From Margins to Mainstream

A retrospective look at the belated but immutable movement of local pop and rock music toward center stage in Israel in the 1960s and '70s.

"Who says that Israel is lagging behind new trends in the international world of beat? Israel today is quite a power on the map of world pop. We have state-of-the-art recording studios, local labels distribute the finest international hits, our hit parade keeps up with the hottest new releases in the world, and - most importantly - we have bands of our own." So declared the now-defunct magazine Ha'olam Hazeh in June 1969.

But a quick glance at our pop-music charts back then nevertheless suggests quite a gap between developments in the United States and musical tastes in Israel. While the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Monkeys were dominating world hit parades - the top spot in Israel went to the entertainment troupe of the Armored Brigade.

This gap was, incidentally, the focus of an episode about the country's early bands in the 1998 TV documentary series "Sof Onat Hatapuzim," edited and presented by music maven Yoav Kutner, on the history of Israeli rock 'n roll. [The title of this series, along with the names of many of the bands and clubs mentioned here, has no formal English translation.] According to Kutner's show, the national euphoria following the 1967 Six-Day War raised the status of the Israel Defense Forces' performing groups, which produced a steady stream of songs about victory, bereavement and loss. These troupes enjoyed both resources and substantial exposure.

"Rock bands were considered loathsome," musician Gary Eckstein is quoted as saying in the show; at the time, he was a member of the Hakochavim Hakechulim band. "We had to search for materials using BBC broadcasts at night."

The alternative music scene in those days was centered in Ramle. The mixed Jewish-Arab city between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem gave rise to an increasing number of rock groups, and this phenomenon, while marginal, caught the attention of the local papers. Haaretz Magazine ran a big story on the Ramle bands, stating, for example that, in the city with "the best steaks and ice cream in the city, and also the best pot - seven liras per 10 grams," groups with names like Hasha'aftanim, Ha'apachim, Hakochavim and Tziporey Ha'esh competed for the affections of young fans.

For their part, locals were pleased with the phenomenon, if only because it meant that the place of drug dealers in the spotlight was now taken by rock stars like Ringo Starr. Indeed, the Hakarish club was packed with hundreds of youths, the Calypso Club displayed life-size portraits of the Beatles, and a local hair salon that stayed open late advertised last-minute shaves for dandies heading out to the dance floor.

Jaffa in those days had the Haraki'a Hashvi'i club, in Tel Aviv it was Ima Hamitgalachat, and in Rishon Letzion - Don Camillo. All of them hosted local rock groups. When Hakochavim performed at Beit Hahayal (auditorium) in Tel Aviv, hundreds of youths broke down the door, and five police cars rushed to the scene to restore order.

While local rock groups were coming into their own, the United States and Europe were experiencing social upheaval that led to the advent of political music. The formative events at the time included the student demonstrations of 1968, the antiwar march to Washington D.C., the assassination of Martin Luther King and the Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, which included three accidental deaths and one murder.

Prof. Motti Regev, of the Open University, an expert in popular music, says that Israel was not considerably behind world events in this realm (the Woodstock album and the film about the landmark 1969 festival came to Israel at the same time as in countries such as Holland, Denmark or Argentina). But, he adds, rock culture - in the social and political sense of the term - was still nowhere in sight on these shores.

"Years later, that moment was canonized. But at the time, it was a matter for refined connoisseurs with a cosmopolitan view," he notes. "There was a social network of musicians who created and dismantled bands. The central places were Ramle, Hamasger Street in Tel Aviv and Bat Yam."

Rising stars

Among other rising stars back then were Hashokolada (with Zvika Pik and Gabi Shushan) and Kovshey Haketzev (with Eckstein and Boaz Sharabi, on drums). Haravakim brought pop music to Be'er Sheva; one of its members was composer and arranger Ilan Wirtzberg (who has worked with Nurit Galron, Chava Alberstein, Eran Tzur and the Witches).

"[In clubs] on Hamasger Street they used to play Joe Cocker and Janis Joplin," recalls political commentator and literary critic Prof. Nissim Calderon of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "This music trickled in, but it was considered utterly on the fringe. The mainstream did not accept it until Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch began to internalize those energies. We were busy developing an ethos of local music."

In 1969 Hanoch, who was then mainly working as part of the Hashlosharim band, was quoted in Ha'olam Hazeh as saying: "I have nothing to learn from the standard music of most Israeli songwriters. So I do one of two things: either go back to the music of 30 and 40 years ago, or try to get a hold of, and then move past, the music of our time."

Greek-born singer Aris San also tried to bring an ethos different than that of the army troupes to center stage in Israel. In 1969 he worked on "Mazal Dagim," a musical about a love story in the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of the Jaffa port.

Still, five of the 10 songs on the charts that May were written by Nurit Hirsh and Ehud Manor. Johnny Cash recorded an album devoted to the new world power, Israel, with tracks such as "Come to the Wailing Wall" and "Land of Israel."

Local groups such as the Lions and the Churchills began to record original material after playing cover versions of popular hits and Sanremo Music Festival songs, as well as Greek music at local clubs. They also went on tour abroad (The Lions were especially successful with the song "Our Love's a Growing Thing").

Volunteers who came from all over the world during those years to work on kibbutzim contributed to the rise of pop music, as they brought with them considerable knowledge of the scene abroad. Some soon began to write songs for local groups, some of which used to sing in English (although often the result sounded like gibberish).

"It was not real underground music," Stan Solomon of the Churchills, who initially performed in English, said in the late '60s. "Its depth is only a few centimeters below the surface of the ground. We deliberately thought we'd start out with somewhat less complex, more commercial music, to help song lovers in Israel enter the intricate pathways to underground music. If it were up to me, I'd go into the studio and play one whole segment for 20 minutes without stopping, but our audience would not yet be able to understand that kind of music."

Meanwhile, teen magazine Maariv Lano'ar reported at length about the moon landing, the Woodstock Festival and violence among American teenagers and protests against the war in Vietnam. In Israel, a band called the Revolver recorded a song on the latter subject, entitled "Ta'er le'etzmecha" ("Imagine").

The members of the Hagar troupe were also inspired by the antiwar theme: "For a long time they've felt a deep emotional need to do something for peace, but did not know what it was," Hao'lam Hazeh reported sarcastically. "So they thought and thought until they came up with an idea, and they invited all of Israel's artists to record a Hebrew version of John and Yoko's ballad 'Give Peace a Chance.' Because as we know, artists have been the torchbearers of peace since the days of Aristophanes. Who wasn't there? Yafa Yarkoni and Yehoram Gaon. All the others came. To get into the atmosphere of peace and brotherhood, they all drank whiskey, and Uri Zohar said that in Canada, too, artists recorded 'Give Peace a Chance.' Yossi Banai said, 'Yes, but there they got paid.'"

The first Israeli rock music festival featured dozens of bands from all over the country, following auditions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Hakochavim Hakechulim won first prize. Participants included the Mosquitoes, whose members were all students at the Armenian monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Blooms, an Arab band from Ramallah. Pa'amoney Sony from Jerusalem won corporate sponsorship from Sony, Hashokolada was there and Hamahapecha (previously known as the Teddy Boys) came in from Haifa. Five thousand people attended the festival, where a Vespa scooter was raffled off and the winner of the go-go girl competition, Hannah Yifrach, graced the audience with her presence.

The year 1970 saw two musicals produced in Israel: "Hair" (which featured music by Hashokolada) and Hanoch Levin's controversial "Queen of the Bathtub" (with music by Zohar Levy, who two years later founded the group Acharit Hayamin, featuring Tiki Dayan). Political rock music, it seemed, was no longer such a distant dream. The Lions recorded their first Hebrew song , and from within the popular Nahal paramilitary brigade's performing troupe, the band that would become Kaveret was beginning to take shape. Rock culture moved definitively from the margins to the center when Arik Einstein joined the Churchills. Einstein's groundbreaking album "Puzi," which was made with them, pushed the Churchills into the mainstream. Noam Sharif even invited them to perform Bach at the Philharmonic.

"'Puzi,'" Calderon declares today, "was a more formative event in Israel than Woodstock."