Children of the revolution

Jailed, banned but never crushed, one underground rock group were instrumental in the fall of Czech communism 20 years ago. Ed Vulliamy tells their incredible story

Vratislav Brabenec sits on the chair that is his throne in the bar that is his court, the Shakespeare, on Krymská Street in the funky district of Prague 10. His hair is long, and so is his beard; "Ciao, bambino!" he says by way of greeting, holding his skinny arms wide. Many rock musicians have preached revolution, although few can claim to have sparked one - but Brabenec, saxophonist and clarinettist for the Plastic People of the Universe, did. Indeed, of all the revolutions against communism that felled the Iron Curtain and transformed Europe 20 years ago, only one could claim rock'n'roll as its catalyst: that in Czechoslovakia, called the "Velvet Revolution", partly because it was peaceful - the clenched fist wearing a velvet glove - but also because the band that unwittingly lit the fuse, the Plastic People, were heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground.

This is the most extraordinary story that ever entwined politics and rock music: it began in 1968 when the band were named after a song by Frank Zappa. It continued with the group being championed, after members had been imprisoned by the regime, by the playwright who would become post-communist Czechoslovakia's first president, Vaclav Havel. It proceeded when Havel appointed Zappa himself to be his government's cultural adviser and ambassador - until Havel was forced by the US State Department to sack him. But there was a singular irony to the Velvet Revolution: none of its dramatis personae set out with an overt political agenda.

Here in the Shakespeare, the rock'n'roll revolution has not ended. "I am no less dissident now than I was then," says 66-year-old Brabenec. "Why should I be? Our identity as a band was to do with poetry, not politics. We were more artistic than political. I am one of those whose cultural actions, not political actions, were sufficient to make me a subversive. The politicians made us political, by being offended by what we did and the music we played. I don't know how many musicians in modern times have been imprisoned because their music offended the authorities, but we are among them. And although it is rather more comfortable for us now, we are still a cultural and artistic dissent against the norm."

He points out, gleefully, that the Czech authorities did not drop criminal charges against the band, first made in 1976, until 2003. I think he is joking. He is not. "I have not found that their behaviour could be considered criminal," the district attorney for Prague West, Ondrej Smelhaus, pronounced on 2 April six years ago and 26 years after the charges of "organised disturbance of the peace" sent Brabenec and the band's mentor, Ivan Jirous, to jail.

I thank Brabenec for bringing me to the Shakespeare and Krymska Street, with its old wooden tables where the ponytailed people enjoy a spliff with their beautifully kept Plzen beer. "Fucking tourists," he says. "Once it was Russian soldiers, now it is tourists. I can't decide which is worse".

Four decades ago, the Plastic People were formed as a communist-approved cover group, playing music by the Velvet Underground and fellow New York avant-garde band the Fugs in dance halls. (Brabenec was living in London at the time: it turns out that he and I were neighbours in Notting Hill: "I was going to the Electric Cinema and studying theology. That is where I heard the music that would influence the Plastic People - Captain Beefheart and John Cale's drone in the Velvet Underground.")

Named after a track from Absolutely Free by the Mothers of Invention, the band is mentioned in passing but dismissed by Frank Zappa's biographer Barry Miles as "loud, surreal, irreverent and not very good". But they're better described by the title of one of the few western books on rock music to consider them at length - Richie Unterberger's Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More. The Plastic People were, and still are, all of the above.

The band was founded by its bass player Milan "Mejla" Hlavsa, but also took on board the art historian and critic Jirous, who acted as muse, inspiration and even publicist in a role not unlike that of Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground - albeit in circumstances where the stakes were considerably higher, with a lot more to lose, and more to gain, politically.

"We were not political," says Josef Janicek, whose keyboard and synthesiser playing gave the Plastics a direct link to bands like Hawkwind and the early Pink Floyd. "But we insisted on playing a certain kind of music, dressing and performing in a certain way." And in Prague in 1968 and 1969, if you wanted to tell your own story, and play your own music, you became political, whether you intended it or not, because the authorities deemed you a threat to their "official" culture.

Along with thriving alternative theatre, cinema and literature, there existed "a very special atmosphere" in Prague at the time, writes Paul Wilson in Rock in a Hard Place, a forthcoming essay on the band. Wilson was a Canadian studying in Prague, and was invited to join the Plastic People as its vocalist in 1969, not least because he sang in English. The country was emerging, or trying to emerge, from the shadow of the crushing of the "Prague Spring" in 1968 when Soviet tanks put an end to the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek. While the west hails the heroism displayed in these events, for the Czechs they tend to evoke feelings of shame. And this to no small degree explains an immediate darkness to the band's sound, born not of self-indulgence but of experience.

But what followed, writes Wilson, was "the unlikely coming together of different people, with different skills, ambitions, and dreams, and the strange way in which all of these things, given the right circumstances, combined and intertwined to become a powerful new force in society". This force marked out the Czech revolution from the others of 1989 in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany - adding a singular cultural and creative dimension and edge. In conversation, Wilson calls it "an evolution of dissent - the cultural becoming political when it parts ways with officialdom trying to crush it, and develops a critical mass, as did the music and appeal of the Plastic People".

Unlike the other members of the band, says Wilson, "Jirous was acutely aware of the role of culture in the history of Czech movements for independence and national assertion. This is partly what I was doing in Czechoslovakia - studying this." Wilson tells of Jirous and Hlavsa trying to sell tickets for a Plastics concert and being challenged by a friend: "You can't be serious!" he said. "The whole nation is on its knees and you guys are going around strumming your guitars?" "The nation may be on its knees," Jirous retorted, "but we're not."

In 1970, the Czech government - as part of its post-1968 process called "normalisation" - revoked the Plastics' licence to perform as musicians. But they continued playing at underground and private occasions, including wedding parties, transforming them into subversive, counter-cultural events. By 1973, the clampdown had become a permanent way of life, leading to the circulation of samizdat literature that undermined the newly authoritarian control - and Vratislav Brabenec had returned from Notting Hill.

With the arrival of Brabenec, the sound and the project changed dramatically, defining the Plastics' work for the next 35 years. Brabenec insisted that they play only original material, and sing in Czech. The mutation was fundamental: as a musician, Brabenec's saxophone and clarinet added new chromatics and textures - avant-garde jazz of the kind played by Soft Machine, Slavonic dances and klezmer rhythms changed the band's musical timbre, which had hitherto combined Velvet-esque rock with a distinctly Celtic edge to Jiri Kabes's violin. Brabenec also deepened Jirous's interplay between culture and the political underground by arranging for the Plastics to release their first record - in France - based on lyrics by the outlawed writer Egon Bondy. The album was entitled, wittily, but in deadly earnest: Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned.

Early in 1975, the police intercepted fans heading for an unofficial music festival, headlined by the Plastics, at Ceske Budejovice, beating and arresting scores of them. "They feared us," says Brabenec, "because it wasn't an organisation we were part of, more like a circus of a few thousand people, and they could not manage us. 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."

In the wake of these events, Jirous wrote a manifesto entitled A Report on the Third Czech Musical Revival - an intentional reference to the 19th-century Czech nationalist romantic movement led by Dvorak, entwining music and underground politics. He wrote: "One of the highest aims of art has been the creation of unrest. The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture, a culture that will not be dependent on the official channels of communication, social recognition, and the hierarchy of values laid down by the establishment."

At almost exactly the same time, another document - an open letter to the general secretary of the Czech Communist party, Gustav Husak - was published by the samizdat playwright, Vaclav Havel. Havel considered what he called "the hidden intentions of life" that cannot be stopped by neutralising the creative riptides that cut beneath society.

Wilson says how he would have "enjoyed being be a fly on the wall the night those two men met. It sounds like quite a night - Jirous played Havel some of the Plastics' music, they adjourned to a bar and drank all night long, past dawn." Havel agreed to come to the next festival at which the Plastics intended to play. But it never happened.

As Jirous had prepared to meet Havel, says Wilson, he was warned by the woman he was living with at the time "that this might not be a prudent thing to do, might even be a dangerous thing to do, that Havel had some agenda. Jirous replied that he had an agenda too, and the day may come when the band might need people with Havel's influence. He had the insight to see which way things were going, for the band, for Havel and for Czechoslovakia."

On the night of 16 March 1976, the secret police were unleashed on the musical underground. Most of the Plastic People and many other musicians - 18 in all - were arrested. In July, the Plastic People were charged alongside two members of another band, DG 307, and Brabenec and Jirous were imprisoned for "organised disturbance of the peace". But the impact, says Brabenec now, "was different than the authorities expected. They expected people to say: 'Ooh, they're horrible, they're drunks, they're idiots.' But we were Czech underground culture".

The outcome was, thanks to Havel's seizure of the band's cause, the celebrated Charter 77 of signatories demanding their freedom, which sowed the seeds for the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The trial of the musical underground, wrote Havel, "was something that aroused me, a challenge that was all the more urgent for being unintentional. It was the challenge of example".

John Cale, whose viola "drone" in the Velvet Underground was such an influence on the Plastic People, believes the New York band's subliminal and personal version of rebellion was perfectly suited to the Czech underground.

"We were about a mish-mash of innovation, an awakening of possibilities, which perhaps is how and why we were taken up in Prague," he tells me now. "The news that we were passed around in jail cells pretty much nailed the 'all politics-is-local' aspect of our songs. The personal was political with the Velvet Underground - and for us, politics was not just local, it was subliminal. The drone helped make the language more resilient. When Prague did their thing, it turned us into a foreign language samizdat. It became a sort of moral drone."

During the years between 1977 and the Velvet Revolution, the pressure intensified, then eased once it became clear that the repression was seeking in vain to keep down what Havel called in 1978 The Power of the Powerless, the title of his greatest essay.

"Everyone understands," wrote Havel, "that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on the most elementary and important thing, something that bound everyone together... The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus as essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, to express and defend the social and political interests of society."

But, first, Czechoslovakia would pass through the shadows. In Jana Chytilova's 2001 documentary film Plastic People of the Universe, Havel says: "I have to admit the story of Charter 77 still reminds me of an odd horror movie with a fairy tale end." The Chartists were brutally assailed - arrested, beaten, imprisoned. By the time the Plastic People were released after eight months in jail, Havel's country house, where he lived under house arrest, was among the few places the band could play. Havel was in turn jailed himself, Brabenec deported to Canada. The regime put extreme pressure on Hlavsa to turn informer, or at least recant, in return for permission to play officially. Hlavsa left and the band split up in 1988, some forming a new ensemble called Pulnoc ("Midnight"). But by then the regime was doomed, rotten from within and no longer able to turn to Mikhail Gorbachev's Moscow for aid. By the winter of 1989, it was spring again in Prague.

And so, writes Wilson, "in December 1989, two key events signalled that the old regime was dead. One of them you know about: the remarkable election of Vaclav Havel as president of his country. The other was the massive Concert for All Decent People. Dozens and dozens of musical groups, rock bands, choruses, folk singers, gypsy bands, jazz ensembles played almost non-stop in the largest indoor sports arena in the country - a true tower of song that the regime had desperately tried, and failed, to control."

With Havel elected as the new president of democratic Czechoslovakia in December 1989, events took an extraordinary turn. Frank Zappa - after whose song the Plastic People were named - was invited to join the government. The then 49-year-old rock star had been approached shortly before the revolution by Michael Kocab, keyboard player with another band, Prague Selection, who had been less harassed than the Plastics. Zappa admired a piece Kocab had composed called Odysseus and when Kocab became a leader of Havel's Civic Forum party and adviser to the president, Zappa accepted his invitation to visit Prague and meet Havel.

In Barry Miles's book, Zappa says: "It was unbelievable. "Never in my 25 years in the rock'n'roll business have I gotten off an aeroplane and seen anything like this. They were totally unprepared for the situation, there was no security, but the people were just wonderful" - all 5,000 of them. Brabenec is vague about meeting and playing for Zappa at a club called the White Horse, but Zappa told BBC radio later how "the secret police liked to catch people who had my records, and they would say they were going to beat the Zappa music out of them".

Zappa met Havel at Prague Castle. They discussed Captain Beefheart's music, and Havel asked Zappa if, on a forthcoming state visit to the US, he would help him meet those who had championed his cause in opposition, including Joan Baez. In an interview on Swedish radio, Zappa summarised Havel's policy as being: "We are all people from art and culture. We must make the policy better than the politicians." The outcome was Zappa's signature on a letter agreeing to become a consultant to the Czech government on matters of culture, tourism and trade.

Within weeks, the situation changed - initially because the then US vice-president Dan Quayle was to visit Prague and pay tribute to the new government. Zappa recalled: "I expressed the opinion that I thought it was unfortunate that a person such as President Havel should have to bear the company of someone as stupid as Dan Quayle for even a few moments of his life." In the end, Quayle never came, but James Baker III, the US secretary of state, made the visit instead. Baker and Zappa had history, the musician having called the politician's spouse "a bored housewife" during his campaign against censorship. Susan Baker had been a leading light in the Parents' Music Resource Centre, which backed censorship of explicit lyrics. Whatever Baker told Havel in Prague, and whatever was agreed, it was the Czech president's baptism into the world of realpolitik. Havel's press secretary Michael Zantovsky issued a statement saying: "We like Frank Zappa, but he is not authorised to arrange any trade agreements with our government."

In 1997, on the 20th anniversary of the Charter, Havel pleaded with the Plastic People to come out of semi-retirement, and re-form for what was intended to be a one-off concert at Prague Castle. "We didn't play very long," recalls Jiri Kabes, the violinist, "only five or six songs. And it certainly was a bit weird seeing all these people in suits dancing around, the interior minister jumping about holding a glass of beer."

It was nonetheless sufficient experience for the band to realise that, as Brabenec says, "we couldn't live without each other". I realised how much I loved playing with Jiri and Vrati," says Janicek, "and how much I needed them in my life. It hadn't been the same since."

So the band got together again, and has remained on the road ever since, though tribulation followed them even into their new life, with the death through cancer of "Mejla" Hlavsa in 2001. The bass guitar was picked up by Eva Turnova, who had played with Pulnoc. "It is in our blood, this music," says Janicek. "We have to do it."

The Plastic People maintained their creative independence as vehemently as they did under communism, with a rejection of commercialism and the mainstream music industry under capitalism. "They never wanted to go commercial, they have not gone commercial," says Wilson. "They need to be the bohemians they always were - that is their identity, and remains so, especially as some of the dreams after the fall of communism have been tainted in some ways."

The Plastics had a brief moment in the limelight recently, with Tom Stoppard's play Rock'n' Roll, which invokes their music and its influence on Havel and the revolution - they even played at the production in Prague's National Theatre. Brabenec has his doubts about being featured in a stage drama. "This might be interesting for people outside of Czech," he says, "but we think that the Czech people might see this as rather pathetic. Why? Because it makes us out to be heroes, and we are not heroes."

As though to prove the point, after our splendid evening in the Shakespeare, Brabenec and the band are next morning summoned for a rehearsal in the outlying quarter of Radlicka, but stop off for a bit of breakfast - soup made of meatballs, brandy and beer. The staff at the bar around the corner from their rehearsal space know and love them, and the walls are lined with posters for concerts dating back to before the revolution. An archive, I offer enthusiastically. "A graveyard," Brabenec corrects me, rising from his chair and flapping his arms. "We are all like bats, flying blindly through the dark, towards our creator, the God who does not exist." For this musician, "there is no such thing as time. Only the moment". This is hardly political, but it is the exactly the kind of talk that once put Brabenec in jail.

A plan to travel with the band to their gig that night in Unicov, a small town in the south east of the Czech Republic, falls through as the Plastics are taking only one vehicle. But because the country still has a wonderful railway system, I take a train through the rolling hills of Bohemia. And in the lovely dining car, with lace curtains on the windows, is David, heading for the concert from his home town of Cervenka. Aged 20, like the revolution, and an economics student, he "learned about them as part of my school courses". In which subject? "Czech history."

After the soundcheck in the local Kino - a cinema built in the then oppressive, now rather streamlined-looking Stalinist style - the musicians adjourn for a can of beer, cigarettes and chats with fans on the cinema steps, and before the performance, Josef Janicek and Jiri Kabes give a rare interview - both unassuming, serious people, without an atom of pomposity between them; with Barabanec, they form what the current band calls "the Central Committee" of original members.

"Havel is the only president of the republic who ever lent me 1,500 crowns," says Jiri Kabes. "And, come to think of it, I still owe it to him, I never paid it back. Only he doesn't really need the money now, and I do."

"They were such happy times after the revolution - what a time," says Janicek, with a terrible sadness, as though speaking of something lost. "It was a golden age, because it was so full of hope. No, not all those hopes have been realised. I mean, we are still the same people as we were before, trying to offer something that makes people think in the world in which they live."

The audience is a revelation, aged eight to 80, with every vintage in between. It is surprising how many long-bearded, ponytailed men and how many fishnet-gloved, purple-haired girls Unicov hides away during daytime. Some, like Ludmila Polednova, a mathematics teacher, had come because the Plastics "were part of my youth; they remind me of a strange mixture of having fun and being frightened - they were musicians that woke me up to what was happening, and also made me happy."

Back in the Shakespeare pub on the funky edges of Prague, tattooed women with tatty flowing dresses walk by the open door and large windows along the cobblestones, while other tattooed women with tatty flowing dresses enter the bar, to drink a glass of wine. Vratislav Brabenec greets and kisses each of them (and they kiss him back) as some old wizard might greet royal princesses arriving at court, only betrothed to someone else, someone younger, to Brabenec's disgust. "They are so beautiful," he says warily, "and I love them all. I also love my girlfriend, but she is with her boyfriend at the moment. Behold, the hero of the revolution!"

Yet Brabenec insists two decades later, as the world prepares to salute the heroes of 1989: "I hate it when people talk about that year as a 'revolution' in Czechoslovakia. A revolution is supposed to change things. But what has changed? I don't consider myself any less subversive now than I was back then. I am no less a dissident in a society of shopping, shopping and shopping than I was in a society of socialism, socialism and socialism. It's all still shit, only different shit. Communist party, Nokia mobile phone party - what's the fucking difference? It doesn't matter whether the system is communist, fascist or capitalist: the creative people are the creative people and the shits are the shits. The poets remain the poets, and the politicians are fucking politicians. So you see: the Plastic People are still the Plastic People. You must remember one thing above all others about this band and our so-called revolution: none of us ever got anywhere. This is what matters most.

Five more musicians turned politicians

Sonny Bono
Cher's former partner was elected as a Republican to the US House of Representatives in 1994. The Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was named in his honour after his death in a 1998 skiing accident.

Krist Novoselic
The ex-Nirvana drummer is a Democratic state committee man in Washington state and big on electoral reform.

Gilberto Gil
Until his resignation for ill health last year, the co-founder of Brazil's anti-authoritarian tropicalismo movement had been his country's minister of culture.

Peter Garrett
Australia's minister for the environment started life as the singer for activist rock band Midnight Oil. On his desk: the pros and cons of a multibillion dollar gas deal with China.

Dave Rowntree
Bidding to make modern life a bit less rubbish, the Blur drummer will be Labour's candidate for the usually safe Tory seat of Westminster at the next election.


Ed Vulliamy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
1989 and all that: Plastic People of the Universe and the Velvet Revolution
Banned and jailed under Czech communism, the Plastic People of the Universe helped to bring the regime down in 1989. Inspired by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, and friends with Vaclav Havel, their incredible 40-year history is one in which music and politics are inseparable

Ed Vulliamy

05, Sep, 2009 @11:07 PM

Article image
Ivan Jirous obituary

Czech poet and artistic director of the dissident band the Plastic People of the Universe

Paul Wilson

29, Nov, 2011 @11:15 PM

Interview: Sigur Ros

The strangest band in the world just got stranger ... In Iceland, Craig McLean chews the whale sushi with the extraordinary Sigur Ros.

Craig McLean

14, Oct, 2007 @10:45 PM

Sanjiv Bhattacharya meets Michael Jackson's fans

As the Jackson case unfolds, the star's most devoted fans wait outside and maintain his innocence. In Santa Maria, California, Sanjiv Bhattacharya discovers just what sustains such blind faith.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya

20, Mar, 2005 @1:32 PM

The rock rebels of Burma

Fay Schopen meets and hears the Rangoon artists whose very existence threatens a repressive regime.

20, Mar, 2005 @3:24 PM

Out on the road with Taqwacores, America's Muslim punks

Life has imitated art and a wave of real Muslim rock bands have sprung up in response to Michael Muhammed Knight's 2003 novel, the Taqwacores

Sarah Boden

13, Jun, 2009 @11:01 PM

Ghetto fabulous

Baile funk might be the most exciting music in the world - it certainly comes from one of its most dangerous places. Alex Bellos reports from deep inside the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

17, Sep, 2005 @11:22 PM

Article image
Crawling from the wreckage

A year after Hurricane Katrina, half the population has yet to return to New Orleans. But in the mouldering decay, musicians are still trying to keep the city's cultural heart beating. Special report by Carl Wilkinson.

Carl Wilkinson

13, Aug, 2006 @1:19 PM

Miranda Sawyer sounds off about pop's phoney rebirth of cool

Miranda Sawyer: Tony Christie and Tom Jones were never Johnny Cash. And when were Duran Duran ever cool? Let's stop rewriting pop history

Miranda Sawyer

11, Oct, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Juliette Lewis's rock reincarnation

Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis has reinvented herself - as a full-on rocker. Jonathan Heaf caught her act in Vegas.

Jonathan Heaf

18, Jul, 2004 @3:33 PM