Art & Culture
Godfathers of Prague’s underground
Thirty years later, Plastic People of the Universe remain relevant.
It’s Friday night and approximately 150 people gather at Kulturní dům Bílá Hora awaiting a rock band that has become a national symbol for artistic freedom. The crowd is made up of punk teens, aging rockers and parents who look grateful to have a babysitter for the evening. The lights dim, and five men walk on stage.
The Plastic People of the Universe have earned a spot in Czech history thanks to their resistance to the Communist regime before 1989. Their anti-conformist attitude resulted in multiple arrests, the forced deportation of some of their members, police retaliation against their fans and the signing of an informal political initiative that criticized the government for human rights abuses. Their story united intellectuals and artists alike and was often evoked in the time leading up to the Velvet Revolution.
Despite this legacy, the band members would never refer to themselves as activists. “We are not revolutionaries,” says Vratislav Brabenec, who has been a member of the Plastic People since the 1970s. “We are doing the same thing we were doing before the Velvet Revolution.”
Their fans, however, might disagree. “They represent liberty,” says Eva, an attractive blonde woman who has been a fan since her childhood. “You don’t know what it was like before 1989.”
“They were Prague’s underground culture before the revolution,” says another audience member. “They’re one of my favorite bands.”
The group’s birth can be traced back to the 1968 Prague Spring, led by reformist Alexander Dubček. Then 17-year-old bassist Milan Hlavsa formed the band less than a month after Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and ousted Dubček during the normalization process. Taking their name from a Frank Zappa song, the Plastic People drew inspiration from many Western rock bands of their time, including Zappa, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart.
Less than two years after Plastic People’s formation, the Communist government quickly revoked the band’s license to perform. This didn’t stop the music, just moved it to underground and private events.
Even during this time, the musicians didn’t consider themselves political. “We insisted on playing a certain kind of music, dressing and performing in a certain way,” keyboardist and guitarist Josef Janíček told The Guardian in a 2009 interview.
Nonetheless, this still landed them in trouble many times. “It wasn’t complicated for us. It was complicated for [the government],” Brabenec says. “It was their problem. We didn’t have a problem.”
Secret police had beaten and arrested fans attending their shows, but the Plastic People’s notoriety at home and abroad crescendoed in 1976. Within a month of the Second Festival of Second Culture in Bojanovice, all the band members as well as more than 15 other musicians were arrested for disturbing the peace, prompting the beginning of what dissident playwright and activist Vaclav Havel called “the trial of the Czech underground.”
This period was known for constant interrogations and arrests by the police, prompting Havel and others to draft Charter 77, a harsh criticism of the regime’s abuse of human rights. While it garnered 242 signatures, distributing the text was considered a political crime.
Pressure continued to rise. Band manager Ivan Jirous was imprisoned for the fourth time in 1981 and the secret police even set fire to one of the Plastic People’s concert venues. The government revoked band member Paul Wilson’s residence permit in 1977 and forced Brabenec to emigrate in 1982. Amid the tension the band split in 1988, but the discontent was already spreading throughout the country.
At Kulturní dům Bílá Hora, the audience bobs their heads to the beat as Janíček is perched in front of his keyboard. Brabenec’s raspy roar and saxophone lends accompaniment. After two acts and an encore, the concert goers hang around the community center to get autographs. Eva is among them, howling in excitement when she gets her CD signed.
It’s been 22 years since their reunion after the revolution, but the Plastic People still play gigs regularly. The band has gone through several iterations. Founder Hlavsa passed away in 2001 due to cancer, and original members Michal Jernek, Jiří Števich and Josef Brabec have long since left.
Janíček and Brabenec are now joined by younger musicians Jaroslav Kvasnička on percussion, Johnny Judl Jr. on bass and vocals and David Babka on guitar. The new additions help keep the band’s sound fresh, according to Brabenec. Although they’re busy, they’re still working on new projects and songs.
Now 76-years-old, Brabenec still has a psychedelic rock edge about him, with snowy long hair and a beard. While his memories of his exile in Canada are fading, his fingers still flutter over the keys of his clarinet and saxophone with expert-like precision. He enjoys the energy of performances, preferring to have live jam sessions rather than sticking to the old material because, as he says, he doesn’t want to be “a slave to some fucking tradition.”
When looking at the lasting popularity of the Plastic People of the Universe, Brabenec is happy that people still consider them relevant. “It’s very nice the reaction of the people,” he says, “and to know that we’re not just figurines in a museum.”
You can see Brabenec, his saxophone and the Plastic People of the Universe play on Saturday, Nov. 23 at Kamina boat music bar.