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- Posted on Sep 30th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
A sharp reminder has come to the U.S. in the form of the Plastic People of the Universe, making a brief tour 40 years after events that would link the group with the dramatic events of the "Prague Spring" in its home in the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia. Founded by electric bassist Milan Hlavsa after Soviet forces brought an end to that 1968 flash of freedom, the band stood as symbols of the resistance, victims of the repression, associates and confidants of figures who would fight communist rule and later lead the Czech Republic into democracy -- notably playwright Vaclav Havel, who became the nation's first elected president. The band's iconic status was put into sharp focus recently when English playwright Tom Stoppard (who was born in Czechoslovakia) made its history and music a central feature of his acclaimed play 'Rock 'n' Roll,' examining rock's role in life and rebellion behind the Iron Curtain.
Or, on the other hand, there's the way guitarist Joe Karafiá assesses it: "We were just a bunch of guys who liked to drink beer and play music."
Well, sometimes that's the stuff from which revolutions are made.
"We never thought we would have to fight for music," he continues. "We got a big following, with a lot of people coming to see us. That scared the regime. When PPU played a gig, 500 people from all over the country would show up. During those times it was illegal for people to group like that. The political part was a problem that the government made."
But it forced the Plastic People underground, where it served as the house band -- or barn band, playing surreptitious concerts at various remote farm locales, at least when the police hadn't been tipped off -- for the arts-oriented resistance movement. Two band members were tried and convicted in 1976 for "organized disturbance of the peace," which in turn helped spur the Havel-led Charter 77 declaration of rights to expression, which ultimately let to the playwright's jailing, as well. But it also laid the groundwork for the successful "Velvet Revolution" of 1989.
Now, to be clear, this was not the same kind of thing that went on in nearby Hungary, where such artists as Muzsikas and singer Marta Sebestyen helped subvert Soviet domination by reviving local folk music and, with it, a sense of national cultural pride. The Plastic People's influences were not in Bohemian villages or anything but in an underground scene on the other side of the globe.
"We just liked to play Frank Zappa and Velvet Underground ," Karafiá says.
In fact, asked to list the five acts that would be the key to understanding the nature of the PPU's own music, Karafiá and double-bass player Ivan Bierhanzl list albums by Zappa ('Absolutely Free,' 'Chunga's Revenge,' 'FZ'), the Velvets ('The Velvet Underground & Nico'), Zappa associate Captain Beefheart ('Safe as Milk,' 'Strictly Personal'), the Doors (the 1966 self-titled debut album) and the Fugs' eponymous LP. What's striking is that other than the Doors, in 1968 none of these artists had more than a cult following even at home in the U.S. But something about this music resonated with the young Czechs back then.
"We played many covers in the beginning," says Bierhanzl. "Frank Zappa is one of the best composers of the times, but we had to stop playing his music. It was too difficult. There is a chamber orchestra in Prague today that plays his pieces. We mostly played Velvet Underground tunes. There is a Velvet Underground revival band in Prague that two of us play in. Lou Reed actually saw us play. He was shocked, because our band played the songs better than the Velvet Underground."
Maybe it's fitting, though. Four decades and many albums after a time in which the band members not just stood up for their music but spent time in prison simply for playing it, PPU are back in the underground at home.
"It's a funny question," Karafiá says when asked if the group is held up at home as a living testimony to freedom of expression and the human will. "The band is actually ignored by the Czech press. We are a very alternative band. The lyrics and music do not appeal to the mainstream, even in Czechoslovakia. Some of our fans still listen to our early music, the terrible music. Most of these fans are old guys from the communist regime. They go nostalgic, selling old CDs and merchandise. We do get some young people enjoying the band, but it is not like we are playing for a teenage crowd. The new fans are there for the music, not the symbolism."
Terrible music? Harsh. But in any case, the music new fans, and old, are hearing these days is different from what the band played in its formative days, reflective of the long journey from 'Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned,' the early '70s album setting the satirical lyrics of Czech poet Egon Bondy to music. The songs on that and other releases of studio and live material from that time period that have come out since the end of communist rule involve varying measures of classical structures, rock intensity and outright cacophony. Over time, the ever-evolving group developed a driving, compelling, somewhat ominous rock sound as on the 1997 live performance of 'Kanarek,' powerful while being both true to its roots and influences, and yet very much its own.
The current sound came to the fore in the late '80s and early '90s with a band combining several original Plastic People with some young Czech musicians under the name Pulnoc (Midnight), which made some gripping U.S. performances and even signed to major label Arista Records. Plastic People reunited in 1997 at the behest of Havel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 and have remained active, even following Hlavsa's death from lung cancer in 2001 at age 59. A new lineup, including the first female Plastic Person in the form of bassist-singer Eva Turnová, has performed regularly since.
Arguably, the music has become more Czech over time, as the members' own sensibilities overtook the early influences, though Karafiá sees the real Czech element not being in the music but in the words.
"We have quite good lyrics," he notes. "We don't always write our own lyrics, but we always choose good lyrics. Some are about the past, some are about drinking beer. Some are about young guys meeting young girls but in a special Czech way."
And no matter what mantle of history it wears, the band has achieved its initial, modest goals: "The interesting thing about the band is that we never cared about politics -- never cared," says Karafiá. "We just wanted to play music in peace. We just wanted the freedom to play the music we enjoyed."