Released forty years ago, Odbrana i poslednji dani by Belgrade band Idoli has long been touted as the best Yugoslav album of all time.
It's an album that remains stunningly fresh, yielding new surprises at each subsequent listening.
Some time towards the end of the 1980s a friend gave me a tape of rock music from Yugoslavia. There was no track listing, so I listened to it without knowing the names of the songs or the artists. It was an extraordinarily varied collection, featuring rushes of punkish energy, bursts of synth-pop, snatches of ska, wistful ballads, and some aggressively metallic riffing overlaid with what sounded like Orthodox choral music. It sounded like a mix-tape featuring lots of different bands, a vibrant snapshot of a Yugoslav new wave scene I'd heard so much about.
It was only several years later that I discovered the tape I was listening to was Odbrana i poslednji dani ("The Apology and the Last Days"), the album released in 1982 by Belgrade band Idoli ("The Idols"). It's an album that has long been touted as the 'best Yugoslav album of all time', a reputation it established quite early on by winning a critics' poll organized by Džuboks magazine in 1985. Thirty years later it topped a similar list published by the Croatian edition of Rolling Stone. Now, the fortieth anniversary of the album's release is being celebrated with a special vinyl re-edition from Croatia Records, the successor to the Jugoton label to which the band were originally signed.
At that time I heard it, it struck me as some kind of missing link between the post-punk of the late Seventies and the constantly diversifying indie rock of the late Eighties. And this tape from Yugoslavia did not seem any less striking or inventive than anything that had come out of Leeds, Liverpool or Glasgow in the same epoch. It was just another example of the margins catching up, taking over, adding their own flavour to what London and New York had initiated.
Lyrically and musically, the album remains the most accomplished product to have emerged from Yugoslavia's new wave scene. The country's first punk bands hand emerged in Ljubljana and Rijeka already in 1977, followed by the development of a varied new wave scene in Zagreb (songs from Zagreb-scene bands like Azra, Film and Haustor retain canonical status today). Serbian capital Belgrade took a little bit longer to join the party but had an explosive impact when it did. In 1981 the Zagreb-based label Jugoton, which had played a pioneering role in nurturing the new generation of Croatian groups, put together a compilation entitled Paket Aranžman (Package Deal) to showcase leading Belgrade bands Šarlo Akrobata, Električni Orgazam and Idoli - groups whose jagged, confrontational but also inventive approach to post punk seemed to place the Yugoslav scene on a new level.
As well as being a sophisticated post-punk outfit Idoli were also a pop band, the darlings of colour magazines and TV shows. Right from the start of their career they were regarded as smart media manipulators who treated each song as a pop-cultural experiment. They also knew how to exploit controversy. Their first single (released as a giveaway with Vidici magazine) Retko te viđam sa devojkama (I Don't Often See You With Girls), hinted at gay subject matter, although the band themselves claimed at the time that it was about boys who were too shy to talk to the opposite sex. First official single (and also their first and biggest hit) was the ska anthem Maljčiki, which took a sarcastic swipe at Soviet communism and the Russophilia that still endured among many older party members - the Soviet embassy made an official complaint. Then there was the jangle-pop love ballad Malena, and its notoriously vulgar refrain of "želim da fukam te" ("I wanna fuck you"), a deliberately jarring last line to what began as a tender, melodic chorus.
The band was also a highly successful exercise in image projection, its members dressing like characters from a Sixties teen movie. The fact that that they had two very different front-men, boyishly handsome guitarist Vlada Divljan and the bespectacled school-swat keyboard player Srđan Šaper made them uniquely visually distinctive. It was an effect made more powerful by the presence of tall, imposing Nebojša Kostić, who stood in front of a microphone not doing a great deal, but who was simply visibly there. Bassist Zdenko Kolar and drummer Kokan Popović helped to keep things musically together.
Idoli's first album, actually a mini-album that contained six songs and revolved at 45RPM, was always intended to be a pop record, but left the band disappointed because it failed to showcase the more abrasive side of their character. "After our first mini-album it was important to us to record something more ambitious, complex, less poppish" co-leader of the band Srđan Šaper tells me from Belgrade. "Odbrana gave us the chance to be different. We felt that we were engaged in a challenge, an exploration. We also knew that we were part of a historical moment in music in Yugoslavia and in Europe as a whole."
Odbrana was an album that aimed to widen the poetic language of the new wave. There were songs about relationships and partying but also about gender ambiguity, birth and death. Many songs had a strong religious element that came across as both spiritual and blasphemic at the same time. The pattern on the record sleeve looked like abstract art, but was actually a detail taken from an Orthodox church icon portraying the robes of St Nicholas. The name of the album appeared in a stylized version of the Cyrillic script inspired by archaic church manuscripts, amplifying the religious theme. Had a Belgrade-based record company released the album, questions might have been raised about these references to Serbia's national-religious past. Because it was released in Croatia by Zagreb's Jugoton however, the album was accepted as something post-modern, playful, but also edgily ambiguous.
Pop-poets with literary gifts
Clearly signalling the band's cultural pretentions was the album's title. Odbrana i poslednji dani (The Apology and the Last Days) was the title of a novella by Serbian writer Borislav Pekić, a wry look at the human condition in which a Serbian emigré in West Germany is charged with murdering a former Nazi whose life he had earlier saved. Pekić's title is itself borrowed from Socrates's Apology or trial defence, a well-known section of Plato's Last Days of Socrates. For Idoli to adopt this as the name of their album suggested several layers of literary precociousness.
However it would be a mistake to think that Odbrana was an ambitious concept album that followed the narrative of Pekić's book. In a way they manipulated Pekić in order to make the album look like a concept album when it actually wasn't. "Nebojša Krstić and I were big admirers of Pekić" explains Šaper. "But our songwriting didn't follow the book at all. We just needed a strong title." Two songs on the album (Odbrana, and Poslednji dani) took their titles directly from the book, but did not follow Pekić's narrative in terms of content.
The album nevertheless announced the arrival of Idoli as pop-poets with considerable literary gifts. Their songs brandished a range of emotions and cultural and references, many of which were unusual in the world of Yugoslav rock. Igrale se delije (The Brave Lads Are Dancing) referenced a folk-style Serbian popular song, and the round dance known as the kolo; Moja si (You're Mine; the frenzied electro-rock thrash with Orthodox church chants in the background) offered a narrative of androgyny and sex-change expressed through pseudo-religious motifs. Arguably the most famous song on the album, and one of the most ambiguous, was the beautifully lilting Rusija (Russia), an intimate song about a couple sitting in a room somewhere in Belgrade. The country of Russia only comes into the story because the singer-narrator is reading Fadayev, a socialist-realist writer and Stalin-loyalist who opposed Hruschev's reforms. Idoli's reference to Fadayev is likely to be a provocative but deliberately oblique reference to the kind of hard-line communist Russia that Tito's Yugoslavia had parted company with in 1948.
One of the things that created a distinct mythology around the album was that it took an inordinately long time to complete - although this was more to do with a fragmented approach to the recording sessions rather than the actual amount of time spent in the studio. "We started in October of '81 and finished in January or February the next year" Šaper continues. "We didn't actually spend that long in the studio, we were just interrupted. So for example we recorded for 2-3 days and then had a two-month gap. The album was recorded in Zagreb, and involved a lot of going backwards and forwards. It was also mixed by the band ourselves, which lengthened the process of completion."
The stop-start nature of the process did however give the band time to reflect on what they were doing. " We actually ended up working the way that musicians do today - putting down a few tracks at a time like bass and drums and then building things up the next time we went in to the studio. We got the rhythm section recorded and then spent the next two months doing nothing, which gave us time to think about the next bit. It made us feel very experimental, almost as if we were Brian Eno..."
"And we did have a chance to play around with sound effects and synthesizers, thanks to the engineer Mile "Pile" Miletić and [the prolific musician and visual artist] Goran Vejvoda, who helped us to refine the synthesizer sound and make use of its subtleties. There are a lot of sound effects on that album which for me was a revelation in terms of what we could do in the studio."
The album was largely self-produced. "In Yugoslavia in those days it wasn't common for a studio producer to play a creative role. For our next album Čokolada, which we recorded in London, producer Bob Painter guided us in a lot of things. But Odbrana didn't have a producer in the sense of one person who shaped the sound. In effect we were the producers, assisted by the studio engineers and here and there by Goran Vejvoda, although he wasn't with us in the studio all the time. "
As Vlada Divljan told Borko Augustin of Zagreb youth newspaper Polet in February 1982, "we always try to keep things as much as possible within the group. This decision to do the album without a producer was a typical example of this. And I think it was the right decision. The process lasted a bit longer than expected and turned out to be more difficult too, but it's a very serious piece of work. We worked as a closed unit; we are generally quite isolated as people."
It was Šaper and Divljan who formed the band's creative inner circle. "We were close, we influenced each other a lot", Šaper remembers. Even before they became musicians, they had spent long summers travelling together as teenagers, inter-railing or hitchhiking around Europe, or camping on the Adriatic coast. "We were creative partners. We worked intensively on songs and lyrics. That was the axis of the whole thing. I wouldn't say we were Lennon and Macartney; that would be an over-estimation. But Idoli resembled the Beatles in the sense that everybody did something- and it is impossible to think of the two main songwriters without the contributions of the others. The songs came together in rehearsal. It was teamwork. We worked a lot on songs together and the end result was not always recognizable as the song brought to the band by its original author. If you made a forensic analysis of our songs you would see different particles coming from different authors and different times."
The person responsible for putting Idoli in the studio was legendary Jugoton A&R chief Siniša Škarica, who had brought the band to national attention by including them on the Paket Aranžman compilation album the year before. Škarica never made any secret of the fact that he preferred the more accessible sound of Idoli's first mini-album to that of Odbrana. However it was Škarica who gave the band freedom to come up with the album they wanted, and release it in the form they chose. The only exception was the song Poslednji dani (The Last Days). Originally entitled Maršal (The Marshal), it contained the refrain 'Maršal je moj bog' ("The marshal is my god"), a clear and sarcastic reference to Marshal Tito, the recently deceased father of the nation. On the album, the lyric was changed to 'Čeka me moj bog" ("Awaiting me is my god") in order to avoid a potential political scandal, although Vlada Divljan continued to sing the original version in live performance.
On its release, the album was greeted with immediate critical acclaim. Writing for Zagreb magazine Start, Belgrade rock critic Branko Vukojević called it "one of the most ambitious projects in the history of Yugoslav rock" a record that redefined Idoli as authentic artists rather than an ironic marketing project.
One person who remembers the impact of the album when it first came out is veteran music critic and close observer of the Belgrade scene Petar Janjatović: "Idoli were a favourite group of mine right from the outset, and Odbrana was something I awaited with great anticipation. There's no point in trying to be clever and saying that I realized on first hearing that this record was going to remain one of my favourites for the next forty years. It had a lot of dense musical and textual layers to break through. Within the context of the Yugoslav new wave Idoli definitely had a place of their own. They worked with such a broad palette of themes and genres. They had pronounced intellectual traits but at the same time cultivated a healthy sense of humour."
It was the album's use of meditative, spiritual themes that provoked most discussion at the time. As Saša Runjić wrote in Zagreb youth weekly Polet "the one thing that strikes everyone straight away and is whispered about on all sides is the inescapable presence of religion on this album". Branko Vukojević called the use of musical themes from the Orthodox rite a radical departure for Yugoslav rock, a creative leap of the imagination. "They have taken what they need from the modern pop canon and melded it with more intimate, civilizational impulses." Vukojević also saw the album as an exercise in pop-cultural pan-Slavism - the title of the album's most sublime track, Rusija, must have swayed his mind. The Orthodox angle was something the papers always mentioned, and in a way ensured that the album was a media success if not necessarily a commercial one. It was not as radio friendly as its predecessor, and went on to sell an estimated 30,000 copies (a staggering number today but considered a disappointment in 1982).
The album's use of Orthodox imagery was considered risqué at a time when the Yugoslav state was very wary of religion, especially as a means of national self-identification. The album has been hailed in some quarters as an investigation of Serbian identity via pop-cultural means, although much of this mythologizing came about after 1991, and was led by people who were not always interested in the album's original context.
Šaper tried to put the record straight in an interview with Belgrade weekly Nedeljnik in 2020. "What we wanted to do with that album was to make a cocktail - rock and roll plus religion. Putting the spiritual together with rock and roll was for us a way of turning things upside down. We have always been afraid of the collective mentality, and the collective mentality has won."
And as Šaper told me, "Idoli wanted to talk about ideology, religion, all of the things which were not normally dealt with in rock and pop - but we didn't necessarily have a coherent view of what we wanted. We just had a feeling that we wanted to explore, and work with whatever we found. We were only 21-22 years old. We were too young to be taken seriously. But on the other hand Odbrana was still the best thing we ever did in our lives."
The group produced two more studio albums (of which the smooth, poppy, London-produced Čokolada was the most successful), before breaking up in1985. Divljan and Šaper did not stay close friends. Divljan no longer felt at home in the nationalist Serbia of the 1990s, and went to live in Australia before later settling in Vienna. He died in 2015 just short of his 57th birthday. Šaper and Krstić made successful careers in PR and communications, and were both for a long time associated with the Democratic Party, an organization that has in its lifetime veered from nationalism to pro-European liberalism and many stations inbetween. Krstić, controversially, has ended up as a prominent supporter of Serbia's current conservative-authoritarian president Aleksandar Vučić.
Forty years later, Odbrana remains stunningly fresh, a work that yields new surprises at each subsequent listen. According to Šaper, the band were aware that they had recorded something significant, "but we never imagined that it would have the impact it did later on. I've had many people telling me years later that this record influenced them in the sense that it encouraged them to experiment. It was a record that said everything was possible. You could think out of the box and still be understood."
According to Petar Janjatović, the album "was a source of encouragement to many musicians and showed them that even in our region you could produce a work of art that embraced numerous themes, from sexual ambiguity to political subversion and religion."
"Maybe the album is rather like Long Covid" Šaper concludes, "its effects just keep on going."
© Jonathan Bousfield
An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnj list's cultural supplement Svijet kulture.