Plastic Ode to Freedom
“Rock ‘n’ roll is about rebellion” may be one of the world’s most tired cliches, but in the case of the Czech art-rock outfit Plastic People of the Universe, it’s actually true. As rock writer Richie Unterberger (whose reviews I generally trust), notes, they played a unique role in their country’s struggle for freedom:
When President Vaclav Havel — playwright, Frank Zappa fan, and politician, not necessarily in that order — took office after the demise of communism, it marked the culmination of 20 years of struggle for human rights in a system that denied personal and creative expression. Havel was also fan and associate of the Plastic People of the Universe, the rock group that helped spur the formation of Charter 77, the human rights organization that was instrumental in fomenting dissidence in the former Czechoslovakia. If for that achievement only, the Plastic People did more than almost any other rock band to change the course of world history.
The PPU (as the band often abbreviate themselves) were not formed with the intent of creating political change. Merely daring to play creative rock music in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s, however, was a political act in a state where music generated without an official seal of approval was tantamount to rebellion. For their artistic ambitions, the Plastics may have endured more harassment than almost any other rock band in history. Banned from public performance, they had to resort to giving their concerts in secret, or using weddings as excuses to air their songs in public. When they refused to cease playing their music, some of the members were beaten and jailed for their trouble.
An entire community of Czech dissidents sprung up around the band; the PPU and their fans were instrumental in keeping the flame of Czech artistic culture and political activism alive. All of which has tended to obscure their actual music, a spooky adaptation of the experiments of the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa, imbued with classical and Central European influences. The band fractured in the late 1980s over business and artistic differences. A reunification in January 1997 was right out of a script that even Hollywood would have rejected as too unbelievable, with Havel inviting the band to play at a party commemorating the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle — the very location where the conferences of the Communist Party took place.
Of course, unlike the Velvets, Beefheart, or Zappa, PPU is still performing. I caught a great performance by them at D.C.’s Black Cat last night; it was worthy of the band’s pedigree.