Croatia / History / Popular Culture / Music

What is a song without a sleeve? Jugoton’s place in art and pop

Zagreb record label Jugoton didn’t just nurture a unique music scene. It also set new standards in Croatian design

During the Seventies and Eighties Jugoton served as a prime conduit for the flood of original music coming out of Croatia, and the label became synonymous with local pop culture at its most innovative and authentic.

Almost thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold-War divide still colours our perceptions of cultural history. People in Western Europe had all the sex, drugs and rock and roll; people in the East just gritted their teeth and carried on queuing for sausages. The former Yugoslavia, with its quasi-consumerist version of Communism-Lite, stood somewhere in the middle. But what if we re-drew the continent’s historical geography according to which countries had the biggest record industry, which countries underwent a punk-rock revolution in the late Seventies, or which countries produced the largest proportion of Eighties’ synthesizer bands? By any of these criteria, the Croatian capital Zagreb would have to be moved into the same camp as London, Manchester or Berlin; while large tracts of Mediterranean Europe would find suddenly themselves on the far side of the Urals.

Yugoslavia enjoyed a popular-culture boom in the Seventies and Eighties and much of its most exciting music was released on Jugoton, the Zagreb-based label that became synonymous with the restless energies of the local scene. The company didn’t just play the leading role in nurturing local rock-and-roll talent; it also set new standards in Croatian design, producing album covers that became every bit as canonical as the music contained within. Trawling through the Jugoton archives today reveals how popular music and its increasingly stylish packaging served as mirrors of a changing society, and goes some way to answering the question of just why Yugoslav socialism could boast so much in the way of wop bam boom.

Yugoslavia’s greatest ever record label began life as Elektroton in late Thirties, before being nationalized and renamed Jugoton in the aftermath of World War II. Its early releases were limited to traditional folk songs and Soviet-style revolutionary marching tunes, but changes on the international political scene soon had a profound impact on the Jugoton repertoire. With Yugoslavia thrown out of the Soviet bloc in 1948 and its leaders seeking a rapprochement with the west, popular culture took immediate advantage. The 1950s saw the rise of a new breed of domestic variety stars, notably Ivo Robić, who were deliberately styled on the western showbiz tradition. Indeed Robić reached number 13 on the US Billboard charts in 1959 with the song Morgen, proving that this cultural exchange was by no means a one-way affair.

Jugoton also began releasing western LPs under license, kicking off with the likes of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard before taking the definitive plunge into western rock decadence with Elvis’s Golden Records in 1961. Releases by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came in the years that followed.

In the early days at least, Jugoton’s releases by western bands were so popular that you would have to order them in advance and pay up front. Customers would wait for the record shop to ring up and tell them when the disk actually arrived in stock. Very often the piece of plastic would be ready for collection before the sleeves had been printed – customers would have to go back to the shop to pick up the album cover later.

The Jugoton shop in central Zagreb was itself a bold statement of westernization. Designed by architect Vjenceslav Richter, it was one of Croatia’s first examples of the shop-as-an-exhibition-space, combining minimalist interior and big street-facing windows to create the aura of a fashion boutique. It still survives as the Croatia Records music store, but now shares space with a music-themed café (the appropriately-named Nova Ploča or “Latest Release”), a telling sign that while CD sales may continue to plummet, you can always flog an espresso.

During the Seventies and Eighties Jugoton served as the prime conduit for the flood of original music coming out of Croatia itself, and the name Jugoton became synonymous with Yugoslav pop culture at its most innovative and authentic. The fact that former Yugoslavia had the most vibrant punk and new wave scene east of the English Channel is often overlooked by western cultural historians, convinced that the communist-ruled half of Europe must have been a no-go zone when it came to safety pins and shredded jeans.

Zagreb punks Prljavo Kazalište released their first single on Jugoton in 1978, although they moved to Suzy Records to record their epochal first album. (And it would be churlish not to mention here the key role played by Slovenian label RTV Ljubljana, who released albums by Yugoslavia’s first ever punk bands, Paraf from Rijeka and Pankrti from Ljubljana.)

Cover by Mario Kristofić

Legend has it that Jugoton acquired the rights to the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks in 1977, but never released it because workers at the pressing plant considered it too much of a political hot potato. It may well be the only time in history that the honour of the Queen of England was saved by an Eastern-European factory floor.

Far more significant in local terms was the release of Paket Aranžman (“Package Tour”) in 1981, a compilation featuring the best new post-punk bans from Belgrade. The fact that a Zagreb label was taking the Belgrade scene under its wing (and stealing it from under the noses of the Belgrade record companies in the process) was very much down to the shrewdness and enthusiasm of Jugoton’s legendary A&R man Siniša Škarica, who knew that times were changing and was eager to place Jugoton on the crest of the wave.

Jugoton went on to handle the bulk of Yugoslavia’s burgeoning new wave, releasing albums by Zagreb bands Azra, Film and Haustor, alongside Belgrade’s Idoli, Šarlo Akrobata and Električni Orgazam. It was an extraordinarily creative generation that left a long shadow: most Croats still know the songs of Azra frontman Johnny Stulić by heart; Haustor leader Darko Rundek remains an internationally-acclaimed songwriter. Synthipop duo Denis i Denis, and the New Romantic-inspired Dorian Gray, pointed Zagreb towards the dressed-up, post-punk Eighties.

Yugoslavia produced a veritable ocean of vinyl in the years between 1960 and 1990. Jugoton was merely the biggest of several powerful record labels, all of which were kept busy pressing the latest releases by western bands. This was in sharp contrast to other, more hardline, countries of Eastern Europe, where western rock and roll was administered in small, harmless doses. Yugoslav kids were able to go out and buy records by Bowie, Blondie, King Crimson, Kraftwerk, the Clash, U2, and many more. What did the Russians get in the 1980s? Uriah Heep.

Jugoton was renamed Croatia Records in 1992, and despite remaining one of the most powerful labels in the region, no longer commands the same mystique. The early Nineties also saw the decline of the vinyl LP and the rise of the CD. The last album produced by Jugoton’s vinyl pressing plant was a disc containing the sermons of Pope John Paul II, released in 1994. And if that’s the kind of record you simply can’t live without, you’ll probably find a near-mint copy in one of Zagreb’s second-hand shops.

Six iconoc Jugoton album covers

Arsen Dedić Čovjek kao ja (1969) Design: Mihajlo Arsovski.

The debut by easy-crooning poet and singer-songwriter Arsen Dedić is given a subtly psychedelic treatment by Arsovski, a prolific poster, magazine and book-cover designer.

Josipa Lisac Dnevnik jedne ljubavi (1973). Design and photography: Jozo Četković.

A classy, jazz-soul concept album recorded by the one true diva that Croatian showbiz has ever produced. Ćetković’s masterfully moody black-and-white photography was the ideal choice for the give-me-coffee-and-a-cigarette quality of the album.

Bijelo Dugme Kad bi’ bio bijelo dugme (1974). Design: Dragan S. Stefanović.

The kind of politically incorrect album sleeve that would raise eyebrows nowadays, Stefanović’s sleeve defines the hard-rocking, hard-womanizing mythos surrounding this mega-popular Bosnian band.

Jazz Sextet Boško Petrović With Pain I Was Born (1977) Design: Boris Bućan.

Contemporary artist Bućan styled this enigmatic cover, conveying both meditative simplicity and high art.

Various Artists. Svi Marš na Ples! (1980). Design: Mirko Ilić.

The doyen of contemporary Croatian design, Ilić injected a punky, pop-art sense of fun into this New-Wave compilation album.

Dorian Gray Sjaj u tami (1984). Design: Bachrach & Krištofić.

Dorian Gray were Croatia’s answer to David Bowie/Roxy Music-style art-school glam, an aesthetic eloquently summed up by this raw-but-romantic sleeve. With its mixture of home-grown new-wave energy and western pop aesthetics, it is a typical episode in the Jugoton story.

Thanks to Sanja Bachrach-Kristofić and Mario Kristofić for talking me through Jugoton's visual history.

Text © Jonathan Bousfield