A brief look at 'protest' music plus the underground scene in Czechoslovakia from 1968 - 1989

November 1989

Fifteen years ago to the day student protestors took to the streets of Prague demanding an end to one-party rule, kicking off a process that would quickly - far more quickly than anyone expected - lead to the unravelling of Czechoslovakia's Communist regime. Music, too, played an important role: with the outcome of those turbulent days far from certain, tens of thousands demonstrated on Wenceslas Square, singing the civil rights anthem, 'We Shall Overcome'.

November 1989
Earlier, in 1968, music had served a similar purpose after Soviet-led troops crushed the Prague Spring, bringing an end Alexander Dubcek's experiment in "socialism with a human face". Then, too, Czechoslovaks were united and roused by the spirit and by the words of "Close the door, little brother", a song written literally overnight in response to the occupation. Its author and singer was 24-year old Karel Kryl.

The singer couldn't have known that within a year of writing the famous song he would leave his country and remain in exile for the next twenty years.

Even less could he have fathomed that when he eventually did return in November 1989, the thousands who gathered on the squares would sing his words with him, knowing his lyrics by heart.

We now on this important Czech singer's life and work.

Before Karel Kryl left Czechoslovakia for Germany in 1969, he published his debut album "Bratricku, zavirej vratka" or "Little Brother, Close the Door". The compilation of a few older ballads and the songs he wrote in the first months of the occupation was published in March 1969. The man who advised Kryl to do it was the music critic Jiri Cerny. He explains why despite having released only one album in Czechoslovakia, twenty years later, Kryl remained a symbol for young Czechs, many of whom had not even been born in 1969.

"The album "Bratricku, zavirej vratka" was the only one that fully reflected the atmosphere after the Soviet invasion and the atmosphere of repression. Over 40,000 copies were sold but over the years people taped them off each other. Also, because he worked as a reporter at Radio Free Europe in Munich, Kryl had a chance to play his songs every week for his audience in Czechoslovakia."

Only a few weeks after his arrival in Germany, Kryl released his second album, "Rakovina" or "Cancer" which was a bleak metaphor of the atmosphere that prevailed in Czechoslovakia. Other, less known albums followed.

The Velvet Revolution in November 1989 was a time of mixed feelings for Karel Kryl because precisely then his mother died back in Czechoslovakia and he was allowed by the authorities to come back only for one day for her funeral. The one day turned into a whole week as the "political ice" was melting quickly.

"When he returned, the greatest surprise for Karel Kryl was the very first concert he performed at - "The Concert for All Decent People", as it was called. When he sang the first notes of his song "Morituri te salutant" people immediately started singing along. That was so unexpected for him that he had to struggle to hold back tears and open up his throat."

At one demonstration in December 1989, Karel Kryl found himself singing the Czechoslovak national anthem along with the best-selling pop star Karel Gott - which some saw as a reconciliation of the opposition with the conformists. But Karel Kryl later came to regret it.

"Looking back he saw it differently than right there at the demonstration. Later he said he was talked into it. But I was there and I remember when I came to tell him that he is expected to sing with Karel Gott, the two were already agreeing on the key."

A rebel by nature, Kryl soon turned his critical eye to the Czechoslovak fledgling democracy and its officials. Many of his fans felt their romanticised icon was turning into a bitter, grumbling man and they turned away from him.

"Kryl was twice seriously disappointed. He was devastated by the split of Czechoslovakia. He was an old-school patriot - he never even asked for the status of political refugee in Germany because he would have lost his Czechoslovak passport. The second thing was he never counted on the communists getting so much support in the elections. He was a very harsh critic. I don't think he was necessarily always right, but he was always absolutely honest."

Some say the disillusionment by the political development in the 1990s led to Karel Kryl's premature death in 1994. Just as he was planning to celebrate his 50th birthday in Prague, his heart failed him on a Munich street. Critical opinion remains divided on the quality of his music and lyrics, but his songs will always be a symbol for the two decades between the Soviet invasion and the fall of Communism in 1989.

Now, music of course played not only a crucial role at the crisis points in Czech history, such as the 1968 Soviet-led invasion and the fall of communism in 1989, but in the long years in between: the stifling period of renewed repression known as 'Normalisation', which saw opponents of the regime thrown out of work, persecuted and jailed. Despite repressions a dedicated, highly versatile, and underground movement continued on from the 60s, staging illegal events including rock concerts and artistic happenings that challenged the status quo. Jan Velinger has more on one of Czechoslovakia's most famous bands which emerged at the forefront of the underground movement at this time.

During this period one of the most prominent musical bands to test the limits of Gustav Husak's new regime was the Plastic People of the Universe. Led by the irreverent avant garde art critic Ivan 'Magor' Jirous, the Plastics emulated pop artist Andy Warhol and New York's Velvet Underground. Founded after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968, the Plastics were determined to slog it out in the face of "normalisation", despite the possible repercussions for band members.

Canadian translator Paul Wilson joined the Plastic People in 1970, convinced by Ivan Jirous to join not necessarily for his abilities as a singer or a guitarist, but mostly because of his ability to translate English lyrics essential for the Plastics. Paul Wilson recalls that Jirous' influence on the type of band that the Plastic People of the Universe set out to be.

"Jirous was a student of Czech history who was aware that music had a tremendous influence on the kind of self-awareness of the Czech nation, going right back to the 19th century and beyond. He realised that one of the ways to defeat the kind of stultification of Communism was to do what you really wanted to do, regardless of what the regime wanted you to do. And, playing the music that you loved and playing the music you wanted to create, despite the pressure not to, was a very important principle. I won't say it was entirely Jirous' job, it's not entirely Jirous' contribution to have held them to that line because they were very principled themselves, but it was one of his features. He'd give them 'lectures' in Czech history! This is above the call and duty for a normal manager - but not for Jirous!"

The music of the Plastic People evolved into psychedelic and brooding performances that emulated the Velvet Underground, often playing direct covers. But they also played original material. Above all, the Plastics were not willing to compromise their sound or performance, not at all. Paul Wilson again:

"When I first heard it, it was more of a show than it was music, I mean, the music was very dark and heavily rhythmic. They had this incredible show with lots of fire and costumes. Milan Hlavsa, who was the musical force behind the band, loved the Velvet Underground, partially because the sound was there, this dark, throbbing sound they were trying to create themselves. For the band too it was important that we sing in English and give the audience something of the experience of what it must have been like to listen to the Velvet Underground."

And Paul Wilson remembers one song in particular he found personally fascinating to perform:

"There was one song that intrigued me not just for musical reasons called 'Fireball'. Fire was part of the performance - there was a guy who came along with us who was a fire-eater and he would always perform during this song. 'Fireball' was based on a poem, I think based on a poem at the time by Ivan Jirous' wife, Vera about a Czech inventor called Prokop Divis who invented the lightening rod at around the same time or before Benjamin Franklin, but it was a very Baroque thing that never really caught on, so Franklin is now considered the father of the lightning rod. But it was Prokop Divis' invention, according to the Czechs anyway. So that was one of our big hits, 'Fireball', not just because of the song but because of the performance that went with it."

Despite their inventiveness the Plastics provocative & non-compromising stance soon got the band in trouble with the Communist regime. Soon they were banned from performing in public. At this stage, in the Plastics had to organise clandestine events to be heard and seen. They raised the stakes by playing illegally, bringing together artists and intellectuals, eventually uniting many different members of the underground scene. In this sense their place in Czech music history can not be underestimated.

"The real stage of illegality - or as the Czechs say "ilegalita" - the phase of going underground began about 1972. It began then. The last phase of that strategy was to play at private weddings and even that mask fell off pretty quickly! From that point on it was just this phase of secret concerts out in the country. Going to one of these concerts was very, very secretive, you didn't know where it was and you were told to meet at a certain train station at a certain time and someone would meet you at the train station to tell you what train to get and where to get off. You never got off at the station of the town where the concert was going to be held, you go off one before and walked across the field. So, at these concerts you'd be there and all these people would be streaming in from all directions on foot, having been given directions to go to different places to confuse the police."

It must have felt like you were making a difference.

"We had an audience that really appreciated what we were doing and we knew that the audience was taking as big a risk as we were so we were all together in this. I have to say, though, that it was the kind of excitement I could have done without and I don't think it did any good for the music! What it did do was inspire a lot of other bands to do the same thing, so that by the time I was expelled in 1976 and despite the arrest of the Plastic People in the meantime and other musicians, there was a fairly large underground scene. It all contributed to breaking down the absolute hold that the communist regime had over culture."

In 1976, as Paul Wilson says, the situation had escalated in the arrest of several band members - including Ivan Jirous - as provocateurs against the regime. When playwright Vaclav Havel organised a campaign for their release the foundations for continuing dissident protest and the human rights charter, Charter 77, were laid.

The thread of that protest led to the eventual imprisonment of Havel and others; extensive persecution of dissidents escalated in the early 80s under the infamous Asanace campaign which used state-sanctioned violence and intimidation to force opponents of the regime to flee the country. But, despite the crack-down, continuity within the underground movement prevailed right up until the eve of the Velvet Revolution, and indeed, beyond, when the tables turned: Havel went from playwright and human rights activist to president. And, eventually, he brought the Plastics with him to perform at Prague Castle. Things had come full circle.

"There were many symbolic moments: playing in the Castle was one, (lead singer) Milan Hlavsa playing in the White House with Lou Reed is another, several tours through the North America in a sense closing the circle. I remember when they played in Toronto a few years ago and the entire repertoire they played in this very famous old night club, the music that they played was all from their first album, which had always - for me - represented the arrival of the band in its own right. For me the closing of the circle were these concerts in the 1990s when they went back to this originally material and performed in total freedom now rather than total suppression."

Way back in 1984, Vaclav Havel had written any band worth anything had followed in the trail blazed by the Plastic People of the Universe and in no small way bands like PPU and others presented an alternative to slavishly following a morally-bankrupt regime. Most of all they were willing to make sacrifices at a time when most people in Czechoslovakia had no idea they even existed.

Which brings us to our final report this day on a sister-band of the Plastics born in the early 80s that also hit the limelight at the moment when protestors convened in the streets at last to protest the regime. This band was called Garaz and the bands' music, like the Plastics, encapsulated a "punk sensibility" that many young Czechs could relate to on the eve of coming freedom.

In 1990 Garaz even made it as far as the United States, where they found many rock fans open to hearing music from the newly liberated Eastern Bloc. Ivo Pospisil played bass with Garaz - he tells their story...

"Garaz was formed in the autumn of 1980. We weren't banned but we weren't an 'official' band either. We only played around once a month so the cops didn't bother us. We played wherever we could, but we didn't play at private events or official events... After the changes some of the bands who played concerts authorized by the Union of Socialist Youth, like Lucie, had to keep their heads down for a while."

"The main thing that November was that the students went on strike, and I decided to support them by playing concerts for them, free of charge of course. We played three concerts at day, moving from one faculty to another, and we found after a few weeks we'd really made a lot of fans. And they paid us back by supporting us and buying our records. It was spontaneous but sometimes when you do something positive it comes back to you."

"There was a wave of interest abroad in Czech music, including us. We went to New York and played in Central Park, and we were interviewed on MTV, which surprised me. That interest overseas lasted two or three years before it tailed off. We weren't so professional and we didn't seize the opportunity to stay in New York and made a go of it there...Fate brought us the whole experience...looking back all these years later, I find it kind of funny."