Eurosonic in Groningen puts the spotlight on Poland. ‘Me, a living pop legend? Bullshit!’

Poland is the focus country at Eurosonic this year. Tomek Lipiński (68), a living legend in his own country, talks about 40 years of Polish pop music and his own role in it.

“A song of hope,” says Tomek Lipiński Jeszcze będzie przepięknie: ‘One day everything will be beautiful again.’ He wrote it in 1989 for his band Tilt, when the Iron Curtain was being torn down and chaos threatened. In the decades that followed, the song continued to resonate in Poland, especially in turbulent times.

His song was used during protests against the far-right PiS government and provided comfort during corona. “During the pandemic you saw the text on displays near highways, on buses, in shop windows, on balconies. Unbelievable. I didn’t get rich from music, but I consider this a real success. I’d rather have something like that than a villa with a guitar-shaped swimming pool.”

Lipiński is considered a living legend in his own country. “Bullshit,” he says, laughing. We meet at the Music Export Poland office in Warsaw. He just takes another sip of coffee. “But it sounds nice. Some of my songs have become evergreens. People still come to my concerts. What more could I wish for?”

Politically committed

He started out as a punk in the late 70s. “Punk was designed for people like me: without music training, mastering three or four chords. But we had something to say.” His music has always been politically committed, even under the communist regime. “With Tilt I first sang in English. That was contradictory at the time. And we stayed under the radar.”

He was not bothered by censorship at the time. “We played in student clubs. When we started the band Brygada Kryzys (‘Crisis Brigade’) in 1981, that changed because we recorded an album.” In Brygada Kryzys he combined punk with psychedelic music. For a while, an international breakthrough even seemed close.

“We had already signed a contract to play in Amsterdam and London was interested. But then General Jaruzelski did his thing and it was all over.” The communist party leader declared a state of emergency at the end of 1981 in response to Solidarność’s protests. The union was banned and Poland was ruled by a military junta.

“I was called up for the army and had to go into hiding,” says Lipiński. “My daughters were born and it took until 1986 before I got a passport. And even then it was still difficult to perform outside Poland.” He shrugs. “It wasn’t meant to be and life went on.”

Few true believers

In the early 1980s, a new language was created in Poland under communism, says Lipiński. “A twilight language whose meaning everyone understood, but which looked different on the surface. The censors realized it, but the communist system had few true believers. Most party members were opportunists.”

According to Lipiński, artists in Poland fared better than in the other satellite states of the Soviet Union, such as the GDR, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. “We had much more freedom: there was a large gray area in which we could do a lot without being bothered. If you didn’t speak openly and directly to the authorities, they left you alone.”

After the fall of communism everything changed. “We knew nothing about the free market economy. Everything was planned. Suddenly we were living in a different reality.” Lipiński, like everyone else, had to reinvent himself. “I started reading books about marketing and the music industry and wrote reports about the music market in Poland.”

Because the legal order had not been adapted to the new system, famous musicians from the West ignored Poland. “There are now more famous artists performing in Poland every month than in the first ten years after the fall of the Wall combined. Pirate publishing was legal as long as the international treaties were not signed.”

Crazy about money

Lipiński had high expectations of the capitalist system. “We had idealized it on this side of the Iron Curtain. But it turned out to be a disappointment. It was also difficult for myself as an artist. I’ve always been someone who made art for art’s sake, not for the money. I wanted to go my own way, but it turned out there was no one waiting for me.”

Yet he continued to develop as an artist. Through trial and error he found his way and grew into a pop legend. “It has given me a reasonable career in Poland. I can make a living from it and I am grateful for that. A lot of artists are so crazy about money these days. Bizarre. They really think that being a millionaire will make you happy.”

He knows that the business side is important. Lipiński started a union for musicians, was a board member of ZAiKS, the Polish BumaStemra, for many years and is vice-president of Music Export Poland. “Of course you need money, but if that becomes your main goal as an artist then you lose your heart.”