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“Everyone was afraid, not only the musicians”

The underground music veteran Mihály Víg looks back on Hungary’s Soviet-era scene.
Image: Balaton’s Károly Hunyadi (left) and Mihály Víg in Budapest, 1980s. Photograph by János Vetö

Outside of his native Hungary, Mihály Víg is best known as a soundtrack composer. His work is closely associated with the dark and brooding films of Béla Tarr. Movies like Damnation (1988), Sátántangó (1994) and The Turin Horse (2011) are shot in black and white and employ daringly long takes. When combined with Víg’s haunting minimal scores, these stylistic choices conspire to depict ordinary human hardships as poetic and mystical.

But at home, Víg is also a celebrated rock musician. He’s been an active participant in Budapest’s underground scene since the 1980s – when Hungary was still in the throes of communism – playing in bands like Trabant and Európa Kiadó, as well as forming his own decades-long project Balaton.

Born in 1957, he was exposed to classical and experimental music from a young age. His father Rudolf was an ethnomusicologist who researched Romani folk songs and would always play records in the house, while an uncle, who defected to the West, sent home albums from abroad. Stockhausen, Stravinsky and Zoltán Kodály were early influences. “I came into contact with their work through Bartók Rádió,” Mihály tells me over Skype. “It was the main source in Hungary for ‘serious’ modern music.” Víg’s initiation into pop and rock came when an older brother played Mihály “House Of The Rising Sun” by The Animals, firing up the young boy’s imagination by telling him it was a cowboy song.

Mihály played the violin and piano as a child, but his musical education really began when his parents went on a research trip to India and left him behind at a boarding school, where he learned to play guitar. Eventually, Víg dropped out of school and left home at 16. “It was chaotic at home,” he remembers. “But my new friends were also chaotic. They were drinking, sniffing glue and taking pills. We are talking about 1972–73. Some of them were musicians, some were not.” Víg stayed with various friends who, for one reason or another, had auspicious living arrangements: absent or bohemian parents who turned a blind eye to wayward teenagers crashing at their apartments.

“I was living in a place where there was a drum kit and a huge record collection. My friends and I tried to jam together, but we never formed a band.” One of these friends was a bassist who played with legendary guitarist Béla Radics, an influential figure in the evolution of Hungarian rock. “We listened to a lot of music,” Víg continues. “Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Radio Free Europe had a weekly show broadcasting contemporary music, but there were other stations that played music from across the world.” There was a decent jazz scene too. Bands like Kex, Syrius and Interbrass straddled the line between progressive rock and jazz, releasing few records in the 1970s, but performing regularly in small clubs.

In order to play live, musicians had to acquire a licence. The ensemble would have to learn a vast repertoire of songs and audition them in front of a schlager committee. If approved, the band would be permitted to perform. “You got a certification that said if you’re playing in a bar they must pay you a certain amount of money. It wasn’t much. By the time I started performing, it wasn’t so important to have a licence as a musician.”

Following a stint in a psychiatric hospital – a successful gamble to avoid military conscription – and work as an amateur actor at the Csili Cultural Centre, Víg committed himself to music. He formed Balaton with Károly Hunyadi in 1979, christening the band after the popular holiday resort of Lake Balaton, as well as the various eponymous confectionery items that wished to associate themselves with careless fun. “Károly learned guitar as a soldier and was friends with László Najmányi [film maker and co-founder of the seminal Hungarian punk band Spions],” says Víg. “We moved in together and started writing songs, learning from each other. We would show each other one chord, then another. [For lyrics] I would say one word, then Károly would add another. That’s how we put it together.”

The start of Hungary’s new wave scene is considered to be Balaton’s gig in the courtyard of the Gyula Kulich Psychiatric Clinic in September 1980, a bill they shared with the short-lived punk rock outfit URH. Bands sprung up everywhere, seemingly overnight, helping each other by lending equipment and exchanging connections. Balaton was one of 15 groups sharing members, gear and stages. “Budapest is a big city,” Mihály explains. “But the community of people who played underground music was really small, about 150 people. Everyone knew each other.”

Wasn’t it dangerous to play rock so openly during this time? “It was a general feeling that you can be arrested for something you may or may not have done. It was part of everyday life,” he replies. “Everyone was afraid, not only the musicians.” The experimental film maker Gábor Bódy, a central figure in the Hungarian underground, who often imparted creative advice to colleagues and friends, paid for this paranoia with his life. He collaborated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, effectively spying on those very same colleagues. He was later excluded from the network, but the secret police continued to intimidate him. Bódy died under mysterious circumstances in 1985. His role as an informant echoes the duplicitous intentions of Irimiás, Víg’s lead character in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó.

The young communist leaders who booked the bands were trying to dismantle the system from the inside. They took risks by giving rock a platform. The Wire’s Chris Bohn, then writing for the NME, visited Hungary in 1980 and was one of the first Western journalists to report on the country’s burgeoning underground. Bohn saw Balaton perform an acoustic show at a party, noting that Víg is “a compulsive performer as capable of commanding attention as [Sham 69’s] Jimmy Pursey”. In his piece, Mihály bemoans the difficulties inherited from bands like Spions whose iconoclastic performances perforated the public’s perception of the new wave, making it difficult for bands like Balaton, who were more poetic than wild, to reach wider audiences.

One project that did reach a large audience was Trabant. Formed in 1980, the band named themselves after the East German car symbolic of the economic stagnation within the Eastern Bloc. The group featured several members, but centred around its co-founders Gábor Lukin, János Vető and Marietta Méhes. After spending a year in the US, Lukin returned to Hungary and immersed himself in the music scene. He met Víg following a Balaton concert and their collaboration began as soon as Lukin learned that his associate had a tape recorder and an organ at home. “Gábor visited me with Marietta,” Víg recalls. “Immediately we recorded two songs. This is how it started. We would write together, rehearse the song and record it. It was like homework. For the next rehearsal every member tried to bring a new song.”

Trabant rehearsal in Budapest, 1980s: (from left) Marietta Méhes, Gábor Lukin, Mihály Víg. Photograph by János Vetö

Trabant subsumed Balaton from that moment. While Víg and Lukin wrote the music, the visual artist János Vető focused on the lyrics, which Méhes delivered in a detached, impassive style reminiscent of Nico. Some of these domestic recording sessions were captured on video by Zoltán Gazsi, who later worked as Béla Tarr’s assistant director. In the footage, which is now available on YouTube (brought together for a major film project on Víg) Trabant come across as a focused outfit with a repertoire of gentle but enigmatic songs. On “Harang”, Lukin, who is left-handed, plays a choppy rhythm upside down on a right-handed guitar, while Víg’s lead melody anchors the song in a hopeless melancholy.

For around two years, Trabant didn’t play live at all, but eventually branched out into performing in university towns. The band’s peak came in 1984 with the film Eszkimó Asszony Fázik (Eskimo Woman Is Cold), in which Méhes played the lead role. Trabant wrote the soundtrack and featured prominently on screen with an expanded line-up. Rehearsals for the music took place in a rented house over the course of three weeks. The songs were recorded on set and released as a 7″ EP to promote the film.

This was one of the first instances that an underground band broke through to the mainstream in communist Hungary. How was this possible? “At that time there was only one state record label, MHV (Hungarian Record Company), but this album was released by the film studio, which was much more progressive,” he replies. “There was no way the state record label would release music like this. It was pressed in 3000 copies and sold out in three days, but never repressed.”

Eszkimó Asszony Fázik was written and directed by János Xantus, who was married to Marietta Mehes at the time and a frequent visitor to the band’s rehearsals. The plot revolves around a love triangle between a pianist who falls in love with Méhes’s character Mari, and her deaf-mute husband. “I was wondering why Xantus wrote a script like this,” says Víg. “So many people saw this film. It was a big part of why Marietta emigrated from Hungary. There were erotic parts in the movie. It was difficult to walk on the street after its release. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone saw her in the film.”

What are Víg’s memories of Méhes? “I liked her a lot. She was clever and every man was in love with her; a femme fatale. She was a really good singer. A really straight and honest person.” In 1985, Gábor Lukin emigrated to the United States in secret. Mihály was the only person he informed about his intention, telling him two days prior to departure. Méhes emigrated six months later, also defecting to the US, making her departure during a film shoot in Italy. With that Trabant effectively came to an end, although the group did perform a string of reunion concerts, in 2011, when Marietta returned to Hungary for a brief time.

After Trabant, Víg reformed Balaton, this time adopting members of the celebrated band Európa Kiadó (Péter Magyar, János Másik and József Dénes aka Dönci). In return, Víg played guitar with Európa Kiadó and the two projects toured together. Their split live album Európa Kiadó És Balaton – A Zichy Kastélyban documents a concert from 1986. It was recorded by the Fluxus artist György Galántai aka Artpool, but remained unreleased until 1998, when it was issued by the experimental label Bahia.

The late 1980s was a difficult period for Víg, who by this time had a large family of his own. Balaton disbanded in 1987 and, although he began working on soundtracks for Béla Tarr, he took on work as a park ranger to make ends meet. Tamás Pajor, frontman of the influential post-punk outfit Neurotic, invited Mihály and his wife Micánka to join the Faith Church, an evangelical Christian denomination. At first, Víg found the community attractive, before becoming suspicious of its leader Sandor Nemeth and disillusioned with the cult’s requirement for adherents to break from their past. Mihály left after only a few months, but Micánka remained. The Church harassed her for staying married to Víg and this psychological pressure eventually led to her untimely death. Víg considers falling in with these people to be the biggest mistake of his life. “It’s not good to become a fanatic. When it comes to God, you are alone with Him; it’s really personal. It’s not about the sect or the many people coming together, being fanatical about something.”

Balaton re-emerged in the early 90s with a new line-up, just as Bahia began issuing the band’s archival recordings. The first album 1985.04.27. captures Balaton’s energised set at Budapest’s Ráday Klub. The follow-up II, which combined domestic recordings made at Gábor Lukin’s apartment with a gig from 1987, documents the band’s more experimental side. Later in the decade, Bahia also commissioned Víg to produce Cigánydalok (Gypsy Songs), an album that’s inspired by his father’s ethnographic work and centres as its key motif Romani choral songs of desperation. Balaton continue to this day, playing regularly in Budapest. Víg also performs solo acoustic sets while reciting poems by the likes of Endre Ady and Sándor Petőfi.

In 2022, Víg became the subject of András Kécza’s lengthy documentary feature Ott Torony Volt (There Was A Tower), which began life as a survey of the 1980s underground scene and evolved into a portrait of the musician. In the film’s opening minutes, Víg reflects that music promised to be a path to progress, which is why it became the medium of choice for so many.

With this in mind, I ask how life in Hungary now compares to life then. “Hungary had a lot of financial debt. The government didn’t have much power and already knew better than the general public that it was all coming to an end. There was the possibility that you’d wake up in a prison cell, but the situation now is similar – you’re not sure what will happen if you don’t agree with what’s going on.”

Subscribers to The Wire can read an interview about Mihály Víg’s film collaborations with Bela Tarr in The Wire 470. Tarr’s Sátántangó will be screened with musical accompaniment on 31 March and 1 April at Silent Green, Berlin. Mihály Víg’s solo album Koncert A Kis Lumenben 2017 is released by PrePost Records. András Kécza’s Ott Torony Volt is released via Gallivant Film

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, March 2023

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