Milan Hlavsa - legendary Plastic People frontman remembered

Mejla Hlavsa

January 5th marks ten years since the death of Czech underground music legend Milan Hlavsa. At the age of just 49 in 2001, the frontman for The Plastic People of the Universe and Půlnoc succumbed to lung cancer; fellow musicians from both bands will commemorate the singer and bassist on Saturday at Prague’s Akropolis.

Milan (Mejla) Hlavsa was nothing less than a musical legend, the frontman and songwriter who led what some have called “the most important political band in rock history” (although the Plastics themselves would say they only wanted to have a regular rock band): The Plastic People of the Universe, a thorn in the side of the Communist regime in the 1970s and ‘80s, a regime that imprisoned three of its members and expelled a fourth from the country.

After the group broke up in 1988, Hlavsa formed Půlnoc (Midnight) which released the album City of Hysteria two years after the Velvet Revolution. He then re-formed the Plastic People in 1997 to play a series of concerts including one at Prague Castle for their friend, then-president Václav Havel. After Hlavsa died, the band decided to continue. A little earlier I spoke to guitarist Joe Karafiát, who joined in ‘97; here’s how he remembers Mejla today:

Joe Karafiát
“He was the leader and he always worked in the way that he prepared everything at home and then brought it and we practiced the songs and added a bit here and there, but mostly it was his work. Vráťa Brabenec added some lyrics.”

Hlavsa played in many different bands, like yourself... do you think that there were more similarities between his bands or were there significant differences?

“He had his own style. After the Plastics took a break he asked me to join a new band he called Šílenství (Madness) and we produced a very good album. He always brought his style to projects. His style was sort of influenced by Zappa, the Velvet Underground but he was actually a great songwriter, a hitmaker I would say. I think he was a really good song writer. And it’s really hard in this country to do something different. To get somewhere. It’s kind of sad but there isn’t really a market for it.”

If he were alive today, do you think he would have pursued the same kind of style? How do you think he would view the music business today?

“Ten years back he was always talking about modern stuff, he always tried to work with new technology, to put his music through new technology. I think he would be doing the same thing, he would be trying to be creative.”

Some of Hlavsa’s best known work with the Plastic People and Půlnoc include the songs Kanárek (Canary), Muchomůrky bílé (White Mushrooms) and Magické noci (Magical Nights). No doubt at least some of these will be featured at a Půlnoc concert to take place this Saturday at Prague’s Klub Akropolis. The Plastics will not be performing as such but Joe Karafiát and many other friends remembering the frontman will of course be there. Joe Karafiát again:

“This year a few things are going on. First, a record company asked them to reform Půlnoc and they have this gig on Saturday. They are going to do about 12 songs. A lot of friends will be there and some will go on stage. I’ll go up with Vráťa Brabenec and do a little thing, then there’ll be Honza Brabec, the original drummer for the Plastics, so I think it will be exciting. For all of us.

“After that in March the Plastic People and Garáž (Garage) will tour. We will play around 15 towns in Bohemia, Moravia as well as neighbouring Slovakia. A little tour and that too will be a sort of tribute to Mejla Hlavsa.”

Fans of The Plastic People of the Universe can of course learn more at the group’s website.