In January, 1968, Alexander Dubcek became leader of Czechoslovakia. He began a series of reforms that loosened government controls on speech and expression. The Soviet Union became alarmed and, in August, sent in tanks to crush the brief Prague Spring. A month later, some musicians and poets formed the group Plastic People of the Universe, to make unrestricted music and art.
Czechoslovakia had been excited by the music of the Beatles and a 1965 visit by Alan Ginsberg had aroused much attention — it wasn’t so much Ginsberg’s specific words as his willingness to say anything he wanted that drew people’s interest. Ginsberg’s expulsion from the country was a logical ending to a performance piece. Czechs and Slovaks wanted their own art, their own rock music, their own protest. They created underground clubs and formed rock bands. The government cracked down, then under Dubcek, eased up for eight months. Then the tanks arrived.
“Plastic People” was a song on the Mothers of Invention album Absolutely Free. Frank Zappa was one touchstone of the Plastic People of the Universe, they liked to perform songs done by The Velvet Underground, and their performances were something like those of the Fugs — costumed events that referenced poets and politics. “What’s it like making rock ‘n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else,” said Paul Wilson, “Only harder. Much harder.”
The PPU performed throughout 1969 but, in January 1970, their musician’s license was revoked. This meant that they could not perform professionally, could not charge a fee, that their equipment was seized, and that they could not find rehearsal space. So the PPU scrounged instruments and performed as an amateur group at weddings. The guitarist, Josef Janicek, had some mechanical ability and jury-rigged amplifiers from junked electronics and transistor radio parts.
Paul Wilson was a Canadian grad student studying cultural life in a soviet state. He joined up with the PPU as a translator — Ivan Jirous, art historian and “manager” of the PPU believed that English was the common language of rock and roll, so Wilson was brought in to translate the lyrics of songs that the PPU wanted to cover and to help the band with pronunciation. In 1970, he became their lead singer. As an academic, Wilson had a license to give public lectures and he used this to create venues for the group. He would give a short lecture, illustrated with slides, on say, Andy Warhol, and after fifteen minutes or so bring on the PPU to play Velvet Underground songs for three hours. From 1970 to 1972 there were perhaps fifteen of these clandestine performances. Wilson wanted the PPU to perform in Czech and, beginning in 1972, this became standard.
The PPU’s new vocalist was Vratislav Brabenec and their lyricist was Milan Hlavsa, though they often performed pieces written by the banned poet Egon Bondy, whose work was otherwise circulated via underground samizdat. The PPU played in secretive underground locations, at friend’s weddings, and wherever they could. In late 1974 they recorded an album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned which was released and distributed from France in 1978.
The PPU did not escape the attention of the secret police. A Prague concert in June of 1972 had resulted in clashes between fans and the militia and the PPU were banned from playing in Prague. They retreated into the countryside. At one point they regained their musician’s license for all of two weeks before it was revoked because, said the authorities, their music was “morbid” and had a “negative social impact”. During this time their concerts were clandestine affairs:
Whenever their friends had marriages, a wedding party provided an occasion to rent a hall and put on a private concert. Usually, however, putting together a concert was more akin to a cloak and dagger movie. A remote site in the woods near an isolated Bohemian village was picked, word of the location was then passed among friends, whispered from ear to ear. The exact location of the site was never revealed more than one day in advance and sometimes not revealed until that night. Fans would get off at the nearest rail station, then walk miles through the forest and across farms, sometimes for hours in rain or snow, searching for a remote farmhouse or barn. Often, the police would show up all the same and stop the show.
One such concert, in Budovice, was attended by the police who led fans into a tunnel, beat them with clubs, then herded them back onto a train to Prague. Ivan Jirous was known as “Magor”, “crazy man.” His concept was to create a Second Culture in opposition to the First, official communist, culture. In September of 1974 he set up an event called “Hannibal’s Wedding” where the PPU and other groups performed near the town of Postupice. In February of 1976, he tried to set up a similar happening, “Magor’s Wedding”, but this time the police busted the event. There were arrests, equipment and note books were seized, the band members’ homes were searched. The result of this raid was that four members of the PPU were charged with crimes and Paul Wilson was expelled from Czechoslovakia.
The trial of the PPU attracted much attention. All were found guilty of “organized disturbance of the peace”. Ivan Jirous got eighteen months in prison, the others were sentenced to terms from eight months to a year. Among those observing the trial was Vaclev Havel who had met with Jirous and been impressed by the man. Disgusted by the proceeding, Havel began gathering others of like mind who released a statement of principle in January, Charter 77. Havel said that the PPU were defending “life’s intrinsic desire to express itself freely, in its own authentic and sovereign way”.
Havel: Everyone understands that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary and important thing, something that bound everyone together… The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society.
Havel offered his farm as a place for the PPU to perform and supported them in many ways. Jiri Habes, PPU member: “Havel is the only president of the republic who ever lent me 1500 crowns. …I still owe it to him. I never paid it back. Only he doesn’t really need the money now and I do.”
These were the harsh Brezhnev years. Soon enough, Havel was imprisoned. Members of the PPU were regularly picked up for interrogation and beatings, sometimes several times in a day. Still, the group recorded three albums that were released through a publisher that, curiously, had the same Toronto address as Paul Wilson. In 1984 Brabanec was finally forced to leave the country — he had spent eight of the previous fifteen years in prison. Attempts were made to make members of the band act as government agents. They were offered the chance to perform if they would drop the name Plastic People of the Universe — it had become synonomous with revolt. Some members split off and formed the group Pulnoc. Then the Soviet system collapsed.
Havel said that it was like living through a horror movie that had a fairy tale ending. Not long after he became president, Frank Zappa came for a visit. Zappa was astonished to see 5000 people at the airport cheering his arrival. He was moved and shaken to discover that people had been beaten for playing his music and that he had become a symbol of revolution. He had a long meeting with Havel who proposed Zappa as a cultural ambassador, but Zappa had become a cultural target in his own country for opposing the Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Tipper Gore, Susan Baker, and other “Washington Wives”. The PMRC was determined to censor music and Zappa was one of their main targets. Secretary of State James Baker, Susan’s husband, flew to Prague to explain to Havel that American citizens could not be allowed to be cultural ambassadors for other nations.
In 1990, Lou Reed arrived in Czechoslovakia to interview Havel. The President took him to a club where Pulnoc performed one Velvet Underground number after another. “They were playing Velvet Underground songs, beautiful, heartfelt, impeccable versions of my songs,” said Reed. “To say I was moved would be an understatement.” People told him of reciting Vevet Underground lyrics to one another while they were in prison, to keep their spirits up.
In 1997, Havel persuaded the PPU to regroup and they have played together often since that time. They have an official website and you can buy their albums. Of course some critics disdain their music. Zappa’s biographer sniffs that they “weren’t very good”. But that is to ignore what the PPU were all about — the point was to be, good or not, and to be free in expressing your existence. Brabenec, back in Czechoslovakia now, says:
I don’t consider myself any less subversive now than I was back then. I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping and shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism and socialism. It’s all still shit, only different shit. Communist party, Nokia mobile phone party – what’s the fucking difference? It doesn’t matter whether the system is communist, fascist or capitalist: the creative people are the creative people and the shits are the shits. The poets remain the poets, and the politicians are fucking politicians. So you see: the Plastic People are still the Plastic People. You must remember one thing above all others about this band and our so-called revolution: none of us ever got anywhere. This is what matters most.
For more on the PPU this is an excellent article.
(In Memoriam: Vaclev Havel, 1936 – 2011, the only leader of a modern state who could cite the music of the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and other icons of cultural freedom. R.I.P.)