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Monthly Archives: July 2012

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!
I’ll be the first to admit that the avalanche you just witnessed is a bit more “70’s” than we’ve done on ROTU. Perhaps it was just in the ash-encrusted air. I know I got black lung just looking at that cover (as stretched it is on YouTube), but enough with the zingers. Caldera was an excellent group that fell victim to that all-too-unfortunate planned obsolescence of distribution: an art object that’s owned by a major label (in this case Capitol Records) and didn’t sell. As a result, their work is pretty hard to find on CD (at least legitimately or for reasonable prices), but thankfully the piracy juggernaut that is YouTube has helped out a great deal. Let’s hear it for team work.
Founded in 1976, Caldera was a multi-American effort to combine the then thriving jazz fusion scene (their primary influences being Return to Forever and Weather Report) with Pan-Latin influences. Pan-Latin may seem like something I just made up (as I did), but it fits what Caldera considered to be Latin music, which encompassed everything from Afro-Cuban to Flamenco to Salsa and anything else written in Spanich. The mind runs wild. Pulsing rhythms. Synths. Bongos. Keytars. The best-yet-found precursor to Earth Wind & Fire (who would be supplanted by a former member of this group). Perhaps we should just take another listen.
After floating off on a Tomita carpet ride, we hit Heavy Weather and all is right in the world. It’s almost too lovely to behold, swooping from acid to sitcom opener to soul-enriching sax in the blink of an eye. And yet it all works. This track isn’t as Latin heavy as the previous one (aside from a surging auxilary percussion drive), but I’m not one to pigeonhole. I’ll let this track make up for that:
This kind of brilliance lasted them four albums (1976-1979) but they just refused to sell. I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a Sam Hill shame that is, and everybody on YouTube, AllMusic, and Discogs agrees. They broke up after their fourth album The Dreamer and split into other projects, such as the aforementioned Earth Wind & Fire participation. A discussion on why they didn’t get the Big Break could shoot all over the place, with tangents on the public’s willingness to cross-breed genre tropes, to speculation on Capitol’s marketing, to the general direction of Jazz Fusion at the time and what people were expecting to hear if the words “Latin Flanger” are uttered. My first question is to whether or not record company executives actually listen to their product before making decisions (Answer = ? and 1/2). A lone track on the suspicious looking Capitol Rare, Volume 1 compilation isn’t doing it for me.
I’ll leave you with this last portal to a mythical land, with keyboards by Larry Dunn (hey, didn’t he co-found EW&F?)

Carrot Recorder. Bean Shaker. Pumpkin Triangle. Radirimba. Gurkenficke with variable vacuum hole. Krautscratch. Celery Guitar. Bohrmaschinenlauchzellerpropeller. I think I’m in love.

One would be hard pressed to locate the true birth of noise music in the 20th century, as anybody has the potential to drop a stack of dishes and wonder how it would sound as Dubstep. But in the fast-moving world of alternative instrument makers, one collective has investigated the sonic possibilities of the salad. Based out of Vienna, The Vegetable Orchestra has produced produce instruments to fit any thinkable timbre, and the more the merrier. Their album Onionoise features all of them, and out of the sheer fun and ingenuity of it all the group turned out one of the best experimental albums I’ve heard in a while. They also know how to drop a beat or two.
The why isn’t important, and they don’t answer it (though they do mention that they are delicious). Perhaps a concept of what a vegetable orchestra is “about” would sully things. The group prides itself on how its members come from all different musical backgrounds, and this shows through in the wide variety of styles and moods present on Onionoise. I’m all for layers (oniony ones, especially), but the last thing I want is a guy in an armchair tapping a radish with a stick and pondering its place in the universe. They aren’t a political message, or a SITTM (Stick It To The Man) collective. It’s aural soup. It doesn’t have to be anything more than itself.
And perhaps most people will view the whole thing as a J-O-A-K. That’s before they’ve heard the slow-burn atmosphere tracks and the pretty-dang-good dance music. That’s before the (inevitable) tour opening for McCoy Tyner. TITK (Those In The Know) are fine with the initial guffaw. It’s a sieve. Those left in the pan will be invited to barrel down the highway blasting distorted cabbage. I’m ready for the next album already.
Here’s their site: http://vegetableorchestra.org/