtape with some of the tracks from the release.
How did ORM came into being?
‘Me and Petr met at high school and began to play in one of those amateur bands. We loved B.B. King and James Brown so we covered them often, that was our musical beginning. This was around 1970, two years after our Soviet friends besieged Czechoslovakia, and the country was crippled by normalisation. That meant a total end to live performance of this sort of music here. Clubs were closed, regular checks were imposed as well as the so-called “set list check” through which higher authorities judged whether certain tunes could be performed. That was a catastrophe for music deemed to be too “Western”, and for us that meant we simply couldn’t live off it anymore. So we ended up forming a band with our friend Kos?a Ruchadze, and went on to tour clubs in the West, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany.’
‘There used to be an agency that would facilitate touring. Surprisingly, the Communists were quite open to that for one simple reason: musicians would bring cash back to Czechoslovakia. Well, they’d get only vouchers, which were then called bons, but still it was an immense advantage to be able to travel out of the country. Firstly, it was quite uplifting to keep in touch with Western culture, but also because it was possible to obtain new instruments and bring them back home. Don’t forget that back then it was hard to even get some proper guitar strings over here.’
‘After some time travelling with other renowned bands and artists such as the actor and singer Josef Laufer, Petr and I decided it was time to go “freelance”, which basically meant jobless. At the beginning it was a bit wild, but since we were always very frugal with money, we managed to save up quite a bit. In a few years’ time, we could finally afford to buy our first recording studio, albeit very small and basic.’
And that’s how ORM was created.
‘Yes, that was the time when ORM was born. We bought a four-track Tascam tape recorder. We would record four tracks, and then mix three into a separate one, and then continue like this. So that’s how the first records were created, and even the records that were later released on the LP’s. We also did plenty of music for film, and documentaries. It was quite a primitive set up, but it worked. Stevie Wonder recorded his most successful album in the seventies on a four-track. Technically it might not have been the best available, but he was still able to make a global hit record, so we said, well… why couldn’t we try the four-track as well!’
‘Leonardo da Vinci described it very well: music ceases to exist the very same moment it is created… and I’d always hated that. My brother was a painter, he’d paint a picture and immediately had an object he could show people. But what about music? You didn’t have many options back then, you could either try and get a record deal yourself, or you bought whatever ever you could find… and afford! (not sure if I’ve understood this bit right but I think this is the point?). So when we bought our first tape recorder, and I connected my old guitar – man how we were carried away by it! All of a sudden you’re listening to a record we’d created! it was the first time we’d been able to hear our own musical expression on record.’
Neither of you is actually called ORM. What is the story behind the name?
‘We took the name from a book we’d read as young men, called The Ginger Orm. It was written by the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson, and talks about a Viking warrior called the Ginger Orm. Well, the book was originally called The Red Orm but when it was released again after the revolution, they renamed it The Ginger Orm so that it wouldn’t spark any controversy. The book told the story of Orm the Viking who would set on a journey every spring and loot every place he’d come across. Even though the stories weren’t particularly happy, it was really well written, and we thought it was amusing.
‘Many years after we learned that orm stands for snake in some Scandinavian languages. So we came up with Organization for the Recording of Music as an official name. But that was more so that we could explain it to people, because when we tried talking about the book, Orm the Viking, no one really knew what to think.’
And so commenced your careers as producers, resulting in music collaborations with the era’s most eminent artists such as Karel Gott, and composing films scores and music for television series. Not many people were aware, however, that you also produced your own work – and independently released four albums. One could argue it is those four LPs in particular that carry the highest artistic value, featuring infectious melodies and timeless musical ideas. Tell me more about them.
‘Tropic, the album featuring the most interesting things, was purely our work. To ensure we sold at least a few copies, we did a song with the Kamélie duo. At that time, the wider public were unaware of this kind of music. As well as collaborations in the West, we also looked to the lands of the far East, working on a project in India called The Youth Of India. Back in the day, film documentaries were rarely made, instead big screen projections with pre-set dia-projectors and music tailored to them were hugely popular. So Tropic eventually featured themes we had elaborated on through our collaborations in other countries, such as Japan and India.’
‘Additionally, there were ideas we had been working on around that time period that we worked into final album versions. This was around the time that electronic music was about to break out, and we were completely fascinated by it. When the first MIDI Instruments and digital recording technology became available this opened up a whole world of new possibilities. We already had a Moog keyboard which is one of the seminal electronic instruments. Later on we added our first sampler Emulator II+, an E-mu SP12 drum machine. Sampling is an incredible tool that people almost take for granted nowadays, but back then it was cutting edge stuff! the Bands that embraced the new technology available to them really began to evolve their sound in ways that had never been heard before.’
Did you ever get a chance to perform those songs live? Have you ever had touring ambitions at all?
‘When we released our album Talisman, they were sung by Petr who is a superb singer. Even today when we do demos I ask Petr to sing and quite honestly it would be ideal if it could stay that way because he always nails it. But Petr never dreamt about touring or being famous, he’s more of an introvert than an entertainer. We had a great time touring for a few years with Laufer but we never felt the need to showcase ourselves that much. If you want to be a singer or performer, there needs to be a bit of exhibitionism in you, when there’s not, it doesn’t work.’
‘We sold around 22 000 copies of our album Talisman. Back then, people like Karel Gott would sell hundreds of thousands of records, but for us 22 000 was quite a success as no one really knew who we were! we were just happy people actually liked the songs. we managed to get some radio play too, but we didn’t really make any money from it. Today, 20 thousand copies would be a success! The two albums we did with the Kamélie duo were in English so it was distributed around the Eastern Bloc, and we ended up selling around 750 thousand copies.’
I heard about your endeavours to get those releases abroad.
‘We tried, and even made it! It was very difficult during the Communist period so we had to do it secretly through a guy that would smuggle the tapes to America. It was at a time when we were part of quite an interesting collaboration with the Muzak Company, an American satellite TV company that produced elevator music for all kinds of commercial settings such, hotels, banks, things of that nature. They wanted us to record covers of Sting, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and so on – things that were legal in the States, but ridiculously expensive. Our tapes were sent over there through a third party whose name we never discovered. He didn’t want to reveal it, and we didn’t want to know. Such were the times, it just wasn’t officially possible.’
‘What I consider as the gravest crime of Communism was the herding of society into a locked enclosure, without the possibility to communicate with the outer world. Ironically, it wasn’t so difficult to travel abroad, to the West. Sure, it was tricky and a rather tedious procedure, you had to have contacts but unless you were politically engaged in dissent, everything was fine.‘
And then came the revolution, and things changed completely, almost overnight. How did you come to embrace your old work in the context of the new era? How do you perceive albums like Tropic and Talisman after all these years?
‘Well I may disappoint you but we don’t indulge in philosophy. We just make music, we do it for a living. To make a living doing this in a small country means you really have to make compromises. If you insist on doing things exactly as you please, you may as well starve to death!’
You have one of the richest production careers here in the Czech Republic, you have a beautiful studio, collaborations with the biggest pop stars. Is there anything you would still like to achieve?
‘At this age, I only need to feel joy when working on music. That is to say, I’m looking forward to doing something with Karel Gott again, I’m wondering if we could do a musical but I’m not sure if that will work since the music scene is pretty saturated here. It would be great if a young talented producer appeared, someone whom we could collaborate with and guide, in terms of both of production and artistic direction. And last but not least, it would be amazing if we could record with a symphonic orchestra again. So if any of those opportunities arise, that will make me truly content.’
Pavel Ruzicka and Petr Dvorak continue to produce music as ORM to this day, although rather than nostalgically reminiscing about good old times, they regard their erstwhile independent pieces as the finest result of their perpetual efforts to outsmart local authorities, including successful attempts to smuggle Western instruments to the country while secretly exporting their own work out of it. Their studio, somewhat tucked in a family mansion on the outskirts of Prague, boasts original synths and keyboards from bygone times, platinum disc plaques, a rich vinyl collection, photographs with the country’s most eminent musicians, with R?ži?ka still firmly behind his mixing desk. On a regular basis, their creative hideout becomes a temporary recording home to major Czech pop artists as well as the country’s fledgling electronic music cohort, coming full-circle to their impressive decades-long adventure.
In conversation with Alexandra Strelcova / www.lbdissues.com