In this exclusive excerpt from his book, author Joe Yanosik offers a starting point for getting into these Soviet-era freedom fighters for rock ‘n’ roll revolution
The incredible story of the Plastic People of the Universe–the legendary Czech underground band who were thrown in jail for playing rock music in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia and later sparked a revolution–often overshadows their equally amazing music.
Now, the first-ever English-language book about both the band’s history and their remarkable music is finally available. Author Joe Yanosik has turned his decades-long fascination with the Plastic People into a new book in which he listens back on their entire discography and situates the music within the historical context of their unbelievable saga.
A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe reviews every album released by the Plastic People and their spinoff band Půlnoc as well as selected works by related Czech bands – over 80 albums in all. Included are the origins of the band, their association with playwright-turned-President Vaclav Havel, their interactions with their two main musical influences Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, as well as dozens of never-before-seen photographs.
(The following are excerpts from the book. Details on ordering the book can be found below.)
The Plastic People of the Universe: Co znamená vésti koně (Leading Horses) (Boží mlýn LP 1983, Globus International CD 2002, Levné knihy CD 2010, Monitor CD 2014)
The third and final album collaboration between Milan Hlavsa who wrote the music and Vratislav Brabenec who wrote the surreal, poetic lyrics, Leading Horses is where the Plastics leave behind the jazzy improvisation of their experimental rock past and focus on Hlavsa’s ever-proggier compositions and quasi-symphonic arrangements. After beefing up the band with additional string players and percussionists for Passion Play, they scaled back, retaining only Ladislav Leština on electric violin and adding Josef “Bobeš” Rössler on clarinet. With Brabenec trading his sax for bass clarinet, the resulting lineup (bass-drums-keyboards-clarinet-bass clarinet-viola-violin) is more aligned with a chamber music ensemble than a rock band labeled “enemy of the state.” Often, the record evokes the dark ambience achieved by Brian Eno’s synthesizers on “Warszawa,” an Eastern European-flavored track from the 1977 David Bowie album Low which influenced Hlavsa greatly at the time. The ten slow-to-medium tempo songs are uniformly somber if not outright depressing, but all register as serious and significant and never less than compelling. After a few plays, the atonal strings and gloomy minor scales of the clarinets sound inevitable and powerful, as do the shared vocals which range from the whispers and screams of “Drum Solo” to the solemnly chanted mantra of “Careful Thought Won’t Harm Even a Chicken.” Jan Brabec’s drumming is superb throughout but especially on the sole track with lyrics not written by Brabenec – “Samson” by DG 307’s Pavel Zajíček, a paean to long hair as a source of strength and power, something the Plastics exemplified for years with their refusal to conform to the state’s idea of acceptable hair length. Every track offers a special touch – Josef Janíček’s keyboard swirls on the gorgeously orchestrated “Happy New Year,” the classical intro to “The May Song” that ends up rocking out, the electric violin tremors of “Delirium,” Hlavsa’s hypnotically plodding bass line on the title track (the finest of the album’s many dirges). Best of all is the 11-minute finale “Osip,” a tribute to counter-revolutionary Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who died in Stalin’s gulag, where Brabenec finally breaks out his alto. The stark contrast between his raucous free jazz and the smooth string arrangement is Euro-rock fusion at its finest. Although all their post-1973 guerilla gigs were secret affairs, the concert to premiere the Leading Horses songs was the most elaborate, planned months in advance by Magor who gradually moved band members, instruments and audience into position with military precision, even going so far as to stage a fight among band members in a local pub to fool the police into thinking the Plastics had broken up. The concert was cancelled twice (and the venue changed at the last minute) before finally happening on March 15, 1981 at a friend’s home in the northern countryside village of Kerhartice near Česká Lípa. It would be the Plastics’ last performance for 16 years. A few weeks later, the home was burned to the ground by the secret police who had a spy at the concert. Soon after, Václav Havel’s wife let the band record this album at Havel’s country home in Hrádeček while the police surrounded the property. A-
NOTE: This CD is Vol. VII in Globus’ series of collected PPU recordings, subtitled PPU VII/1981. The album was recorded live on April 18-19, 1981 inside Havel’s country home in Hrádeček and smuggled to Canada where it was released as an LP in 1983 by Paul Wilson for Boží mlýn. The LP features only seven of the ten tracks recorded (due to time constraints), superior programming (songs 3-4-6-8-2-9-10 on the CD) and an inner sleeve with lyrics in Czech and English. The three omitted tracks are “Co znamená vésti koně (Leading Horses),” “Fotopneumatická paměť (Photopneumatic Memory)” and “Májová (The May Song).” This CD features the complete album with the songs in the running order as originally intended.
VIDEO: The Plastic People perform “Leading Horses”
The Plastic People of the Universe: Hovězí porážka (Beefslaughter) (Globus International CD 1997, Kissing Spell CD 2004, Levné knihy CD 2010, Monitor CD 2014)
After Leading Horses, the Plastics decided to cease live performances and just record music secretly at home. They began a new album based on The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s epic concentration camp novel, but the project was aborted when Vratislav Brabenec, worn down after years of endless interrogations and vicious beatings, left Czechoslovakia in March 1982, emigrating to Austria and then, a year later, moving to Canada where he would live for the next 14 years. The band remained under StB surveillance but in 1983 they resumed covert recording, reworking the instrumental demos they’d made and naming the album Hovězí porážka (Beefslaughter). The loss of Brabenec’s sax was offset by the addition of a woodwind section via young music students Václav Stádník and Petr Placák, whose flute and twin clarinets (bass and soprano), when combined with the string section of Ladislav Leština’s violin and the viola of Jiří Kabeš, gave the band its fullest, most orchestrated sound to date. Overdubbing for the first time, Milan Hlavsa maximized his new ensemble by composing intricately arranged bohemian rhapsodies with multi-layered melodies and atonal harmonies, all tightly packaged in song form. With Hlavsa’s bass never sounding jazzier alongside Josef Janíček’s funky new KORG synthesizer and Jan Brabec’s impeccable snare rolls, the Plastics produced their own unique prog from Prague while at the same time sounding more like a straight rock band than ever before. Although “Petřín” is as sluggish as anything on Leading Horses and “Nenávist vola k řeznickýmu psu (Hatred of the Ox Towards the Butcher’s Dog)” is as effervescent as a punk 45, most of these engaging tracks are medium-tempo. Whether the title is a metaphor for the band’s cruel death sentence by the regime or a nostalgic record of Hlavsa’s teenage job as a butcher’s apprentice, Beefslaughter continues the old themes of despair, defeat and grotesque black humor they got from Egon Bondy, whose poems supply lyrics for two songs here, augmented by four from Ivan Wernisch (a harsh realist poet suggested by Václav Havel after his release from prison in February 1983), one from Petr Lampl (a late friend of the band) and two abattoir-themed lyrics by Placák. The opening “Šel pro krev (He Went for Blood)” sets the tone with its low-register horns, zombie-like vocals, and repulsive lyrics (“She gulped the blood / didn’t even pick out the flies”), not to mention its eerie resemblance to Nico’s “Henry Hudson” (from her Drama of Exile album). “Kanárek (Little Canary)” is a sumptuous sonic creation as clarinets and strings play alternating steps of Christ’s arduous walk down the Via Dolorosa, ending with a stunning Hlavsa bass solo. “Bleskem do hlavy (Blast to the Head)” lives up to its title. “Špatná věc (Bad Thing)” is a pop song. And on the exquisite “Papírový hlavy (Paper Heads)” finale, Brabenec returns – on tape, anyway – with a sax solo recorded two days before he left the country. “It’s your last solo, man, play!” Hlavsa reportedly told him, and he did, tears streaming from his closed eyes. A-
NOTE: This CD is Vol. IX in Globus’ series of collected PPU recordings, subtitled PPU IX/1983-84. Completed in 1984, the recording, cover art, and liner notes (by Václav Havel) were smuggled to Canada for release, but in true Orwellian fashion the StB had spies at the Canadian embassy who, before shipping the package, confiscated the artwork – an oil painting by Přemysl Šmíd conceived as a sinister version of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul cover – Hlavsa, Janíček, Kabeš and Brabec dressed as mad surgeons wearing rubber gloves and green aprons with bright spotlights over their heads, as seen from the POV of a patient on the operating table. This delayed the release and in that time Boží mlýn went defunct so the album wasn’t officially released until Globus’ 1992 box set, although it had circulated underground on magnizdat cassette. It was re-released as Beefslaughter on Kissing Spell in 2004 with the liner notes translated into English. Šmíd was later found to have been acting as an agent for the secret police.
AUDIO: The Plastic People of the Universe: Hovězí porážka (Beefslaughter)
The Plastic People of the Universe: Půlnoční myš (Midnight Mouse) (Freedonia LP 1987, Globus Music CD 2001, Levné knihy CD 2010, Monitor CD 2014)
Clandestinely recorded in 1985, this wonderful album was originally conceived by Václav Havel as a collaboration between the Plastic People and Czech pop singer (and Charter 77 spokesperson) Marta Kubišová, a major star in the years leading to Prague Spring ’68 whose career had ended when her music was banned by the Communists in 1970 with the onset of Soviet “normalization.” When her ex-husband reported her planned involvement with the Plastics to the StB, Kubišová was subjected to several months of harsh police interrogations until she was forced to drop out of the project and Milan Hlavsa ended up handling the vocals himself, forgoing his usual one-note roar for a wide array of singing styles ranging from shouts to whispers to Vocoder treatments. Hlavsa’s genius for writing compelling melodies has never shone brighter than on these nine rhythmically addictive songs that are instantly catchy yet which continue to reveal new pleasures with each listen. The introduction of Vladimír Dědek’s trombone and Jan Macháček’s guitar to the mix adds crucial color to Hlavsa’s sonic palette which also includes bass, synthesizer, viola, violin, clarinet and flute. As on Beefslaughter, Jan Brabec again relies on his snare, the preferred drum of persecuted bands forced to record their albums secretly at home without waking the neighbors (or the police). The title track opener features Josef Janíček’s bubbly KORG bassline and Macháček’s scratchy, flanged electric guitar alongside the dramatically-arranged strings of Jiří Kabeš’ viola and Ladislav Leština’s violin. The Zappa influence is on full display everywhere, but especially on “Mladý holky” with its fabulous trombone and viola solos. “Podvlíkačky” jams on and on, revving up each time you think it’s over. “Z kouta do kouta” is a stunner with its comical vocal and intricately polyphonic ensemble playing. “Vrátí se” rocks harder than anything they’ve done in years. Everywhere, Hlavsa’s creepy-crawly bass patterns and Janíček’s juicy KORG textures sound terrific. Seemingly more lightweight than Beefslaughter, the disarmingly attractive, ebullient music belies the harrowing lyrical content concealed within. Apart from a Hlavsa-suggested Egon Bondy poem comprised of the words “young girls” repeated three times, the texts were selected by Havel from poets he admired: absurdist Ivan Wernisch, German humorist Christian Morgenstern, and, especially, surrealist Milan Nápravník whose playful lyrics (“He goes / He takes something from the corner / He takes something from the corner and puts it in the corner / He returns / He goes / He takes something from the corner …”) exemplify the Kafkaesque themes of mindless repetition and existential dread found throughout this collection of nightmares which equates a man’s life with that of a mouse – trapped in an absurd maze with no way out. Their most playable album – and their most prog. A+
NOTE: This CD is Vol. X in Globus’ series of collected PPU recordings, subtitled PPU X/1985-86. The album was first released in 1987 by Henry Cow drummer/Rock-In-Opposition movement leader Chris Cutler on Freedonia Records, an intermediary label to his Recommended Records established solely to release the LP so that his name could not be traced. (Cutler took the name Freedonia from the fictional country in the Marx brothers’ film Duck Soup, the joke being that Freedonia is a Marxist country.) The Globus CD contains a 23-minute bonus track (“Pokoušení”) recorded in 1986 for use as stage music in Václav Havel’s play Temptation.
AUDIO: The Plastic People of the Universe: Půlnoční myš (Midnight Mouse) (full album)
To order Joe Yanosik’s book, A CONSUMER GUIDE TO THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE, click here.
- A Guide to the Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe - November 9, 2021