Plastic People

The Second Festival of the Second Culture, organised by the Plastic People of the Universe (most of whom are on the far right) in Bojanovice on 21 February 1976. Within a month, 27 of the musicians pictured here had been arrested.

An interesting feature in today’s Observer in which Ed Vulliamy tells the story of Plastic People and the part they played in the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia. A few extracts here from a long and detailed article:

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…

“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…

“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…

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”…

“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.”…

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.

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