Chapter 4: Behind the Iron Curtain
Throughout the summer of 1969, the band continued playing the London clubs like the Speakeasy and the Revolution. These were late-night, members-only clubs – regular haunts for musicians and music business folk. Cressida, along with groups such as Mott the Hoople, East of Eden, Man, Ashton Gardner & Dyke, and Barclay James Harvest appeared regularly at these venues, playing for fellow musicians and record company executives who would drop in.
Iain: “We often used to go down to “the Speak” around midnight. It was the place to hang out after a gig or recording session and see whoever was booked that night. Terrific jam sessions often materialised – Jimi Hendrix had really started pushing that scene. Occasionally, you would see the likes of Steve Winwood, George Harrison, Keith Moon, Eric Burdon, or Hendrix get up on stage at the end of an evening and play together. The Speakeasy was good music and good fun: quite the spot to see and be seen at the time.”
On stage at the Speakeasy
Cressida played the Marquee on several occasions in 1969 and one night in August a young couple came backstage after the gig and asked the band if they would consider playing in Czechoslovakia. Cressida received the couple’s suggestion with understandable scepticism because Czechoslovakia in those days was still part of the Soviet Bloc and hardly a regular tour stop for bands from the West. To the band’s amazement, a letter arrived a month later inviting them to play at the Slovak Beat Festival in Bratislava on November 15th. The band flew to Bratislava a few days before the festival to discover they were topping a bill otherwise comprised exclusively of bands from Eastern Europe. The festival was sponsored by the state authorities and broadcast live on TV around the communist bloc.
Kevin: “I never really worried about the Communist thing; the festival was another opportunity to travel abroad and have all the expenses covered. I thought it was great!”
Slovak Beat was held in a huge modern concert hall, and a remarkable incident occurred before the gig. The band were all standing around in the huge concourse at the front of the building. Kevin sat down on the floor to rest when suddenly a heavily armed policeman appeared and ordered him to stand up. Kevin refused and the policeman continued to remonstrate with him, attracting the attention of several bystanders. Before the confrontation could escalate further, the other (mostly young) people began to sit on the floor and within seconds almost everyone in the concourse had sat down in a spontaneous gesture of solidarity. This daring and provocative development took the policeman by surprise and he left the scene quickly, at which point everyone stood up and carried on as before!
Kevin: “We were paid in Czech currency, which was worth nothing in the West. It had to be spent in special stores set up solely for visitors. I recall Ossie and Iain buying crystal glass to take home.”
Iain: “It was an eye-opening trip, and one of the most remarkable experiences of my life up to that point. Czechoslovakia had been invaded by the Russians in August ‘68 and as we flew in to Bratislava we could see Russian tanks lined up in forest clearings outside the city. We spent a lot of our free time hanging out with students from the university. They obviously loved rock music, but records from the West were banned. They seemed very grateful we had made the trip. Although I was interested in talking with the students about the Communist occupation, they were clearly uncomfortable and said it was dangerous to speak openly about the political situation. Several said ‘the walls have ears’, and that they knew of fellow students who had been taken away and never seen again. The whole trip was memorable, not only for the gig itself, which was pretty extraordinary, but because it was my first visit behind the Iron Curtain.”
Although any recording of the TV broadcast is unlikely to still exist, a remarkable record of the event turned up over 40 years later in 2017 when the only known photograph of Cressida on stage at the festival suddenly appeared on Facebook, posted by the photographer, Peter Prochazka Stanley.