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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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The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

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Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

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The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
             Image result for the least we can do is wave van der graaf          Image result for h to h van der graaf     Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator album - cover art).jpg
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live  Image result for van der graaf generator live https://carwreckdebangs.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/34eb0-van2bder2bgraaf2bgenerator.jpg?w=604

This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

The Best Band You Have Never Heard Of: Unraveling ‘the’ Cardiacs

cardiacs early color cardiacs

If there is one band that needs translating for Americans, it is the Cardiacs. (technically just ‘Cardiacs’ for those in the know).  Too decidedly ‘British’ for most ears on this side of the pond,  Cardiacs are hands down one of the best but most unknown bands for most music fans in America– that they deserve large accolades for a career of unending achievement, creativity and downright absurdity is a huge understatement. Sounding like a an unholy mating of Gentle Giant, Madness, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Marillion, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Stranglers, Devo, the Damned and King Crimson, the Cardiacs created their own mythology and ran with it. Ran far.  Stir in with their self created mythology a theatrical stage show, make up and costumes, heart stopping rhythms, and a whimsical carnival atmosphere and you begin to get close to the edge of their peculiar brand of madness.

The band had its origins in 1977 as Cardiac Arrest, a punky and choppy rhythmed burst of maniacal energy. Founding brothers Tim and Jim Smith were the mainstays. Tim wrote nearly all of the music and lyrics, diabolically complex on both fronts, (sometimes surpassing Frank Zappa’s level of genius in composition). But it wasn’t until the arrival in 1983 of the gifted William Drake on keyboards that the classic lineup of the band took form. With Tim on lead guitar and lead vocals, brother Jim on bass and vocals, William on keyboards, Sarah Cutts (later Smith) on saxophone, Tim Quy on percussion and Dominic Luckman on drums the band took on a new life. Gone were the rougher punk edges, arrangements became more musically spastic, and the insanity quotient was upped considerably.

At first they had a decidedly limited appeal, mainly because they were so utterly unclassifiable. In the early to mid 80’s, bands in the UK were sorted into nice little slots-punk, metal, ska, Northern Soul, pop, the occasional anorak progger, but these guys defied description. They were dubbed early on as ‘pronk’, a hybrid of prog and punk, and were the sole member of this unique genre.

coonssultant consultant

They dropped the Arrest in 1981 and became just ‘Cardiacs’, with the self released cassette Toy World showing their pronk style starting to really flower. But by 1983, the pieces were in place to conquer… not the world exactly but pieces of London one step at a time. Their stage show was a maelstrom of uninterrupted madness. Well, sometimes interrupted. Their label, the Alphabet Business Concern (their own creation) sent in a semi fictional ‘suit’ to keep the band in line-The Consultant. Accompanied by his secretary Miss Swift, The Consultant would show up in the middle of a concert to berate band members and generally complain about the band’s lack of commercial appeal and slovenly make up jobs and costumes. Brother Jim was a frequent target for abuse from The Consultant and Tim as well, coming in for a good dressing down at least once a show. Occasionally Jim would burst into tears as a result of the torrent of abuse. What the hell was going on here? Is this real? Is it theater? Audience members not clued in were extremely puzzled and sometimes annoyed at the intrusions during the set by these management types. Others recognized the Dada approach the band had woven so seamlessly into a ‘rock show’. Issues were further clouded when Sarah married Tim. With the last name Smith, she and Tim announced they were brother and sister. Then would make out furiously in front of the startled press corps when interviewed.  Their image in the UK was one of ‘what the hell is going on with these guys?’ on every level, with incest now added to the equation. A late 1984 slot opening for Marillion was met with regular peltings with thrown objects and beer. Apparently their appeal was a bit selective, though Marillion were huge fans.

seaside seaside2

My personal favorite is the 1984 self released cassette, The Seaside. Whimsical and unsettling, like being dosed on a merry go round without being told, most of their core tunes are here. Gina Lollabridgida, R.E.S., Nurses Whispering Verses, Gibber and Twitch (that one sums their whole ethos in one tune), A Little Man and a House, and their eventual lone hit, Is This the Life? This is the one to start with, and is the single best encapsulation of their unique sound. I could listen to this album every day for the rest of my life, risking a stoning from anyone in earshot. Try to find the cassette version if possible, as the CD reissue omits 4 key songs. (Update 2016: the Seaside cassette is currently on sale from the band in its original form as a 2lp vinyl version, a cd version, and a deluxe version of LP, CD, cassette and raft of memorabilia in a box. Get it now, it won’t last.) Their first vinyl releases were the Big Ship EP and a rough live album, The Rude Bootleg in 1986. Both are hard to find, but contain strong examples of what they could accomplish in studio and on stage. Jazz, ska, punk, prog rock and music hall stylings collide, usually in the same song. Their first release proper came in 1988 with A Little Man, a House and the Whole World Window. It featured some rerecorded versions of the key songs from The Seaside cassette, and is considered their most famous album. It contains their only single to chart, a blast of un-Cardiac like pop in the vein of the Cure, Is This The Life?

The band began to fracture in 1989 with the departure of of saxophonist Smith. She was replaced by Christian ‘Bic’ Hayes, a guitarist of some renown. Tim Quy left in 1990. The loss of the sax and tuned percussionist altered the band sound significantly. Nevertheless, Tim and Jim soldiered on, until in 1992 their new label Rough Trade folded during the pre release of Heaven Born and Ever Bright, putting the band in significant debt. The future looked dim.

sing to god

But the band had some tricks up their sleeve still. 1995’s sprawling double album, Sing to God is considered by some fans to be their finest hour. It certainly is the strongest release of their 90’s era, and contains some classic songs-“Dog Like Sparky”, “Eat It Up Worms Hero” and others resonated with the power of their early 80’s work, deflating the opinion that the band was past its prime. The line up changes continued as the band settled down as a quartet. Guns, released in 1999 was their last studio album proper. A tad more commercial than anything previously released, it still retained the original imprint of the bands trademark sound. The band toured intermittently until 2007.

After releasing a single in 2007, things were picking up. But in 2008 disaster struck. After getting off a bus, Tim Smith was mugged by an assailant. During the mugging, Tim had a heart attack. The aghast mugger called for help on Tim’s phone before departing, likely saving his life. At hospital, Tim had a stroke, further worsening his condition. The long rehab process restored Tim’s mind, but sadly his body has not yet responded. At this point he is immobile and unable to play.

stoenhenge

My first exposure to the band was at the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival. I had flown over to England with my roommate to witness the starship Hawkwind in all their mighty glory, having given up all hope that they would ever come back to America. After a lengthy Hawkwind set the first night of arrival, the wee hours of the morning beckoned. Taking to the main stage at about 2 am were a band unknown to me. Looking like a twisted Eddie Munster, the leader of the band gyrated, ranted and chanted his way through utter musical insanity. ( a comment heard on site said “this is like that choppy shit your RIO friend likes so much-Art Zoyd, Univers Zero, Zamla Mammaz Manna). And choppy shit it was! Childish poems interrupted songs. “I stepped on a worm and I didn’t care, I picked it up and I said there there”. Saxophones, synth and guitars clashed in what seemed to be almost musical chaos, yet a thread of continuity wove the stops and starts together in some form of recognizable tune. Throughout it all, a repeating mantra was chanted, with every line ending in “but that’s the way we all go…” I was stunned at the end of their show. What the hell had I just witnessed? Were they fighting onstage? Why were they dressed like acid damaged ghouls? Did I even like what I had just seen? So I filed them away. Unfortunately I hadn’t quite caught the band name. Cardi-actors was what I thought someone say. But they had planted a seed in me, waiting for the right time to burst. The line ‘that’s the way we all go’ stuck with me somehow.

I continued to try to find out who I had seen, but clues were few in the pre internet days. A vague space rock influenced band called Levitation on Capitol Records crossed my path in 1992, and someone seemed to know a bit about them and said one of their members was from the Cardiacs. Aha! That was it! I now had the name of the band that had tattooed my brain so permanently and succinctly in 1984. But a search for any of their music in any store in the New England area was fruitless. Fast forward to this past year: I had the privilege of attending several My Bloody Valentine shows with backstage passes to all shows. My Magma shirt caught the attention of one of their guitar techs. We had a long chin wag about that bizarre band, Hawkwind and festival life in the 80’s UK. As a parting remark, I asked if he knew of the band the Cardiacs. He paused, rushed over to hug me, pointed to his older guitar tech partner and said “that is Bic, former guitarist of the Cardiacs, my mate and also one of my all time favorite bands in the world!!” Needless to say, we became fast friends as he had never encountered a Yank who had heard of them, never mind actually seen them. His enthusiasm was a catalyst to make me seek out their music.  I finally located most of their long out of print CDs (their albums can go for over 75 bucks on eBay) and started to infect my friends. Their reactions vacillated between consternation and delight when exposed to them. One comment from a first time listener: “their songs are like treasure maps, how do they find their way back to the starting point?” But a three decade long search was finally completed. The seed planted so long ago had bloomed in a spectacular fashion.

In retrospect, the Cardiacs approach updates the Kinks on The Village Green Preservation Society-preserving the long tradition of British Music Hall sounds that rang through every UK generation since World War 1, a sound very peculiar to American ears, but familiar to pretty much every single person in Blighty.

Few bands in my life have had to power to make me openly weep for sheer joy at hearing such music. They can do this to me regularly. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius. A band this talented and inventive and nobody in America knows about them? Go out and fix that folks!

A final spin around the block with Gina Lollabridgida…