“Havel fed them poems”: New book dives deep into history of Plastic People

Joe Yanosik

The jailing of members and associates of the Plastic People of the Universe famously sparked Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 human rights movement. The underground rock legends’ discography is the subject of a new book, A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe. But it also delves deep into the group’s fascinating history, bringing it to an English-speaking audience. I discussed the publication with its American author Joe Yanosik.

The Plastic People of the Universe went through various line-up changes over the decades, but is it fair to say that Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa really was the most important member of the group?

“I would say so, simply because he was the exclusive composer of all of their music.

“He had lyricists that he worked with.

“When they first began they were a cover band. I would say most of the music that they started out playing was covers of British and American rock’n’roll hits from the late ‘60s.

“But then very soon, in the early ‘70s, they started to use the lyrics of poet Egon Bondy for the words for their songs.

“When they first began they were a cover band.”

“Mejla would listen to the poems and compose music based on the way he felt when he read the poems. That’s how he liked to describe it.

“Then they used Bondy’s poems for the entirety of their illegal career, up to 1988.

“In the early ‘70s it was mostly Bondy words, and then little by little they would add other poets.

“When Václav Havel got involved with them, he used to feed the band poems; certain poets that he admired.

“He would provide them with the poems, and again it was always Mejla who composed the music.

“They wouldn’t have the sound that they have, which is such an original sound, if it wasn’t for all the great players in the band.

“There was Vratislav Brabenec, one of the great free sax players, and obviously Josef Janecek, a great multi-instrumentalist; he was proficient on keyboards and guitar.

Plastic People of the Universe | Photo: Czech Television

“And then Mejla was just a world-class bass player.”

I’m always reading that musically they were influenced by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa and the Fugs. But from all of those groups, and perhaps others, who for you was the single biggest influence on the actual sound of the Plastic People?

“I would say it was fairly evenly split between the Velvet Underground and Zappa.

“Their primary, signature sound, at least when they first began, was Mejla would play a bass run, typically a very monotonous, repetitive bass run, but it would just pound into your brain.

“That repetition is, I would say, representative of the Velvet Underground’s music: very powerful, very blunt and hammering.

“Mejla would always say Lou Reed was his hero, and he would attribute it to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground primarily.

“But then again, they had humour in the music, they had a very diverse array of instruments – with the saxophone, the keyboards, the guitar, they added the Theremin – and diverse instruments is really indicative of Zappa’s influence, with the Mothers of Invention.

“They had a lot of different instruments and a very full sound.

“And also the humour. The Velvet Underground’s music didn’t have a lot of real humour, but Zappa’s did.

“And Zappa and the Mothers were always gods to the Czech underground.”

PPU perform the Velvet Underground’s Run Run Run in 1971.

The poet Ivan Martin Jirous, also known as Magor, was artistic director of the band. How did he enter the picture? And what did it actually mean for him to be the artistic director of the Plastic People?

“He was an art historian and apparently he was a brilliant guy. His wife was also, I believe, an art history grad.

“I think what happened with him was that he saw The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night movie and it totally turned him onto rock’n’roll.

“He and his wife, and also his best friend and his best friend’s wife, who was his [Jirous’s] sister, formed an artistic direction team.

“There was a band called the Primitives Group and they were the very first psychedelic band in Czechoslovakia.

“Magor and his team really modelled themselves against Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the multi-media show that Warhol had put together around the Velvet Underground.

“Magor was a big, big Warhol fan – even more than a Velvet Underground fan, he was a Warhol fan.

“He loved the art and he loved the conception of a multi-media show.

“Mejla would always say Lou Reed was his hero.”

“He was really the brains behind the whole thing.

“His sister, Zorka Ságlová, was a great artist and she did the set designs for the band, and the costumes.

“They would have the Primitives Group put on make-up and have fires burning around them – it was a real production.

“Then when the Primitives broke up, Ivan Jirous – people weren’t calling him Magor at that point, people weren’t calling him Magor until the early ‘70s – then took his conception and approached the Plastic People.

“He saw them and said, These guys are perfect for us.

“Because at that point the Plastics admired the Primitives Group and tried to model their own shows against the Primitives, so when the Primitives broke up Jirous connected with the Plastic People and they just continued the multi-media shows.

“He was a very stubborn guy as well, and he fought against the regime.

“Half of the lifetime of the Plastic People’s career he was in prison, for fighting for his ideals.

“So he was a big, big influence on the band.”

Dvacet (Twenty), like other songs from this period, features lyrics by poet Egon Bondy.

A lot is made about the connection between the Plastic People of the Universe and Václav Havel. What was the nature of that link? For example, how did they first hook up?

“It’s been written that there was a secret 1976 meeting between Havel and Jirous.

“They had a mutual friend who had an art studio and he brought the two men together.

“At that point they were both leading dissidents, but in different circles.

“Jirous was the leading dissident in the underground music scene, while Havel was an intellectual and involved with the dissident authors and playwrights; he was a playwright himself, as you know.

“But they were brought together and it was apparently a very important meeting.

“The two men, Havel and Jirous, got together, they talked, and Jirous played Havel tapes of the Plastic People’s music and told him what they were doing was very important, just with their standing up to the authorities, their not changing their music.

“And Havel heard it. He had always been a big fan of rock’n’roll and he heard – he wrote about it later – the inner strength and the inner magic of the Plastics’ music.

Ivan Martin Jirous | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

“At that point Jirous had also written his manifesto about the Czech underground and Havel read that.

“The two of them decided that Havel was going to attend the next Plastic People concert, and meet them.

“A few weeks later, though, the regime arrested everyone in a big crackdown on the underground.

“At that point Jirous went to jail and the Plastic People were rounded up, so Havel never got his chance to see them then.

“Then they had the trial and then, after the trial, Havel and all the dissidents got together with the underground and they all consolidated their support for the band.

“And a movement began, supporting the band, and that was really the germination of Charter 77.”

The story of the trial of the Plastic People and the fact that it did lead to the foundation of Charter 77 is well known. But there are so many interesting stories in the book and I’d like to ask you about some particular ones – for instance about the early member of the band who was forced to wear a wig.

“Apparently they had a young drummer, the very, very first drummer of the band, and he didn’t have long enough hair to measure up to the other guys in the band.

“Half of the lifetime of the Plastic People’s career Jirous was in prison, for fighting for his ideals.”

“At that point long hair was definitely a thing in Czechoslovakia.

“The police I guess came up with the term máničky, and máničky I guess means ‘the little Maries’; that’s what they used to call the young men who had long hair.

“But it was actually a source of pride for the young men to have long hair, because it showed their non-conformance to the regime.

“So the very first drummer had to wear a wig, because otherwise he wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

“They put a wig on him.”

Also I’d like to ask you about the song Hundred Points, which was not an actual Plastic People song but was presented as such and eventually DID become a Plastic People song.

“What happened there was that after the arrests and the trial of the Plastic People, the Communist regime tried to do a smear campaign against the band, because they were on trial and they didn’t want the band to have support.

“So in the Communist newspaper Rudé Právo they said the band were all mental defectives and drug addicts.

“And that was totally untrue – they enjoyed their beer but that was about it.

“The Communist regime smeared them and because of that there was a British journalist, and he played the same game that the regime did.

“In Rudé Právo they said the band were all drug addicts. And that was totally untrue – they enjoyed their beer but that was about it.”

“What he did was he wrote a long piece he called the Hundred Points, listing 100 things that the Communist regime themselves were afraid of.

“He said, They are afraid of journalists, they are afraid of the media…

“And then at the end of the list, he said, They are afraid of all these things – so why are we afraid of them?

“Then the International Times, the UK magazine, printed the Hundred Points and somehow the Plastic People heard about these lyrics that were attributed to them, so they decided to run with it and write music to accompany those words.

“They premiered it at Third Festival of the Second Culture, which took place at Václav Havel’s country home in 1977.

“They recorded it, it circulated on samizdat tapes, within the underground.

“Then somehow a reel to reel tape of it was sent to Eurock, which Archie Patterson had.

“They sent it to him and he put it out in I believe 1980 on a single-sided cassette.

“So it was a very rare piece of music that didn’t see official release until much later.”

Patti Smith and Prague-born Ivan Král performed a version of Hundred Points in 1978.

There’s one other curiosity I’d like to ask you about. You write that there’s a recording of the Plastic People on which Václav Havel himself actually appears, called Letter to Magor.

“That’s a piece of music that when they were recording the album Passion Play they just decided, on the spur of the moment, to write.

“It’s an audio letter to Jirous, who was in prison at the time.

“They recorded it at Havel’s country cottage, so he was there.

“The music would come and go and then the voices would appear.

“It was all the voices of the band and friends, just basically speaking about all of Jirous escapades, as far as going in and out of prison.

“At one point Havel himself makes an appearance and says, Hi Magor and wishes him well in prison.

“The first drummer had to wear a wig – otherwise he wasn’t going to cut the mustard.”

“So it’s quite a funny piece of music actually, if you read the translation of it.”

Finally, you have a great story in the book about the band’s response when you presented them with a vinyl copy of their album Egon Bondy’s Lonely Hearts Club Banned and asked them to sign the record.

“When they performed for the very first time after they reunited, they came to New York City in 1998 to play at Irving Plaza.

“And my friend and I basically treated the Plastic People to dinner the night before they played the concert.

“I brought my copies of the vinyl albums that I had and after dinner we were having beers and I pulled out my albums and just asked them if they would all sign it, and they just passed the album around.

“It seemed like it took an awfully long time, because all of the band members were really looking at the album carefully.

“They were opening it up [it came with an extensive, elaborate booklet] and talking about it.

“It seemed like they had never seen it before – and then the translator told me that they hadn’t!

“It was surprising. I mean, here’s their own album, but when that album came out it was released without their knowledge, in 1978 – it came out in England and France only.

“These were tapes that they had recorded in 1974.

“So they had actually never seen the album.”

Information on the book A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe can be found here: http://www.tomhull.com/ocston/guests/jy/jy-ppu.php