Top 10: Plastic People of the Universe (Joe Yanosik)

By Joe Yanosik
(As a follow-up to the previous video post, Joe Yanosik, author of A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe, offers up his personal PPU Top 10.

1. The Plastic People of the Universe were formed in 1968 by 17-year-old Milan Hlavsa. From the start, the Plastics played cover versions of songs by the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and the Fugs. But they also played original music composed by Hlavsa. One of his best early compositions was “Indian Hay” where the PPU’s unique sound can be heard bein’ born: Hlavsa’s growling vocals and thunderous bass guitar propelling psychedelic keyboards and violin which solo above. “Indian Hay” is available on the CDs Man with No Ears (Kissing Spell) or Muz bez usi (Globus), which are both out of print but can be found used online.

2. Another one of Hlavsa’s early compositions, “Prsi, prsi (It’s Raining)” features excellent ensemble playing and a rare vocal by Josef Janicek. Bookended by theremin solos and featuring psychedelic guitar and a loose jam feel, this is one of the band’s most accessible numbers and one of their best. Found on the Globus CD Drunk as a Skunk.

3. The Plastics’ first masterpiece was the Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned album. Recorded in a haunted castle in 1974, the tape was smuggled out of the country and released without the band’s knowledge in 1978 in England and France. Hlavsa composed music for the words of Czech dissident poet Egon Bondy and the band’s signature sonics are in full force. The addition of free jazz saxophonist Vratislav Brabenec gives another dimension to the Zappa/Velvet Underground-influenced music which also features theremin, klaviphone, viola, electric guitar, and bass. Egon Bondy was previously available on CD via Globus and Kissing Spell and is currently available on Guerilla Records. Highlights: “Magicke noci” featuring insistent bass, sawing viola and crashing drums and “Okola okna” with Brabenec’s spooky sax echoing off the castle walls.

4. The Soviet regime cracked down on the Czech underground in 1976 with a series of arrests which resulted in several members of the PPU doing serious jail time. The last concert the band played prior to their arrest was recently released by Galen Records as Apokalyptickej ptak (download available on Amazon) and it stands as the band’s best vintage live album. Raw, boisterous and fun, the band is in fine form, especially Brabenec whose sax solo on the title track is a highlight.

5. By 1981, the Plastic People found it impossible to continue live performances. Although they planned secret concerts months in advance, the police would still find out about them and burn their venues to the ground. So the Plastics focused on secretly recording albums in makeshift basement studios. One of the best was Beefslaughter, recorded in 1983-1984 but not released until 1992. An expanded band lineup and Hlavsa’s tight compositions result in chamber music that rocks. The pinnacle is “Paper Heads” featuring Jan Brabec’s exquisite drumming and a stellar Brabenec solo. (Available on Guerilla CD).

6. My vote for the best PPU album (after Egon Bondy, of course) is their final illegal period album, Midnight Mouse (recorded 1985, released 1987, now available on Guerilla). Although the PPU were still outlawed by the Soviet regime, restrictions on Czech culture had begun to loosen by this time and you can hear more humor and joy in Hlavsa’s music. Lyrics were supplied by various poets suggested by the band’s friend, dissident playwright Vaclav Havel. Among the many gems on this prog-rock classic are “Mlady holky” with awesome Zappa-inspired trombone and violin solos and the title track with its squelchy MOOG keyboards and phased electric guitar.

7. When the Plastic People disbanded in 1988, Hlavsa formed a new band with two PPU veterans plus four younger musicians. He named this new guitar-heavy band Půlnoc (translation: Midnight). Půlnoc’s U.S. tours of 1989 and 1990 (before and after Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution) wowed critics and expats alike and were followed in 1991 by an excellent album, City of Hysteria (on Arista). Audio of a legendary 1989 show (Pulnoc Live at P.S. 122) and video of an equally intense 1990 show can both be found on YouTube.

8. The incredible saga of the PPU seemed to be over by 1993 when Půlnoc broke up. The band’s buddy Vaclav Havel had been appointed President of Czechoslovakia in December 1989 following the country’s peaceful revolution which was sparked by the support Havel and others gave to the Plastics after their 1976 arrests. In 1990, Frank Zappa and then Lou Reed (the two biggest musical influences on the PPU) had visited Prague and performed with Půlnoc for Havel and his cabinet. But the unbelievable history had a few more chapters. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Charter 77 (the human rights manifesto drafted by Havel), the PPU reunited in 1997 for a special performance at the behest of their President and ended up touring the country, resulting in a superb live album released on Globus titled 1997. If you can’t find a used copy of that out-of-print CD, Guerilla’s new Magical Nights 1997 is a great alternative.

9. Two truly historic PPU events took place in 1998. On July 18, the Plastic People of the Universe performed at Irving Plaza in NYC—their first U.S. appearance as the Plastic People. Then, on September 17, Czech President Havel paid a state visit to the White House and insisted, much to the Clinton administration’s dismay, that his friend Lou Reed be the musical guest. Accompanying Reed and his band onstage was PPU leader Milan Hlavsa.

10. Each one of the Plastic People albums has its own distinct sound. For the best overview, seek out the Magical Nights compilation released in 2010 by Munster Records. This triple-LP/double-CD collection of 1969-1985 recordings is an undeniable showcase for one of the coolest-sounding bands of all time. Prog-rock at its best.

All the above plus dozens more albums and historical interludes are discussed in detail in Joe Yanosik’s A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe—the first-ever English-language book about the band’s incredible history and equally amazing music. Email for ordering instructions.

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