Rock Czechs

Rock bands may be famed for their lax attitude to authority but only one has ever helped overthrow a government. Richard Vine uncovers the bizarre story of the Czechoslovakian group, Plastic People Of The Universe

Frankie Goes To Hollywood were banned by the BBC. The Sex Pistols shocked the tabloids on a weekly basis. John Lennon made it onto the FBI's subversive list. But few bands rarely manage to smash more than their hotel rooms.

But, as tomorrow's radio programme Document - Happy Hearts Club Banned (8pm, Radio 4) reveals, there was a band who actually did have a hand in smashing the system: Czechoslovakia's Plastic People Of The Universe.

Hounded by the secret police, jailed, their albums were bootlegged overseas through a network of Czech dissidents living abroad, and then deemed illegal to own once they made their way back into the country. Their gigs were infrequent, organised by word of mouth, with the location secret until the last possible moment. And then, they were often surrounded by the police and beaten up. Even the audience were arrested and interrogated from time to time.

A caustic slagging off from a disgruntled hack in the NME is probably the worst most bands have to worry about when they release a new album. The Plastic People received such resounding endorsements from the Czech Ministry of Culture as, "The lyrics of the Plastic People include rude expressions and nonsense whose artistic and formal value is absolutely insignificant. The words expose anarchy, decadence, clericalism, nihilism and cause negative influence on the lifestyle of our young generation."

They were formed after the brief explosion of pop culture that came in the 1968 Prague Spring with Alexander Dubcek's liberalisation of communism. Mirroring their Western long-haired contemporaries, for a while the much abused peace, love and freedom ethos of the hippy culture actually meant something more than annoying people with short hair. Once the Soviet cold war machine got wind of what was going on, of course, the tanks rolled in, trampling flower power before it had a chance to blossom.

Fed on a diet of The Velvet Underground, The Fugs, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention (from whose song Plastic People they took their name) they blended the sound of late 60s underground rock with the traditions of Czech jazz and folk, coming up with a sound that would have happily freaked-out the freaks at Max's Kansas City, let alone the paranoid cultural dictatorship of the Warsaw Pact.

They struggled on after their official licence (which gave them access to fairly crucial elements of being in a band, like instruments and amps) was revoked in 1970, playing with home-made equipment at weddings, private parties and at cultural events organised by their manager Ivan Jirous, who, as a member of the Union Of Artists, had access to convention halls. There he would organise lectures on Andy Warhol, talk for a few minutes, and then get the Plastic People to "demonstrate" the songs of Warhol's cohorts, The Velvet Underground, for an hour or two.

The authorities soon worked out what was going on, and stamped out this loophole. A later festival, in 1976, produced the most dramatic response of the authorities, when they arrested 27 musicians, confiscated equipment and recordings, and expelled the group's Canadian singer Paul Wilson. All but four were later released, following an international outcry, but Ivan Jirous and Vratislav Brabenec, the band's saxophonist, stood trial, alongside two members of another band, DG 307.

It was this trial that drew the attention of the intellectual dissident movement that was to crystalise around the playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was inspired by the treatment of these rock musicians to form Charter 77, which led to the later , successful Velvet Revolution. Havel later befriended the band, allowing them to write and record in his house. After Jirous and Brabenec were released, the band continued to play a leading role in the Czech music scene, and Havel went on to become probably the only state leader ever to consult Frank Zappa on his country's development.

It's easy to romanticise the power of rock music, to delve into the murky territory of worshipping its excessive and transformative power, venerating the teenage kicks and that elusive, defining moment when a generation declares independence from the last; to want to believe that an album or a great single can be released and can actually change things. But maybe, once in while it can happen. As Paul Wilson says, "The kind of music the Plastic People wrote was very different from the prevailing music around it, and one of the songs from the Fugs that we used to sing made a reference to that. The words were, I guess from Plato, 'When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.' There's a great satisfaction in knowing that in some small way, the music of the Plastic People really did shake the walls and the walls eventually did come down."

Rock and politicians probably shouldn't mix, as Tony Blair and Oasis have shown, and writing political songs is a tricky act to pull off without sounding like Chumbawumba. But as tomorrow's documentary proves, there is a time and a place for everything. In Communist Czechoslovakia, the mere act of writing songs that weren't sanctioned by the state was enough to kick start the beginning of the end.

The GuardianTramp

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"The lyrics of the Plastic People include rude expressions and nonsense whose artistic and formal value is absolutely insignificant." Forget the Pistols, or the Stones, they didn't have the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Culture giving them such enthusiastic reviews. As Document - Happy Hearts Club Banned (8pm, R4) explains, The Plastic People Of The Universe were just about the most dangerous force in underground rock of all time, continually hounded by the secret police, jailed, recording in Vaclav Havel's home and releasing Zappa/Velvet Underground-influenced albums that were illegal to own.

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