The Czech avant-garde rock group the Plastic People of the Universe became a symbol of both artistic and political freedom in the Czech Republic. Simply to play their music was seen as an act of subversion by the authorities, resulting in police harassment and even some prison sentences. The network of supporters that formed around the band after the arrest of several members evolved into the human rights organization Charter 77. One of Charter 77's key members was playwright Vaclav Havel, future president of the Czech republic. In 1997, Havel invited the band to play in the Prague Castle, in the very place where the conferences of the Communist Party -- which was in power during the time of the Plastic People's greatest struggles -- had taken place.
Bassist and founding member Milan Hlavsa was interviewed by email about the band's volatile history in early 1997. The Plastic People of the Universe were indeed able to tour the United States in the late 1990s, but sadly Hlavsa died in early 2001.
When the Plastic People formed in 1968, what were the artistic and political intentions of the band?
The Plastic People emerged just as dozens and hundreds of other bands - we just loved rock'n'roll and wanted to be famous. We were too young to have a clear artistic ambition. All we did was pure intuition, no political notions or ambitions at all. Although the band was founded at the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, it had no influence on the origination of the band. We did not reflect the causes or effects of the invasion, we just took it as a harsh reality. Moreover, our friend Ivan Jirous and others, who were a little more familiar with politics, kept assuring us that things could not be the same for more than five years, and that we could outlast them even underwater. Well, they happened to miss out a couple of decades, but I think we did quite well underwater just the same.
In their early days, the Plastic People were influenced by artists such as Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, and Frank Zappa. With the possible exception of Zappa, these artists weren't even very well-known in the U.S. and Europe. What interested/attracted the Plastics to this sort of "underground" rock music, and how were the Plastics able to find and listen to their records in Czechoslovakia?
We learned about Captain Beefheart, the Fugs and Zappa from art historian Ivan Jirous, who had been the "art director" of the Primitives Group (precursors of the PPU), and later of the Plastics. The exposure to Velvet Underground was no less than fateful. It was some time in 1967, I was visiting a friend who was getting records from relatives abroad. The vogues of the day were Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, still the Beatles, and myself and my friend Stevich were a little frustrated because it increasingly dawned on us that we were unlikely ever to attain those qualities and somehow we didn't care. We were almost decided to finish with the band we had at the time. Fortunately I visited that friend of mine then, and I played that record in his home, which I found there, and I was totally, absolutely in trance. It was exactly what I could not find in other groups, and nothing else. It was raw, clear, transparent. Of course I understand that others may be attracted by something else, but I was simply struck, and thanks to this encounter I did not throw my guitar into a dustbin.
Almost no Western records were retailed in Czechoslovakia in the 1960's and 1970's, but people had friends and relatives abroad to ask for records, and these were copied on tapes and recopied endlessly. Exchanges developed later in the 1970's to swap, buy and sell vinyl records, so we weren't complete Neaderthalers. Velvet Underground stunned me so that the first numbers we as the newborn PPU began to rehearse a year later were naturally VU: almost all the songs from their first album, I think except the "European Son." Later, as more VU albums appeared, we tried and rehearsed more of their songs and of course we also played our own numbers. As for Captain Beefheart, we heard them for the first time some time in late 1969 or early 1970, it was the Mirror Man album, and I liked it for its unsophisticated coarseness. But was something different, with moree jazz elements and long ad libs, which I didn't really enjoy, although a few years later the Plastics also had them in their stuff. Frank Zappa was quite well-known in Czechoslovakia at that time (perhaps thanks to his pervasive irony, which is the cornerstone of the Czech mentality), his album Freak Out was also excellent, but I didn't follow his later productions so keenly; I just remember Lumpy Gravy. I was more intent on listening to Beefheart's later creations: Trout Mask Replica was excellent, and others, though none of these really appealed to me as much as Velvet Underground; I enjoyed the listening, but that's all I can say.
When Lou Reed was in Prague as a Rolling Stone reporter, we threw a party for him, where Pulnoc played. We recounted our story to him, which he had known in an outline, and when we told him that had it not been for them in the 1960's, our band would never exist, he was very impressed and said that in all likelihood Velvet Underground had been much better known in Prague then than in the USA.
Based on the recordings available, the Plastics developed a sound that was quite original and separate from their influences. How did this sound develop, and how would you say it was different from the rock that was popular in the West?
I don't know if the PPU sound was unique in any way, it wasn't our purpose, but it was perhaps in the instrumentation and to some extent our lack of playing skills, because we never thought we were any kind of virtuosi and we didn't really care, we were rather concerned about what was going on, simply rock'n'roll wasn't just music to us but kind of life itself. I don't think our sound was too different, anyhow we never wanted deliberately to be like any band, we simply did our things and they came out as they did. The difference in the PPU sound is a problem for a musicologist and that isn't much of my business. Today I often watch with horror how new nascent bands try to find their image according to hit charts, one trying to play like Nirvana, another like that one and very few are genuine, at least here. It is probably difficult to invent anything new in rock'n'roll, all seems to be said and the question is if you can trust what you hear or not. One more thing about Velvet Underground: I really trusted them and I still do and I know what they did they did from their heart without any calculations; I could immediately identify with their music.
Quite soon after the Plastics formed, they lost their professional license, and were only able to perform in semi-secret conditions. How do you think this affected the music of the band?
PPU were stripped of their professional licence after about two years of playing and we faced the choice of either meeting the conditions of the "sociopolitical consolidation"set by the then establishment, which also applied to rock'n'roll bands, or sinking among amateur groups. We never saw ourselves as musicians in the proper sense, so we had no problem to say farewell to full time playing, although it had some somber consequences: we lost probably the sound system in Prague at that time, which the official music agency had bought for us. What we did was that some of us went to work in forestry to earn for a new gear, which we built ourselves then. But these things didn't affect our music at all. We never resorted to vent our frustration in our songs and decry the regime which used this indirect way to crush us underfoot. For several years we played not in underground but as an amateur group under the franchise of various associations (soccer clubs, voluntary firemen), which sponsored a concert every now and then. We weren't forced underground until 1976, when the memorable trial was staged against the band and our friends.
What sorts of messages and moods were you trying to convey with your compositions for the Plastic People?
Oh God, what kind of message... I was never one who wants to convey any kind of message to anyone or address anyone, I simply made music like I felt, what came to my mind, I usually composed music to lyrics and tried my best to express what went on in me when I had read the lyrics but I was definitely far from trying to mentor, or force my notions of the universe on anyone, definitely not that. Of course I was glad to see some people enjoyed it.
What were your favorite Plastic People recordings, and why?
I discard everything I finish and never pay much attention to it any more, and I always believe what I am doing now is the best, but if I should tell a name, it was probably the first album Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Band. Of the later ones perhaps The Passion, but as I say I reset things once I complete them and don't return to them.
Under what conditions were the Plastic People Records usually recorded?
We didn't make most of the recordings, especially in the early years, with the prospect of a later album but just for the pleasure of ourselves and a few friends, and that explains their technical quality. The first album was recorded in chateau Houska, and the following ones in households. The Passion was recorded in Vaclav Havel's cottage, Hradecek, where we had a better gear, lent altruistically by Martin Kratochvil, a noted jazzman, God bless him for that. After that the recording business returned to the kitchen tradition. Later we got some instruments and speaker system from the US and UK, which improved our sound; we even got a sound mixing system, so we did as much as we could.
The technology used to record much of the Plastic People material was fairly primitive compared to what was used in the West. Was this a source of frustration for the band, and if so, why?
We were definitely not frustrated by not having a perfect gear, we played with what we had and tried to get the best equipment we could.Our situation was best commented by our guitar player at the time, Jiri Stevich, who once quipped: "You know, McLaughlin can play allright, he had a Golden Fender next to his cradle as soon as he was born." Our feelings were nothing like frustration.
What would you say was the significance of the Music Festivals for the Second Culture, and what did the Plastics contribute to these?
In the marasmus of "consolidation"and "normalization", our community, which was, probably imprecisely, referred to as "underground" was a pocket of normal life, communication and joy of living (to be a little grandiloquent for a while). Had it not been for the PPU, there would have probably been no Festivals of the Other Culture. The Bolsheviks' heavy hand was felt in all walks of life in the 1970's and a certain community began to form around the band. People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts, though their music preferences were not necessarily similar, but music wasn't as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while. I don't know if anything like that would be possible had the PPU not existed then.
How did the band come into contact with Vaclav Havel, and what kind of effect did his lyrical contributions have on the band's material?
The Plastics met Vaclav Havel in 1976, when he, together with Jiri Nemec, Dana Nemcova and others, launched a campaign in our support after we had been arrested. When we were set free we met quite naturally, talked about things, he invited us to Hradecek, decided to stage the Second Festival of the Other Culture there, and our friendship simply flourished. Passion plays were staged at Hradecek, and we recorded two albums there, Passion Plays and Cattle Slaughter. When our saxophone player Vrata Brabenec was forced into exile, we lost our only songwriter, so we asked Vaclav Havel if he could produce lyrics for the next album, and he selected the material for the Midnight Mouse. He himself didn't write anything, his contribution to the band was rather human than artistic.
How did the Plastics recordings come to get released in the West, and to what extent was the band aware of their reception here?
Our recordings travelled abroad mostly via diplomatic channels, and there were mostly secured by Vaclav Havel. All the tapes went to one destination in Canada, where our old-time friend and former Plastics' singer Paul Wilson lived after he was forced to leave Czechoslovakia. The first thing he did was that he arranged the release of the first PPU album in England, in cooperation with some English and French people. It was somewhat peculiar that when he was getting together people willing to take part in the venture, he also asked the manager of the Sex Pistols, who allegedly replied that we wouldn't support fascist bands. Paul then went back to Canada and founded a small label called the God's Mill, where all our later albums were released. God bless him for that, too.
What would you say were the most significant ways the band's music changed between the early 1970s and mid-1980s?
It is difficult to say, but some differences are obvious, especially on the Passion Plays and the Leading Horses. This is probably due to what is listening at the time and I may have been listening to much to classical music at that time, but I can't tell why and what brought the changes about. It was probably also due to the instrumentation, the band grew to eight people, we had more winds and a second violin, the compositions were more sophisticated, with fewer improvisations, but I am no musicologist to describe the development precisely.
What kind of effect do you think the band's music and political troubles with the authorities had on the formation of Chapter 77, and the eventual demise of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia?
Historians see the Plastics' arrest and sentence in direct relation to the origins of Charter 77, and historians are known to make few mistakes. Of course I also see the relations, but only in that the trial brought together people concerned about the fate of our country, so Vaclav Havel was the engine of the efforts. The band itself had no political ambition and we did not intend to destroy Communism by our music, but if we helped it we are only glad.
Many people know the Plastic People not because of their music, but because of their political significance. Does it bother you that the actual music of the band is not as well known as their cultural activities?
I believe it is totally alright, because the band became known, especially abroad, only after our arrest and trial. If anyone in this context wanted moreover to know what kind of music we did, all the better, if not, also good, why bother. But people should probably know that our ambition was in no way political.
What were the reasons that Pulnoc was formed in the 1980s?
PPU applied to take part in rock festival in 1987. It looked quite promising and there was good hope that the Plastics could be back on the stage. But the secret police exerted maximum efforts a week before the festival concert and twisted the organizers' hands, and the band was not admitted to the hall at all. A few weeks later we got a proposal from a club in Brno on condition that the name of the band would not appear on posters, and only "a group from Prague" would be advertised. Some Plastic opposed it and would not appear on such conditions. I was frustrated I felt the situation was getting ripe to start pushing more and more, and in the face of my fellows' reluctance I decided to found a new band and I made it clear that the other band members could keep the name PPU. I also said some bad words in those agitated days, which I regretted later and I hate to remember them. However, Pulnoc emerged a year later and was joined by keyboard player Josef Janicek and guitar/violist Jiri Kabes, who had been stable PPU members since late 1960's.
What were the main ways the music of Pulnoc was different from the music of the Plastic People?
Pulnoc music was evidently different in several respects. First and foremost, the female voice, something unheard of in the PPU history. I felt it somewhat interesting for a rock'n'roll band to use a female voice to some extent. I like Nico, Laurie Anderson or Marianne Faithfull, and I simply felt the urge to let the feeling come true. The guitar was also back after some time, and all told, the Pulnoc stuff was more aggressive, more rock than the Plastics' last creations.
Some former members of the Plastic People seemed bothered by the formation of Pulnoc. What were the reasons for this?
Not only some PPU members were upset by the emergence of Pulnoc, but also many PPU fans. I understand their feelings to some extent, or, to be more accurate, I sympathize but fail to understand it. The greatest indignation and bitterness came from exiles, to whom the PPU were a symbol of resistance, and they saw Pulnoc as a betrayal of the ideal. But as I said, I didn't want to destroy the Plastics and I hoped someone else could take the relay, which simply didn't happen. I resented such feelings of people I liked, but there was also the majority who accepted Pulnoc and liked it.
Were you pleased or not with the album that Pulnoc recorded in the United States?
Of course I was happy with the album and it was a great experience. We as the band were in a studio for the first time, and what a studio at that! We met a fantastic man there, producer Bob Musso, and we had never experienced anything like Arista's approach to us. One could perhaps criticise lots of things on the album, but we simply did our best. Also the Pulnoc tour was excellent, I had lots of impressions and they're things one can't forget. The audiences reacted spontaneously and enjoyed themselves. (Back home it often seems that 80 per cent of the audience are music critics who only look for flaws.) We brought back some fine stories: a man came to us in Seattle and said he only knew Pulnoc and Dvorak of Czech music, and both are excellent! Another fine moment was our paying at the post mortem opening of Andy Warhol's exhibition in Paris. Lou Reed with John Cale did the Songs for Drella there and because Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker were also there, they agreed to play "Heroin." That was one of the moments when one knows life's worth living.
Is Pulnoc still performing, and if so, what are their current activities?
Pulnoc wound up about two years after the release of the City of Hysteria, but this was preceded by some important events. The singer and the drummer announced they leaving the band just after the release, which was a total shock both for Arista and our New York manager, because the reviews were favourable and it all looked like a good start, another tour was contemplated. But the two had also personal reasons. We recruited a new drummer and singer, they were not bad at all but Pulnoc had lost its drive and charge. We still played in Bohemia for a year or two until we realized at one point that it was high time to split. So Pulnoc may not be a closed book, but it sure is a finished chapter.
Jan told me that you are now working on different versions of Plastic People material in the studio. Could you describe these briefly?
About two years ago s fellow from my present band Fiction told me he had a strong desire to record for himself cover versions of the old Plastic songs from the early period and I paid no attention to it at first, it seemed a bit wild, he wanted to do it all with machines with no live instruments, but he brought me a demo last year and I was so delighted and charmed because the sound he managed to make is I believe brilliant and the songs got a completely different dimension. We call it unofficially Digital Underground and I think it may not be a bad memory of the Plastics.
What are your other current musical activities?
Today's activities are first of all cover versions of the PPU, my home band Fiction, which has made three CD's and as things took an unexpected turn last January, as soon as the cover versions are finished, I will have to reduce all activities and starting in August, I will have work full time on the planned PPU tour, which is indeed an exceptional thing and probably were it not for Vaclav Havel, it would never be possible to bring this band together again. I am really looking forward to it and I had fantastic feelings of the meeting in January and the brief playing, and especially the problems we all carried inside, which had mounted in a few years because we didn't communicate with each other (at least I occasionally talked various rubbish about the band and in fact tried to burn all bridges behind me), were forgotten and I was kind of embarrassed by the meeting and the fact that I didn't have to explain anything, so I am looking forward do the tour very strongly. I hope our fans' heart will jump of joy, too.
I believe if the PPU make it to the USA, it would be of great satisfaction to me, and the US public would take them without prejudice.
Translation: Michal Stasa
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