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You Say You Want a Revolution?

As they celebrate their 50th anniversary, legendary Czech band Plastic People of the Universe continue to play and live through their music that helped topple communism.

by Megan Sokol and Ioana Caloianu 4 March 2019

"We were not political. But we insisted on playing a certain kind of music, dressing and performing in a certain way," Josef Janicek, keyboard and synthesizer player in the Plastic People of the Universe, once said about the band’s beginnings. Since the setting for the band’s founding was Czechoslovakia, one month after the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies rolled into the country in August 1968, quashing dissent and the liberating policies of the Prague Spring, the personal quickly became political.

 

Fast forward 50 years later, to December 2018, where, at popular Prague concert venue Palac Akropolis, it seems like hundreds of Czech celebrities have gathered to see the Plastics. Hard rock fans, intellectuals, and well-known writers such as the postmodernist Jachym Topol, came together to reminisce about the days when such underground music thrived. In keeping with the city’s pub culture, beer was in almost everyone’s hand, parents brought their children, and young men brought their girlfriends. This show was for the ones who survived the communist regime, evaded the censors, and rocked with the Plastic People of the Universe.

 

Vratislav Brabenec

 

But taking another leap back into the past, the Plastic People of the Universe’s core members were Josef Janicek, Milan "Mejla" Hlavsa, Ivan Jirous, and Canadian Paul Wilson, who was teaching English in Prague at that time, with Jirous, a Czech art historian and cultural critic, serving as their artistic manager. Their music was inspired by U.S. musician Frank Zappa, while their name can be traced to a song called “Plastic People” from the “Absolutely Free” album by the Mothers of Invention. Another major inspiration of the band was the Velvet Underground, first for their repertoire, which initially consisted of Velvet songs, and then as a lifeline that allowed them to continue playing after the Plastic People’s official music license was revoked in 1970.

 

The band during the concert

 

"The lyrics of the Plastic People include rude expressions and nonsense whose artistic and formal value is absolutely insignificant" was the Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture’s evaluation of the band in a review of its music. That assessment could explain the band’s popularity with the hip, underground youth, as well as why it was frowned-upon in the repressive “normalization” era that followed the Prague Spring.

 

As a member of the Union Of Artists, Jirous figured out a workaround that ban: he organized lectures on Andy Warhol, and, after talking about the artist for a few minutes, he would invite the band on stage to give the public a feel for the sound of the Velvet Underground in the following hour or two.

 

The Plastic People of the Universe

 

Still, the noose tightened as the musicians were repeatedly arrested throughout the 1970s, and culminated in 1976, when several band members were put on trial after headlining an unofficial music festival in the southern city of Ceske Budejovice.

 

"They feared us, because it wasn't an organization we were part of, more like a circus of a few thousand people, and they could not manage us,” saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec, who joined the band in the 1970s, told The Guardian. “They could lock students out of school, but what could they do to us? The worst part was in '77, the never-ending interrogations, the constant battering, just making our daily lives hell. We would sometimes sit for two or three interrogations a day. They would carry on from three to 10 hours. They wanted to wear us down.”

 

The band also celebrated the anniversary with cake.

 

A seminal moment in the history of the band, and of Czechoslovakia itself as it later turned out, came when Vaclav Havel – the dissident playwright who became president after the fall of the communist regime – embraced the Plastic People’s cause. Motivated in part by the band’s arrest, Havel and others composed the Charter 77 document, which lambasted the sad state of the country’s human rights record. As Anna Sabatova, one of the document’s signatories, and currently the ombudsman of the Czech Republic, wrote, “the mission of Charter 77 was simple and clear – it fought for the observance of human rights in accordance with the two international charters that Czechoslovakia had ratified.”

 

In a way, the Plastic People of the Universe’s influence can be summed up in an answer that Havel gave to the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, when asked about music’s potential to change the world. “Not in itself, it’s not sufficient in itself. But it can contribute to that significantly in being a part of the awakening of the human spirit.”

 

Back to that concert at the end of 2018, Havel is gone, and there are dozens of new members within the band. But there is a genuine happiness seeping through the crowd, as writers and former band members came onstage to share their memories of the Plastics, making the event feel like a high school reunion.

Megan Sokol is studying Visual Journalism at Western Washington University. She was a TOL intern this past fall. Ioana Caloianu is a TOL editor. All photos taken by Megan Sokol. 

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TOL PROMOTION

We would like to invite you to meet Kathryn Thier, a recognized expert and instructor of Solutions Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

 

Join us to learn more about the connections between investigative reporting and Solutions Journalism and discover the impact that bringing the “whole” story has on communities. Kathryn’s keynote speech will be followed by a panel discussion on bringing the solutions perspective into reporting practices with Nikita Poljakov, deputy editor in chief of the business daily Hospodářské noviny. Nikita is also head of the project “Nejsi sám” (You are not alone), which uses the solutions approach to tackle the issue of male suicide. The main program will be followed by an informal wine reception. 

 

The event will take place on Monday, 25 March at 5 p.m. in the Hollar building of the Charles University Faculty of Social Sciences (Smetanovo nábřeží 6, Praha 1). The event will be in English. 

 

Attendance is free upon registration - please, fill in the registration form.

 

Feel free to check out and share the event on Facebook.

 

 

 

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