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Culture Shock: Irritating Slovak DJs butchering songs

"They don't give a damn about any trumpet-playin' band," sings Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits in the group's classic 1978 song 'Sultans of Swing'. "It ain't what they call rock n' roll."
It's an achingly beautiful song, crowned by Knopfler's elegant guitar solo, one so smooth it stands proudly and properly alongside other stirring riffs like Jimmy Page's 'Stairway to Heaven' solo, or the duelling jam featuring Joe Walsh at the end of 'Hotel California'.
Listening to that final lyric on a Slovak radio station, I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes and braced myself for the singular feeling of gratification only quality music can provide. But instead of the Knopfler solo, I heard Samantha Fox.


The song remains the same... so why bother playing it all the way through?
photo: TASR

"They don't give a damn about any trumpet-playin' band," sings Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits in the group's classic 1978 song 'Sultans of Swing'. "It ain't what they call rock n' roll."

It's an achingly beautiful song, crowned by Knopfler's elegant guitar solo, one so smooth it stands proudly and properly alongside other stirring riffs like Jimmy Page's 'Stairway to Heaven' solo, or the duelling jam featuring Joe Walsh at the end of 'Hotel California'.

Listening to that final lyric on a Slovak radio station, I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes and braced myself for the singular feeling of gratification only quality music can provide. But instead of the Knopfler solo, I heard Samantha Fox.

Perhaps naughty girls really do need love too, as Samantha claimed, but do Slovak radio listeners really need their DJ's to cut off classic songs at mid-point?

"Man, I told these DJ's, they got to cut that [stuff] out," said American Henry Brandon, an English-language DJ in the eastern Slovak city of Prešov. "Cutting them songs off like that just doesn't fly, it just ain't right."

It's a great irritation, this gashing of great songs, one which has drawn the ire of expats and Slovaks alike. But it's also a common practice among Slovak radio stations. For me, it's become the one cultural adjustment I have been unable to make. I like the food here, I've learned to appreciate the laconic nature of the people, the laid-back life style suits me.

But cutting off songs halfway through is maddening.

Peter Iždinský, the former co-owner of the now defunct Radio Tatry and a former DJ for the out-of-business Radio Ragtime, says that Slovak DJs cut songs off because "radio here is about entertainment, it's not about music."

Most of the DJs at Slovak contemporary stations started out as club DJ's, he explains, which makes them more inclined to promote themselves than the music they spin.

"DJs just want to present their own style, like they did when they were working in the clubs," he says between drags of a cigarette at Café U Anjelov in Bratislava July 26. "I don't need this. I like music. When I was a DJ at Ragtime, I talked very little, only to explain the songs I was playing. And I worked there for free because I loved the music so much. I really miss that now."

Iždinský is a dinosaur on the Slovak radio scene if only because he likes music. Brandon, too, is foreign in more ways than one for his on-air style, which usually consists of nothing more than putting a CD on and just letting it ride while he stands on the balcony and smokes cigarettes. "My show is about the music, man. That's it."

But music is not what Slovak radio is currently all about. Listeners expect (or so station owners would have you believe) a palatable selection of pop music, DJs who speak constantly even as songs play, and irreverent news reports detailing the latest shenanigans of 'Mickey Premier', as one station calls Slovak Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

A recent front-page story in the Slovak daily Sme bemoaned the state of contemporary radio, where the small market forces stations to play only top-40 hits and well-known older tunes rather than focus on a single genre. "I would like to listen to a jazz station every evening," said Fun Radio's Peter Graus, "if one existed."

Instead, stations serve up an awkward mishmash of tunes where the ageless Eric Clapton can be followed by 90s rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, soul stalwart Tina Turner by house-music artist Fat Boy Slim. Does this lack of musical congruency, I ask Iždinský, mean that Slovaks have not formed the same relationships with the music they listen to as westerners have?

"It's difficult to say," he says. "You have to understand that under Communism radio stations were only allowed to play 5% western songs. If 20 songs were aired over an hour, only one or two could be from the west. Take Neil Young - every one of his albums has a beautiful song that people who know music would easily identify. But have any Slovaks ever heard Neil Young? Not from Slovak radio stations."

But I still don't fully understand, I tell him. Is this really what listeners want? Having spoken to several Slovaks about the topic, the answer is a resounding no. "Slovak DJs are stupid," say almost all. "And I hate it when they cut off the songs."

But if listeners hate it, why the constant amputation of songs' vital parts? And how else to explain the failure of Tatry and Ragtime, stations which were focused on music over marketing?

"Ragtime was for people for who liked music," Iždinský says. "And no one was listening to Ragtime."

Speaking to the now radio-less DJ, I recalled one night in 1996. While working as a DJ for my university radio station in small-town Nebraska, I opened a new CD which had been sent to us by a local promoter. It was called "The Greatest Compilation CD of All Time", which it was not. The lineup was impressive enough - Allman Brothers, Stealers Wheel, Otis Redding, Eddie Jefferson, Steely Dan. I popped the CD in and tuned up Lynrd Skynrd's 'Free Bird' for the next song.

'Free Bird' is a classic barn burner, an invigorating 10-minute experience inspiring involuntary crooning and wild dancing by anyone within earshot. But the version on this CD had been cut to five minutes, the frenetic finale completely left out. Joe Walsh's 'Life's been good' had suffered the same fate, gutted from its original eight-odd minutes to less than four.

The switchboard immediately lit up with complaining callers. They stopped only after I broke my usual on-air silence to announce the fate of that wretched CD. Like a frisbee, "The Greatest Compilation CD of All Time" flew into the night, landed silently in a snow-bank outside the studio window, and spent the rest of the frigid winter being steadily buried under the heavy Nebraska ice.

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