Plastic People celebrate 45 years
Dissident band has a lot of history to look back on
Posted: October 2, 2013
Vratislav Brabenec and Jiří Kabeš are two of the longest-serving members of the Plastic People of the Universe.
One band from the communist era became known more for their struggles at the hands of the government than for their music. It's a shame because the members of the Plastic People of the Universe would rather be revered for their songs than for the accidental role they played in Czechoslovak history.
The band now has a concert to celebrate 45 years since it was formed, although there have been many lineup changes. The current lineup has three members whose roles with the band go back to at least the 1970s: keyboardist and vocalist Josef Janíček, violinist and vocalist Jiří Kabeš, and sax player and composer Vratislav Brabenec. Guitarist Joe Karafiát joined in 1997 and drummer Jaroslav Kvasnička in 2009.
The youngest member of the current lineup is bassist Eva Turnová, who would have been 2 years old when the band first played in 1968. She joined in 2001, replacing Milan Hlavsa, a key original member who died of lung cancer that year.
The band has stayed true to its dissident roots, and still plays an often dissonant underground rock heavily influenced by Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the Velvet Underground and other late 1960s and early '70s rock bands. The band, while known in Central Europe, has never truly broken out into the international scene largely due their lyrics mainly being in Czech. Before 1989, only a few of the band's albums were even released in the West, with Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, using lyrics by poet Egon Bondy, and Passion Play being the main exceptions.
45th anniversary concert
When: Oct. 3 at 7:30
Where: Palác Akropolis
Tickets: 190 Kč in advance/220 Kč at the door
In 2006, though, the band began to get more international recognition when the band was mentioned in Tom Stoppard's play Rock 'n' Roll. The play looks at rock music during the normalization era in then-Czechoslovakia between 1968 and 1989. The play led to the band having a concert in London in 2007. The new lineup has also been active recording, releasing six albums since 2001, including Maska za Maskou in 2009 and Non Stop Opera in 2011.
But the arrest of the band in 1976 is probably what the members will always be known for. Music was heavily controlled by the repressive communist regime, with clean-cut singers churning out pop songs with blandly happy lyrics. The Plastic People, however, had long hair and hippie-style clothing. They were also singing songs with banned poetry as lyrics. Bootleg recordings of their work began to circulate widely among the younger generation and the band performed often at unauthorized concerts.
Finally the authorities had enough and arrested the band members and eventually convicted them of "organized disturbance of the peace." An English-language teacher who had worked with the band 1971-72, Paul Wilson, was deported to Canada.
The arrests led playwright Václav Havel, with additional help from Jan Patočka, Zdeněk Mlynář, Jiří Hájek, and Pavel Kohout, to write Charter 77 as a protest. Some 242 people signed the document and Havel attempted to bring it the Federal Assembly. The charter in part criticized the Czechoslovak government for not following international human rights agreements. Even though people who signed the charter were persecuted, by 1989 it had 1,900 signatures. Plastic People sax player Brabenec was one of the signers and was forced to immigrate to Canada in 1982. He returned fro good in 1997.
Havel was arrested in 1979 and subsequent times for his efforts to protect those who were persecuted for signing the charter. He spent May 1979 to February 1983 in prison, his longest sentence. While the charter had limited initial success, it is often cited as the first concrete step toward the downfall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Havel, who passed away in 2011, maintained close relations with the band and helped to launch the band's album Maska za Maskou at Palác Akropolis in January 2010.
Raymond Johnston can be reached at