40 Years On, Israel's Top Prog Rockers Rehash Their Heyday

Ahead of a tribute concert marking the anniversary of the release of ‘Nonames,’ the trio that made the album holds a bull session on the ‘anti’ that spurred them on.

Daniel Tchetchik

Musicians Shlomo Gronich, Shem-Tov Levi and Shlomo Ydov have not been seen together in some time, and they are so busy with their current projects that it was tough to get them together to talk about their progressive rock album “Nonames” before Thursday night’s tribute concert marking the 40th anniversary of its release in 1974.

“Nonames” — known, like the band that made it, as “Ktzat Aheret” (“A Little Different”) in Hebrew — is one of those rare albums that did not make a big splash when it was released but nonetheless left its mark on the Israeli music scene, enriching the local musical language and influencing generations of musicians in Israel.

Israelis listen to “Nonames” to this day. They have never stopped enjoying it and learning from it. Maybe that’s because the tracks on the album, which were written and recorded in a magnificent outburst of creativity, sound at least as fresh and brilliant today as they did 40 years ago.

On Thursday night, a group of musicians who grew up on the album — Alon Eder, Alon Lotringer, Salit Lahav, Tomer Bar and musical director Nadav Hollander of Haaretz’s Galleria section — will be performing the trio’s songs and instrumentals at Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv. The show will also include guest artists including Israel Aharoni (yes, the chef).

‘He sang like a nightingale’
With the first track, “Traveling,” playing in the background, Gronich, Levi and Ydov share memories of how “Nonames” got underway.

Gronich was the connecting link. In the two years before the album came out, he formed friendships and creative partnerships with Levi and Ydov. Gronich met Ydov when he served as the musical director of the Sinai army troupe, where he played guitar. They became friends and co-wrote some songs.

Gronich and Levi played Bach together then, and after playing their own instrumental works for one another, they formed a band, and Gronich brought in Ydov. “I remember being in shock the first time I heard him,” Levi says. “He has a lower voice today, but then he sang like a nightingale. He sang so beautifully and played classical guitar wonderfully.”

Gronich, the oldest of the three, is the only one who had left an imprint on the music scene by 1974, with his first solo album and then his album with Matti Caspi, “Behind the Sounds.” But he is also the only one who did not contribute a song that ultimately entered the Israeli musical canon, a feat accomplished by Levi’s “The Little Prince” and Ydov’s “Pink Sky.”

“That’s true,” says Gronich. “Most of the things I brought in were wild and instrumental. That’s what was inside me at that moment in that connection. But I don’t think it’s right to talk about a song by me or a song by Shemi or a song by Shlomo. Their songs were also my songs, and the other way around. That was the feeling. Just like that.”

That is a pretty important statement, and Levi and Ydov are quick to agree. “I usually have a tendency to be in total artistic control,” says Levi. “I do the arrangements and the orchestrations. But it wasn’t like that with ‘Nonames.’ Each one wrote his own parts, but the songs got their form in collaborative work. Everything happened in a melting pot as we played together.”

‘Outburst’ describes it best
The trio — which stayed together barely long enough to put out the album, breaking up in 1975 — worked quickly, says Gronich. The album “didn’t go through filters of deep thought,” he recalls. “Everything was emotional, friendly, creative, wild. So we’re sitting now and getting emotional about it.”

“I think ‘outburst’ is the word that describes it the best,” Ydov says. “Someone brings in a composition and the three of us swoop down on it, get to work on it. Everything happened very quickly. The whole album was recorded in 70 hours, including the mixes. There was something about that album, about that outburst that didn’t take anything into account, that was very foreign to everything that was going on Israel at the time.”

We listen to “Guru,” the second track. After Gronich, Levi and Ydov get into the Latin groove that moves the improvised section in the middle of the song, they go back to discussing the charming mix of Hebrew and English in the text. Besides the natural zigzagging between languages in the song, two of the album’s tracks, “Sweet Song” and “Spring,” are in English.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal today, but in 1974 almost nobody here sang in English. “The music in English was part of the experience. Multiculturalism was an essential part of our work,” says Gronich.

“I was writing only in English at the time,” says Ydov. “I didn’t connect to music in Hebrew. I didn’t like what was played on the radio.” His song “Pink Sky” starts like a song in English.

Why not in Hebrew?
“While we were working on ‘Nonames,’ I took part in the recordings of Arik Einstein’s song ‘Sa Le’at [Slow Down],’” Ydov recalls. “One day, I sang ‘Pink Sky’ in the studio. When Arik heard it, he said, ‘Very nice, but why don’t you do it in Hebrew? You’ve got Yehonatan [Geffen] here — play it for him, and he’ll write you lyrics in Hebrew.” And that’s what happened. Yehonatan Geffen wrote lyrics that had almost nothing in common with the original text.”

With words such as “antithesis,” “mad,” “outburst” and “wild” being bandied about, one cannot help but examine the album’s “204,” one of the wildest and most wonderful tracks in the history of Israeli progressive pop.

Without uttering a single word, it reflects the desire of Gronich, and to a lesser extent of Levi and Ydov, to break all the rules. The three of them listen to Gronich’s music (“It’s by all of us,” he would say, and with good reason), which has logic but also a kind of utter chaos.

As Levi listens to himself breathing and shouting into his flute, he says, “I could be totally inside that, with no embarrassment.”

Gronich adds: “There’s a kind of ‘anti’ in this music. That flame of rebellion, that crossing of boundaries — I remember it. There’s a lot of anger here, too. Don’t forget that the album was recorded shortly after the Yom Kippur War.” Gronich’s younger brother, Yaron, was killed in that war. Another brother, the violinist Ilan Gronich, plays on the album.

“In ‘204’ I hear a desire to disconnect, to run away,” Gronich says. “And actually, that’s what I did. I left ‘Ktzat Aheret’ unexpectedly. I even surprised myself. I suddenly announced that I was going to the United States. The flame of rebellion made me run off.”