How a Revolutionary Czech Rock Band Inspired Vaclav Havel

Havel met the Plastic People of the Universe in 1976

By |

The Plastic People of the Universe
Former Czech president Vaclav Havel attends a concert of The Plastic People of the Universe at Palac Akropolis in Prague, Czech Republic. (Photo: isifa/Marketa Bendova)

It took a Czechoslovakian rock band that worshipped Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground to make Vaclav Havel realize the true power of rebellion. Havel, the Czech playwright, humanitarian and political revolutionary who died yesterday, put his movement on the line with the manifesto known as Charter 77, which was directly inspired by an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. 

Named after a Zappa song, the Plastic People formed in 1968, shortly after the suppression of the uprising known as the Prague Spring. They played a psychedelic brand of garage rock like their American heroes, including the Velvets, Captain Beefheart and the Fugs, says Paul Wilson, a Canadian who was teaching in Prague at the time. Wilson joined the band in 1970 at the request of their manager, Ivan Jirous, a culture critic who acted as a kind of art director for the group, much as Andy Warhol did for the Velvet Underground. 

Lyrically, the Plastic People were more mystical than political, Wilson tells Rolling Stone. Frontman Milan Hlavsa – "a natural-born rock star," Wilson says – was a butcher by training. Wilson sang in English, but when the group was pushed underground by an increasingly hostile Czech regime, he convinced his bandmates to focus on Czech lyrics. He left the band in 1972 but stayed in its circle, playing in side projects (one called the Old Teenagers) that covered rock & roll classics. But in a repressive culture that required professional musicians to keep their hair trimmed, their clothes conservative and their lyrics in Czech, the band became increasingly politicized as the Seventies progressed.

Forced deeper underground, Jirous wrote an influential essay about the rock & roll resistance in which he described a community aiming to "live in truth," a slogan that would become significant to Havel's writing. In 1976, according to Wilson, Havel and Jirous were brought together in a secret, "highly conspiratorial" meeting that moved from a recording studio to a hotel wine bar. Havel and his fellow writers and academics had been harrassed by the Communist regime, but there had been few arrests. Jirous knew that the rock underground was on the verge of a major clash with the government; in a matter of weeks, "a dragnet went out," says Wilson. Almost two dozen musicians, including the Plastic People, were arrested as dissidents.

The ensuing trial showed Havel how such resistance could inspire the kind of reform he and his colleagues had been hoping for. Charter 77 was written with deliberate intentions; Havel and his colleagues knew that by signing it, they would subject themselves to similar police action. "He said, 'We're never gonna get anywhere unless we put our butts on the line like these kids have,'" recalls Wilson, who was deported in 1977. Wilson went on to form a record company that distributed the band's music, including a 1974 album called Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, in small quantities in Europe and North America.

Until meeting the band, Havel was not exactly a cultural avant-gardist. "There's a letter from prison where he's asking his wife to buy the latest Bee Gees album," says Wilson, who has translated many of Havel's writings. Once acquainted with the Plastic People and their circle, however, Havel became their unofficial patron. The band played many shows in the barn at the country house where he died on Sunday.  

Eventually, as police torched houses where rock bands performed, the band stopped playing shows. Worn down by harassment, they disbanded in 1988, the year before the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. It's not clear where the movement name originated, says Wilson: "It would be nice to think it came from the Velvet Underground, but there's no proof of that." 

In the early Nineties, the Plastic People regrouped as Pulnoc ("Midnight"), touring America and releasing an album with Arista Records, which included a cover of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties." In 1997, Havel (by then the first president of the new Czech Republic) invited the Plastic People to play at Prague Castle to mark the 20th anniversary of Charter 77.

After that, the band "became famous in their own right all over again," says Wilson. This time, in a reformed country, the reunited band could be celebrated for something other than their political subversion, he says: "People actually loved their music."