Up With Plastic People

Up With Plastic People

This revolutionary Czech rock band was instrumental in the overthrow of Communism in the late 80s.


Vratislav Brabenec (far left) and the Plastic People of the Universe are coming to Arlington’s IOTA Club and Café.

<b>THE PLASTIC PEOPLE</b> of the Universe, named after a Frank Zappa song, were formed in the former Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the Soviet Union’s brutal crackdown on the Prague Spring pro-democracy movement. Heavily influenced by such groups as the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd and The Doors, the group played a psychedelic, jazz-influenced version of rock and roll that was all the rage at the time.

<p>Only a few years after forming, the hard-line Communist government of Czechoslovakia banned The Plastic People of the Universe from performing professionally unless they changed their confrontationally strange style. The band refused to give in and went underground for the next two decades.

<p>In 1976, nearly 30 people were arrested at a Plastic People of the Universe concert including saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec and manager Ivan Jirous, both of whom were sentenced to jail. In response to these arrests, a group of Czech artists and intellectuals led by playwright Vaclav Havel founded the Charter 77 movement, which later grew into an international human rights organization.

<p>Brabenec and Jirous were eventually released, but the Plastic People of the Universe disbanded in 1988. Brabenec had fled to Canada six years earlier after being repeatedly interrogated and beaten by the Czech secret police.

<p>In the late 1980s, with Communism collapsing across Eastern Europe, Havel led what came to be called the Velvet Revolution. For several weeks, the Charter 77 movement led daily rallies in Prague’s Wencelas Square until, on Dec. 29, 1989, the Communist regime fell and Havel was named Czechoslovakia’s first democratic President.

<p>Since then, the Plastic People of the Universe have reunited and are now touring the United States. In an interview, Brabenec spoke about why his group reunited and what the American rock bands of the 1960s meant to him.

<p><b>What prompted your band to reunite? Why did you guys get back together?</b>

<p>The reunion of the band was in 1997. We played in the Prague Castle on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Charter 77. We were invited by our friend and the Czech President Vaclav Havel.

<p><b>What was that like when you started playing shows again?</b>

<p>We rediscovered that it could be fun again. It was something that was very fun for us to continue what we lost in the 80s when I left Czechoslovakia. They continued but without playing concerts.

<p><b>Playing shows now, does that have the same feeling as back then in the 60s and 70s?</b>

<p>A little bit. But I can say that some things are better than they were. Musically, a lot of things are better than in the old times.

<p><b>Have you ever played in the Washington, D.C. [area] before?</b>

<p>We were there two times. It was in 1999 and we were there also last year in September.

<p><b>Do you remember the first time you heard the Velvet Underground? What did you think?</b>

<p>It was in the late 60s, ’67 I think. I remember feeling about it the way I felt about all American pop culture. It wasn’t just the music, it was the paintings of the group as well and the poetry. For me, that was most important.

<p><b>Was it difficult to find these albums because they were banned in your country?</b>

<p><b>It was sometimes difficult. Some people would smuggle them in from the West. It was possible to go abroad [then].</b>

<p>Why was rock music so important to the revolutions in Czechoslovakia – the Velvet Revolution [in 1989] and the Prague Spring [in the late 60s]?

<p><b>Well, I have to admit, at the time of the Prague Spring I was terrified. I didn’t think they’d be able to create something like a “Socialism with a human face.” It’s sounds to me very funny still. Socialism with a human face is absolute nonsense. They are beasts. They don’t have any human face.

<p>I guess [the music] was a refreshing moment. Of course, don’t forget about the poetry and everything together. For me, especially in the 60s, it was a very, very important moment in my life for my intellectual development and my philosophy.

<p><b>You mentioned that you are friends with Vaclav Havel, the former president of your country. How did you meet him?</b>

<p>I met him the first time after I signed the Charter 77. He supported us whenever possible.

<p><b>Back then, did you think it was possible that he could become the president of Czechoslovakia?</b>

<p>No, no, no. I didn’t dream like that. But it happened. Of course, he was very important in the whole Charter 77 movement. He united the small circle of artists and intellectuals with the other side, which was the Slovak underground. Thanks to Havel, the groups that were separated pulled back together.

<p><b>How do you feel about the new play by Tom Stoppard, “Rock And Roll” [which is based on the Czech revolutions of the 1960s and the 1980s]?</b>

<p>When it played at the Prague National Theater, before the performance started, we had 20 minutes of our music. I like it. It’s surprisingly still running and most of the time it’s sold out. It can fill a big theater. It’s a good play. I was concerned that it would be emotional because [it depicts] the events of Prague Spring. But it is set after the Prague Spring and I can say that there is some kind of humor in his play.