Central & Eastern Europe / History / Music / Popular Culture

Subversive Soundtracks

Forty years ago members of Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe were put on trial for playing music that the country’s communist rulers didn’t like the sound of. The case led directly to the foundation of Charter 77, the human rights movement that provided the impetus for the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Plastic People of the Universe, circa 1974. Vocalist Milan ‘Mejla’ Hlavsa is the one in the middle with glass raised.

The Plastic People started their career in 1968, several weeks after Soviet tanks had put an end to the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. It was hardly the best time to form a rock band.

The annals of Rock and Roll are full of people who set out to change the world, few of whom can ever claim any success. Prague’s art-rock veterans Plastic People of the Universe are one of the rare examples of a band who really did alter the course of history, however contrary this may have been to their original intentions.

It is forty years since members of the band and several other musicians were famously put on trial for playing music that Czechoslovakia’s communist rulers didn’t like the sound of. It was a case so ludicrous in its fabrication that it inspired playwright Vaclav Havel to launch Charter 77, the dissident movement that provided the impetus for the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

Quite apart from their political impact, the Plastic People of the Universe also recorded some of the strangest albums Central Europe has ever heard. Inspired by a heady mixture of Frank Zappa, The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, they started their career in 1968, several weeks after Soviet tanks had put an end to the brief period of reform known as the Prague Spring. It was hardly the best time to form a rock band.

Fulcrum of the band was bassist and vocalist Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa (1951-2001), a self-taught musician who grew up in Březnov, a suburb of Prague so full of rock bands that Hlavsa dubbed it ‘”the seminary of Czech beat music”. Hlavsa became obsessed with the Velvet Underground, whose music he first heard in 1967 thanks to album-toting friend Saša Linhart. It was due to Linhart’s proselytizing enthusiasm that, in Hlavsa’s words, “during the late Sixties the Velvet Underground were more famous in Prague than in New York”.

Electric potatoes

Songs from the Velvets’ first album provided the repertoire for the first incarnation of the Plastic People, which involved Hlavsa and friends Jiři Stevich on saxophone, Michal Jernek on guitar, and Josef Brabec on drums. They were called the New Electric Potatoes before Jernek, inspired by a Zappa song, suggested Plastic People. Stevich added the “Universe” bit – although legend has it that they were called Plastic People of Universe for quite a while before their grammatical mistake was pointed out.

Hlavsa was the group’s talisman, a charismatic bandleader with a taste for the avant-garde gesture. Future manager Ivan Martin Jirous called Hlavsa “a peoples’ storyteller, a druid of the poor”. Martin Machovec, a teenage fan of the Plastics who has since written extensively on the Czech underground scene, described Hlavsa to me as a “showman, a ladykiller, a real rocker, one of the few who could bring a sense of spectacle to the scene”.

Hlavsa’s main musical collaborator was keyboard player and fellow Velvets fan Josef “Pepa” Janíček, recruited from rival group The Primitives in the summer of ‘69. The Primitives were already famous throughout Prague for staging concerts that resembled performance art: “Fish Feast” involved hanging oily, dripping herrings from the venue’s ceiling; “Bird Feast” featured performers covered in bird feathers. These happenings were largely choreographed by the Primitives’ artistic manager Ivan Martin Jirous, the cultural historian and alternative impresario who, unable to prevent the break-up of The Primitives, increasingly looked to the Plastic People as the subversive art-rock group of the future.

The Plastics had been keen to outdo the Primitives right from the start. For their first gig in February 1969 they had suspended ‘flying saucers’ made out of plastic discs from the ceiling, and lit fires in a row of large ashtrays in front of the stage. By the time Janíček joined the band, they were wearing an onstage uniform of blue and white togas knocked up by Jernek’s mother.

Despite the Soviet occupation, 1969 was a good year for music. Local label Supraphon released the Beatles compilation Oldies But Goldies under license from EMI; Prague pop sensations The Golden Kids were allowed to tour widely abroad; and local diva (and Golden Kids member) Marta Kubišová released her classic solo album Songy a Balady. The Plastics themselves played over 13 gigs - their busiest year until the 2010s.

The Soviet occupation had not been accompanied by mass arrests, media clampdowns or regime change; and many people assumed that things would return to normal as soon as tensions died down. Leader of the Czechoslovak reform communists Aleksandar Dubček had stayed in power until April 1969, when he was replaced by a colleague more acceptable to Moscow, Gustáv Husák.

“In the beginning we all thought Husák would last 3-5 years and then disappear”, chuckles the Plastics’ keyboard player Pepa Janíček a soft-spoken man in his late-sixties who looks the very antithesis of a revolutionary.

In fact Husák kept his feet firmly planted under the desk for the next two decades, launching a clamp-down on anti-Soviet attitudes that saw almost half a million members expelled from the ruling party, and strict controls placed on writers and artists. Rock musicians, who previously didn’t need any permission to perform in public, were now required to have a license.

Janíček fills me in on what happened next: “Our manager (the well-known pop impresario Pavel “Cassius” Kratochvíl) had good connections with the official music organization and arranged for us to be given free amplifiers and instruments. Around 1970 however we had to play an audition for the committee responsible for registering bands officially, and they decided that our music was too disturbing for young people and very soon they took our equipment back. At that time the easiest path would have been to stay with our manager, cut our hair and get some tidy clothes. We decided to go in the other direction.”

Psychedelia, prog and free jazz

Urged on by Jirous, now on board as the band’s artistic manager, the band decided to earn cash to buy new equipment by joining a logging brigade in Humpolec forest 80km southeast of Prague. The expedition was something of a failure in that they drank their way through most of the money they earned, but they did at least collect enough wood to build a new set of amplifier boxes.

“We didn’t have a license to perform as professional musicians” Janíček continues, “so we started to play in a covert way. We would book a village hall or pub for a private party and use the party as a cover for a concert.”

Between 1972 and 1976 the Plastic People organized a string of semi-clandestine happenings that soon became the stuff of rock-and-roll legend. They got round the concert ban by hiring a riverboat and selling tickets for a ‘private tourist excursion’. A Plastic People football team (complete with Plastic People shirts) played against a village volunteer fire brigade, using the fire brigade’s hall for an after-match concert. Most famously, the Plastic People organized a sequence of wedding parties in village pubs that attracted hundreds of travelling celebrants. “The weddings were real enough” Janíček explains. “Our friends really did get married. Although the wedding ceremonies had in most cases taken place several months previously and we were just using them as a pretext for a concert, so there was no bride in a white dress or anything like that”.

Free-jazz saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec joined the band in 1972, taking their music in an even more challenging direction. Turning their back on influences like the Velvets and embracing an idiosyncratic mix of psychedelia, prog and jazz ultimately turned the Plastics into a unique musical institution. “What’s important is that we kept our own sound, and were always easy to tell apart from the other groups.”,Brabenec told interviewer Renata Kalenská in 2010. “Maybe that’s due to the fact that we play a load of nonsense. Or because an important role was played by the litres of spirits we drank before recording.”

Vratislav Brabenec, 2011. Picture courtesy of www.plasticpeople.cz

Brabenec also insisted on the abandonment of English in favour of an exclusively Czech-language repertoire, delving deep into twentieth-century Czech poetry in search of the kind of edgily eccentric verse that might suit the Plastics’ similarly off-kilter sound. Before long they were setting their music to the poems of Egon Bondy, the legendary underground writer whose surrealist, iconoclastic and frequently vulgar verse had been circulated in samizdat form ever since the early 1950s.

Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned

Bondy provided the crucial link between the musical counter-culture of the Plastic People and a bohemian literary underground that had been around in Prague for generations. As Bondy himself wrote in 1990, “our way of life had developed certain analogies with the American Beatniks, such as be-bop, hard-sex, vagabondage, begging, theft (we stole anything but cars which were not around at that time), and anti-social activities of any kind”. Hijacking banal Stalinist-style sloganeering for subversive ends, Bondy had developed a style he described as “Total Realism”, although “realism” for Bondy usually meant writing about everyday vulgarities: constipation, beer-drinking and farting were just three of his favourite themes.

“Using Bondy was seen as a major provocation by the authorities” says Janíček. “They disliked it when we sang in English because it seemed to promote decadent western culture, but to associate with a notorious underground intellectual like Egon Bondy was much worse.”

Most Plastic People concerts took place in villages outside Prague, and the act of travelling to them became a hugely significant pilgrimage for the underground community. Most notorious of these events was the so-called Budějovice Massacre of 1974, when an estimated 2000 youths from all over the country converged upon the southern Czech city of České Budějovice because the Plastics were due to play in a village pub 5km out of town. This was all too much for the local authorities, who drafted in over 100 police to disperse the audience. Most fans were intercepted before they even got to the venue. Herded into Budějovice railway station, they had to run the gauntlet of baton-wielding policemen in the underpass leading to the platforms.

“What made the experience of a Plastics gig a real thrill was the fact that police raids were to be expected at any moment “ says Martin Machovec, who was a teenager when he saw the Plastic People play in the village of Bojanovice in February 1976. “If the band were still playing after half an hour, we felt lucky. This sense of tension contributed enormously to the feeling of solidarity that characterized the Czech underground.”

Indeed the Bojanovice concert proved to be the Plastic People’s last for some time. “Usually at our concerts the uniformed police came and checked everyone’s documents” Pepa Janíček remembers, “but at Bojanovice, the police never turned up. We thought “Great! They are bored of following us around!” Two weeks later we were all arrested.”

Most members of the band were released after several months of detention and interrogation. However saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, the group’s artistic manager Ivan Martin Jirous, together with poet Pavel Zajíček and protestant pastor-cum-singer Svatopluk Karásek, went on trial for causing public affray in September 1976. Simultaneously, three music enthusiasts in the industrial city of Plzeň (Karel Havelka, Miroslav Skalický and František Starek) were put on trial for organizing unauthorized concerts.

Vaclav Havel and other dissidents wrote letters to western intellectuals, and the case of the Czech underground became an international cause celebre. Charta 77, launched by Havel and other leading intellectuals to campaign for civic rights, was the direct result.

“One of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.”

“The trial was a glorious event”, Havel wrote later. “People interested could gather in the corridors of the courthouse or on the stairways, and you could still see the prisoners being brought in in handcuffs and shout greetings to them.”

Havel instinctively recognized that the arrest of musicians was something altogether different to the arrest of political dissidents, as it represented the totalitarian system’s growing tendency to regard every form of nonconformity as a threat. “Who could have foreseen that the prosecution of one or two obscure rock groups would have such far-reaching consequences?” wrote Havel in October 1978. “On the one hand there was the sterile puritanism of the post-totalitarian establishment, and, on the other hand, unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed.”

Ivan Martin Jirous received the harshest sentence (an 18-month stint in jail), largely because he was perceived as a dangerous ideologue. “The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a Second Culture” Jirous had proclaimed in a seminal text entitled Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival (and translated into English by Paul Wilson and Ivan Hartel): “a culture that will not be dependent on official channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment; a culture which cannot have the destruction of the establishment as its aim because in doing so, it would drive itself into the establishment’s embrace.” Indeed Jirous regarded “going underground” as the only attitude an honest artist could adopt in an age dominated by political and economic coercion, declaring – in the kind of language that the alternative activists of today might well understand - that “one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest”.

Nowadays cherished as one of the Czech Republic’s greatest essayists and poets, Jirous spent several long spells in jail between 1977 and 1989. His death on November 2011 unleashed a flood of admiring obituaries in the Czech press, but went largely unnoticed by the world media - a strangely anonymous end for one of the most courageous underground theorists of our age.

Pepa Janíček, 2011. Picture courtesy of www.plasticpeople.cz

The trial by no means spelt the end for the Plastic People. The Canadian Paul Wilson, who had sung with the Plastics during their Velvet Underground period, smuggled out a tape of their self-recorded album Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, winning the band a small but significant cult following in the West. A dark cocktail of drone rock, free jazz and gothic psychedelia, the album provided a musical template to which the band has remained faithful ever since. Vaclav Havel famously described their sound as “disquieting magic”, deeply rooted in the “black humour and grotesque fantasies” typical of Prague’s literary heritage.

House on fire

Happy Hearts Club Banned and four more albums were recorded at Vaclav Havel’s country house at Hradeček in the Krkonoše mountains, a place where the writer had been hosting literary gatherings ever since the early Seventies. The Third Festival of the Second Culture, featuring the Plastics, Zajíček’s DG307 and several other underground bands, was held in Havel’s barn in October 1977.

Restricted to secret gigs in private houses, the Plastics were by now only playing one or two concerts per year. Country houses in the north of the country were absurdly cheap at this time, and some of them were bought by Prague intellectuals specifically so that they could organize Plastic People parties there. “One of the houses where we played in 1981 mysteriously burned down soon afterwards”, Janíček recalls. “It was the most scary thing that happened to us and afterwards we stopped playing any kind of concerts and limited ourselves to recording.”

In 1982 Vratislav Brabenec was forced into exile. According to Pepa Janiček, “Some secret policemen visited Brabenec’s home at night and said “so you play the saxophone? How will you play it after someone has knocked your teeth out?”. He had small children at the time so he decided to leave for Canada.”

Gig poster from Močvara Club, Zagreb, showing the 2011 line-up (l-r: Eva Turnová, Jaroslav Kvasničká, Jiři Kabeš, Vratislav Brabenec, Josef Janíček, Joe Karafiát).

A loosening of political controls after 1987 enabled the band to perform officially again - providing they dropped the Plastic People name. Three of them led by Milan Hlavsa agreed to compromise and returned to the public stage under the name Půlnoc (‘Midnight’), enjoying mainstream commercial success for the first time. The Plastic People proper reunited sporadically during the 1990s, famously performing in Prague’s Hradčany Castle to mark the 30th anniversary of Charta 77 in 1997. The death of Hlavsa in 2001 deprived the band of its talismanic frontman, although the remaining members regrouped to perform at the Prague premiere of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock n Roll (directly inspired by the Plastics’ case) in 2007. The release of a new studio album, Maska za maskou (The Mask Behind the Mask) in 2009 suggested that the survivors had lost none of their appetite for creating a musical disturbance.

When I saw the band perform at Prague’s Archa Theatre in November 2011, they arrived on stage looking like a bemused group of retired university lecturers who had arrived in the wrong hall by mistake. Which only made their muscular opening blast of psychedelic punk-jazz all the more effective.

The Plastic People I saw in 2011 retained three core members from the 1970s : Janíček, Brabenec and viola-player Jiři Kabeš. By early 2016 however both Brabenec and Janíček had left. A Kabeš-led version of the Plastics (branded ‘PPU/New Generation’) is still touring the Czech club circuit: a rather low-key conclusion to one of the most compelling stories in rock.

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list.

Fore more on the Plastics, Egon Bondy and Czech history see Crucif*cked: The Extraordinary Career of Egon Bondy, and Power Ballads: Marta Kubišová and the Velvet Revolution