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The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard Of: The Plastic People of the Universe-Or, Can You Arrest the Band and the Audience? They Did.

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“When an inquisition increases in severity, it regularly throws up bands of visionaries.” -Vera Linhartova, 1961

“one of the highest aims of art has always been the creation of unrest.” -Ivan Jirous

“Plastic people, oh baby now, you’re such a drag” -Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention

Rock n Roll. It has been viewed over the years as a fad, a public nuisance, a social upheaval, something that needed to be watched, put down, suppressed-for the sake of the children don’t you know. Some view it as a party, some view it as a movement towards changing the way people think about life. This is a story about the latter.

On one hand, the Plastic People of the Universe (originally Plastic People of Universe-their English wasn’t so good) were like many bands popping up all across Europe-progressive leanings, improv jams, edgy jazz inflected takes on the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, lyrically challenging and lyrically absurd. But one thing set this Czechoslovakian band apart from their peers: they were literally outlaws. Like the government is after them, the secret police are after them, the national guard confiscates their equipment after them, the  police burn their houses down after them, they end up doing hard time in prison after them. Their crime? Bombings? Bank robbery? No. Their unique crime that gathered so much attention was their ability to play rock n roll, pure and simple. And for some reason, that scared the shit out of the government.

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The Prague Spring of 1968 saw the Iron Curtain country of Czechoslovakia in a weird place. Stalinism was gradually phased out by the new secretary of the Czech communist party, Alexander Dubcek. Newly found ideas like freedom of the press, literary guilds, freedom of speech and freedom of travel helped people shake off the malaise of being a  Soviet colony, and things looked good. After eight months of relative freedom, the Soviet Union had seen enough. Nearly half a million Warsaw Pact troops and 2,000 tanks flooded the country to restore order and a more Soviet-like ruling system. Dubcek was shown the door in April of 1969 and a hard line party leader was installed. Slowly, all of the freedoms of the Prague Spring were reversed starting in August of 1968. Things looked grim. But a seed had been planted in the short time of relative freedom.

How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)

One thing that had snuck into the country during the short era of freedom was rock n roll albums. Once the curtain of totalitarianism had descended again, smuggling albums in was nearly the only way to hear western music. (the Beach Boys did manage to play Prague in early 1969).  To be a band in the new era of Czechoslovakia, one had to follow some fairly strict rules. Bands had to register with the government and get a license, had to adhere to strict and conservative dress codes and hair styles, were rarely allowed out of the country, and had to submit their lyrics to censors for pre-approval before doing any recording. Concert appearances were likewise regulated. The state owned all of the band’s guitars, drums and amplifiers. Czech tastes in rock n roll had previously been limited to cover bands performing early and mid 60’s rock classics. But Czechoslovakia had been a bit more westernized than the average Iron Curtain country. Allen Ginsberg had visited (and been deported) in 1965, and he had laid the groundwork for a counterculture vibe across all forms of the arts. Hair got longer, and a beatnik vibe overtook the youth movement. But some folks went huge for rock n roll, and the weirder the better. The more offensive, the better. Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, the Fugs, Captain Beefheart were the signpost of a galaxy of weird that resonated with the more artsy circles of proto hippies, drugballs, aspiring revolutionaries, dreamers and artists that were suddenly cut off from the faucet of a thirst quenching world of ideas and musical mayhem beyond their borders. The government had called a halt to the party. What were a bunch of furry freaks supposed to do?

New Potato Caboose

“What’s it like making rock n’ roll in a police state? The same as anywhere else, only harder. Much harder”-Paul Wilson, Plastic People

The flurry of activity in government didn’t affect the rock scene much in the initial months of 1969. Milan Hlavsa, Josef Brabek, Jiri Stevich and Michael Jernek formed an early version of the band called New Electric Potatoes. The name change to Plastic People in homage to the Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention song gave their audiences a clearer hint towards their intents. Things didn’t solidify until the band fused with some important members of another Czech band, the Primitives Group. Guitarist and keyboardist Josef Janicek and more importantly non musician and visionary Ivan Jirous brought a double dose of musical muscle and visionary influences. The Primitives had been one of the weirdest bands in the country: hanging dripping herrings from the ceiling for a “Fish Feast” concert, covering the band in feathers for a “Bird Feast” show-‘happenings’ these might be called-decidedly and purposefully not slick and designed to freak people out. (songs from Zappa’s Freak Out album were in their setlists) With the voluntary dissolution of the Primitives Group in April 1969, Jirous then latched on to the only other enfant terrible band in Prague, the Plastic People. He saw them as the only band who could serve as a vehicle for his version of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable-a multi-sensory performance art based rock experience (the band and Jirous were huge Velvet Underground fans-the Velvets were almost more popular in Czechoslovakia than America). While none of the band had been overseas to America, they cobbled together what they thought would be a good approximation of what they were hearing on albums: dada-ist vignettes, killing a live chicken as a sacrifice to the god Mars to begin a show, flying saucers hung from the ceiling, home made torches across the front of the stage, elements of circus (fire breathing clowns), homemade togas, liquid light shows, spaced out jams, face paint-you know, general psychedelic madness. The band played 13 shows in 1969, the most they managed in their 40 year history.

Plastic People
Outfits and hair not approved by government

The band became a lightning rod for the freaks of Prague. However, the state had other ideas. ‘Normalization’ was the Kremlin’s word for what descended upon the arts scene. Censorship was the watchword. Bands were expected to clean up their acts, or else. The Plastic People stuck to their guns, refused to let government censors edit their lyrics and refused to get haircuts. The Czech government responded in January of 1970 by forcing them to audition for a professional musician’s license-then denying them for not cutting their hair short, and being a general menace to society.  To reinforce their point, Czech officials seized their government owned instruments, denied them access to rehearsal spaces and performance halls, and put an end to the proceedings. Things looked dark.

“It was clear we weren’t going to pass the state audition to get our professional status,” says Paul Wilson, former lead singer of the Plastic People. “We wouldn’t cut our hair, we wouldn’t allow our lyrics to be vetted, so we were kicked out. We were on our own.”

“Our manager (the well-known pop impresario Pavel “Cassius” Kratochvíl) had good connections with the official music organization and arranged for us to be given free amplifiers and instruments. Around 1970 however we had to play an audition for the committee responsible for registering bands officially, and they decided that our music was too disturbing for young people and very soon they took our equipment back. At that time the easiest path would have been to stay with our manager, cut our hair and get some tidy clothes. We decided to go in the other direction.” Josef Janicek

Long-Haired, Neurotic Drug Addicts and Mental Cases

“Long-haired, neurotic drug addicts and mental cases who take delight in the grossest of perversions and deliberately sing vulgar, anti-social songs”-Plastic People of the Universe review by state sponsored newspaper at the time

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The band vowed to soldier on, however. They scraped their meager cash reserves together, and got jobs as forest loggers to purchase their own used guitars and drums (drinking away most of the profits by their own admission), built their own amplifiers from scrap electronics and kept going. Jirous solved the performance problems by offering state approved and legal lectures on art: specifically the relationship between Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. As a member of the Union of Artists, Jirous could get the government to provide permits for large halls and professional sound systems to support the lectures. The Plastic People would be onstage behind a curtain-show a few slides and then pull the curtain to have the band give musical examples of what he was talking about. Eventually these ‘art lectures’ degenerated into a short introductions on Warhol and a couple of hours of Velvet Underground covers courtesy of the Plastics. It took a while, but the government figured out they were being tricked, and put an end to the ‘lectures’. Once again, things looked bleak.

Back To The Starting Line

Jirous had hired Canadian Paul Wilson to teach the band English so they could understand what madness was being spewed by the likes of the Fugs, Zappa and the Velvets, and pronounce things correctly in their slapdash cover versions. He eventually became the band’s lead singer for two years (eventually he was deported in 1977).  But with their instruments confiscated once again, the band had been knocked back to square one. They were reduced to borrowing instruments when they could, never being able to rehearse, and playing at secret parties.

“They were pretty much chewing-gum-and-string-gigs,” remembers Wilson. “We had no instruments to practice on, so the only time we played amplified was in front of an audience – you could say we weren’t very polished.”

Wilson estimated the band performed roughly 15 times in the 1970 to 1972 period.

The Heat is ON: 1973 -1976

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This is the era when the Plastic People legend was really born. Change was in the wind, and the wind blew in different directions. Musically, things got different in 1973 with the addition of saxophonist Vlatislav Brabenec, someone older and much more musically trained than the rest of the band. His addition brought two important changes. First, he demanded their set list contain only original material, and second that songs now only be sung in Czech. He brought in Czech lyrics by the surrealist writer and poet Egon Bondy. No more cover songs in their set pooched one of their last excuses of legitimacy to the government-‘we are just a band performing western rock because those bands aren’t allowed to visit here.’ Nevertheless, their newfound musical complexity led them to reapply for a ‘professional band’ status card. They were granted a license in 1973, but it was once again revoked within two weeks. Authorities claimed their music was “morbid” and would have a “negative social impact”, and once again they were banned from public concerts and had to retreat to the now familiar ‘underground’.

The band were not at a loss for creative ideas on how to get some illegal concerts going. House parties were the logical choice, but other ideas bubbled in: renting a riverboat for private tourist excursions, with the soundtrack on the boat provided by the Plastics. A Plastic People soccer team (with real uniforms) organized to play a village volunteer fire department. The after party? A Plastic People concert at the fire station of course. Then there were some large parties at weddings. The fact that the couples had already been married recently wasn’t shared with the officials. The wedding band? The Plastic People of the Universe of course. A new scene was growing larger as the Plastic People became the center of a second social and cultural revolution.  Newer bands like DG307, the Midsummer’s Night Band and later the Dog Soldiers were drawn in, and writers, poets, singers and artists came into a scene that was developing organically-and exponentially. The band had relocated to obscure Bohemian villages, as the heat in Prague was too much. The government had less control in the boondocks, and perceived dissidents had to leave the city for the relative safety of the forests.  Concerts were organized like American raves of the late 90’s-locations were kept secret until the final day, were generally very far out of town, and the exact location was spread by word of mouth only. People would walk for miles. You had to be literally clued into the scene.  It wasn’t long until the freaks began to gather in force, and in numbers that would make it hard for the government to ignore.

 The Merry Ghetto

 

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Booklet for Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart’s Club Banned

 

“The Plastics really started to get attention from the secret police when they started singing in Czech,” says Wilson, who despite no longer featuring in the band’s line-up, continued to be involved. “Suddenly they became more than a minor annoyance.”

Shit started to get real in March 1974. What became known as the Ceske Budovice Massacre saw the government strike back in a fashion that they never had before. Over 1,500 fans descended on the Bohemian village of Budovice for one of the rare secret Plastic People concerts. By this time, these were more than concerts, they were gatherings of the cognoscenti, the cream of the dissident intellectual crop. (There was a vibe of ‘hey, we’re getting away with this” if the Plastics managed to play for an hour without the proceedings getting busted up.) This time, the police were wise to the game, and were waiting in force. Fans were intercepted as they decamped from the train into a tornado of billy club wielding secret police. Government officials were there to take names, check IDs, throw people back onto a waiting government train to Prague. Hundreds of kids got arrested. Beatings and interrogations were handed out indiscriminately. Those who were students got expelled from college (the government paid for college, remember). The band did not get to perform.

Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club, Banned

Rather than back off, Ivan Jirous wanted the band to be a focal point for a whole new way of life in the country. He organized what was known as the First Music Festival of the Second Culture. The Second Culture was the designation Jirous gave to the collection of (literally) Bohemian dissidents and freaks as the antithesis to the government sponsored ‘First Culture’. Held outside of Benesov in September 1974, it was disguised as a wedding, and hundreds managed to attend. The band was getting more polished, and sounded like a hybrid of some Velvets, but elements of early Mothers of Invention, Henry Cow and Van der Graaf Generator filtered through an early Hawkwind scruffy lens.

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Houska Castle
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Czech out the hammer and sickle with hearts

 

 

The band was recorded at the time by friends at Houska Castle, 30 miles north of Prague  in 1974 and 1975. The intentions were to smuggle the master tapes out of the country and give the Plastic People a proper release-Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned. To ensure the success of the endeavor, this information was kept secret from even the band (who were notoriously prodigious drinkers, and might let the secret accidentally slip).  The album was pressed in Ireland, the jacket printed in England, assembled in France and sent to the Netherlands for distribution (!). All benefits were listed for the Plastic People Defense Fund, London. They needed funds because the long expected day arrived. The band were all finally arrested.

Folsom Prison Blues

Future President of the Country, Off to Prison

The First Music Festival of the Second Culture had not gone unnoticed by the government. It had grown legendary in the underground among those who could not attend. The police had focused on the most vocal part of the group, Ivan Jirous-now known as ‘Magor’ (short for phantasmagoric, translating better as loony or crazy). Starting in 1974, Jirous would spend many periods in and out of prison-actually spending over nine of the next SIXTEEN years in prison. Jirous organized the Second Music Festival of the Second Culture in Bojanovice in February 1976, disguised as his own wedding. ‘Magor’s Wedding’ attracted fans from all parts of the underground, and oddly, no police attention whatsoever. Or so it appeared.

Less than a month later, the government struck. On March 17, 1976 there was a general round up of the counterculture. Simultaneous raids across the country bagged the Plastic People, DG307, Jirous…in all 27 musicians were arrested, writers and artists were taken in, concert promoters and hundreds of fans of the scene were rounded up and charged with disturbing the peace among other things. Musical instruments were once again confiscated, houses were ransacked, all of the bands tapes, artwork and notebooks were seized.  The Plastic People were left without any resources, instruments,  spiritual leader and now worst of all-without freedom.

This event did not go unnoticed outside the borders of Czechoslovakia. International outrage led to several of the band being released after a few months in prison. Vlatislav Brabenec, the Plastic’s saxophonist and Jirous were held, along with DG307’s Pavel Zajicek and singer Svatopluk Karasek. Paul Wilson, the person who had organized their one album being smuggled out of the country was deported. The government demanded a large show trial, to put the Second Culture on trial, essentially trying to end the hippie vs. communist question. The velvet glove and the iron hand were about to collide.

“I would say I survived about 80 or 90 interrogations, which was sometimes very exhausting,” said Brabenec. “It was at its worst when they threatened to kidnap my two-year-old daughter,” concedes Brabenec. “But I pitied these people, he said of his interrogators,  “I thought they wouldn’t find peace until the end of their days.” Others privy to the events  were more specific: “They would beat them up, drown them… it was torture,”

While the charges were almost comical–‘vulgar lyrics’, ‘anti-social phenomenon’, corrupting Czech youth– the verdicts were not. It was a foregone conclusion to all watching how this would end up.  Jirous was sentenced to 18 months, Zajicek to 12 months, and both Karasek and Brabenec to 8 months in prison. A simultaneous trial of three concert promoters in Plzen reinforced the government’s attack on the new culture.

 

 

 

Magor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brabenec

This verdict had the opposite effect of what the government hoped for. Powerful forces in the both the underground and mainstream Czech circles were outraged at the massive overreaction. Vaclav Havel wrote some powerful essays on the nature of freedom, and the huge injustice that had been done to the country. He contacted other western intellectuals and kindred spirits, and the cause of the Czech underground became an international one. The remaining Plastic People regrouped with a purpose. Vaclav Havel offered his own house and barn for recording sessions and underground concerts. The dissidents dug their heels in and once again the Plastics were more determined than ever. From prison, Magor tried to direct proceedings, which he now saw as quite serious-a struggle between the future and the past.

Charter 77

Charter 77 was written in the wake of the trial, and published clandestinely in December 1976. It was a manifesto and a declaration of intent-the underground wasn’t about to go quietly. Nine prominent Czech intellectuals from all walks of life were signatories to it, virtually guaranteeing arrest. Soon over 200 important Czechs had signed it. Havel was arrested trying to bring it to the Federal Assembly, and the Charter was confiscated. Unsurprisingly, copies had been smuggled to the west, and it was published simultaneously in newspapers in France, England, Germany and the United States. The Charter was represented as a “loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world.” The Czech government did not react well, with random arrests, deportations, interrogations, expulsion from college, loss of driving permits-general harassments. The Plastic People were not forgotten by the government.

Midnight, a New Day?

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Post arrest Plastics with Vaclav Havel (R) in 1977

“The teenagers in the boondocks had no idea the underground existed,” says Wilson. “Suddenly they did and it looked exciting as hell. More and more people found themselves drawn into the Plastics’ orbit.”

The band were followed wherever they went. Police were following everyone associated with the Plastics and the underground. They were once again forced to play parties in the woods. One uncomfortable consequence, though? Houses they played in tended to burn down after they played there. The police were immediately suspected, although there was little recourse. (the police did do it). Police surrounded Havel’s barn for a 1977 show, letting people pass (and taking down names), but not moving and letting the band play. (the barn was eventually burned down in retribution for hosting events)

Jirous was released but then arrested twice, once for ‘inappropriate comments at an art opening’ and then again for involvement with an underground magazine. He stayed in jail until the government fell in 1989. Brabenec had enough, and depending on who you listen to, was either forced into exile or petitioned to emigrate permanently in 1982.

According to Pepa Janiček, “Some secret policemen visited Brabenec’s home at night and said “so you play the saxophone? How will you play it after someone has knocked your teeth out?”.

In 1986, the Czech government allowed the first ever rock festival to be held-Rockfest 86. Bands who had been blacklisted for years were allowed to play for the first time. Things were starting to mellow.

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In 1988 the government offered the remaining members : Janicek, Hlvasa, Kabes and Brabec a devil’s choice: reinstatement of their performance license, the one denied way back in 1970-with a catch. They could never use the name Plastic People of the Universe again. Brabec quit, refusing to perform without the name they had literally given up blood, teeth and years of their freedom for. The remaining band reformed as Pulnoc, which means ‘midnight’. They were signed to Arista Records in the States, and toured America, to ecstatic expat Czechs and those in the west who knew the tale.

After all of the better than two decades of harassment, imprisonment, confiscations, interrogations and beatings-one might expect the story would end with  more of the same. But instead, quite the opposite resulted. The Plastic People of the Universe were asked to reform at the behest of new Czech president, Vaclav Havel. They performed legally for the first time since 1970.  Fucking unbelievable.

What About Other Recordings?

Although there are enough people in the west who have heard of this band, fewer have actually heard their lone album-most people who know of them only have heard this single album. And even fewer know there are a dozen or so essential releases out there, lovingly curated by GLOBUS International label out of Prague. They put together a stunning 15 Cd compilation of their various eras (insanely rare, fetching up to $1,000 online).   Single CDs are available from this set if one really looks around, and is willing to buy from overseas. The first CD in the set is one of the two treasures: Muz Bez Usi (Man With No Ears) 1969-1972. This one captures the band in the early days-some when they were still legal. Most of this is professionally recorded, something rarely afforded the band. The band is surprisingly tight and inventive-a hybrid of straight ahead Mothers of Invention with general psychedelic jamming. Overall, circa 1969 their blend of influences sounded not unlike early Amon Duul II (who were forming in Germany in the same months). The first eleven minutes of the album is a suite of a half dozen songs that gets the ethos across quickly, and is the best snapshot of what they were like in the chaotic early days-highly recommended :

Other pieces are harder to grab, but the next big one is the recordings they did once released from prison,  Kolejnice duni (Railways rumble) 1977-1982. The Third Music Festival of the Second Culture held October 1, 1977 was their first reunion show for the public. Known as the 100 Points, the concert was held in Vaclav Havel’s barn, and this recording is the 28 minute centerpiece of this album. Here the band has evolved into a completely new sound-Magma, Henry Cow collide with darker sounds-early R.I.O. (if there ever was a band deserving of the title ‘Rock In Opposition, it surely is them). Here is 100 Points:

Their 1978 album, Pasijove hry velikonocni (Passion Play), is Vlatislav Brabenec’s masterwork-he wrote the whole album to tie up all of the threads of Plastic madness up to that point in one single statement. (In reality, these guys had to know that every day literally could be their last). Don’t be fooled by the religious implications of the title-the band was finally making an oblique and thinly veiled political statement-persecution ending in crucifixion? Legally plausible deniability? (“C’mon guys, we’re only singing about Jesus! Hey, hey put that guitar amp down!”). Strings from Jiri Kabes were now becoming one of the signature sounds of the band-the link to their earlier Velvets days. Early Magma vibes swirl in with some early Hawkwind, Van der Graaf and Popol Vuh sounds-lots of Christian Vander intonations combine with Peter Hammill angst throughout-alternating with hypnotic instrumental jams reminiscent of Gong or Nik Turner circa 1971. The sounds of the forests are out in full force-again an R.I.O vibe. Stark, harsh and ominous, this is as close to definitive as they got in a single album, with some great meditative playing in there as well. Wide ranging, not easy listening but sometimes confrontational stuff.

Co znamena vesti kone (Leading Horses), was smuggled out to Canada for release in 1981, and is probably their easiest to find release. Poppier and less confrontational than Passion Play, it is the last to feature Brabenec.

An album was recorded in 1983, Horezi porazka (Beef slaughter), to be smuggled to Canada for release, but it had to wait 20 years until it saw the light of day. Here the band continues to develop the heavy strings arrangements that defined their later sound in Pulnoc. Univers Zero with Zeuhl undertones is a good description, but the band is starting to really carve out their own unique Bohemian dark sound-the sounds of the gypsy forests and of villages of centuries past weave seamlessly into one now coherent whole. Those paying close attention might notice that some of their more important riffs get recycled on future albums-the conceptual continuity that Zappa referred to in his own work.

The musical perception of this band as only the snapshot of Egon Bondy’s era recordings is really a crime. This band danced from psych rockers to Amon Duul-ish space rock to darker Velvet Underground to Zeuhl sounds of Magma and Henry Cow to flirtations with quirky Cardiacs and Devo inflected 80’s sounds to a final restrained dark ‘Univers Zero as a pop band’ sound that morphed into the above ground Pulnoc. That is quite a musical history journey for a single band, especially one so hassled on a daily basis, an amazing feat in retrospect.

The Power of Music-Never Underestimate a Hippie

America had a handful of bands that tried to stick it to the government and preached some borderline seditious vibes: the Jefferson Airplane, MC5 are two of the better known examples, with some singular examples like Steppenwolf’s Monster album also lurking in the background. But an important difference is that while American bands consciously tried to foment some level of rebellion, the Plastics were just going about their business, making music as art and being generally weird. But while hippies in America had vague aspirations to some formless change, the Plastic People helped literally overthrow the government, and one of their prominent literary advisers, Vaclav Havel (who had done time in prison for being a dissident) was now president of Czechoslovakia. Frank Zappa was an adviser to Havel, and flew into Prague and found a crowd of 5,000 awaiting him. Lou Reed came in for the extended inauguration proceedings in early 1990 to meet Havel, where Reed gave the president his new album, and Havel told Reed the story of his rise to power and the band that had provided the secret soundtrack-the Plastic People. Havel took Reed to a small club that night to see a band, and Reed realized they were playing a song from the first Velvet Underground album. Fans went wild when they realized that Lou Reed AND the president of Czechoslovakia were in attendance. Long term dissidents came to greet them and regaled Reed with tales of the days of repression-where they had recited Velvet Underground lyrics to each other while in jail to help stay strong. Things had come full circle as the members of the Plastic People wailed away on stage.

American hippies fantasized the dream-change the world and get enough power to start making the rules. Czech hippies didn’t fantasize, and it was no hyperbolic hippie hallucination: they were ones who actually went out and fucking DID it-they changed the rules, dumped the government on its ass, and installed one of their own as president-a president that has Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa albums in his collection. Can’t think of any countries who can say that. And that my friends…is the real power of rock n roll.

“All of the stupid brains are out in the sun: our powerful nation lives in a velvet underground” -The Sun, by the Plastic People of the Universe

We weren’t political, we were dissidents against our will’‘ -Milan Hlavsa 1988

 

 

 

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David Bowie-the Anti Chameleon: Will the Real Davy Jones Please Stand Up?

Rock stars seem to be dropping like flies lately. In reality, important rock personages have been shuffling off the mortal coil since the trifecta of Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison all pulled the curtain closed at age 27. But the one-two whammy of Lemmy and Bowie in under two weeks has left the rock world reeling. That the both of them died less than a week after their birthdays only adds an eeriness to the tale. Lemmy was the one that really hit hard, for many folks thought they had a bead on Lemmy-everyone’s fabled disreputable but lovable uncle. (just keep him away from your little sister and the liquor cabinet). But David Bowie was more enigmatic. Able to shed personalities like a snake shedding skins, the real David Bowie was very hard to pin down. The question is, did a real David Bowie exist under all those layers? Let’s see:

Which One Is Davy Jones?

Sometimes there’s just not enough room for two people in one place. Davy Jones and the Manish Boys were on track under Shel Talmy’s (the Who) guidance towards success-singles and selected high exposure gigs. Things weren’t perfect, but then in 1966 something happened, a US television show. Perhaps the meteoric rise of the Monkees in 1966 caught everyone unaware. But as Bowie wrote to an American fan in 1967: “In answer to your questions, my real name is David Jones and I don’t have to tell you why I changed it” ‘Nobody’s going to make a monkey out of you’ said Bowie’s manager.  The name change to David Bowie was necessary. (Of note is his 1965 encounter with session guitarist Jimmy Page. Jones/Bowie grabbed an unused riff from Page that he held on to for the perfect moment, resurfacing five years later on The Man Who Sold the World as The Supermen).

Glamming on to a Trend

                                     Alice                                            David

The glam movement was just getting started in the late 60’s. Guys started wearing make up and dresses, dropped hints that they might be gay, strapped on guitars, and rocked out. An early pioneer, Alice Cooper (first the name of a band, then later the name of the singer) had workshopped  the ‘guy pretending to be a girl thing’. In Britain, homosexuality was becoming popular (it had been illegal in that country until 1967). Though it took until 1972 for him to declare himself gay (possibly a publicity stunt to promote the bisexual character Ziggy Stardust that was his persona for the next two years), he embraced the controversy and the ink it generated in the music press. Regardless, the androgynous Bowie character went huge. Starting with the hugely influential Space Oddity single (which seems to have drastically higher production value than the rest of the LP, indications of the need to get an album out quickly), Bowie seemed to have the grand plan already in mind-space themes and dystopia with a hint of hippy pop.  The follow up,  1970’s The Man Who Sold the World found Bowie hitting a rough but powerful outline of what was to come next, with three quarters of the future Spiders already in place. Width of a Circle is a good picture of the imminent future, and a dystopian party it was going to be. The musicianship of the Spiders From Mars band-Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder had a lot to do with this incarnation becoming the real life version of the fantasy. The combination of Bowie and Ronson was unbeatable at the time for spinning out anthem after anthem. 1971’s Hunky Dory brought in fans drawn to this guy who might be a hippy (Glastonbury Fayre appearance), might be a faux stoner trying to be cool (Davy Jones background), might be some half-alien spacerocker trying to get a cult together?  The latter choice  was closest to the truth. But fans gathered to the freak flag Bowie was flying, and the party was about to begin in earnest. The stage was ready for The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s acknowledged masterpiece. A loose rock opera of sorts, it is a dystopian tale with a hint of 60’s utopian optimism. Everyone should own this record.(The fictional glam alien pop star Ziggy that takes the world over was supposedly based on the name and persona of the over the top persona and groundbreaking ambiguous sexuality of Iggy Pop).

“Well the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar
You’re the blessed, we’re the Spiders from Mars”

Ziggy drew huge crowds wherever he went. Arenas and halls filled up across the Europe, America, Japan and of course, the UK. They played 174 shows from February 1972 to July 1973. They had conquered the world in fashion akin to what was accomplished recently by Led Zeppelin. This was far more than just a band-the whole trip promised was a lifestyle that fans wondering where the promise of the festival generation had gone had been waiting for- a glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem. The hippies, the glam kids, the new pill druggies, the sci-fi futurists–the optimists and pessimists of the post commune era had been searching for something to fill this unfulfilled dream. This was a utopia of sex, drugs and rock n roll as a way of living. Not a cliche,  but a real outlet from reality that you could stay in permanently, with Ziggy as their leader. Ziggy was becoming a reality, the messiah that was only words scrawled into an album coming to life-a real cult leader with a real cult following. But it wasn’t really clear where Ziggy started and Bowie ended. They started to fuse into one personality, which in a haze of drugs and decadence, must have been a little concerning.  When Bowie announced his retirement live in concert, there were gasps of disbelief in the crowd. Fans were aghast that he had taken off the Ziggy persona like a cheap Halloween costume and crumpled it in the corner, ending their dreams.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

  US original cover and 1972 reissue

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A Lad Insane?

You’d have to be nuts to walk away from the fame (and cash) that Ziggy brought in. His retirement? A publicity stunt. You see, only Ziggy was retiring, not David. Bowie’s next tweak wasn’t that radical. Aladdin Sane was huge in America, and those that missed the Spiders From Mars tour were sure not to miss this one. The next two albums did not stray too far from home. The lightning bolt became his icon, and glam burst full force in America, spawning bands from the New York Dolls to Kiss, signaling even the early Ramones to put on make up, wear dresses, act gay, and hope to get famous.

His decision on Diamond Dogs to not have a star guitarist in the band, and hold down guitar duties on his own was a hubris motivated mistake. His limited skills on guitar held back some fairly impressive songs from becoming full blown rock legends. Still, this album ranks as one of his best, and is the last in the trio that started with Ziggy. Rock n Roll was about to run its course for Bowie. The three album arc for an invented personality though? This was a format to stay on.  (Many Bowie fans point to these three albums as the essential Bowie, a point I essentially agree with).

Blue and Green Eyed Soul

Bowie’s next move puzzled many. Gone were the dresses, the futuristic sci-fi costumes, the make up, the platform shoes-the whole thing. Many fans were crushed when Bowie became the Thin White Duke: a cigarette smoking, smoky eyed soul singer. Demure zoot suit era costumes were modernized to fit in with his new ‘cool persona’ . 1975’s Young Americans kicked this off. R n B and Philadelphia soul? A natural for a skinny white boy from Brixton, right? Soul was huge in America, and though he had a solid fan base, radio hadn’t caught on until Young Americans. Station to Station continued the run, and the Ziggy kids were perplexed and pissed, feeling ditched by their hero who had laid out the blueprint of a whole lifestyle. Fame and Young Americans had supplanted the alien pied piper. Carlos Alomar came on as guitarist, but couldn’t get the things out of Bowie that Ronson could. Never again would Bowie have a muse like Mick Ronson.

Station to Station cover.jpg

Nothing says soul like being surrounded by black people,  and his appearance on Soul Train either validates his new persona or is uncomfortable in the extreme. Perhaps a little bit of both?

Krautrock Here We Come

The next trio of albums was started in Berlin. Krautrock had been noticed throughout Europe, and the flamboyant and odd Amon Duul II and equally strange Faust had left the playing field to the instrumentalists. Bands like Cluster, Harmonia, Can, Kraftwerk (see V2 Schneider from Heroes), la Dusseldorf and Tangerine Dream had been left standing. Mostly  instrumental, these bands had created a sound-they were stark and brooding-and ambient. Bowie saw and Bowie liked. He contacted ambient music pioneer Brian Eno to come to Berlin and absorb the vibes of a dark and brooding city, and make some music. Eno was essential to this new sound, and the new image-part performance art, part disaffected rock star, part coke head trying to kick a nasty habit. Many Bowie fans point to the trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as his peak period, and perhaps the only view of the ‘real’ Bowie he allowed us to see.

Low (album).jpg  

Scary MTV Monsters

The follow up to Lodger didn’t exactly light up the charts-it was a frightening thought to have a 1980’s Bowie for many. Robert Fripp and the then new instrument guitar synthesizer played by Chuck Hammer tried to fill the gaping hole left by Eno’s departure. It spawned the classic tune Fashion, but others noticed the album was filled with references from his past, especially an update on Major Tom.

A three year layoff and a huge new record contract with EMI (as he jumped ship from RCA) led to an unexpected renaissance. Let’s Dance, released in 1983 garnered a lot of attention, and the rise of MTV gave it a boost that no one could have predicted. With the relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead guitar, and the ultra slick disco era Chic’s Nile Rodgers as a producer, a streamlined dance floor ready MTV icon was created. The guitar work of Vaughan kept some of his older fans in the fold while new fans flocked to the banner in hordes. The album went straight to number one in the UK, and scrapped its way to number four in the States. Following the pattern of three, it was followed by the generally inferior Tonight in 1984 and the generally ignored Never Let Me Down in 1987.

David-bowie-lets-dance.jpg Tonight (album).jpg Never-Let-Me-Down.jpg

In the mid sixties, Bowie had said that all he wanted to do was be Mick Jagger. In 1985, his dream came true in the magnificently horrific ‘Dancing in the Streets’ duet with Jagger. A video so amazingly ill advised, the US animated television show Family Guy showed it in its entirety, without comment. That moment in a show that never used live footage said more than any words could ever say -a unique combination of awe and disbelief for mid 80’s cocaine decisions:

Folks rightfully thought it was over, and Bowie was generally put into the ‘where are they now’ category. For those puzzled by the duet with Bing Crosby, this duet was viewed as the nadir of his career. He needed something to revive his flagging prospects.

I Am a Musician In a Band, Not a Pop Star

Tin Machine was a surprise in 1988. Bowie was no longer an MTV star, poster fodder for tweens bedroom walls. Though his reputation was headed towards  ‘fading former video icon’, he was now a musician in a band, Tin Machine. With Reeves Gabrels as the guitar hero for a musical foil, and Soupy Sales’ kids-Hunt Sales and Tony Sales as a rhythm section, this unit seemed headed for stardom. Bowie trying to get his rock cred back, twenty years after Space Oddity? Sure, I’m in. Trying to ditch all of the unwanted fans that Let’s Dance had created? Admirable. But there was a problem. Perhaps due to an inability to write a single good song, the seriousness with which this was presented sank like an overloaded freighter presented with a large ocean wave. It sank agonizingly slowly. The follow up was met with even more disdain. Apparently Bowie was not ‘a musician in a band.’ An admirable failure.  (the live album is mildly entertaining).

Tin-machine album.jpg The European album cover, showing 4 greek Koroi statues and the name of the band Tin-machine oy.jpg

Revisiting the Past to Nine Inch Nails Here We Come

Black Tie White Noise brought Bowie into the 90’s. Released in 1993, Nile Rodgers was back on board. So was Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine. Add in a cameo by Mick Ronson from the Spiders From Mars and you have a two decade reunion on one disc. It hit number one in the UK, but barely made the top 40 in the States. It was scattered and showed that Bowie might be grabbing at any ideas he had left over. The next albums did little to dissuade anyone leaning towards this theme. By 1995, techno and industrial music was huge. Former underground bands like Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails and Ministry had developed large followings, and new tastes were trending towards raucous electronics. Bowie sniffed the wind and adjusted accordingly. Outside in 1995 and Earthling in 1997 felt like he was being led by the trends a bit more than actually writing from the heart. Eno had shown up for Outside, a dystopia revisitation of Diamond Dogs themes-right down to the spoken word pieces, ominously subtitled “the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. Computers were called in to randomize proposed lyrics in a scissors cut and paste method, and sampling became a parallel cut and paste technique. The album got mixed reviews and did not crack the top 20 in the States. Bowie toured with Nine Inch Nails for this tour, and the blurring of who created what was suddenly right on the same stage. The release of I’m Afraid of Americans – a stand alone single featuring Trent Reznor further cemented the NIN/industrial image. The follow up, Earthling in 1997 brought more current trends to bear. Prodigy, Nine Inch Nails, club techno all collided with technology to create a full on digital computer based product. Drum n bass fans were miffed at this less than original appropriation of their generally underground scene. Older Bowie fans thought a weak copy of a Nine Inch Nails album might signal the end of the line. The follow up, Hours, did little do dispel this notion. A contest to get fan lyrics on the album(!) and a video game theme song were the highlights and the signpost that the train might be hitting the last stop. Heathen from 2002 called upon guests: Pete Townshend, Tony Levin from King Crimson, Dave Grohl, Jordan Rudess from Dream Theater to give a mish mash of leftovers a fresh coat. Neil Young and Pixies covers gave this a patchwork feel, but it was a slight return. Not as overtly derivative of others, he now was mining his own career for nuggets, semi-successfully. As one reviewer said “I’m tired of attending funerals for David Bowie’s career” when appraising Bowie’s last decade of work.

Outsidebowie.jpg  Earthling (album).jpg Bowie Hours.jpgHeathen.jpg

Ironically, it was in the last two years that Bowie mystified his critics. 2013’s The Next Day surprised many. Those who thought he was lingering in retirement gave their kudos. Recorded in secrecy, many of his associates and even his label were unaware this album was being recorded. The album shot to number one in many countries (number 2 in the States) and was by far the most successful and original piece of work in three decades. Housed in a perplexing sleeve (Heroes, reworked), it gathered praise everywhere. Rock n roll had returned, and most of the songs on this would not be uncomfortable on a late 70’s Peter Gabriel solo album-a minor classic, and so unlikely this late in the game. His 26th album was even more paradoxical. The release of Blackstar, two days before his death in January 2016,  confounded critics and was viewed by initial reviewers even more favorably  than its predecessor. Was he mining the little heard skronk territory of music to glom onto a new vision? (Much of this still sounds like Peter Gabriel filtered through the second side of Heroes, only much darker). Or had Bowie, realizing the end was near, finally become able to reveal his true self to the world? Only time will tell, but the concurrent Lazarus theater project is ironically symbolic. The chameleon may have shed the multi layers of skin he had grown over the past fifty years.

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Picking Up the Pieces

It should be noted that Bowie was an artist, first and foremost. Rock star, screen roles, theater, visual art-check out his Dada inspired collaboration with Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1979:

Also, before we finish-let’s not forget that Bowie single-handedly saved the careers of both Mott the Hoople (he gave them All the Young Dudes, slated for Ziggy Stardust, as a career changing single), and Iggy Pop- the inspiration for Jean Genie and Ziggy himself. The amount of money Iggy took in for co writing China Girl was not insignificant. (It could be argued he saved Lou Reed too by producing Transformer with the groundbreaking single Take a Walk on the Wild Side). Three hugely influential rock icons might have shuffled off had it not been for Bowie.

Well, What Was Bowie-Gifted Copycat or True Genius?

The definition of a chameleon is something that changes its colors to blend with the background. But Bowie was an anti-chameleon. He changed his colors to match the background not to hide, but to become noticed. Like Madonna, Bowie’s real strength was in having a good radar for what is currently popular, identifying musicians that were good at the particular genre, and then exploding on the scene with a new full blown persona-masquerading as the figurehead of a scene. Also like Madonna, musicians and music writers were well aware of this appropriation of what others had started. Unlike Madonna, Bowie’s legacy is much harder to pin down. He became so influential in the rock world for two decades that the chicken and the egg question becomes relevant-which was more important, the innovators or the copyist? His nose for popular trends was unerring, but the question remains-how much originality was involved? In the long run, it might not matter. David Bowie touched so many lives since Space Oddity quietly scraped the charts some 47 years ago. And in the long run, that is what really matters. Lazarus will rise. One thing you can say about Bowie, he was a survivor.

Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you Big Brother, Big Brother