Rock 'n' Roll Will Never Die? - Budapest Week, Aug 1991
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
László Hegedűs was the Man who Brought Western Rock to Hungary - including the likes of Carlos Santana, Jethro Tull, Depeche Mode and Queen - in the Bad Old Days of Trabants, Wartburgs, and the Warsaw Pact.
I suspect few readers here will remember Budapest Week, which was, as it said on the tin, the first independent English-language weekly in Hungary. It was founded by a small band of mostly youthful, American adventurer-hacks (or would-be hacks), including Rick Bruner and Steven Carlson, along with Rick's slightly less youthful, but genuinely seasoned hack-father, Dick. For deep local knowledge, they had Tibor Szendrei, a Hungarian hack who jumped ship from the relative safety of the state-owned, incongruously named Daily News (which was, by then, a weekly) to join the ill-advised gang who said they would start a newspaper armed with no computers, no office and no money. What's more, none had ever run a business or sold an advertisement - generally accepted as essential skills to underpin any media publication.
It was a start-up which promised not so much "a salary cannot be guaranteed to be paid" as "it is guaranteed no salary will be paid". (It is rumoured that at least one spouse of the above was none too enthused with the whole idea. She was probably not alone.) Budapest Week started publication on March 15, 1991. Rick Bruner, in an 'official' interview I did with him two years later for a piece in The Guardian, said something like "The first paper was produced with a borrowed computer and a waste-paper basket in a taxi running across Budapest."
This is arguably not exactly true*, as I learned from a podcast produced by Steven Carlson last week, but it certainly captures the spirit of the endeavour. (* I am indebted to Steven's recent podcast with Tibor Szendrei for some of the above.) But what has this got to do with bringing rock music to Hungary, you may well ask? Oh gosh, I admit, this intro has run amok - I had better go back to journalism school - except I never went there in the first place. (This is proving to be an evening of embarrassing confessions, isn't it?) So let's cut to the chase. Steven Carlson and Rick Bruner are currently trying to digitise the first three years of Budapest Week in preparation for a celebration of the anniversary of the launch, 30 years ago next spring.
And as I was involved in the beginning, albeit from the fringes, we swapped stories from those heady times. And Tibor Szendrei kindly sent me a pdf of one of my earliest pieces, in late August, 1991.
It is a profile of László Hegedűs, as pictured here. (Please note you have to go up and down between photos to get a continuous text. Sorry, I couldn't avoid that due to page layout.)
László would never claim to be the first to bring rock to Hungary. A number of bands, including Spencer Davis and their subsequent incarnation, Traffic, had played in Budapest in the mid-60s.
But arguably, from 1982 onwards, he did more than any other to enable Magyar fans of the likes of Santana, Jethro Tull, Depeche Mode and, most memorably for many here, Queen (in 1986) to experience western groups live.
It is difficult to imagine in today's society, but the communist leadership of eastern Europe saw the rock culture as dangerous, and for many years, and sought to supress its expansion into the region. Hungary was, at the time, arguably the most liberal of the Soviet satellites: László worked to exploit that.
(One acquaintance of mine, a Brit, had to have his hair cut before entering Czechoslovakia in c 1969 - and nothing to do with a rock concert.)
László Hegedűs, a little older (and wiser?)
than in his hard-working impressario days.
Photo: György Gáti
The Budapest Week piece illustrated, of course, was written after such cultural restrictions, like red stars, had long been banished.
The year 1991 was a super time for Budapest gigs, as the piece indicates. It saw the likes of Bob Dylan, (I was there, and left early, hardly able to recognise his songs - I was told by an insider he wouldn't play unless provided with hash, and when provided, he couldn't play), along with Rod Stewart (I had been a fan in early Faces and Jeff Beck days, but on the night, to me he only proved he'd been going downhill since Maggie May).
Sorry, Rod, too much showmanship and not enough talent on your own. The piece puts the price of some tickets at "above HUF 1,000" - which meant "above USD 13" at the time.
There was also Paul Simon, who was pretty much up to par, it must be said.
(Ha! I found this photo of Mr Simon a few days after this post - I didn't even know I'd got a pic - I'll hoy it in now. Pity, most people have read this now, I suspect).
By the way, there is a typo towards the end. In the last paragraph, it is supposed to read: I'm an unfit fly-half ... (and not in an unfit fly-half ... ).
Yes too were advertised to play in Budapest that June or July, but pulled out for some reason at the last minute.
I think it was to do with a cancelled concert in Serbia - there was a war on at the time, of course, but I believe a fit of pique was allegedly involved. Hardly László's fault that the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) were dropping ordinance on wannabee independent Croatia and Slovenia at the time, of course.
Finally, we have on the page - illustrated left - an advert for Radio Bridge - my employer at the time.
Founded by a group entrepreneurial Hungarians and American Steven Anderson, it began broadcasting on March 15, 1990, precisely one year before the appearance of Budapest Week.
It was better financed, for sure, but also had higher operating costs. It folded as an English-language station as of December 1, 1991. This left the likes of microphone colleagues such as Richard Rifkin, Attila Micsko and Peter Linka - along with support staff and myself, of course, seeking new employ.
1991 was a fun, if tumultuous year for many in media in Budapest. Thanks to Gusztáv Hittig, György Pomezanski (and Éva Csallóközi) for the ups and downs at Radio Bridge, and all the aforementioned at Budapest Week for their individual roles in all that.
For those interested in the first western bands to come to Hungary, and cultural life in general under communism from the early 60s, see:
For those interested in learning more about the wild world of Budapest Week in the early days, Steve Carlson is creating a library of podcasts with his brothers and sisters in arms. See: http://podcast.onceuponatimeineasterneurope.com/
Update for the record: Tibor Szendrei wrote to me to mention that the official publication date of the very first Budapest Week was March 14 - 20.