Dark Fairy Tales

At 25, Classic Israeli Rock Album Is Still Fresh

Ahead of tribute to Fortis/Sakharov album, principals recall its genesis.

The wonderful, influential album "Sipurim Mehakufsa" ("Tales From the Box") came out in the winter of 1988, and 25 years later it still sounds great. It documents the fascinating junction at which the baggage that Israeli musicians Rami Fortis and Berry Sakharov accumulated during their years in the band Minimal Compact was funneled into a new creative channel, using an old/new language. The album also remains a landmark in Israeli rock music, particularly with regard to the dynamic between the margins and the center.

What's interesting to learn from conversations with people involved in making "Sipurim Mehakufsa" is that the album unveiled itself relatively slowly, through a series of events spread over a year that had a cumulative effect.

"Sipurim Mehakufsa" was written just as Minimal Compact, the band that also included Samy Birnbach, Malka Spigel and Max Franken, was breathing its last. But the desire to make a new album in Hebrew had begun to nest within Fortis before that. He enjoyed playing with Minimal and in many ways was pleased with his role as its guitarist and second vocalist. But at the same time he wanted to express himself, and he felt he wasn't accomplishing this in the band.

He had already made an album in Hebrew, "Plonter" ("Tangle"), but so much time had passed since then and the work with Minimal was so intense that Fortis thought that he would never make another one. Yet during Minimal's final year, songs in Hebrew began to emerge. Most of them he wrote in front of the television in Belgium, where he and Sakharof lived, and which had started cable broadcasting with its dozens of channels, a development that fascinated him. Other songs were written during Minimal's last concert tour.

Fortis was absorbing all the information shooting out from his TV set - the first indications that the Eastern Bloc was collapsing, the clips of Israeli soldiers chasing Palestinian kids during the first intifada - but what came out in response to all this were songs that sounded like dark fairy tales. The world they portrayed was very different from the real world; it was populated by children, toys, and lots of animals. People were in the background, but in some cases they were totally faceless.

Only toward the end of the album, during the last two songs, "Leipzig, Barcelona" and "Between the Rooms," does Fortis move into a relatively straightforward description of loneliness and alienation (but also of hope and belief in himself). Up to that point, in the majority of songs on the album the listener finds himself most of the time in an enigmatic, dreamlike image, governed by a type of poisoned, disturbing quiet.

In early 1988, when Fortis was in Israel for a reunion performance of the band Jean Conflict, producer Nitzan Zeira suggested he record an album in Hebrew and release it through NaNa Disc, the independent record label he was launching. Fortis accepted the offer, and in the summer of 1988 he and Sakharov came to Israel to record. They were not interested in a band. They needed a rest from the band experience after Minimal's emotional disintegration. Artistically, they were also interested in doing more electronic recording, with a drum machine instead of a drummer and a lot of synthesizers and computer sampling.

Low expectations

They had no clue that they were recording an album that would change the course of their lives and influence a generation of Israeli musicians. They came to Israel, recorded 10 songs and went back to Brussels without too many expectations or plans. This mindset is actually reflected in the sound on "Sipurim Mehakufsa." It doesn't sound like a huge album. The sound is rather thin and at times seems to have a sketchy quality about it. It's also clear that Fortis and Sakharov were no experts in the use of computers and synthesizers. But when a song is great - and most of the album's songs are - it doesn't matter. It wasn't meant to be an angry, crazy or in-your-face album. It wasn't high-energy.

As a result, "Sipurim Mehakufsa" was not immediately embraced in Israel. People who weren't into the new-wave aesthetics thought the sound somewhat alien and strange. Zeira thinks that during the first months after its release, the album sold some 3,000 copies.

The first performances of "Sipurim Mehakufsa" took place in the Zman Amiti club in Tel Aviv in December 1988. Two thousand tickets were sold for all three performances together, which Zeira describes as a big success. But the real breakthrough by the pair into the mainstream of Israeli music came nearly a year after "Sipurim Mehakufsa" was released. In the summer of 1989, they released two new singles for the radio - "Blue Dream" and "Fox on the Run" - and in contrast to the songs on "Sipurim Mehakufsa," both were huge hits.

"That's when the hysteria began," says Zeira. "Suddenly 'Sipurim' reached 20,000 [in sales]. People ran to buy the album because they were certain that these two songs were on it. The record stores started to call to tell us that people were complaining that they weren't on the album," he says, laughing.

The Israeli public's response to their songs, which received final confirmation at the 1989 Arad Festival, persuaded the two to return to Israel. When Zeira is asked how many albums "Sipurim Mehakufsa" has sold to date, he estimates between 40,000 and 50,000. "But what's important is not how many it sold," he says. "There was something there - sound, substance, the content of the songs."

"Sipurim Mehakufsa" continues to be relevant a quarter-century later. To mark the breakthrough album's 25th anniversary, there will be a tribute performance to the album at the Ozen Bar club it Tel Aviv on Thursday night. The young rock band Lili Franco will perform all the album's songs, and will host Roei Freilich, Eliot, Django, Elisha Banai, Ami Shalev (the former Monotonix soloist), Merav Feldman and the broadcasters from 102 FM Harel Slutzki and Ofer Domingez. The salute to "Sipurim Mehakufsa" could not be more justified.

Malka Spigel