Pop star Miro Žbirka, nicknamed Meky, is one of Slovakia’s and the Czech Republic’s best-known recording artists, still producing music after more than 30 years. In the 1980s he bumped Karel Gott off his perch as Czechoslovakia’s top singer and even had the opportunity to record in then-West Germany. Fans will no doubt be excited about this week’s release of Like a Hero – The Best of Miro, Žbirka’s re-mastering of his greatest hits a remarkable project which was first recorded in English in Germany in the ‘80s.
Not long ago, I caught up with Miro Žbirka and asked him for to tell me more about the CD.
“This is a very atypical project, one we worked on in the 80s in Germany. In those days that was a difficult thing to do: it was tough to get a passport and it was always a lot of trouble. In Germany, I could never be on TV or anything like that because you always needed permission. In the 80s I managed to record two albums in Germany and on this album there were a few German musicians involved, for example, the drummer from the group The Rattles, who I had known in the ‘60s, so it was very interesting. Or a guitarist who later worked on Violator with Depeche Mode, or David Roth, who is now working with Tokio Hotel. Most of the songs were recorded in the 1980s.”
One of the best-known songs on the album is the title track Like a Hero. Žbirka admits that production-wise the album has softer edges, but says that was the result of different factors. Above all, it was extraordinary for someone from Communist Czechoslovakia to be recording in West Germany in the 1980s, so it was easy to bow a little to certain pressure from the album’s producer.
“This is melodic stuff: I knew that it was very unusual to have a chance to be from Bratislava but to be recording in Hamburg. Just to have the chance to do it. It’s a great thing, an opportunity. The sound of course was much better and the musicians were great. One side of me says ‘Oh, this is too easy listening’ but another says ‘But it sounds really professional’. The sound is spot on.”
Singing in English presented no problems for the star: it was a language Miro had learned at home - his mother was from England. She had met his father during the war and later the two had moved to Bratislava.
“In those days there were only four English families living in Bratislava: it was very unusual. So, I was very lucky when I got my guitar for the first time because I could sing in English! Suddenly I had a lot of friends because of this and it helped me a lot and I think it was always key for my future. I don’t think I would otherwise have gotten involved in pop music. The language immediately got me into a band – Modus – when I was just sixteen. One of the reasons was that I was able to sing in English.”
An appreciation of the language made music being made in the 1960s even more accessible, and Žbirka, like most, was a huge fan of music coming out of Great Britain. To this day, for example, he remains a big fan of the Beatles.
“Well, it was more open even here. After the ‘60s things got far worse, but the ‘60s were much better. When Sgt. Pepper came out I think I was one of the first to have a copy. We were well-informed. When I was 12, I think I was 12 in 1964, the Beatles, and the Stones were new, and each new song was something like paradise for me. Each new song was something.”
His own rise as pop star came in the ‘70s and ‘80s: his first album with his band Modus was released in 1978. In 1982, he was voted Czechoslovakia’s best pop singer, winning the Golden Nightingale, long dominated by Karel Gott. That is something that Žbirka says he still gets asked about.
“I get asked because it was very unexpected: I was the first Slovak the first, first, FIRST! (laughs)… so I will be repeatedly asked about it. But I didn’t realise it was so important then. In those days I didn’t really care about something like the Golden Nightingale, I had other interests. But later I realised how important it was… for other people!”
Žbirka, instead, has always put stock in writing and performing first. One of the things we discussed – given he sings in both Slovak and English – is the overall importance of the lyrics.
“To be honest, for me the melody, the chords, the harmonies are a bit more important than the lyrics. Of course, if we talk about Bob Dylan it’s the reverse: for him it’s more important to talk about lyrics and the melody come second, I think. Form my point of view, I was always intrigued by melodies. Of course, I later realised that someone like McCartney often did the two together [right from the start] so sometimes that also works.”
But most of all, as a performer for more than 30 years, Žbirka says you have to keep things fun. That’s something which can suffer during the course of producing an album. For him, creativity is always about a return to the basics.
“I enjoy writing the songs, you know, you are alone there, just you and the piano or the guitar, trying to find the melody. It’s like being a boy all over again, trying to learn a few chords! It’s something very natural. Then, when you start thinking about the LP, and the company, and contracts and everything, it makes me nervous! Is it going to be successful, what has to be done, that makes me nervous! So the beginning is the best part of the process, when you don’t even realise that you’re writing a song.”
Like a Hero – the Best of Miro represents some of the very best of Žbirka‘s career. For longtime fans both here and abroad the album will almost certainly be a “must”.
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