NOTES FROM THE CZECH UNDERGROUND
BBP Podzemni Orchestr doesn't have tunnel vision
Observations by JC Lockwood
As the Czech Republic marks the 50th anniversary of rise and fall of the fabled Prague Spring and birth of the Plastic People of the Universe, the poster boys of the Czech music Underground, another band -- BBP Podzemni Orchestr -- is charting a course where 20th Century disengagement meets 21st Century resistance. Je cas ("It's time") is a missive, maybe even an ultimatum, from a still-vibrant underground.
A couple of months ago, the Czech Underground community came together for "Magorovo Vydri," a three-day festival honoring Ivan Martin Jirous, the Seifert Prize-winning poet, former artistic director of the Plastic People and a guru of the Underground music scene. He was jailed five times for his trouble during the grim Normalization years (late ‘70's) for his involvement with the Plastics, sparking the creation of Charter 77 and setting the stage, some two decades later, for the unlikely fall of the well-entrenched, Moscow-backed regime in 1989.
The Magorovo festival also served as launching pad for "Podzemni Symfonie Plastic People/Underground Symphony of the Plastic People," a new history of the band by Franta "Cunas" Starek, former editor of Vokno, the influential arts magazine from that distant period, and someone else who was caught up in the culture wars of the '70's and '80's, The festival also marked the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of the former Czechoslovakia, which had crushed the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968, and the formation of the Plastic People, the face of the Underground -- a band which split into two camps, not so much warring factions as much as groups studiously ignoring and vaguely threatening each other.
Among the acts playing Magorovo was BBP Podzemni Orchestr/BBP Underground Orchestra, a strange -- their word -- 14-piece ensemble allied with the Plastics, musically and philosophically, over the past couple of decades.
"We played a pretty wild version of ‘Magicke noci/Magical Nights' as a remembrance of Mejla and Magor," says BBP vocalist and lyricist Otto Kunnert, referring to the Plastics' underground "hit," using the nicknames for PPU founder Milan Hlavsa (who died in 2001) and Jirous, whose nickname means "loon" or "madman," who would follow him a decade later. Aside from "Muchomurky bile/White Mushroom," the song is arguably the band's best-known song -- and a traditional closer for the Plastics. "We sent the song up there to them, and I mentioned that when Mejla sees his band these days, he must be quite sad: two groups that cannot stand each other. This is a sad end of one of the best Czech bands. I have nothing much else to say, only that I am sad as well -- and that an era has ended."
"Maybe," Kunnert adds, "it would have ended better by a hair's breadth earlier."
Otto Kunnert of BBP
Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American lives, which may or may not be true, but there are, apparently, second and even third or fourth acts in the Underground. Witness the Plastics: the big cheese of the scene, arrested at Bojanovice, along with dozens of like-minded musicians, during the Second Festival of the Second Culture in 1976 for -- well, technically for disturbing the peace, or what authorities would call hooliganism, but mostly for failing to submit to tight-ass rules meant to consolidate Soviet/Communist Party control of the arts, setting off an international furor and an Amnesty International campaign on their behalf.
The Plastics as we knew them are no more. Now they are two bands. One calls itself Plastic People of the Universe New Generation. The other, despite the threat of legal action, calls itself plain old Plastic People of the Universe. The first features original Plastics violist Jiri Kabes and long-time PPU guitarist Joe Karafiat, who joined the band in 1997 for their Vaclav Havel requested reunion. The second has two longtime Plastics mainstays, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, keyboardist Josef Janicek, and drummer Jaroslav Kvasnicka, who joined in 2009. Neither band has, to date, released any new material or commented publicly on the squabble, aside from a 2017 New Generation post on Facebook that commented dryly on the "voluntary departures" of Kvasnicka and ex-DG 307 bassist Eva Turnova, followed by supposedly burned-out and road-weary Janicek and Brabenec. The post said the band, which has had some 40 members over its long history would soldier on in the new formation, noting that the only "legitimate bearer of the name" Plastic People of the Universe was the Kabes/Karafiat faction. Despite the warning, the Janicek-Brabenec lineup released a live version of PPU's classic Co znamena vesti kone ("Leading Horses") album with the Brno Philharmonic in late 2017 under the name Plastic People of the Universe. And, just to confuse matters even more, the band's Wiki page lists Kabes and Karafiat at former members of the Plastics.
It's not the first time the Plastics have imploded. They broke up in 1988, one year before the Communist government fell, splitting into two new groups, with no one picking up the PPU banner. The band lay dormant for nearly a decade, until playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel forced them to lick their real or imagined wounds, and get back together for a 1997 show at Prague Castle marking the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. The evening clicked and the band soon found itself playing back together (even surviving the death of Hlavsa) and were one of the few Czech bands who managed to "break" in United States, touring frequently.
BBP, which formed in the '80s, but didn't get out of the metaphorical garage until the '90's, after years of workshopping its sound. They just released Je cas, its first album in a decade, on Guerilla Records. The style-hopping album is a missive, maybe an ultimatum, from the Underground. The band is closely tied to the so-called Underground sound, a concept that remains ineffable, and to the Plastics. And that's just fine with Kunnert.
"For me, the Plastic People of the Universe is the most essential Czech band and the top of what has evolved in the Czech music underground of 1970's," he says. "Their sound is so fascinating and unique that it crossed the Czech borders. There is some magic in their music that cannot be defined, but I haven't found it by any other band. Their Passion Play is for me the most important album --unbelievably strong sound and lyrics, 50 minutes of music that explodes your head. Simply brilliant."
As with the Plastics, a boatload of musicians -- 40, at last count -- have passed through the ranks of BBP, playing everything from saxophone -- all but required from a Czech Underground band -- to oboe, djembe, saw, gongs, and theremin, and, like PPU, have inspired a scene of like-minded bands both around them and under the ‘RAT' banner, including New Kids Underground and Die Total Trottel. The music runs the gamut -- everything from alternative and classical to avant-garde, jazz and punk.
"It is more important where you stand than what music style exactly you play," explains Kunnert. "And it depends on what you say rather than on what language you use. But we always try to put a deeper meaning into it. In the end, I have to check that it is still BBP. Sometimes, it is quite a thankless job, but I think we have managed it so far. It is magic when individual influences intertwine with each other and grow together without losing the sense. An excellent example of such a musical magician is our favorite, Frank Zappa."
GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY
Cultural shorthand usually gives Lou Reed and the Velvets the nod for being the godfathers of the fabled Underground, and it's easy to see why, with the music's driving, monotonous rhythms and dark world view, but Zappa and his "no commercial potential" credo is a good starting point for a discussion of the Underground. After all, the Plastics nicked their name from a Zappa song -- "Plastic People," from Absolutely Free, his sophomore release. They also gave him a shout out on "Universal Symphony and Melody About Plastic Doctor": "Ano, Frank Zappa, to je ono, ne vesmir ale bohata duse podzemi/Yeah, Frank Zappa, that's it. Not the universe but the richness of the Underground." This was released decades after the 1969 concert as a live cut on Muz bez usi ("Man Without Ears"), the earliest-known PPU recording. Havel, who called Zappa "one of the gods of the Czech underground," went so far as appointing him as special ambassador to the West for trade, culture and tourism in 1990, irritating the Republicans in power to no end. A few years later, during the Clinton years, Havel threatened to throw a diplomatic hissy if Reed and a visiting Hlavsa were not allowed to perform at the White House during a state visit with the Czech president, but that's another story.
Zappa was honored, again, in May 1990, in the Vraclav, near Pardubice, at the unveiling of a statue of the iconic musician near Absolutely Free, a nightclub named after his classic album. This occasion was marked by a big show of the Czech music underground, including shows by former Plastic People drummer Pavel Zeman and Bile Svetlo/White Light, who got caught up in the international uproar after the (in)famous 1976 Bojanovice concert -- and, digging even deeper into Czech rock music history, the Undertakers, essentially a Brevnov garage band that in the mid-'60s also included PPU founders Hlavsa and Michal Jernek. Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1991, gave the last show of his life in Prague, sharing the stage with Michael Kocab and his band Prazsky Vyber/Prague's Choice in 1991 and left the audience with a prophetic message: "I'm sure you already know it, but this is just the beginning of your new future in this country, and I hope that your new future will be very perfect, very perfect," he said, before launching into "Reggae Improvisation in the Key of A," re-issued on Prazsky's Komplet in 1995. "And as you confront the new changes that will take place, please try and keep your country unique. Don't change into something else. Keep it unique."
"I always go nuts when I get to this video," says Albert Caligari, the pseudonym/stage name for the masked frontman for Kabaret Dr. Caligariho. "The warning is becoming increasingly important."
"Underground is an attitude toward life and community," says Jiri Janecek, who founded Underground Radio, an Internet-only radio station focusing on the Underground. "Not in a political sense, because, five years ago, the elders had the communists as enemy and the young ones have enemies in capitalists. But the two generations have the same desire for freedom, and it connects them."
But, in this strange political/social landscape, the music as well as the definition of what "Underground" actually means is not exactly clear. "It's controversial," says Antonin Kocabek, a Radio 1 personality and former culture section editor at Tyden. The argument, in fact, goes back to the beginning of the Underground movement, best illustrated by a public pissing match between Jirous and Mikolas Chadima, saxophonist with Extempore and the dark, brooding MCH Band. Jirous argued that only bands that had been proscribed by the government could be considered true Underground, all other bands being complicit to some degree. But in Alternativa, a biography of his career and invaluable, detailed account of the now-distant musical era, Chadima makes the case for a "grey area" between disengagement and complicity.
In the "new reality," that is during the flurry of freedom opened up by the Velvet Revolution, the idea of Underground, what it is and what it sounds like, started changing. A "new generation" of Underground -- and we're not talking about the Kabes/Karafiat faction of the Plastics, we're talking conditions on the ground -- began in the old, when Hlavsa began to collaborate with younger musicians and explore the possibilities of electronic music in the early 1990's.
"It was far more comfortable for most of his colleagues to stay with traditional forms," says Kocabek, who also plays bass with Drevene pytli v jutovych uhlich, an experimental/alternative band from Prague whose almost-impossible-to-pronounce name translates to "Wooden Sacks of Jute Coal," which is not considered an Underground band, even though it has played many Underground events. The naysayers included Brabenec and Josef Janicek, Hlavsa's old PPU bandmates, who, in the late 1990's, passed on Hlavsa's "Silenstvi/Madness" project, saying they could not warm up to the sound and wanted to do something more in the style of the '70's and '80's, according an interview with Hlavsa in an interview with Perfect Sound Forever. The reaction had been even more intense when Hlavsa teamed up with Jan Vozary, his bandmate from the Pulnoc-like band Fiction, to remake iconic PPU songs for the album "Magic Night/Magicka noci," using electronics and other new technologies, which left many Undergrouders baffled and/or otherwise horrified.
"They considered it as a destruction of the Holy Grail," says Kunnert, "but that remake is great! It would be bad if the Underground turned into a box that meaninglessly limits your creativity."
JE CAS? JE CAS!
Is it time? It's time. Because time waits for no one.
"Time is slipping between our fingers silently but, in this way, with this album, we succeeded in stopping it for a moment," says BBP's Kunnert. "When you play it, you enter a strange world and time stands still. And it's up to you when you turn it off and return."
Strictly speaking, Je cas, a follow-up to 2008's ironically named Tolik Stesti ("So much happiness"), is not a new album, says Kocabek, but "a cross-section of what the band has been doing for the last ten years," which is providing an adventurous spin around the musical block, like a roller coaster. There's irony, sad songs about happy things, happy-sounding songs about sad things, straight-ahead rockers, sad love songs and even modern classical."
"There is no universal Underground sound," Kunnert says. "We can play a folk song or a punk song in between our heavier pieces, and it is still OK. We don't want to bore the audience or ourselves, so we like to change the sound from time to time, even within a single song."
"This recording, like all their previous ones, has its roots in the uniqueness of the Czech musical and philosophical underground," says Vladimir Drapal Labus, founder of Guerilla Records. In the country's cultural isolation, the Underground was able to create, he says, "something original, something that in a special way reflected the time of ‘merry ghetto' as the Czech Underground community was called in the West." Drapal is committed to releasing titles that have "absolutely no commercial potential but which I like," creating a bit of a niche market in a declining industry, but one with value that "will appeal to the minority of audiences for ages," he says.
BBP has the ‘Plastic' sound and the therefore eminently Czech tradition: dark, mischievous, monotonous rhythm, good lyrics, long hair and beards, membership of a community that is committed to the underground of those years.
Says Kocabek, "While bands like BBP or its Guerilla label mate Terra Ignota, share a musical past, other bands, like Jirikovo videni come from a different place, and fans who care about music more than lifestyle turn to contemporary alternative bands like SRPR, OTK, Kvety, Vlozte kocka and Schrodingerova kocka."
"This generation is unbounded by conventions," he continues to explain. "Bands like BBP, on the contrary, care about their ghetto. They focus on everything that is not orthodox. That's why they are more respected by the older generation of listeners, while the youngsters see the Underground scene elsewhere: in the experimental hip hop, in noise a hardcore or experimental electronica. The Underground, which once had a rep for being insular and non-inclusive, has, in freedom, become something of a big tent. "There are many worlds, many different Underground scenes: punk, hardcore, graffiti, anarchist, says Drapal. "BBP is underground with roots in the past, but it is only one drop in the ocean of independent communities."
Released in May, Je cas opens with "Bajkal," a cheerful-sounding song in what Czechs call "the folk style," like a tent-revival or a traveling medicine show-- with a side of politics, taking aim at President Milos Zeman, a political lightning rod whose career mirrors US President Donald Trump, although he's been working the issues longer. They don't mention him by name, calling the Czech commander-in-chief "a crazy creature with a pig's head, it seems like he rules everything, insisting, lyrically, that "it isn't humor, it's not a joke," that he's a "Kremlin devil."
When BBP perform the song live, they introduce it with a bit of a speech -- um, you know, grunting -- from a plastic porker. And, just in case you missed the subtlety, the porker and the president are paired in the official video. In the video, however, the main character is not plastic, but the real porcine deal, recalling, for those of a certain age, the Yippies and Pigasus. The title is a bit of Czech wordplay, connecting the bottomless Russian lake (Baykal) and a fable ("bajka" in Czech) as a literary structure of an edifying fairy-tale. Says Kunnert, "fables often hold a lot of truth."
And, tough as it may be, the tune is gentle ribbing in comparison to the album's closer -- the brutal, terrifying "Valdce/Ruler," which howls that "you," the leader, "are the bitch of your own glory, you are the ruler of your own shit."
Pretty harsh stuff, dished without irony, providing a musical template, a testing ground, where 20th Century disengagement meets 21st Century resistance. This is a neighborhood the original Undergrounders avoided. In the '70's, simply existing without messing around in politics publicly was tough enough. Jirous's concept of the "Second Culture," closely related to Havel's "living in truth" and Vaclav Benda's "parallel polis," eschewed politics and postulated the idea of existing separately, despite differences, with the government, although it's hard to ignore what's staring you in the face -- or threatening to throw you in jail for the offense of existing, as Jirous learned directly.
But does the band risk alienating audiences? Je cas? Is it time to call things by their true names, to take a public stand? Or are we reading too much into it? "Sometimes," says Kunnert, "it is worth it to read between the lines."
It's easy to smirk here, the Donald -- as his Czech ex used to call him back in the pop culture day -- being for many, just as bad, if not worse, than the guy Kunnert calls the "Czech tsar at Prague Castle," a politician who "does his best to redirect our country back to the East," and unfortunately there is a significant part of the nation for which his words are holy and the lies change into truth by some sort of miracle. It doesn't matter, and never has, who says this kind of nonsense. But it matters if he finds enough people that believe him. Unfortunately, there are more than enough people for whom it's more comfortable to simply believe than to really think about what's really happening.
Vaclav Klaus, the head of state succeeding Havel "wasn't good," says Kunnert, "but none of us was able to imagine what could come, what in the end really has come, after that. Because if this is possible, then absolutely anything is possible. That is, unfortunately, one of the few issues in which we have shown you the way. Our Milos is your Donald," he says. "The first election of president Zeman could be understood as a bad joke, supported not only ideologically from the East, but his re-election is something beyond the common sense. The highest representative of the state that each time exceeds the boundaries of unacceptable manner and awkwardness and pushes them even further than the previous time. The saddest point is that we, like you, have more than enough people that frenetically applaud to loss of their uniqueness, represented by the pig's head they have elected."
"After the Velvet Revolution, the gates were opened and new music publishers began to publish banned music," says Underground Radio's Janecek. "But this changed after a few years, and people began to listen to the music they listened to on radio and TV during the Communist regime," he says. "The Underground was slowly getting back to the people who formed the community. In recent years, however, as a result of the increasing restrictions on freedom by the authorities, the whole scene is revived. We discovered a new generation of listeners and new bands are being created."
"The Underground has contributed to the fall of the Communist regime," says Janecek. "After the Plastic People trial, Charter 77 was created, and it helped defeat Communism. Now the underground is a bit on the edge, but in recent years the community has grown steadily. That's why I launched the radio five years ago." And who's listening? Old Czech hippies or what? According to his Google Analytics numbers, listeners are mainly guys, 25-34 and 45-54 years old. The Underground survived even during the years of freedom, because "there are many reasons not to be part of the herd," he says. "In any community, you find those who prefer not to join the merry-go-round around them. Furthermore, I am afraid that our current political direction makes the Underground movement again well founded."
"'The Ruler' is an old piece, but valid for many past, current and future rulers, unfortunately," Kunnert says. And there may be some blowback in the Czech Republic, a country as divided, politically, as the United States. "Nevertheless, I think we will still find some people who like us for what we do," he says. :And we've already found a couple of such people during the years. Not everyone can like us. In any case, we are happy for everyone whose heart beats in our rhythms. After all, not everyone has good taste. We attempt to stand by our truth and not to make dumb music. Nowadays, even that isn't easy."
"Our songs are not shiny-happy, but you can find humor in them anyway -- humor of the black variety, at least," Kunnert continues. "There are more than enough bands that perfectly paint the world pink," he says, using the Czech term for happy-happy, moon-spoon bubblegum. "You cannot hear anything else on most radio stations. But the world is not that pink, and we keep its darker shades in our songs. We simply leave the songs full of joy and happiness to other bands and sing about the things that they do not want to sing about."
The bleak, world-weary worldview of the Underground, particularly its texts, can be tough sledding, so much so that Janecek, sometimes turns to punk, not pink, for relief. "The level of texts is important," he says. "Those Underground lyrics, however, can be very depressing, so I play enough punk for balance. And because punk is considered as a younger sibling of the Underground, and the police used to beat punk people even more than hippies."
And what happens to hope in such a dark place, or are we all in a post-hope world?
"As long as we are here, there is also hope," says Kunner, "because it dies last."
DANCING WITH MR. D
Je cas. It's time. Because time is running out.
"Labute z Valdic uz dolétly na konec světa" (‘The swans from Valdis have already reached the end of the world'), Kunnert growls in the haunting "Labutě z Valdic" (‘The Swans from Valdice'), a song dedicated to Jirous. Kunnert wrote the lyrics in 2011, on the day he learned Jirous had died. The title references "Magorovy labuti pisne" (‘Magor's swan song'), a collection of poetry that reveals not a madman, but a sensitive soul. The collection earned Jirous the prestigious Seifert Prize in 2006. Valdice is also the site of the prison where Magor spent too much time.
Indeed, death weighs heavy in this collection. Magor. Dead. Havel. Dead. Hlavsa, who is honored every year with a massive underground blowout called "Vzpominka na Mejlu" (‘Remembering Mejla'). Heavy body blows for the ‘manicky,' the Czech term for longhairs from back in the day. "I think it is one of the best pieces on the album and he deserves it," says Kunnert, but it represents sad times for this country because "some people simply cannot be replaced."
What do you do, how do you replace people who are irreplaceable?
"The irreplaceable simply won't return," says Kunnert. "It is up to us what we do with the time that is called the future. I respect people who do more than they have to, even if there is no reward for that -- and even if there are just a few people who can appreciate it. Therefore I respect those people in the Underground who do not just blather, but really do something."
"For many years, Drapal has been issuing not only historical musical gems and the established names of the Czech Underground culture, but also contemporary bands. And it is not possible to omit Starek, the Underground Symphony of the Plastic People author, who unflaggingly mapped the underground community of the 1970's. He is behind the magazine Vokno, but also a fair number of books as well as a TV documentary series about the Underground. He keeps trying to remind people about the history and, contrary to many others, he still really does something!"
On a personal level, the album also takes stock of MM, or Miracek, the BBP guitarist who "left for the other bank, voluntarily, hard to say if unexpectedly," on "Rozhodnuti" (‘Decision'), dedicated to the guitarist, who suffered from depression and committed suicide four years ago. Kunnert assesses the event stoically with a clear, cold eye in the song: "Once you decide, absolutely, fundamentally, to change the route, it's just a question of method, it's just a question of time." Because of the long delay between albums, MM's guitar can be heard on "Se zlomenym srdcem" (‘With a broken heart').
DOES ANYBODY REALLY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS
Je cas. It's time. Because time is almost up.
Because, as Burroughs writes, death needs time for what he kills to grow in. And, in time, what will become of the fabled Czech music Underground, where will it go?
"God knows, or Evil knows," Kunnert says. "Either to heaven, or to burning hell."
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