A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe
Excerpts from the book
by Joe Yanosik
When I first wrote about the Plastic People of the Universe in 1996 for Perfect Sound Forever, I thought their amazing story was over. Formed in 1968 soon after the Warsaw Pact invasion of their beloved Czechoslovakia, the now-legendary band survived two decades of persecution under an oppressive Soviet regime only to break up shortly before their country's Velvet Revolution in 1989 - an event in which they had played a crucial part. Milan Hlavsa, the leader of the Plastic People, then formed Půlnoc which released a critically-acclaimed album in the U.S before themselves disbanding in 1993.
But the incredible story of the Plastic People still had one more plot twist up its sleeve. In 1997, the band reunited at the behest of Czech President Václav Havel, their longtime friend and supporter, and the Plastics earned the respect of a whole new generation of fans as they performed concert tours, sounding better than ever, melding free jazz, Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground into their own inimitable music. Also that year, Globus Records began a massive multi-disc CD reissue project which unearthed all the recordings the Plastics had secretly made since their earliest days. Milan Hlavsa would die tragically in 2001 at only 49 years old while the band he started would carry on for another two decades. Over the years, the Plastic People of the Universe became increasingly well known worldwide - often more for their dramatic history than for their wonderful music.
So now, 25 years after writing the first in-depth article on the band to appear in the U.S., I have turned my joyous obsession with the Plastic People into a book, updating their story to the present day while simultaneously listening back on their entire discography and situating the music within the historical context of their amazing journey. A CONSUMER GUIDE TO THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE reviews every album released by the Plastic People, Půlnoc and Milan Hlavsa as well as selected works by related Czech bands like Garáž, Fiction, DG 307 and more - over 80 albums in all. The records are reviewed in chronological order according to when the music was recorded and are interspersed with "historical interludes" which continue to tell the story as the book progresses. Included are the origins of the band, their associations with playwright-turned-President Havel as well as their manager/artistic director Ivan Martin Jirous a.k.a. "Magor," their interactions with Frank Zappa and Lou Reed, their two main musical influences, and much, much more.
Over the last year, I tracked down and interviewed numerous individuals from around the world who were active participants in the events of the Plastics' history including former band members and managers, close friends of the group including the photographers who took the earliest pictures of the band, and others in the Czech underground music scene which still thrives today. In addition to a plethora of newly available facts, the book includes over 70 fabulous photographs of the band, many never before seen, which the photographers graciously gave me permission to use.
Ever since hearing their first album Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned decades ago, I have been fascinated by the remarkably original music of the Plastic People of the Universe and equally amazed at their incredible story. If this book gains them some new fans, it will make my efforts all worthwhile. Long live the Plastic People!
(The following are excerpts from the book. Details on ordering the book can be found below)
The Plastic People of the Universe: Apokalyptickej pták (Galén CD 2017)
On February 21, 1976, in a large pub in the village of Bojanovice, the invitation-only "Second Festival of the Second Culture" took place, arranged by Ivan "Magor" Jirous as the celebration of his wedding which had actually transpired a month earlier. The largest underground festival yet, it included a dozen bands playing for over 300 people and began with Magor saying, half jokingly, "We must start now, maybe the police will come soon." Luckily for them (and us), the police didn't show and the Plastics performed a terrific show which stands as their best vintage live album. Following a quick poem by Egon Bondy himself, the band took the stage and played a riveting nine-song set, opening with two Egon Bondy songs that rival their "studio" versions - a galvanic "Magické noci" that leaves the audience momentarily stunned and a spooky "Okolo okna" featuring Vratislav Brabenec's magnificent sax playing. Josef Janíĉek earns his rep as the band's secret weapon playing trippy guitar on "Ach to státu hanobení," spacey vibraphone on "Prší, prší" and jazzy electric piano throughout. Hlavsa's powerful bass and spirited vocals sound so great you wouldn't know he was half drunk. "Koleda," with eerie viola by Jiří Kabeš, is a slow, creepy song about Christmas in prison. "Phallus impudicus" is a heavy one about Magor's favorite mushroom. Soundman Zdeněk Fišer contributes otherworldly sonics from his theremin to a few songs and drummer Jaroslav Vožniak rocks everywhere. Apart from a brief power outage during "Píseň brance," the show went off without a hitch - even the finale "Eliášův oheň (St. Elmo's Fire)" which was accompanied by pyrotechnic effects. But 25 days later, the police did come. This show was the last straw for the regime who had been planning a crackdown for months and, on March 17, a dragnet of arrests began. By early April, over 20 musicians from several bands including all the Plastic People were in custody, charged with "organized disturbance of the peace." More than 100 people were interrogated, homes were raided and the Plastics' homemade instruments were confiscated by the police, as were tapes, manuscripts and a film of the concert. Over the next several months, all the Plastics were released with the exception of Jirous and Brabenec who went on trial in September along with two other musicians. The regime used the Czech press to brand the Plastic People as hooligans and mental defectives, and the confiscated Egon Bondy recordings were used as evidence of the band's drug use and deviant character. Unsurprisingly, the three-day trial ended with guilty verdicts. Jirous got sentenced to 18 months in prison and Brabenec got eight months. The album's title comes from the one about an apocalyptic bird "covering the sky with wings... an iron curtain down he brings" written by DG 307's Pavel Zajíĉek. He got a year. A
NOTE: This album was produced with the financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. The CD features an excellent 20-page booklet containing previously unpublished photos and extensive liner notes by Jaroslav Riedel (in Czech) with historical data based on police archives including drummer Jaroslav Vožniak's comical interrogation testimony in which he points out that he wasn't aware of any obscene lyrics due to his deafness. All but the first two songs of this concert were previously released on Globus CD PPU IV: Ach to státu hanobení in 2000. However, that earlier release was made from a copy of the original tape as the original was considered lost. Since then, the original tape was located and this CD uses that master for superior audio quality.
Milan Hlavsa, Jiří Kabeš and Vratislav Brabenec at the Second Festival of the Second Culture at Bojanovice, February 21, 1976. (Photo: Petr Prokeš)
HISTORICAL INTERLUDE: "The Trial of the Plastic People" was, in fact, two separate trials with a total of seven defendants. The first trial took place in Pilsen on July 7 and 8, 1976 and convicted Karel Havelka, Miroslav Skalický and František Stárek (sentences of 30 months, 18 months and 8 months, respectively) of organizing an event of poetry and music that took place on December 13, 1975 in Prestice at which Ivan Jirous had read his "Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival." All three sentences were halved by the Court of Appeals on September 3, 1976. The second trial took place in Prague from September 21 to 23, 1976 and convicted Jirous, Pavel Zajíĉek, Svatopluk Karásek and Vratislav Brabenec to unconditional sentences of 18 months, 1 year, 8 months and 8 months, respectively. Jirous received the harshest sentence because he was considered the most dangerous due to his ideological essay.
Soon after the arrests, the regime ran a defamation campaign against the musicians, using TV, radio and the Communist Party newspaper Rudé právo to label the band members as drug addicts and devil worshipers. The smear backfired as it drew the attention of non-conformist Czech intellectuals, including philosopher Jan Patoĉka and banned playwright Václav Havel, who wrote letters to Czech President Gustáv Husák and West German novelist Heinrich Böll appealing for support.
Václav Havel's involvement was not coincidental. In early March, just two weeks before Ivan Jirous' arrest, Havel and Jirous had met in secrecy at the studio of a mutual friend, art historian František Smejkal. At the time, the two men were leading figures in separate circles of dissent with Havel one of the leaders of the intellectual opposition and Jirous the undisputed leader of the cultural opposition. Jirous had played Havel tapes of the Plastics' music while Havel read Jirous' manifesto. Later that evening, they adjourned to a pub and stayed up until dawn, drinking and deep in serious conversation. Before parting, Havel promised Jirous he would come see the Plastics at their next concert - but then the arrests happened.
Havel, a passionate rock fan, was outraged at the news of the musicians' arrest. In his view, the Plastic People embodied the struggle for freedom of expression under a repressive regime that he'd been writing about for years, most recently in his explosive, open "Letter to Husák," where he harshly criticized Czech Communist Party leader Gustáv Husák's totalitarian government for choosing "... the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power." Now, Havel wrote a new essay on "The Trial," mocking the regime and portraying the defendants as heroes who personified "those forces in man that constantly compel him to search for himself, to determine his own place in the world freely and in his own way."
During the trial, non-conformists from all walks of life, including intellectuals, musicians and clergy, mingled in the corridors of the courthouse. Soon, they joined in solidarity and a movement began on behalf of the defendants, spearheaded by Havel who used his foreign contacts to generate Western support. Once Amnesty International and the Western pop music press got wind of their plight, the Plastic People became a "cause célèbre" as international outrage over the trial grew. Following the guilty verdicts, Havel and others drafted a declaration demanding freedom of expression and respect for human rights for all Czechs, as per the just-signed Helsinki Accords which the government had promised to uphold. They named their manifesto Charter 77 and planned to "publish" it on January 1, 1977 by mailing it to the Czech Federal Assembly.
The signatures of 242 dissidents were secretly obtained during the 1976 Christmas holiday season. The majority of the signatories were intellectuals and activists of various occupations but also included some musicians such as Vratislav Brabenec who had been released from prison on November 17, 1976 with time served and signed the charter per Havel's request. On January 6, 1977, Havel, along with writer Ludvík Vaculík and actor Pavel Landovský, set out by car to mail the document to the Federal Assembly as well as copies to all 242 signatories. What followed was right out of a spy film. Landovský was tailed by several unmarked StB police cars who chased Havel and company through the streets of Prague at high speed, finally blocking them in on a side street and detaining them - but not before Havel jumped out of the car and deposited some of the mail in a nearby postal box. Local citizens watched police drag Landovský out of the car and assumed the actor was making a new movie. The original document was confiscated but copies circulated as samizdat and, thanks to diplomatic channels, the charter was published on January 7 in several major western newspapers and transmitted back into the country via Radio Free Europe, the BBC and the Voice of America.
The regime retaliated harshly against Charter 77 which the official press described as "an anti-state, anti-socialist, and demagogic, abusive piece of writing." Signatories were subjected to constant surveillance and harassment by the secret police and many lost their jobs or were forced into exile. Havel and other dissident leaders were later tried for treason and sentenced to prison. Over 1000 people would eventually sign the manifesto.
On September 18, 1977, Ivan Jirous was released from prison and immediately signed Charter 77. He then began organizing the Third Music Festival of the Second Culture to be held at Václav Havel's country cottage in the village of Hrádeĉek. Compared to the first two underground festivals, Hrádeĉek was a meeting place for people coming from a much wider circle and the nearly two hundred invited guests included, not just the Czech musical underground but members of the intellectual community of banned writers and academics who were friends of Havel. These two groups of seemingly incompatible individuals were brought together as a direct result of the trial of the Plastic People.
Vratislav Brabenec, Jiří Kabeš, Ivan Jirous and Václav Havel at the Third Festival of the Second Culture in Hrádeĉek, October 1, 1977. (Photo: Ondřej Němec)
HISTORICAL INTERLUDE: In 1978, the State Security police launched an operation code-named Asanace (Sanitation) to once and for all rid Czechoslovakia of opponents of the Communist regime. Starting with Charter 77 signatories, the StB targeted dozens of dissidents and subjected them to brutal pressure in an effort to intimidate them and force them to leave the country. This infamous campaign of harassment used tactics of physical and mental abuse including endless interrogations, home invasions, violent beatings, torture and threats to the victims' families. Václav Havel, Milan Hlavsa, Vratislav Brabenec and Svatopluk Karásek were just four of the names on the StB's list of dangerous enemies of the state. Many well-known Czechs would eventually succumb to the terrorism and flee their homeland, leaving their former lives behind.
In October 1978, Václav Havel wrote his monumental political essay "The Power of the Powerless" in which he criticizes the Communist regime which, by its nature, forces ordinary citizens to choose between living a lie or else be treated as dissidents. He explains how Charter 77 was conceived in a "spiritual and intellectual climate" created by the trial of the Plastic People which was not a "confrontation of two differing political forces... but two differing conceptions of life," with the regime on one side and, on the other, "unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership." He relays how the various dissident groups closed ranks around the band's trial, realizing that the "attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth... the freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom." The essay circulated via samizdat and was translated into multiple languages, becoming a manifesto for dissent throughout the Eastern Bloc.
The Plastic People of the Universe: Jak bude po smrti (Afterlife) (Globus International CD 1998)
First performed live on April 22, 1978 at Václav Havel's farmhouse in Hrádeĉek, then recorded there in May, Passion Play was the first major collaboration between Milan Hlavsa, who wrote the music, and former theology student Vratislav Brabenec, who provided lyrics inspired by text from the Bible. This second joint effort was also planned in 1978 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth (and 50th anniversary of the death) of nonconformist Czech author-philosopher Ladislav Klíma but wasn't realized until October 1979 when it was performed in a barn on a farm in Nová Víska that was purchased by the underground so they'd have a secluded place to hold concerts. The live recording circulated within the underground on magnizdat cassette but didn't see official release until it was included in Globus' 1992 box set under the title Slavná Nemesis. In 1998, the album was remastered for this CD and reverted to its original title. Reflecting both the Plastics' recent experience with prison and the extreme ideas of Klíma (who the band identified with), it is understandably their harshest and most difficult music. Brabenec provides lyrics adapted from Klíma's writings and Hlavsa, determined to compose music as scary and bizarre as Klíma's metaphysical horror stories, succeeds beyond your wildest nightmares. Besides a disarming fanfare, the title track is a 20-minute stroll through the catacombs with some of the creepiest music you'll ever hear as the Plastics dramatize the last thoughts of a dying man with a soundtrack that starts eerie and gradually builds to pure cacophony (with Brabenec proving himself the equal of his peer Peter Brötzmann) while maintaining an unbearable tension from start to finish. The dark, dour instrumental "Slavná Nemesis" crawls along for most of its 16 minutes but rocks out at the end. The finale "Jsem Absolutní Vůle (I Am the Absolute Will)," a reworking of Passion Play's "Čist jsem od krve (I Am Innocent Of The Blood)," is seven minutes of ghostly vocals, atonal sax and one of Hlavsa's funkiest bass riffs that decay right before your ears. Their most avant-garde album, and mostly for fans. B
NOTE: This CD is Vol. VI in Globus' series of collected PPU recordings, subtitled PPU VI/1979. The band also recorded a studio version of this album in 1980 which was unofficially released on magnizdat cassette. In 2003, the band performed the album in concert with the 15-piece Agon Orchestra and that recording was released on a 2009 Guerilla CD which also includes edited versions of the 1980 studio recordings as bonus tracks.
HISTORICAL INTERLUDE: The above-mentioned homestead, located in the remote village of Nová Víska in Northern Bohemia, was purchased in 1978 by a dozen members of the underground including Karel Havelka, Miroslav Skalický and František Stárek (the three convicts from the first 1976 trial against the underground) and functioned successfully as both an independent community which housed fourteen young people and as a private performance venue. The largest barn on the property was converted into a concert hall and hundreds of people attended musical concerts and lectures there . Eventually, the StB installed a checkpoint at the entrance to the commune and began taking down names of everyone who entered. It was there in 1979 that František Stárek began publishing the samizdat magazine Vokno (Window), a periodical which published liner notes and lyrics to banned recordings as well as news about past (but never upcoming) underground events. At the end of 1980, the state expropriated the farm under the false pretext that visitors to the commune were spreading infectious disease and most of those who lived there were forced to emigrate.
Many underground communities and neighborhoods with large populations of mániĉky lived in the remote Northwest region of the country known as the Sudetenland. These enclaves of the druhá kultura helped many young people live happy and honest lives during the worst of times.
The Plastic People of the Universe are the legendary godfathers of the Czech underground music scene. Formed in 1968 shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia which crushed the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring, the band endured two decades of Soviet "normalization." Stripped of their professional status, then banned from performing in public, they were eventually thrown in jail. Their crime? Making music that didn't conform to the Communist regime's tastes. Yet the band never wavered in their determination to make their own authentic art and their brave perseverance ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution which ended the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia. Their incredible story has often allowed their music to be overlooked. Not anymore.
A CONSUMER GUIDE TO THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE is the first book to focus on the band's remarkably original music - a magical brew of progressive rock, free jazz, European roots music and psychedelia - and the only guide to review every album in their discography plus selected works by related bands including Půlnoc, Fiction and DG 307 - over 80 albums in all. Books and DVDs about the band are also reviewed within. Most of the band's amazing music has never been released in the U.S. This guide will tell you which albums are must-owns and where to track them down. Information on new and upcoming releases is also provided.
The 8.5" x 11" soft-cover, full color book includes over 70 photographs - many of them rare and previously unpublished. Telling the band's incredible story while simultaneously reviewing the entirety of their recordings in chronological order, this book is an essential read for music fans and history buffs alike.
To order Joe Yanosik's book, A CONSUMER GUIDE TO THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE, click here.
Also see Joe Yanosik's earlier article on the Plastic People and Pulnoc & a 1998 interview with Milan Hlavsa & a 2008 interview with Vratislav Brabenec
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