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Omega's Staying Power : Rock Group Keeps Beat in Hungary

September 05, 1987|CHARLES T. POWERS | Times Staff Writer

BALATONLELLE, Hungary — With about 2,000 slightly sunburned vacationers from Budapest looking on, Janos Kobor, lead singer of Omega, pranced onto the stage through a cloud of artificial smoke that swirled and billowed in the red and purple lights. He snapped the microphone cord, shook his mane of blond hair and growled the signature lines from the latest Omega album.

"The gates of darkness seldom open," he hissed, "on the dark side of the earth."

Despite Kobor's diabolic rasp and the sulfuric lighting effects, it seemed that much of the audience, as though jaded by too many expressions of vaguely focused gloom, was waiting for that point in the evening when the older, friendlier, familiar Omega, the Omega of the '60s and '70s, would re-emerge, and take them back from where they had come, more or less together.

Symbolized Protest

For 20 years, this five-member band--guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and singer--has been at or near the top of the pop music scene in Hungary and in much of Eastern Europe. They have played before thousands of fans in every country of the Soviet Bloc, at a time when rock music symbolized protest, much as it did in the West, and when it was far more potent as a political statement. In this geographical setting, where Soviet demonology once placed rock music near the top of its list of decadent Western influences, it was an activity much more fraught with risk and daring.

They have made 13 albums and sold millions of records in Europe, mainly in the East. They have traveled as far west as England, where they were once billed as "Red Star," a ray of light from "behind the Iron Curtain," and in West Germany, where their only experience of American audiences came from nightclubs full of American soldiers.

To their regret, they have never managed to make the difficult commercial transition to the West. Eleven years ago, an album released in America, "Sky Rover," sold about 60,000 copies and actually made it into the top 20 in St. Louis for about two weeks. That period, the middle to late '70s, seemed like Omega's big chance, but fleeting fame in St. Louis was as far as it went.

East European Fortune

What Omega's members have had in place of a Western fortune amounts to a kind of East European fortune.

They live comfortably, though not lavishly--certainly not by the pop-star standards of the West.

They have houses and cars that are no grander than those of solidly middle-class Americans. The band's amiable lead guitarist, Gyorgy Molnar, drives a 3-year-old Volvo and shares half of a large old house with his mother, girlfriend and daughter.

They are recognized, at least two or three of them, when they walk down the streets.

In public, they are careful to be on their best behavior. This seems to come without great effort, for all of them are easy-going, modest and accommodating to well-wishers and autograph-seekers.

They are also, by the description of knowledgeable figures in the pop music world of Hungary, thoroughgoing professionals and canny businessmen.

Anniversary Concerts

Their pictures are currently plastered all over Budapest on a poster advertising a pair of 25th anniversary concerts to be held this weekend at a city sports stadium.

The concerts may constitute a kind of unacknowledged valedictory for Omega, for their performances have grown increasingly rare over the last years. They have played only five concerts so far in 1987, compared to 200 dates a year through most of the 1970s.

The members of the band seem to sense, without directly saying so, that their greatest days are past, that pop music has evolved beyond their style, and the time has come to yield the stage to another generation.

Kobor and the keyboard player, Laszlo Benko, who started the band in their school days, are now 44. Molnar, 38, is the youngest. As Kobor says, it has been a long time since he was a young man sprinting through the streets of Budapest, "outrunning the cops who wanted to cut my hair."

Those days, in the '60s, were a time of deep political caution in Hungary, where memories of the 1956 uprising and its defeat by the Soviet army were much fresher. At the time of the Prague Spring of 1968, the liberalizing movement in Czechoslovakia--that was also squashed by Soviet tanks--Omega had found its audience at home, begun to push across the national borders and entertained the larger dreams of stardom.

'It Was Fun'

It was not easy, Molnar recalled, "but it was fun."

"No one would record us in those days," he continued. "We couldn't get a studio. The studio managers said they didn't have the equipment to record us, so our first albums were live performances (that) we recorded ourselves.

"It was a strange time. They (the authorities) were afraid of everything rock 'n' roll came from. Mostly, in the press, they didn't refer to rock 'n' roll. They would call it 'jazz-rock' or 'jazz.' 'Jazz' was the preferred term--anything but 'rock 'n' roll'."

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