Queen and Bulgaria: A Perspective from Behind the Iron Curtain
By Vladislav Taushanov
The 1950s and 1960s were a bleak time for music fans in Bulgaria. Western imperialist rock music was banned by the pro-Soviet communist government. Listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix could (and often did!) get you into jail. Police raids on underground music parties were frequent. Young people were forbidden to wear their hair long – doing so meant risking public humiliation or worse. The lucky few – mostly diplomats or sailors – whose job took them to the West, had their luggage thoroughly searched at customs for vinyl records. If a record was found the person faced penalties, such as losing their passport and the privilege of travelling outside the Eastern Bloc, losing their job or even prison. Homegrown music formations (they could not call themselves “a rock group”) were very few. Among the early pioneers – a band called Shturtsite (The Crickets) – was almost banned from using their chosen name because it sounded too similar to The Beatles. It seems the communist government was unaware of the American band of the same name.
In some rare instances, however, records could be smuggled and were being sold by profiteers at ridiculous prices. With the advent of reel to reel decks and tape recorders, an underground movement of sellers and traders of recordings grew at an astonishing rate, but without the benefit of today’s communications distribution was difficult. This meant that music fans would hear recordings 5-10 generations from the original vinyl.
By the early 1970s the situation had relaxed. Western music could occasionally be heard on the radio or seen on television. The Bulgarian state-owned record company Balkanton produced vinyls of western acts. Occasionally artists from the west would be invited to play in Bulgaria – Julio Iglesias, Smokie, Boney M, Eruption etc. Others, like The Beatles and Pink Floyd, would remain on the censorship lists for many years. Thus, it is not surprising that very few in Bulgaria could have imagined that somewhere in Western Europe, a new and exciting rock group called Queen was born.
Queen’s early successes like conquering Japan and “A Night at the Opera” went almost unnoticed in Bulgaria. Among the few people in the media who walked the thin line when it came to popular music was legendary radio DJ Toma Sprostranov. He began his radio career in the early 1960s playing mostly jazz records. By the early to mid 70s he had started playing western blues and rock ‘n roll, which earned him the nickname of “the first musical dissident of Bulgaria”. Information or recordings of broadcasts from those early days are hard to find, but it’s easy to imagine that Queen’s music made its first appearance on Bulgarian airwaves during this time. To this day Toma Sprostranov is still a huge Queen fan and his radio shows are still on the air.
While Bulgaria was getting its first rare glimpses of the glamour that was Queen, the band embarked on tour in support of the Jazz album. Ironically, and certainly purely coincidental, the lighting rig on the 1978-79 tours featured a colour pattern which was an exact replica of the Bulgarian flag – in order: white, green, red. It’s also on this tour that Queen came the closest they have ever come to Bulgaria – the band played two shows in neighbouring former Yugoslavia.
In 1981 Queen released their first hits compilation, which became a top-seller throughout the world. The compilation was destined to become the band’s only record to be officially released in communist Bulgaria and it was released in four different and unique versions. But it took “Greatest Hits” three years to come to these shores. The four editions, produced by the state-owned record company Balkanton, were:
- Double LP – the regular version, a double LP in a gatefold sleeve. The inside of the gatefold features a diagram of Queen albums through the years and has a number of unfortunate printing errors (the cover of Queen’s first album is a strange shade of blue while “News of the World” is tinted orange-brown). This version is also notable and unique for the inclusion of more obscure (non-single) tracks, namely “Death on Two Legs” and “Sweet Lady”.
- Picture Disc – this edition has the distinction of being one of the rarest and most valuable Queen collectibles in the world. Featuring all 19 tracks from the double LP on a single record and a unique cover and disc image – a photograph, taken from Queen’s first appearance at the Golden Rose Festival in Montreux. According to a source who worked at Balkanton in that era, a number of picture disc vinyls were manufactured in West Germany intended for the Bulgarian market, however (almost) all were re-exported to foreign (western) markets, to satisfy the communist government’s need for hard currency. “Why would the Bulgarian market need a picture disc” he says, “when they couldn’t even satisfy the demand for regular black vinyl? Such treats were not intended for the Bulgarian consumer.” (This would explain why the author of this article has been unable to acquire a copy of this particular record.)
- Cassette – the cassette version features another unique cover – a different photograph from the Golden Rose performance (the image is on the B-side of the picture disc). It also has a unique 10-song tracklist, omitting songs like “We Will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but preserving the aforementioned two obscure tracks. Oddly enough the cover calls it “Volume 2”, however no evidence of a “Volume 1” can been found. The cassette was also manufactured in West Germany for the Bulgarian market.
- USSR Edition – Bulgarian state-owned companies had an inexhaustible market in the Soviet Union. At that time the Russians were buying anything and everything, and lots of it. The record business was no different and Balkanton mass-produced records for the Soviet Union. One such record was “Greatest Hits” – this version is a single LP and was released in 1985. Featuring yet another unique tracklist of 12 songs, preserving “Sweet Lady” but not “Death on Two Legs” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is nowhere to be found. The cover is also unique – it is the familiar “Greatest Hits” cover, but the original black background has been replaced with white.
A year after the Bulgarian release of “Greatest Hits” Queen appeared at Live Aid. Their 20 minutes went completely unnoticed here as the concert was not broadcast anywhere behind the Iron Curtain. According to some reports, the Bulgarian state television intended to broadcast the show, but made a last minute decision to pull out. The hypocrisy of the communist regime was boundless, especially considering the charitable nature of the event. However, Bulgaria did make a small, accidental and – with 20/20 hindsight – hilarious contribution to the global broadcast. While the concert was not shown on Soviet television the Soviet Union did participate in the international portion of the show. The Russian pop-rock band Avtograf (Autograph) performed in a Moscow studio, but due to technical problems the first minute of the broadcast had the song playing over a documentary on harvesting the cherry crops in Bulgaria – beamed via satellite to 2 billion people!
While some pop and rock stars from the West had performed in communist countries, Queen’s concert in Budapest had the distinction of being the first major rock event behind the Iron Curtain. The concert film finally broke the glass ceiling in terms of rock music in the communist bloc. The film was shown at cinemas and later on television in many socialist countries, including Bulgaria. Bulgarian Queen fans still have fond memories of the “Kultura” movie theatre on “Slaveikov” square in Sofia, where “Live In Budapest” was screened for weeks.
Queen opened the door to the communist music market for western pop-rock acts, but it was to be short-lived – three years the Berlin Wall would come down and all European communist countries would make transitions to Democracy. But those three years saw other major rock bands visiting the Eastern Bloc, including Pink Floyd performing in the Soviet Union in 1989. Quite a feat, considering the fact that several years earlier the same band had sung the lyrics “Brezhnev took Afghanistan...”
The early years of Democracy in Bulgaria were dismal for the music business. Piracy was uncontrollable and official music releases were non-existent. The less said about this period, the better. Eventually, in the late 90s, most major labels established subsidiaries or found distributors on the Bulgarian market. Today, Queen are represented in Bulgaria through Virginia Records – under license to Universal Music.
In 2005 and 2008 Queen and Paul Rodgers toured Europe and the world extensively, but both tours skipped Bulgaria, as well as neighbouring Romania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. The band’s only performance on the Balkans was the show in Belgrade, Serbia. In their forty years of touring Queen never played in Bulgaria, either as a band or as solo artists (although Spike Edney’s SAS Band did play two shows in the small town of Bansko located in Bulgaria’s picturesque mountains). So it is understandable that many Bulgarian Queen fans travelled to Belgrade to see Queen and Paul Rodgers perform (while others chose different locations, such as Prague, Budapest or Vienna). One can’t help but wonder if the members of Queen realized that in addition to the predominantly Serbian audience they were also playing for fans from all over the Balkans.
To most of us this was the first and perhaps last chance to attend a Queen show.
About our contributor:
How I discovered Queen: A friend gave me the lyrics to The Show Must Go On in English with an excellent translation in Bulgarian. It snowballed from there...
Favourite Album: Made In Heaven
Favourite Track: Too Much Love Will Kill You
Favourite Single: Heaven For Everyone/It’s a Beautiful Day