The Plastic People of the Universe, or What if The Velvet Underground Had Lived in Communist Czechoslovakia? – by Adam Thometz

Before I talk about Plastic People of the Universe (or PPU), let me set the stage and give a brief history lesson since they are a very historically important band. To the best of my knowledge, they are the most historically important band to have ever existed. I can’t think of another band that could potentially be in history books. If you know of one, I’d like to hear it.

The Plastic People of the Universe were conceived in a time when the Czech Republic (called Czechoslovakia back in the day, up until 1993) was going through a period of Czechoslovak normalization. In this period, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, headed by Gustáv Husák in this period, ruled the country and adhered to Soviet policies. One of their main goals, generally speaking, was to preserve the status quo and they did this by repressing dissent as much as possible, as was the nature of Communist parties associated with the Eastern Bloc. One method of repressing dissent was to promote consumerism; material goods were widely available to the Czechs so as to placate them and nudge them to accepting Husák’s policies. However, like any repressive regime (except maybe North Korea but who knows?), there was an underground scene that formed as a response to these policies. This underground scene is known as the “Prague Underground” and was based in Prague. Go figure. This scene was defined in opposition to the conformity and consumerism of the time and its lifeblood was experimental rock, psychedelic rock, and samizdat literature. The Plastic People of the Universe is probably one of the most important figures to come from the Prague Underground scene.

PPU, as they will be called from this point on, was formed by bassist Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa in 1968 in Prague. He was heavily influenced by Western music, which was banned by the regime but it circulated anyway thanks to Czechs living abroad and sending these records to their friends and family back home. Some of his favorites were Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. Ivan Jirous, a Czech art historian and cultural critic, was their manager and artistic director; Jirous was to PPU what Andy Warhol was to the Velvet Underground. Most of PPU’s lyrics were not written by its members. Instead, their lyrics were outsourced; they were written by prominent dissenting Czech poets and philosophers specifically for the band, including Ladislav Klíma and Zbyněk Fišer(pen name: Egon Bondy). Nearly all of their songs are sung in Czech. There was a stint from 1970-72 where the lyrics were in English because Jirous believed that English was the lingua franca of rock but Paul Wilson, a Canadian living in Prague at the time who translated their lyrics into English and sang them in that period, encouraged the band to continue singing in Czech.

Due to the militant preservation of the status quo in Czechoslovakia, simply playing this kind of music in public was considered a radical political act, despite the band not having any political agenda. In 1970, they were officially banned by the regime from playing their music in public. This didn’t stop them. They continued to perform their music throughout the 70’s. Band members have been beaten and arrested on several occasions by the police, making PPU one of the most harassed bands in the history of rock music. This harassment had reached its peak in 1976 when PPU and others from the underground scene were put on trial by the government for “organized disturbance of the peace” and were sentenced to terms in prison varying from 8 to 18 months. This trial had inspired various Czech writers and intellectuals, including former president Václav Havel, a fan and sympathizer (may he rest in peace), to write up and sign the historical Charter 77, which was a highly influential critique of the Czech government’s handling of human rights issues, handed out as samizdat.

After their release from prison, the band had continued to perform their music discreetly and started to deteriorate in the 80’s. In 1988, the government officially lifted their ban from live performance but the band broke up. Hlavsa went on to form Půlnoc, “midnight” in Czech, with two other ex-PPU members. In 1997, then-president Havel suggested that they reunite and perform a series of concerts to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. Hlavsa died of lung cancer in 2001 but PPU is still active and touring, despite their age.

If you want to know where to start, search for Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned and take it from there.

UPDATE (08/17/12):
 
As you may have heard, the Russian all-female punk group Pussy Riot is being convicted for “crudely undermin[ing] social order” and “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” (since when did modern Russia consider religion important?) among other things. These charges don’t sound too far off from those against PPU. For me, after having done the research for this article, following the trial was eerily akin to watching history repeat itself right before my eyes, even though I wasn’t alive to witness, and therefore fully appreciate, PPU’s trial or the change that it inspired. I’m no historian or political scientist but if history is any indication of where this trial is headed, I expect a big change coming to Russia in the near future for the better, not because they will discover Jesus or miraculously realize the error of their ways or whatever but because people, Russian or otherwise, will become inspired by the trial and pressure Russia to change; eventually, the pressure will become so great that Russia will cave in. That’s how significant change happens. Look at Egypt: Mubarak didn’t step down because he miraculously realized on his own that nobody liked him!
Also, in honor of Pussy Riot’s cause, Tom Hawking of flavorwire.com created a list of 10 bands who have brushed against the law for their radical tendencies, political or not. If you thought this article was interesting, I implore you to check it out. Naturally, PPU and Pussy Riot are on the list (first and last, respectively). Go to http://www.flavorwire.com/319387/musical-martyrs-10-bands-whove-suffered-for-their-politics for more radical acts!
1 comment
  1. Peter Nelson-King said:

    For added fun, look up Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll. Late-60′s Czechoslovakia is its main focus and The Plastic People of the Universe play an integral role.

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