In the 1970s the communist authorities tolerated popular music as long as it was insipid, colourless and unoriginal – everything that the Czech psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe most definitely was not. Their music was inspired by Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground, their lyrics anarchic, their behaviour unconventional and their hair long. In 1976 four members of the band were sentenced to prison terms for what was described as “organised disturbance of the peace”, and in December of the same year Czechoslovak Radio broadcast a documentary that painted the band in the darkest possible colours and included extracts from their music, recorded secretly at their concerts.
“That’s what true art, as interpreted by the Plastic People, sounds like – noise, offensive language and pornography. They are nothing but common-or-garden hooligans and swindlers, abusing the popularity of rock music among young people.”
And the programme went on to quote from one of their songs – quite absurdly taking the anarchic lyrics by the poet Egon Bondy completely at face value.
“Smash the pictures, burn the books, drive bulldozers through the theatres, nothing of value should remain! Eliminate culture!”
What clearer proof did they need of the band’s degeneracy and subversive intentions?!
The regime’s treatment of the Plastic People was ridiculously unimaginative and heavy-handed. In many ways it was also counter-productive: the policy of locking people up for no greater crime than playing loud music caused widespread outrage and acted as a catalyst for the human rights manifesto Charter 77. Forced onto the defensive, the authorities responded with their own “anti-Charter” in defence of the political and cultural status quo, which they bullied artists and musicians into signing. Czechoslovak Radio broadcast the launch of the anti-Charter live from Prague’s National Theatre on January 28 1977. The event included an infamous speech by the communist actress Jiřina Švorcová:
“True art, true culture, should help individual countries and humanity to move forwards, it should help to build understanding between peoples in the spirit of peace and humanism. That is why we hold in contempt all those – and even in our country a little group of such recreants and traitors has emerged – who with insatiable pride, vain arrogance, selfishness or for love of money try to cut people off from their lives and with inevitable logic become a tool of the anti-humanist forces of imperialism.”
Despite the death of founder member, Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa, in 2001, the Plastic People of the Universe are going strong to this day, having long outlived the regime that banned them.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 2, 2009.