"I can't seriously imagine the music I love being really dangerous to anyone. And when you stop and think about it, asking rock and roll to save us from political repression or social oppression is asking too much of it. We have to undertake those tasks for ourselves. -- rock critic Robert Palmer, in Rock & Roll: An Unruly History
In North America and Europe, Palmer's thesis may be true to a great extent. But in today's Czech Republic, the government is well aware of how much it owes to the galvanizing influence of rock music. When President Vaclav Havel -- playwright, Frank Zappa fan, and politician, not necessarily in that order -- took office after the demise of communism, it marked the culmination of 20 years of struggle for human rights in a system that denied personal and creative expression. Havel was also fan and associate of the Plastic People of the Universe, the rock group that helped spur the formation of Charter 77, the human rights organization that was instrumental in fomenting dissidence in the former Czechoslovakia. If for that achievement only, the Plastic People did more than almost any other rock band to change the course of world history.
The PPU (as the band often abbreviate themselves) were not formed with the intent of creating political change. Merely daring to play creative rock music in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, however, was a political act in a state where music generated without an official seal of approval was tantamount to rebellion. For their artistic ambitions, the Plastics may have endured more harassment than almost any other rock band in history. Banned from public performance, they had to resort to giving their concerts in secret, or using weddings as excuses to air their songs in public. When they refused to cease playing their music, some of the members were beaten and jailed for their trouble.
An entire community of Czech dissidents sprung up around the band; the PPU and their fans were instrumental in keeping the flame of Czech artistic culture and political activism alive. All of which has tended to obscure their actual music, a spooky adaptation of the experiments of the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa, imbued with classical and Central European influences. The band fractured in the late 1980s over business and artistic differences. A reunification in January 1997 was right out of a script that even Hollywood would have rejected as too unbelievable, with Havel inviting the band to play at a party commemorating the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle -- the very location where the conferences of the Communist Party took place.
The Plastic People of the Universe evolved from the Primitives, Prague's first psychedelic group, just around the time that Soviet tanks invaded the city to crush the "Prague Spring." But according to bassist and founding member Milan Hlavsa, who would write much of the band's material, "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."
Jirous was an art historian who had been the "art director" of the Primitives, and did the same for the Plastics. He was instrumental in exposing the group to the jagged, satirical, and outrageously experimental rock of Captain Beefheart, the Fugs, and Frank Zappa -- artists that enjoyed relatively little media exposure even in the West. "Zappa was quite well known in Czechoslovakia at that time," points out Hlavsa, "perhaps thanks to his pervasive irony, which is the cornerstone of the Czech mentality." But Hlavsa had his personal epiphany upon discovering the debut album by yet another obscure, confrontational late-'60s band that wouldn't achieve international prominence until over ten years after their breakup: the Velvet Underground.
"The vogues of the days were Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles," explains Hlavsa, who came across the Velvets' "banana album" in 1967 while visiting a friend who was getting records from relatives abroad. "My friend Stevich and I 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. 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. Thanks to this encounter I did not throw my guitar in the dustbin...I really trusted [the Velvets] and I still do. I know what they did, they did from their heart without any calculations; I could immediately identify with their music.
"When Lou Reed was in Prague as a Rolling Stone reporter [in the 1990s], we threw a party for him, where Pulnoc [Hlavsa's post-PPU band] played. We recounted our story to him, which he had known in an outline. When we told him that had it not been for them in the 1960s, 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 U.S.A."
The Velvets influence extended to the PPU's live shows, in which they would employ psychedelic light shows, makeup, and outrageous costumes to create a multi-media happening not unlike the Velvets' early concerts as part of Andy Warhol's Plastic Inevitable. Like the Velvets, they also employed the unusual (for rock) feature of a viola player to give their music a shrill edge. It was too much for the Czech government, who revoked the band's professional license in early 1970. This was much more than an annoying technicality; the PPU could not earn money with their gigs or use state-owned instruments or rehearsal space.
"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," says Hlavsa. "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." For a time the group got around government regulations by providing the soundtrack to lectures by Jirous, who was still a member of the Union of Artists. Jirous would show slides of Andy Warhol; the Plastic People would "demonstrate" Velvet Underground songs as accompaniment. Actually these were PPU concerts, not lectures, with the slide show lasting ten minutes, and the music a couple of hours. But the authorities soon realized what was up and prohibited these events as well. Canadian English teacher Paul Wilson, who sang with the PPU during this time (partially because he could translate the lyrics of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa), once estimated that between 1970 and 1972, the band only played live about 15 times.
"Some of us went to work in forestry to earn new gear, which we built ourselves," recalls Hlavsa. "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 the 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."
The addition of saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec in the early '70s pushed the band more to the fringes of experimental art-rock, with avant-garde jazz and classical influences. By this time they began to sing only in Czech and play only original material. Some of this surfaced on Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned,recorded in a chateau of a friend around 1973-74, although it wasn't released (and then only available in the West) until 1977. Although the primitive technological conditions made them sound like a garage avant-rock band, the originality of their vision comes through in the creepy cheap electric piano, ominous violin scrapes, gravel-textured vocals, and dissonant melodies that owed as much to the recesses of the Bohemian forest as Western pop. In some ways, it was a fusion of the sensibilities of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa -- an ironic critical postulation, considering that the Velvets took mean-spirited swipes at Zappa on several occasions during interviews. Lyrics were supplied by Czech dissident poet Egon Bondy. PPU would record several more albums over the next dozen or so years, but Egon Bondy remains Hlavsa's personal favorite.
The PPU briefly regained their professional status around the time Egon Bondywas recorded. Two weeks later, it was just as suddenly revoked on the grounds that it was "morbid" and would have a "negative social impact." Over the next few years, the band would resort to playing announced shows in the Bohemian countryside. Often they found it easiest to play at weddings of friends, as these were considered private occasions rather than public functions; a divorced couple, according to a 1989 Optionarticle, actually agreed to get remarried just to provide the group with that all-too-precious gig. Locations of shows remained secret until one day before the performance. Information about how to get there was then spread via word of mouth among friends, requiring the audience to walk miles from the nearest train or bus station to remote barns or farmhouses deep in the forest.
This didn't prevent the police from finding about some of these events, beating fans with clubs at a March 1974 concert in Budovice at which the PPU never got to perform. This in turn instigated Music Festivals of the "Second Culture" (sometimes referred to as the "Other Culture") for the PPU and other underground bands. After the second of these festivals in 1976, police arrested numerous musicians and their friends, including all of the Plastic People. Over 100 fans were questioned by the authorities; the PPU's equipment, tapes, films, and notebooks were confiscated; Paul Wilson was expelled from the country. At their trial six months later, most of the arrested parties were released (partially in response to international protest), but four musicians earned prison sentences, including Brabanec and Jirous. The official indictment accused their lyrics of "extreme vulgarity with an anti-socialist and an anti-social impact, most of them extolling nihilism, decadence and clericalism." Brabanec, after some beatings and interrogations at the hands of the police, went into Canadian exile in the early 1980s.
In retrospect, the expulsion of Wilson may not have been the soundest strategic move the Czech government could have considered. Through diplomatic channels -- mostly secured, says Hlavsa, by Vaclav Havel -- recordings of the Plastic People were sent to Wilson in Canada, who arranged for the release of PPU material in North America and Europe. Havel, then a playwright, had met the PPU in 1976, when he and others launched a campaign in the group's support after their arrest.
That network of supporters soon evolved into the human rights organization Charter 77, Havel claiming that the PPU were defending "life's intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way." Havel would also let the band use his country home to record. "When our saxophone player Vrata Brabenec was forced into exile," adds Hlavsa, "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 Midnight Mouse. He himself didn't write anything, his contribution to the band was rather human than artistic."
Hlavsa is cautious not to attach undue significance to the Plastics' political influence. "Historians see the Plastics' arrest and sentence in direct relation to the origins of Charter 77. Of course I also see the relations, but only in that the trial brought together people concerned about the fate of our country. 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 we are only glad."
At the same time, Hlavsa states that "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 1970s 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."
Does it bother him that the Plastics are probably more renowned in the West for their political/cultural effects than their actual music? "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 know that our ambition was in no way political."
In the meantime, the PPU continued to make music, recording in private homes "in the kitchen tradition" with progressively better equipment. According to Hlavsa, "We didn't make most of the recordings, 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." Passion Play,one of the albums recorded at Havel's abode, was about Christ's crucifixion, a source of possible controversy anywhere in the world. Subsequent records found them getting -- well, not exactly slick, but certainly approaching a more standard sort of Western art-jazz-rock fusion. The band grew to eight people, with more winds and a second violin; the compositions, in Hlavsa's words, "were more sophisticated, with fewer improvisations." The albums, it should be noted, did not have huge followings even in the Western underground; they sold to small, extremely specialized audiences, the music (apart from the fact that it was sung in an unfamiliar language) being too difficult and challenging even for many adventurous rock listeners.
Hlavsa describes the scenario leading to the PPU's split: "PPU applied to take part in a 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 Plastics 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. 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."
Pulnoc was formed with a lineup including Hlavsa, violist Jiri Kabes, and keyboardist Josef Janicek, all of whom had played with PPU since the late '60s. Comments Hlavsa, "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."
However, "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."
1989 saw Pulnoc actually touring the United States; famed rock critic Robert Christgau was so impressed with a tape of a New York show that he made the cassette his #1 pick in a year-end Village Voicepoll. "The audiences reacted spontaneously and enjoyed themselves," remembers Hlavsa with pleasure. "Back home it often seems that 80% 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 playing 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."
Pulnoc recorded an album for Arista in the States, which although glossier than their live shows, drew some critical attention as a sort of modern-day take on the Velvet Underground's vision, particularly when Michaela Nemcova sang in a Nico-like drone. "The singer and the drummer announced they were leaving the band just after the release, which was a total shock both for Arista and our New York manager. Because the reviews were favorable and it all looked like a good start, another tour was contemplated. But the two also had 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."
In March 1997, Hlavsa was busy with a new band, Fiction; he is also working on a collection of cover versions of old PPU songs with a fellow Fiction member "with machines with no live instruments." And then there's a planned PPU tour that might, at long last, bring the group to the U.S., five longtime members intact. "Probably were it not for Vaclav Havel, it would never be possible to bring this band together again," admits Hlavsa. "I had fantastic feelings of the meeting in January and the brief [reunion at the Prague Castle]. 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. I believe if the PPU make it to the U.S.A., it would be of great satisfaction to me, and the U.S. public would take them without prejudice."
Thanks to Michal Stasa for translating the Milan Hlavsa interview.
By the Plastic People of the Universe:
Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned (1977, Bozi Mlyn). The first and most primitively recorded album by the group is still the fans' favorite, and a likely hit with those who want a grungier variation on the early Mothers of Invention. The PPU's entire output, constituting all of their albums and some unreleased material, is available on the 1992 Plastic People of the Universe box set (on Globus International). Only 1000 boxes were produced, and due to the experimental nature of much of the material, it can only be recommended to the heavily committed, but it's theoretically obtainable for those who want to immerse themselves in the Plastic People of the Universe's universe.
City of Hysteria(1991,
Though it's not the Plastic People, this has the virtue of being more
to most rock fans' ears and, as it was released on a major label, much
more easily available for purchase. Some hardcore collectors
the earthier Live at P.S. 122 tape that Robert Christgau
though connections in the rock collector network are necessary to find
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