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Plastic People of the Universe: Making rock ‘n’ roll in a police state


 
The Prague Spring in 1968, the very short era of political and cultural liberalization in Czechoslovakia, lasted only seven months, but the young people who had been given a taste of freedom were not about to quietly acquiesce to the repression and restrictiveness that came with the Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion in August.

During this new crackdown on free media, speech, and travel, bass player and songwriter Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa decided it was a great time to start a band.

He started The Plastic People of the Universe, taking the name from the Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention song “Plastic People.” He recruited Michal Jernek (saxophone, clarinet, vocals), Josef Janíček (guitar, claviphone, vibraphone, vocals), Jiří Števich (guitar, vocals), Josef Brabec (drums), and Jiří Kabeš (viola, violin, vocals). Canadian vocalist Paul Wilson joined in 1970 to translate their lyrics into English and help them learn the lyrics to the Velvet Underground, Mothers of Invention, and Fugs songs they were covering. It was illegal to even own these records at the time, and music-obsessed rock fans like Hlavsa obtained records by mail from friends and relatives abroad. The band’s original lyrics were provided by banned Czech poets Jiří Kolar and Egon Bondy. The lyrics to an early song, “Já a Mike,” are credited to Kurt Vonnegut.

The government terminated the band members’ professional licenses to perform publicly in 1970 and confiscated their equipment. They found employment as forest workers and continued to play illegally out in the country, unpaid, at secret gigs and semi-private parties that masqueraded as wedding celebrations with equipment they scrounged or Janíček (a mechanic) built out of spare parts. An entire underground community sprang up around the band and their clandestine appearances. They were caught playing in downtown Prague in 1972 and were banned from performing in the city.

Paul Wilson later said of this time:

What’s it like making rock ‘n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else. Only harder. Much harder.

They recorded their first studio album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, in 1974. Two years later all of the band members except Hlavsa were arrested for performing at a music festival, charged with creating an “organized disturbance of the peace.”  Wilson was deported back to Canada (and later became a translator of Václav Havel’s work into English).

The arrest and trial of the members of PPU motivated and radicalized young intellectuals like playwright Václav Havel. Havel and his friends began a political dissent group, Charter 77, in late 1976 and published their charter in 1977. The purpose of the document was to persuade Czechoslovakia’s government to follow the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords that it had signed. Havel was an outspoken supporter of all artists, particularly PPU, even allowing them to record their next two albums – Pašijové hry velikonoční and Jak bude po smrti – at his farm.

Havel told The Guardian:

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.

After the members of PPU were released from prison, they were lauded by their fans and political supporters as heroes. They continued to play underground gigs until 1988, when they were finally allowed to perform legally in public. It was also then, on the cusp of the Velvet Revolution, that they broke up. Havel, the first post-Revolution President of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), persuaded them to reunite in 1997 as part of the celebrations of Charter 77’s twentieth anniversary. PPU stayed together and continue to perform. In 1999 Havel brought PPU to the White House, where they performed with another of his heroes, Lou Reed. 

Fans gathering for a clandestine Plastic People of the Universe show, a.k.a. Hannibal’s Wedding Party, below:


Footage of The Plastic People of the Universe from December 1969 at the restaurant U Kubra, Horoměřice, Czechoslovakia

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
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