Following my previous post, found the following article I wrote for the NME under the name Dick Tracy, published in the issue dated 6th September 1980
A reader recently wrote to NME asking 'Who hasn't heard of The Plastic People?' Answer: A lot of Czechs who aren't allowed to.
"GENUINE artists have always been those who have drawn attention to the fact that things are not in order. This is why one of the highest aims in art has always been the creation of unrest." - Ivan Jirous.
ON 1st July 1980 Karel Soukup was arrested in Prague and charged with "singing various songs of anti-socialist content, ridiculing the police, especially the State Security, and using vulgar expressions in his songs" at the wedding party of a friend.
Far from an isolated incident, Soukup's arrest was the latest in a solid onslaught of such incidents stretching back ten years, which have centred round a group of musicians who have refused to conform.
The Plastic People Of The Universe, despite harassments, arrests and imprisonments, have succeeded in maintaining a true underground culture in Czechoslovakia. Their message is clear: it is better not to play at all than to play as the establishment demands.
The first Czech band was The Primitives in 1967, who drew on The Fugs, Zappa, Beefheart and The Doors as inspiration. The Plastic People themselves came together only a few weeks before the Russian invasion in 1968 and have been a thorn in the side of the establishment ever since.
For a while they were tolerated but in 1971 a crackdown began and a new licensing system for bands was introduced. The following were not allowed: English lyrics, English names for groups, long hair, eccentric dress, high volume, pessimism, funk.
Rather than compromise, the Plastic People went underground, even to the point of building their own sound equipment. Around their creative centre, singers, poets and artists got together to produce a stream of samizdats, clandestine exhibitions, secret concerts. One statement reads:
"The aim of the underground here in Bohemia is the creation of a second culture. A culture that will be totally independent of official channels of communication, social recognition and the hierarchy of values dictated by the establishment."
PPU ve zkušebně v Holešovicích, roku 1972
In 1973 two new groups were spawned — Midsummer Night's Dream and DG307 (named after Diagnosis 307, a term used by the official regime for 'psychiatric disturbance') — but that same year saw the first arrests.
Ivan Jirous, artistic director of The Plastic People, was jailed for 10 months — for "insulting a member of the secret police in a pub".
The first big bust came in February 1976 at Jirous' wedding. Police raided the party, searched homes, seized tapes and arrested 19 people, who were charged with breach of the peace. Twelve were released after six months investigative custody while seven others were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to eighteen months, in the case of Jirous. He was arrested again in October 1977 and sentenced to eight months in April 1978. This was increased to 18 months upon appeal.
Further official restrictions on music were revealed in Document 13 from the famous group of Czech dissidents known as Charter 77. This states: "A number of magazines dealing with popular music have been banned outright. Certain popular music critics ... are not allowed to publish articles or lectures on pop music. All newspapers are provided with lists of performing artists that they may or may not write about, and they are even told, in some cases, how they must write about them."
The first Plastic People album, recorded in a Czech castle, produced in France, pressed in Ireland and printed in England, is now available through Rough Trade.
Called 'Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Band' (after the radical Czech poet whose work is featured on the album), it's disturbing music. The LP also contains a fat booklet entitled The Merry Ghetto which comprises poems and samizdats from the underground.
The sleeve notes read: "This record is not a cry of protest. It is a deliberate statement of what is possible, even in what seems an impossible situation." We need messages like this in these frightening times. Hopefully the People's second album, 'Passion Play', will also find a way to the West.
Pictures sourced from the official Plastic People of the Universe site, which is in Czech: http://plasticpeople.eu/index.html