Arriving in Hungary thirty years ago for a stay that lasted almost the entire month of June, I had many potential activities in mind, but perhaps the last thing I expected to do was attend a big pop/rock show at the soccer stadium (Nepstadion; since demolished) in Budapest.
But that’s exactly what happened, and for the whopping sum of $7.25.
For three decades, I’ve been grateful for the chance to see Genesis perform behind the Iron Curtain (June 18, 1987) and then later during my travels, witness U2 playing on the group’s home turf in Cork, Ireland (August 8).
What I didn’t know until moments ago is that U2 also played in Budapest while I was traveling in Hungary in 1987, on June 8, while I was reposing in the countryside.
SPOILER: Except it never actually happened.
Yes, Wikipedia lists the U2 Budapest tour date here and here, citing an off-line reference. I can find no other attribution anywhere else on the Internet, and as many refutations as you please, like here. It must have been ghosts. If a Wiki editor is reading, a correction is merited.
At the time, I was flummoxed to learn that Genesis was coming to Budapest.
Even in an era of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR … even in Communist Hungary, where there was a tad more freedom to maneuver amid the East Bloc’s subservience, and the term “Goulash Communism” was used to describe the Janos Kadar doctrine, “If You’re Not Against Us, You’re For Us” … even as Magyar reforms permitted small-scale private ownership, which made things slightly more tolerable for social classes that officially didn’t exist in Hungary … the typical Western stadium-sized musical extravaganza was a highly unlikely occurrence, if for no other reason than a completely incompatible cost structure.
In other words, if a ticket to an Invisible Touch tour date cost roughly $25 in Western Europe and the United States, how could Genesis afford to reduce ticket prices to an affordable level in a Communist country given the sheer cost of mounting such a stadium-sized spectacle?
Following is the list of verified “western” shows in Budapest’s Nepstadion between its construction in the 1950s and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
1965 – Louis Armstrong
1986 – Queen
1987 – Genesis
1988 – Human Rights concert: Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen
Apart from the immortal Satchmo’s peak Cold War appearance, which quite possibly was financed by the US State Department, there simply had to have been heavy subsidies to make the later concerts possible.
By extension, since Warsaw Pact currencies were essentially worthless, the subsidies surely would have taken the form of scarce hard currency — American, British or German, or at least some form of barter. Proximity to Vienna also was a plus, though this wouldn’t have mattered in places like Berlin.
That the Hungarian government was willing (and able) to negotiate such quality-of-life expenditures might well be regarded as a precursor of the end times, only two years down the road.
In 1987, Genesis was at the pinnacle of its 1980s pop phase, and while the group was almost ludicrously popular, perhaps it could have been “fashionable” only in a locale behind the Iron Curtain. It seems that Hungary was willing, Budapest was able, and Queen had broken the ice the previous year (see postscript below).
Genesis had Invisible Touch atop the charts, and the album was ubiquitous on the radio. It inadvertently became the soundtrack of my extended stay in Hungary. I’d packed a small portable radio and what I hoped were enough AA batteries to get me through the trip, intended for use in the radio and the Pentax flash.
In Sopron and Kőszeg, much of my evening hours were spent listening to a primarily German-language station called Radio Danubius, which I assumed originated in Austria. As it turns out, it was founded in Budapest in 1986.
Perhaps because Genesis was playing Hungary, Hungarian radio was playing Genesis. When I returned home and bought Invisible Touch, just about every song on the cassette (you read that right) was familiar.
On June 17, the day before, I took the subway to Nepstadion with the idea of surveying the landscape. I found dozens of Sealink trailers lined up on both sides of the “service” entrance, probably a hundred workers hard at it, and neither a gate nor security to prevent me from wandering inside the stadium and spending a leisurely hour watching the stage being built.
On the 18th, I met my new American friend Mike and we went to the show. At this late date, a review would be senseless, although it’s hard to argue with the brutally frank approach at Allmusic.
At the same time, I was (and remain) an unreconstructed fan of Genesis throughout the band’s evolving prog-to-pop career. The “pop era” Genesis took no chances and its stage show was formulaic; consequently, the group was savaged for doing exactly what successful show biz aggregations are supposed to do, which is give the public it’s money’s worth.
Genesis in Budapest wasn’t avant garde. The show eschewed edgy, but the natives seemed to enjoy it, and so did I. Here’s the song I’ll always associate with June 18, 1987.
Genesis itself has a measure of ambivalence about the song “Abacab,” off an earlier album and a staple of its 80s live performances. This version was filmed at Wembley Stadium in London two weeks after the appearance in Budapest.
At concert’s end, public transportation had concluded for the day, with the exception of unfathomable night buses. It would be a four-mile walk back to my accommodation on the Buda side of the Danube, and Mike accompanied me part of the way, eventually peeling off toward his digs in Pest.
Everything was closed, and I recall it being bizarrely quiet at the stroke of midnight along a major avenue in a large European capital city. Then I heard a rumbling sound echoing through deserted streets, and stepped behind a statue to take a break and see what was happening.
Promptly a Soviet Red Army motorized column rumbled past. The Cyrillic lettering on the tanks and support vehicles contrasted with Hungarian on the signs all around me. The column was gone fairly quickly, and I’ve always wondered what it meant, although the most likely answer is it was moving from one base to another through the city during the least busy time of day.
Land of confusion indeed. It’s always possible Phil Collins was more prescient than he’s been given credit for.
A DVD called “Hungarian Rhapsody: Queen Live in Budapest” was released in 2012. It grandly documents the very epitome of the now-discredited stadium rock genre, rewinding to the groundbreaking 1986 show at Budapest’s Nepstadion, when seemingly every movie camera in the entirety of Communist-era Hungary was assembled in one venue to capture the rare spectacle of a Western concert behind the Iron Curtain.
This film is an essential gem, capturing the late, lamented Freddie Mercury and his band mates at their post-Live Aid pinnacle, on what proved to be their final tour. Footage is interspersed of Queen behaving as tourists. For me, it’s a time capsule given that my visit to Budapest and the unexpected Genesis concert was only a year later.
As much as seeing Genesis meant to me at the time, after seeing the Queen film these many years later, I’d have chosen Queen because of Freddie Mercury. He was a one-off. Then again, so are we all.
Radio, someone still loves you.