Vrata Brabenec - Plastic Person still fighting for justice

Vrata Brabenec

My guest on this week's One on One is Vrata Brabenec, one of the members of the legendary early 1970s underground band the Plastic People of the Universe. Inspired by the Velvet Underground, the Plastics' moody, psychedelic sound earned them a legion of fans across Communist Czechoslovakia, but also the unwanted attention of the police. In 1976 the authorities arrested four members - including Vrata the saxophonist - and sentenced them to prison for "organised disturbance of the peace." The Plastics' case caught the attention of Vaclav Havel, who launched the "Charter 77" human rights petition to champion their cause, and Vrata Brabenec and his fellow Plastic People played a small but crucial role in the fall of Communism. They're still playing, and I recently met up with Vrata in a pub in Prague. I began by asking him where the name of the band came from.

"It's an expression from a famous Frank Zappa song, but I don't know who chose it. It was probably Mejla [Hlavsa - the group's late founder and lead singer]'s idea."

So there's a link there with Zappa, and of course you're often compared to the Velvet Underground, you played some Velvet Underground songs. What were your other influences? What were you listening to at the end of the 60s, early 70s?

"Mostly I was focused on jazz music. My solos are classified as free jazz solos with a shade of rock'n'roll, so it's a mixture."

The first time people heard, say, Sergeant Pepper or a Stones album or the Velvet Underground - what kind of effect did that have on people in Czechoslovakia?

"It was everywhere, not just in Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Underground was something really different, if you compare them to other rock'n'roll bands. Because there was some intellectual influence, the music had an intellectual element to it. It brought something new which you can still call 'modern'. The Velvet Underground are a contemporary band, because what they brought to rock'n'roll music is still very strong and nice."

You joined the Plastic People of the Universe in 1973. Try and conjure up the atmosphere of those early concerts. What was it like at those shows in the beginning?

"I can only use the word 'spontaneous'. It was a really strong band with a strong influence on young people. [We were saying] - 'You can be free, you have a right to free expression'. That was our biggest success, if I compare that to other things that were happening at the time."

When did you and the band draw the attention of the Communist authorities?

"We were waiting for it. Before '76 we were a little bit nervous, because before that hundreds and hundreds of people were arrested and interrogated just for being in the audience. They weren't people who were active culturally; they were just secondary school or university students. For two years before we were arrested we were really nervous about what could happen to us, because everybody knew where the 'bomb' of the underground music was, where the centre was. But I guess they wanted to wait for a good moment. Now we know that everything was directed by the Communist Party."

What was that moment, what was the excuse that the Communists found?

"A festival. When we were arrested, we knew we could be sent to prison for a minimum of five years, under some strange paragraph of the law saying that we were against the State, against the Communist Party, against the People, that we were disturbing the people, and disturbing the good atmosphere in Czech cultural life."

After 1976, you were no longer simply musicians; you were by definition politically involved. At the point you became dissidents, you were thrust into the forefront of the opposition to Communism. Is that how it felt at the time?

"It's difficult to say. Our position was that we didn't want to be dissidents, and be 'on the other side of the barricades'. We were being ourselves. They were our expressions, our ideas, but we didn't want to fight openly against the Communist regime."

You just wanted to play the music you wanted.

"Sure. After 1977, when I signed Charter 77, I was classified as a dissident. But the real meaning of the word 'dissident', you have to be 'dissidus' from something. We didn't fall from the Communist Party. We didn't fall from the Young Communists. We were by ourselves. The underground wasn't organised. We just invited a few friends to some gigs. That's it."

Of course music is often used as a tool for change, music can be a very powerful thing. Did you have the feeling that you were involved in something big? The story of opposition to the regime of often described as "arrest of Plastic People-birth of Charter 77-Vaclav Havel imprisoned-fall of Communism in '89".

"Sure, we knew we were not living on the moon, we were living in the East bloc. After Charter 77 was published, Czech society was divided. Some people were for Charter 77, but I guess most people were against it. Because it was very easy to live in a Communist regime. People weren't worried about their job, everything was...well, it wasn't OK, but it was very...'pohodlny'..."


"Comfortable. It was very comfortable for most people. I guess people just remember how nice it was to have something like a job, and all you did during your job was drink a few beers and talk with the other workers or whatever."

Now, in 2003, in the now-democratic Czech Republic, the country has undergone enormous change since the time that you were arrested, since the time that the Plastics were persecuted by the Communists. You're now living in an almost completely different country in many ways. Are you personally disappointed with everything that's happened since 1989?

"It was an enormous change, I agree with you. But still I am a little bit disappointed. For example the justice system is still really primitive. Two weeks ago the four of us who were jailed were up in front of the highest court in the land, and it was really absurd. Because they were still capable of talking for hours and hours about whether or not our lyrics were vulgar. In Czech, people normally use the phrase 'go to hell', but in Czech it's 'go into the arse'. It isn't polite if you say 'go to hell' in English, but if you use it in your lyrics, it's normal. It doesn't count as disturbing the peace!"

It is rather absurd. On one hand the court has overturned the original sentence which sent you to prison. On the other hand they're saying 'we want to start the case again from scratch to make sure the lyrics weren't vulgar'.

"Yes, and there is still a one percent possibility that we could be jailed for something that happened 27 years ago. You can either laugh or cry. Two possibilities. It is absurd. That we are still guilty, and that everything has to be investigated one more time, just to find out whether we were really rebels, or if we were just artists."

To find out more about the Plastic People of the Universe, check out their official website - http://www.plasticpeople.info