Inspired by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe played a pivotal role in the 1989 “velvet revolution” that replaced the dictatorial general secretary of the Czech Communist party, Gustav Husak, with the country’s first elected president, playwright Vaclav Havel. When the band was arrested in July 1976, Havel’s petition demanding their freedom, known as Charter 77, turned out to be the ideological cornerstone of Prague’s 1979 spring of rebellion. The band’s story is as strange and as amazing as its music, and this recent Guardian feature by Ed Vulliamy provides an excellent introduction to their four decades’ of crazy brilliance.
In Jana Chytilova’s 2001 documentary film Plastic People of the Universe, Havel says: “I have to admit the story of Charter 77 still reminds me of an odd horror movie with a fairy tale end.” The Chartists were brutally assailed – arrested, beaten, imprisoned. By the time the Plastic People were released after eight months in jail, Havel’s country house, where he lived under house arrest, was among the few places the band could play. Havel was in turn jailed himself, Brabenec deported to Canada. The regime put extreme pressure on Hlavsa to turn informer, or at least recant, in return for permission to play officially. Hlavsa left and the band split up in 1988, some forming a new ensemble called Pulnoc (“Midnight”). But by then the regime was doomed, rotten from within and no longer able to turn to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Moscow for aid. By the winter of 1989, it was spring again in Prague.