The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU) is a Czech rock band from Prague. It was the foremost representative of Prague’s underground culture (1968–1989), which had gone against the grain of Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime. Due to their non-conformism, members of the band often suffered serious repercussions such as arrests. The group continues to perform despite the death of its founder, main composer and bassist, Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa in 2001.
From January into August 1968, under the rule of Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček, Czechoslovakians experienced the Prague Spring. In August, Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. This led to the overthrow of Dubček and to what came to be known as the normalization process. Less than a month after the invasion, Plastic People of the Universe was formed.
Bassist Milan Hlavsa formed the band in 1968 and was heavily influenced by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground (Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, had a song called “Plastic People” from their 1967 album Absolutely Free). Czech art historian and cultural critic Ivan Jirous became their manager/artistic director in the following year, fulfilling a role similar to the one Andy Warhol had with the Velvet Underground. Jirous introduced Hlavsa to guitarist Josef Janíček, and viola player Jiří Kabeš. The consolidated Czech communist government revoked the band’s musicians license in 1970.
Because Ivan Jirous believed that English was the lingua franca of rock music, he invited Paul Wilson, a Canadian who had been teaching in Prague, to teach the band the lyrics of the American songs they covered and to translate their original Czech lyrics into English. Wilson served as lead singer for “the Plastics” from 1970 to 1972, and during this time, the band’s repertoire drew heavily on songs by the Velvet Underground and the Fugs. The only two songs sung in Czech in this period were “Na sosnové větvi” and “Růže a mrtví”, lyrics of both being written by Czech poet Jiří Kolář. Wilson encouraged them to sing in Czech. After he left, saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec joined the band and they began to draw upon poet Egon Bondy whose work had been banned by the government. In the following three years, Bondy’s lyrics nearly completely dominated PPU’s music. In December 1974, the band recorded their first “studio” album, Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned (the title being a play on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), which was released in France in 1978.
In 1974, thousands of people traveled from Prague to the town of České Budějovice to visit the Plastics’ performance. Stopped by police, they were sent back to Prague, and several students were arrested. The band was forced underground until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Unable to perform openly, an entire underground cultural movement formed around the band during the 1970s. The sympathizers of the movement were often called máničky, mainly due to their long hair.
In 1976, the Plastics and other people from the underground scene were arrested and put on trial (after performing at the Third festival of the second culture) by the Communist government to make an example. They were convicted of “organized disturbance of the peace” and sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months. Paul Wilson was deported even though he had left the band in 1972. It was in protest of these arrests and prosecution that led playwright Václav Havel and others to write the Charter 77.
In 1978, the PPU recorded Pašijové hry velikonoční (released in Canada as “The Passion Play” at Paul Wilson’s company Boží mlýn). The lyrics were written earlier by Vratislav Brabenec. In 1979, followed Jak bude po smrti, being influenced by a Czech philosopher and writer from the first half of the 20th century, Ladislav Klíma. In 1980, they rehearsed and performed a new record, recorded one year later, Co znamená vésti koně (released in Canada as “Leading Horses”). In 1982, Vratislav Brabenec was forced by the police to leave and emigrate to Canada. After he left, the band released its next record Hovězí porážka (1983) and Půlnoční myš (1986, Midnight Mouse). Czech record label GLOBUS INTERNATIONAL has collected the original work of the Plastic People as 10 CDs, and released them in various forms several times between 1992 and 2004, with various liner notes and photos, and also as a limited edition box set. They have also released other PPU live and solo albums, and related work such as DG 307.
Despite their clashes with the government, the musicians never considered themselves activists and always claimed that they wanted only to play their music. The band broke up in 1988, with some members forming the group Půlnoc (meaning “midnight” in Czech), which recorded briefly for Arista Records in the USA. At President Havel’s suggestion, they reunited in 1997 in honor of the 20th anniversary of Charter 77, and have performed around the world regularly since then.
In 1999, along with Lou Reed, Milan Hlavsa performed at the White House during Václav Havel´s state visit.
Milan Hlavsa died in 2001 of lung cancer. The band wasn´t sure whether or not to continue without their frontman and main songwriter. However, after long discussions they decided to continue in honour of Hlavsa´s memory. Eva Turnová from the group DG 307 became the band´s new bass player.
Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned was recorded in 1974/75, mainly at Houska Castle, enabled by the castle’s then warden Svatopluk Karásek, with some songs being recorded in Prague. The album could not be officially released and distributed under the former Communist regime in Czechoslovakia; instead fans duplicated tapes with one another, often resulting in poor technical quality. It was released in 1978 in France by SCOPA Invisible Production. In the Czech Republic a remastered version was published in 2001 by Globus Music. The album title is a parody of the The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Most of the songs on the record are settings of poems by Egon Bondy.