The Plastic People of the Universe: How the violent suppression of a rock band led to revolution in Czechoslovakia

Mark Beaumont discovers the band known as PPU, and how their secret 1970s gigs set in motion the movement that would ultimately topple the totalitarian communist regime

Sunday 14 March 2021 08:03 GMT
‘They never saw themselves as a protest band:’ The Plastic People of the Universe railed against the ‘normalisation’ of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s
‘They never saw themselves as a protest band:’ The Plastic People of the Universe railed against the ‘normalisation’ of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s (Alamy Stock Photo)

With just 24 hours’ notice, word would circulate – the name of a train station in Prague whispered around bars and colleges. The following day, the children of the “second culture” would arrive at the station to find a secretive contact with details of which remote village they should buy a ticket to. On arrival, another contact would give them the name of a barn or farmhouse out in the wilds of Bohemia. Then they would trek for hours through woodland and across farms, in thick snow or summer heat, hunting down the music.

For Britain’s once-errant sonic rebels, the idea might jog wistful memories of 1990s rave culture and Pulp’s “Sorted for E’s & Wizz”. But in Czechoslovakia in the early 1970s, there were far more serious consequences for being caught trying to reach a secret gig by The Plastic People of the Universe: arrest, interrogation, beatings.

The Plastic People of the Universe – or PPU as they were known to their underground followers kicking back against the “normalisation” of communist Czechoslovakia in the Seventies – never said they wanted a revolution. But more than any other band in history, their very existence really did change the world. By refusing to stop playing their avant garde rock against the orders of Gustáv Husák’s government, and surviving years of imprisonment, threats, harassment and interrogations bordering on torture, they came to symbolise a freedom of musical and artistic expression that totalitarian ideas could never destroy.

What’s more, after years as a banned group forced to play in secret, their arrest 45 years ago this week, in March 1976, would light a long fuse on the Velvet Revolution, which would topple communism in Czechoslovakia 13 years later. Many generations of western protest singers and rock subversives have never come close to the political impact of these art rock Bohemians who just wanted to be allowed onto a stage to play “Venus in Furs”.

“They never saw themselves as a protest band, or what they were doing as a poke in the eye to the regime,” PPU’s early Seventies singer Paul Wilson says today. “They were doing what they wanted to do, but it was not deliberately political.” “I am one of those whose cultural actions, not political actions, were sufficient to make me a subversive,” saxophonist Vratislav Branenec said in a 2009 Guardian interview. “The politicians made us political, by being offended by what we did and the music we played… They feared us because… they could not manage us.”

PPU swiftly became masters of the guerrilla gig but never intended to play rebel music (Alamy)

PPU sprung into life just as the Prague Spring was being crushed. For a few short months in 1968, reformist leader Alexander Dubcek instigated a period of cultural liberalism: newspapers would no longer be censored by the state, and rock’n’roll music could be played openly in a country that had been secretly in thrall to The Beatles, the Stones and Hendrix. On 20 August, however, 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union invaded the country to stop the rock potentially breaking up the eastern bloc; under Husák, censorship returned, public meetings were banned, and bands needed a licence deeming them “professional” in order to perform in public.

Though they were initially approved by the authorities, PPU – formed by bassist and songwriter Milan Hlavsa within a month of the invasion – were no authoritarian’s idea of wholesome entertainment. Disciples of The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention (they were named after a track on the Mothers’ second album, Absolutely Free), they would play covers of the Velvets, The Doors, Beefheart and New York avant rockers The Fugs while wearing capes and make-up, drenched in psychedelic visuals and accompanied on stage by fire-juggling clowns. The missing eastern bloc link between early Pink Floyd and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows, their brand of psychedelic art rock, complete with Jiří Kabeš’ John Cale-like viola, saw them described by Czech newspaper Rudé právo as “long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs”.

The PPU never intended to play rebel music, but their non-conformism was rebellion enough to see them lose their professional status in 1970, along with access to their state-owned instruments and permission to earn money from their shows. “The bands would have to have Czech names, they’d have to sing in Czech, they’d have to submit their lyrics for vetting and they’d have to display a certain amount of musical competence,” says Wilson, a Canadian teacher who joined the band as singer that year, as he was able to teach the band the words of Lou Reed and Zappa and translate their own Czech lyrics into English. “We still had long hair, they would not change their name and they insisted on singing in English, so we didn’t get our licence to play.”

Under the guidance of their provocateur artistic director and very own Andy Warhol figure Ivan Jirous – an art historian who would come to be nicknamed “Magor” (translation: “madman”) – PPU swiftly became masters of the guerrilla gig. Building or borrowing instruments and amps, they began playing under the guise of lectures on Andy Warhol; Jirous would speak for five minutes about the pop artist and The Velvet Underground, then the band would appear from behind a curtain and play two hours of “examples”. After a year, police shut down the ruse and the band resorted to ever more secretive measures. They performed unannounced gigs at weddings, school dances and football club events, but informers still managed to alert the authorities. At most shows, the PPU would either have the plug pulled after a few songs or finish to find the police amongst the crowd, taking names.

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“This was a mapping project they had,” says Wilson. “They were mapping who was going to these concerts, what bands were playing, how they were operating. They treated the whole thing as a giant conspiracy. The Plastic People became the centre of an expanding underground music scene and [the regime] began to see that as a threat. As the scene grew larger and larger they began to focus on where this bad influence was coming from, and they focused on The Plastic People.”

The PPU became popular underground figures in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s (Alamy)

Wilson left the PPU and Brabanec joined in 1973, taking them in a jazzier, avant-rock direction redolent of an eastern bloc Soft Machine, and insisting that they sing original songs in Czech. They began using the anarchic and fantastical lyrics of banned Marxist poet Egon Bondy (the results of which can be heard on their debut album Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, recorded in 1974), which earned them more intense attention from the authorities. An official licence in 1972 was recanted after a fortnight and the PPU were banned from playing in public. So they began organising secret word-of-mouth gigs in the countryside, attracting crowds of long-haired subversives known as “máničky”, hitch-hiking or trekking into the woods with barely a day’s notice and fearing for their lives with every chord.

“People with feelings similar to ours were coming to our concerts, though their music preferences were not necessarily similar,” Hlavsa told journalist Richie Unterburger for his book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More. “But music wasn’t as important there as meeting people and being together in a normal environment for a while.” Jirous began to believe that PPU could spearhead a second culture, entirely disconnected from the official, artistically barren “first culture” – and sure enough, a lively scene of poets, folk singers and proto-punk bands developed around the band. Ripe for suppression.

In March 1974, thousands of fans arrived at the train station in the town of České Budějovice for a PPU show to find the police waiting for them. “The mayor of the town called in the border guards, basically the army, and they shut everything down and herded all of the fans to the railway station and forced them onto trains,” says Wilson. “When they were on the trains back to Prague, they would take pictures of them, fingerprint them and in some cases book them. The Czechs call it the Budějovice massacre because there was a lot of bloodshed. No one died but police were quite violent. You go to a railway station and go under the tracks to a particular platform and in that tunnel they were just beating people up.”

Undeterred, Jirous organised the First Festival of the Second Culture in a village called Postupice that September, pulling together their community of underground acts for an event code-named “Hannibal’s Wedding”. Despite drawing down even more unwanted police attention, they did it again. In February 1976 the Second Festival of the Second Culture (or “Magor’s Wedding”) took place in Bojanovice. “There was a sense of something happening in a world where nothing interesting was happening,” says Wilson of the day. “A sense of joy and delight and sheer enthusiasm. Someone sent me some pictures from that show and you could see in the people’s faces that they were absolutely riveted. It was ‘we’re doing something that’s not allowed and getting away with it’. It was just electric. But there was definitely a sense of foreboding because the police didn’t show up… That was very suspicious. We said, ‘something’s in the air.’”

A few weeks later, the knock on the door; all members of the PPU, alongside associated bands and their friends, were arrested, their equipment, tapes and notebooks confiscated and over 100 fans questioned. “I got a phone call on the day the arrests started from a friend of mine who later turned out to be a police informer,” Wilson says. “He said, ‘Have you heard? They’re arresting the entire underground.’”

The PPU arose shortly after a period of political liberalisation in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (AFP/Getty)

At the band’s high-profile and heavily protested trial in September – essentially rock’n’roll versus communism – they were described by prosecutors as an “anti-social phenomenon” corrupting the country’s youth and found guilty of “organised disturbance of the peace”. Brabenec and Jirous were handed prison sentences of eight and 18 months respectively.

“They made them look like hooligans and druggies,” artist and future PPU bassist Eva Turnová told Delayed Gratification in 2012, “that’s how they brainwashed people.” Yet the media storm drew more like-minded young sympathisers and protesters to the band, excited by the idea of an underground second culture and keen to break the country’s cultural chains. A generation of more political bands emerged, too big to suppress.

“It greatly expanded the catchment area for the underground,” says Wilson. “There were so many young people, after the 1968 invasion, who were completely bummed out by the whole scene and basically dropped out. They had no idea there was this cultural movement called the underground. When they saw the scurrilous articles that were written describing [the PPU] as drug addicts and ne’er-do-wells and mental cases, they said, ‘Jeez, that’s really interesting, I ought to find out more about it.’ They found a home in this underground.”

At the courtroom itself meanwhile, the fightback coalesced, not least because dissident playwright Václav Havel had taken on the PPU’s cause. “It wasn’t an open trial,” says Wilson, “so people who wanted to show solidarity with the band came to the courthouse and sat in the foyer or were milling about. There were people from the underground, the usual suspects with long hair, and then there were philosophers and dissidents and writers who came as well because Havel had alerted them to the importance of this case. They were sitting around talking to each other. This was a point of contact that had never happened before.

“The intellectuals came out in defence of these young people and they discovered that it worked. There were quite a few people dropped from the original indictment and they realised that instead of getting horrendous sentences like five or 10 years they were given basically slaps on the wrist. They treated that as a victory because it could have been much worse. That was when the discussions began about taking the next step, and the next step was Charter 77.”

The trial of The Plastic People became a rallying cry for opposition to Czech communism. Havel was inspired to pen his pivotal essay “The Power and the Powerless” declaring rock music “a human freedom”, and to help publish Charter 77, a manifesto calling on the Czech government to honour the human rights conventions of the United Nations and Helsinki Accords. The document was declared illegal and several of the 242 politicians, writers, musicians and intellectuals who had signed it imprisoned, including Havel.

Dissident playwright Václav Havel was a supporter of the PPU (AFP/Getty)

But, like the PPU, it endured. In 1989, it formed the foundation of the Velvet Revolution – a name referencing both its peaceful “iron fist in a velvet glove” nature and its roots in the music of The Velvet Underground – which saw half a million people gather in Wenceslas Square demanding freedom, ommunism crumble in Czechoslovakia and Havel himself become the first president of the democratic Czech Republic. So vital was music to the revolution that, for a brief time, Frank Zappa became one of Havel’s official cultural advisors.

In the meantime, Husák’s regime had finally managed to obliterate The Plastic People. In the wake of Charter 77, Wilson, having noticed he was being followed and observed, was deported, and the authorities began an intense campaign of harassment against the PPU. Brabenec alone was subjected to “80 or 90 interrogations” and threats to kidnap his two-year-old daughter. “We would sometimes sit for two or three interrogations a day,” Brabenec told the Guardian. “They would carry on from three to 10 hours. They wanted to wear us down.” “They would beat them up, drown them,” said Turnová. “It was torture.”

Forced underground and with their every activity staked out by the authorities, they could only smuggle secret recordings out to Wilson in Canada, which he released on his own label in the west. Their rare live appearances saw police cordons circling the venues; after they performed their Leading Horses album at a friend’s home in Kerhatice in 1981 the house was burnt to the ground by the secret police. “That was very effective as a way of shutting The Plastic People down,” says Wilson, “because they realised that ‘we can’t do that to our friends, it’s all very well for them to invite us to play at their places but if it’s gonna mean they’re gonna lose their house we can’t do it’.”

Jirous was arrested and imprisoned again for subversive comments and activities, Brabenec randomly attacked by police in the street and forced to emigrate to Canada in 1982. In 1987 authorities forced organisers of a rock festival to remove PPU from the bill; the following year, under pressure to change their name in order to perform, they chose to split up instead.

In 1997, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the charter, Havel invited the PPU to play at the Spanish Hall in Prague Castle – their first legal gig in almost 30 years. It sparked a reunion which would include a performance at the White House during Havel’s 1999 state visit and which, weathering the death of Hlavsa in 2001, continues in various iterations of the band to this day. The band has become a byword for music’s power to overcome suppression – they were a key feature of Tom Stoppard’s 2004 play about the era, Rock’n’Roll – and their survival is totemic.

“The most salient point about the anniversary of the arrests,” Wilson argues, “is that they are a reminder of how repression can spectacularly backfire, and how serious opposition can have unlikely origins.” Indeed, as musicians in Belarus are being arrested today for playing traditional folk anthems at small local protests against Alexander Lukashenko allegedly stealing last year’s election, the PPU’s story continues to be played out in Europe, and its message rings loud. Revolution starts the moment you stop people singing.

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