“They feared us because in music you cannot cheat”
In the 1970s, the Plastic People of the Universe faced persecution by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia – and ended up helping to topple it. DG co-editor Marcus Webb tells one of rock 'n' roll's most extraordinary stories
2nd November 2012 (Taken from: #9)
“Long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs.”– Review of the Plastic People of the Universe in Czechoslovakian paper Rude Pravo.
The moment the clown sets his hand on fire it’s clear that this isn’t your average Eastern Bloc concert. The band – sporting satin robes and clumsily-applied make-up – are far from the image of communist conformity, the beatnik audience is doing a good impression of people on drugs and the musicians’ fire-breathing mascot has just got seriously – and painfully – carried away. “All the stupid brains are in the sun,” the band croons. “Our great nation lives in velvet underground.” It’s February 1969 and although they don’t know it yet, the group of Captain Beefheart wannabes on stage at the Na Orechovce pub in Prague are on a collision course with the full force of the communist authorities. What’s even more surprising is that it’s the guys with the pyromaniac clown that will eventually win.
The band formed shortly after the Prague Spring, a brief period of liberalism brought in by Communist Czechoslovakia’s reformist leader Alexander Dubcek. State censorship of newspapers had ended and rock ’n’ roll could be heard in the streets of Prague. It didn’t last long. Fearing a breakup of the Eastern Bloc, Czechoslovakia’s neighbours decided to act. On the night of 20th August 1968, 200,000 troops and 2,000 tanks from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary invaded and a process of “normalisation” began.
Under new leader Gustáv Husák the state took firm control of the people. Censorship was reimposed, public meetings were banned and all musicians needed a licence from the Prague Cultural Centre to play in public. If you weren’t deemed “professional” you weren’t allowed to perform.
“It was clear we weren’t going to pass the state audition to get our professional status,” says Paul Wilson, former lead singer of the Plastic People. “We wouldn’t cut our hair, we wouldn’t allow our lyrics to be vetted, so we were kicked out. We were on our own.” They were also instrument-less – without professional status the band lost the state-owned equipment they had played with.
The Andy Warhol lecture tour
It was Ivan Jirous who kept the Plastics playing. The band’s artistic director, mentor and agent provocateur, he met the group in 1969 and “fell in love”. It was Jirous who invited Wilson – a Canadian who was teaching in Prague – to join the Plastics to teach them the English lyrics of the bands they adored and it was Jirous who devised a way for them to keep playing.
We had no instruments to practise on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished”
“Jirous was an art student at the time,” says Wilson. “So he would give a perfectly legal lecture on Andy Warhol and the relationship between Warhol and the Velvet Underground. The curtain would then draw back to reveal the Plastics who would give ‘live examples’ of what he was discussing. He would talk for five minutes and we’d then play two hours of Velvet Underground songs.”
The ruse lasted for a year, but eventually the authorities got wise to it and the ‘Homage to Andy Warhol’ was banned. Undeterred, the band went underground, borrowing instruments and playing at whichever venues would have them. “They were pretty much chewing-gum-and-string-gigs,” remembers Wilson. “We had no instruments to practise on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished.”
They may not have been polished, but they were popular – and the authorities began to feel threatened. “I remember playing a school dance in Písek,” says Wilson. “Halfway through, the head of the school pulled the plug. He couldn’t understand what we were singing, but he could tell that there was something subversive in what we were doing. That would happen more and more frequently as we played. We would either be shut down after a couple of songs or when we’d finished the lights would go up and we’d see people’s names being taken.”
The Parallel Polis
In 1973 the line-up of the band changed. Founding member Milan Hlavsa was joined by Josef Janícek (trumpet), Jirí Kabeš (guitar), Jan Šula (drums) and avant-garde saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec. It was Brabenec – along with Hlavsa, the group’s songwriter – who would come to define the band’s sound. Brabenec joined the band on the condition that they would only play only their own compositions and perform in Czech. For the first time the audience would be able to understand what the Plastics were singing about.
“The Plastics really started to get attention from the secret police when they started singing in Czech,” says Wilson, who despite no longer featuring in the band’s line-up, continued to be involved. “Suddenly they became more than a minor annoyance.” The Plastics’ songs didn’t call for an uprising. Instead they dealt with a fantastical otherworld, more in keeping with the lyrical playfulness of Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention than the call to arms of the Clash. “We have always wanted to be more poetical than political,” says Brabenec. “We wrote one protest song, called ‘Hundred Points’, but even that doesn’t sound like a protest song.”
The band may not have been writing protest songs, but its spiritual leader Jirous, now going by his nickname “Magor” – roughly translated as “loony” – was mad as hell and became increasingly outspoken against the status quo. He believed that the “first culture” of the Communist regime offered nothing of value and set about creating a “second culture” in which people would be free to express themselves.
Jirous believed that the freedom of this second culture, or “Parallel Polis”, would ultimately undermine the totalitarian system, and that the music of the Plastic People would show the way. Jirous and the band found themselves under increasing scrutiny by the state, and after an altercation in a bar Jirous was arrested and sentenced to ten months in prison: he would spend nine-and-a-half of the next 16 years inside.
Rather than breaking the band, the loss of their spiritual leader just furthered the Plastics’ resolve. They continued playing, attracting a fiercely loyal audience. “No matter where we played we’d see the same faces,” says Wilson. “Playing in Prague was difficult so we played around the country and obviously we couldn’t publicise the gigs, but word would get out – we had a pretty powerful grapevine – and people would hitchhike or catch a train to see us play.”
In March 1974 thousands of fans turned up for a Plastics gig in Ceske Budejovice in South Bohemia. They didn’t get to hear a note. “The police were waiting at the station,” remembers Wilson. “They drove the kids back, they beat them with truncheons – some of them quite badly. They arrested hundreds of people and the interrogations were intense – they couldn’t understand how a gathering of thousands of people wasn’t a major organised conspiracy. But you don’t need an army to organise an underground gig, just a few dedicated men and women.”
The Festivals of the Second Culture
The police reaction to Ceske Budejovice galvanised the underground. The Plastics were joined by an increasing number of likeminded musicians and played to ever-growing audiences. “There were more and more bands hitching themselves on,” says Wilson. “There were folk singers, proto-punk groups – somehow they all gravitated towards the Plastics.”
On 1st September 1974, the groups gathered together for the First Festival of the Second Culture – a sort of Czechoslovakian underground Woodstock. They would pay a heavy price for the event over the next two years. “I would say I survived about 80 or 90 interrogations, which was sometimes very exhausting,” says Brabenec with nonchalant understatement. Eva Turnová, the Czech artist, author and current bass player of the band, is more vocal. “They would beat them up, drown them… it was torture,” she says. “It was at its worst when they threatened to kidnap my two-year-old daughter,” concedes Brabenec. “But I pitied these people, I thought they wouldn’t find peace until the end of their days.”
Despite the inevitable repercussions, the band organised the Second Festival of the Second Culture, a wedding party for Jirous, on 21st February 1976. Jirous later described it as “a monument of victory of spirit over a dull brutal power”. Brabenec tells the story in less poetic terms. “I can hardly remember anything,” he says. “I was drunk as a skunk…”
The state would take no more. The Second Culture had to be crushed. Following the festival, more than 100 people were interrogated, instruments were seized and 20 people including Jirous and the entire line-up of the Plastic People of the Universe were arrested and charged with “organised disturbance of the peace”. The trial caused a media storm and the band were on the front page of every paper as the authorities set out to demonise them. “They even made one of the episodes of the famous TV series ‘Major Zeman’ [a soap about a dedicated policeman] about the Plastics,” remembers Turnová. “They made them look like hooligans and druggies. That’s how they brainwashed people.”
The members of the band were found guilty. Wilson’s residency permit was revoked and he was escorted to the Austrian border and thrown out of the country. Jirous was sentenced to 18 months in prison, Brabenec eight.
Pussy Riot actively went out to change things, the Plastics did it almost by accident. We just wanted to play music, we didn’t set out to bring down the state”
“I highly recommend to anyone to stay in prison for a while,” says Brabenec today with typical flippancy. “You meet very interesting people. My wife claimed it was the mildest and most beautiful period of our relationship. I wasn’t mucking around in pubs with girls, she was getting romantic letters, I was about to start learning Greek again…” But jail took its toll on his manager. “Prison had a profound effect on Jirous,” says Wilson. “Prison toughened him, he was always very uncompromising, but prison turned him into a really tough guy. An angry guy.”
It’s tempting to draw parallels with the Pussy Riot trial: a band taking on the state and being very publicly tried for it. However, Wilson sees a vital distinction. “The big difference between Pussy Riot and the Plastic People is that Pussy Riot are provocateurs and the Plastics weren’t deliberately so,” he says. “Pussy Riot actively went out to change things, the Plastics did it almost by accident. We just wanted to play music, we didn’t set out to bring down the state.” But why do regimes fear music so much? “Maybe because in music you cannot cheat,” answers Brabenec. “If you do, it shows. And when people feel this genuine source in some music they want to join it. That’s why the PPU was followed by so many young people without agitating or having a particular programme. They were simply true to themselves and you could feel it.”
The trial, sentencing and coverage were intended to end the cult of the Plastics. They had the opposite effect. “The teenagers in the boondocks had no idea the underground existed,” says Wilson. “Suddenly they did and it looked exciting as hell. More and more people found themselves drawn into the Plastics’ orbit.”
These people included Václav Havel. The dissident playwright had met Ivan Jirous a few months before the Second Festival Of The Second Culture. Wilson believes the meeting was facilitated by an informer, and was the real reason behind the arrests and trial. “When Havel first came into the Plastics’ world, that’s when the spark crossed the gap,” he says. “Havel knew things had to change and a regime can’t stop life. It’s like stemming a river that just keeps growing.”
Not that Brabenec was initially impressed. “When I saw Havel for the first time, it was a big disappointment,” he laughs. “When I finished my time in jail I was invited to his farm and I expected this buff guy, six feet tall, with shiny black hair, but he was a small guy with blond hair. But we immediately clicked and became good friends. We had many poetico-philosophical debates. When we were sitting in the morning trapped in heavy discussion, his wife Olga entered and said: ‘Are you having breakfast?’ And we said: ‘No, we still haven’t finished our evening of talking.’ And then Václav said: ‘Can I play Captain Beefheart?’ and I replied: ‘The Captain? Any time.’”
Havel was the most strident voice against the Plastics’ incarceration. Their case inspired his most potent essay – ‘The Power and the Powerless’ and the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto. Charter 77 called upon the communist government to ratify United Nations human rights conventions, and to honour the human rights obligations of the Helsinki Accords of two years earlier. It was signed by 242 writers, intellectuals, dissident politicians and musicians. The Czechoslovak government condemned them all, and several were subsequently tried and imprisoned.
It became a criminal offence to copy or distribute the charter – but it lived on nevertheless. It was the document clutched by the students who took to the streets in Prague on 18th November 1989 to protest the one party system and again by many of the 500,000 – including Havel – who joined them over the following weeks in Wenceslas Square. It was the document that brought about the Velvet Revolution which finally toppled communism in Czechoslovakia. For some, the Velvet Revolution was named after the fact that it was peaceful – the velvet glove on an iron fist – but for others it namechecked the Velvet Underground, the band that inspired the band that inspired a revolution.
The music of the Spanish Hall
In the years between the Plastics’ trial and the Velvet Revolution, the band’s notoriety meant that even underground gigs were impossible. Denied the opportunity to play live, the Plastics would instead hold secret recording sessions, the results of which Wilson would release in the West under his own Boží Mlýn record label, and which would then be smuggled back into Czechoslovakia. They held a live comeback gig at a stately home in Kerhartice in 1981. After the gig, the secret police burned the house down.
Three weeks after Jirous’s release he was rearrested for making “inappropriate comments at an art opening” and then a fourth time for his involvement with an underground magazine. He wouldn’t see freedom again under communism. Under pressure from the police, Brabenec applied for emigration to Canada where he became a gardener. With Brabenec gone, Jirous in prison and the band’s every movement monitored, the state got their way – the Plastic People fell silent. In 1988, a year before the fall of the regime, the band split up.
Former Plastics Hlavsa, Kabeš and Janícek went on to form Pulnocní (‘Midnight’). When the Velvet Underground reformed in 1990 to play the opening of Andy Warhol’s exhibition at the Louvre, it was Pulnocní who opened for them. Jirous was released from prison in the wake of the Velvet Revolution to see his ideas vindicated, but – according to Wilson – went into a tailspin, unable to find his feet in the new order. “It was like he couldn’t handle freedom.”
Václav Havel, meanwhile, was the first president of the Czech Republic, and in a doff of the cap to rock ’n’ roll, briefly appointed Frank Zappa as an official government advisor. Zappa didn’t hold the job for long – Václav was forced to fire the rocker after he told journalists “It is unfortunate that a person such as President Havel should have to bear the company of someone as stupid as Dan Quayle [then US vice president and due to be the first state visitor to the newly democratic Czechoslovakia] for even a few moments of his life.”
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Charter 77, Havel invited the Plastics to play in the Spanish Hall of Prague Castle. They reunited for the show and the band would not be broken again, although death would replace the state as its enemy. Hlavsa died in 2001; and Havel and Jirous – who had found fame as a poet following the publication of his prison poems – died within months of each other in 2011. “Although Havel’s funeral was much bigger, I felt the emotion more at Jirous’s,’” says Wilson, who attended both. “There were 2,000 people crowded into this tiny church – government ministers, the cultural elite and some ageing rockers – and you could feel then what he meant to people, you could feel that an icon had passed. He was never broken by them.”
Despite losing its guiding light, the band continued, touring the UK and US as well as the Czech Republic, where they organised a concert in support of Pussy Riot in 2012. “Sometimes it feels like a shamanic ceremony [when we play],” says Turnová, who joined the band in 2001. “I can feel that every tone has its foundation. I approach the mic, look left and catch a glimpse of Vratislav who is taking a cigarette out of the packet which takes him a verse and a chorus and then he realises smoking is forbidden so he puts it back again. And I feel everything is how it should be. I can see how powerful, fragile and vulnerable they are. All at once.”
The Prague Castle gig in 1997 was once again captured on film. The footage shows a tight live band, masterfully sweeping between psychedelia and rock. The saxophone of a tipsy-looking Brabenec plays off against the tight bass of Hlavsa. “It was an incredible night,” remembers Jaroslav Riedel, a Czech music journalist and the band’s official biographer who has dedicated his life to preserving audio and video recordings of the Plastic People. “The only person missing was Jirous, he was supposed to be there but never made it – he was probably drunk. But his spirit was there – everyone’s spirit was there and they were free.” Officially, it was the Plastic People of the Universe’s second-ever gig.
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