Text by Joe Yanosik
The Plastic who of the what? Never heard of them and I’ve been playing music for decades, you might say. Well, it’s not your fault. Even on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean where they’re from, the Plastic People (actually from Czechoslovakia, not the Universe) remained obscure. In America, fans of alternative music may simply know them as a cult band who made weird, experimental music. In fact, the Plastic People of the Universe were one of the greatest rock groups to emerge from Central Europe during the Communist era and their incredible history should be known far and wide by everyone who plays music for a living.
Formed in Czechoslovakia in 1968 shortly after the Warsaw Pact Invasion in which Soviet tanks and troops crushed the liberal period known as the Prague Spring, the Plastic People of the Universe endured two decades of persecution from the Communist regime simply because they refused to conform to the Soviet “normalization”. Since the era of Stalin, the Communists knew the importance of controlling the art in a society and they used art as propaganda to promote their own fake reality. They were fully aware of the power of music and art and couldn’t let it be created freely for fear that the truth would escape.
Starting in 1970, the new regime in Czechoslovakia required all musicians to undergo “requalification exams” where they were forced to play their music for a jury who would then decide if the musician was acceptable for the new regime or not. Incredible, right? Bands with English names were considered dangerous because they represented American imperialism. Musicians with long hair were considered moral degenerates and denied professional licenses. Bands that agreed to “play ball” with the regime and conform to their style of bland pop music were granted licenses, given top-notch state-owned instruments and access to rehearsal space. Musicians that refused to conform were forced to change their music, find a new profession or flee the country.
The Plastic People of the Universe chose to go underground. Refusing to cut their hair, change their music and endure the humiliating requalification exam, they instead organized guerilla gigs, playing secret concerts which took place in the forests of Bohemia, attempting to avoid the secret police who were everywhere. Dedicated fans would trek for miles in the snow into the woods to seek out the Plastic People of the Universe concerts – as much for the community as for the music. In the early 70s, the Czech underground community grew large as musicians, artists and writers – all banned by the establishment – coalesced around the Plastic People.
In 1976, the regime responded by arresting two dozen musicians, including all the Plastic People of the Universe. Most of the musicians were released from jail over the next few months but a few went on trial and were sentenced to jail sentences of up to 18 months. When the Western press heard about this, the Plastic People became a “cause celebre” and international furor gained the Plastics their 15 minutes of fame. Wait a minute, you might say! The band was thrown in jail for playing rock music? That’s right. And when they were released from jail, they went right back to making music. Their own music, their way. Band members were constantly interrogated and beaten by the secret police. Their families were threatened. When they played music at a friend’s house, the house was later torched by the secret police and burned to the ground. After 1981, it became too dangerous to perform concerts so they resorted to recording their music secretly in their basements and releasing their albums on bootleg cassette tapes that circulated within the underground. Some of their music was smuggled out of the country and released in Canada and Western Europe.
All that time they never changed their music or compromised their artistic vision for anyone. Influenced by two of the most experimental bands of the late 1960s, the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Plastic People of the Universe invented their own unique sound which featured hypnotic bass runs, dramatic string orchestration, psychedelic guitar and free jazz saxophone.
Following the 1976 arrests, the band had hooked up with dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and soon his community of banned intellectuals combined with the Czech musical underground community to exert significant pressure on the Communist regime. Havel, along with the manager of the Plastic People of the Universe, Ivan “Magor” Jirous, both understood the power of music as a political weapon and they wrote about the Plastic People in their influential essays. Ultimately, they were responsible for toppling the totalitarian regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Havel was elected President and his friends the Plastic People played for his cabinet in the Prague Castle in the same halls where the communists had conspired against them.
The importance of the Plastics’ story is that the band always stayed true to their art and valued their music the way they played it. Although they never intended to become political, they soon realized their social-political role in their country and they made great sacrifices for their art. With courage, they persevered and ultimately changed the course of history in their country. Heroes today in the Czech Republic, they should be known worldwide as inspirational forefathers of independent music.
For a detailed history of the Plastic People including reviews of all their albums, check out the new book A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe, now available here: http://tomhull.com/ocston/guests/jy/jy-ppu.php