This band's debut may well have been one of the most amazing and radical records to be released during the punk era (or any era for that matter), recorded under the most extreme conditions in the years before punk rock was a reality (1973-1974). Prague's Plastic People of the Universe, and the band they later became, Pulnoc, remain one of rock & roll's great stories of triumph and how great music can be produced and survive even in the most hostile of environments. The band was founded in 1968 soon after 500,000 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia. With the Kremlin not being particularly fond of Western-style rock that wasn't sanctioned by the state, the Plastic People, to paraphrase the Jefferson Airplane, quickly became outlaws in the eyes of Moscow (and the ruling Soviet government in Prague). From 1970 until the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989 that ended Soviet domination, the Plastic People lived a mostly illegal existence, with two of their members, Ivan Jirous and Jaroslav Vozniak, doing lengthy stretches in prison. Influenced by Zappa, English progressive rock/radical politicos Henry Cow, Captain Beefheart, and the Velvet Underground, the Plastic People appropriated the avant-garde leanings and anti-authoritarian outrage of these bands while working in their own sense of dread and desperation. Remember, according to Soviet law, they could not record, press, and distribute albums or play gigs; still, they did all three surreptitiously, with the help of their numerous artist friends who made up an indefatigable support network known as the Invisible Organization.
Although all of their music remained unheard outside of Eastern Europe (or Czechoslovakia for that matter), their first record was released in the West in 1978. Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned was not a proper record in the sense that the Plastic People entered a studio with the intent to record a "rock" record that would be placed into mass circulation. The reality was that these were grubby, lo-fi demo recordings made by friends on primitive equipment and released without the band's knowledge. It also marked the first time the poetry of Czech dissident Egon Bondy was heard outside of Czechoslovakia. Bondy wrote lyrics that meshed perfectly with the Plastic People's cacophonous sound: harsh, dissonant soloing over repetitive odd-metered rhythms. It remains dense, challenging music, totally oblivious to the state-approved pop music.
A ferocious government crackdown on the Plastic People and their supporters occurred in 1976. Many of them were jailed, their meager instruments and recording equipment confiscated or destroyed, all in the hope that this troublesome group of avant-garde artistic political radicals would finally be stopped. The problem was that Czech government officials didn't realize that the music of the Plastic People was being listened to in the West (thanks to favorable reviews of Egon Bondy in the British music press and in America in the Village Voice) and that groups such as Amnesty International were now wondering why these musicians were being persecuted and jailed without trial. Although never reaching the fever pitch of, say, Nelson Mandela's incarceration, it wasn't long before the plight of the Plastic People became better known to an outraged Western pop community. After being released from prison, the band managed two more releases in the '80s that were (and still are) extremely difficult to find.
After 15 years of struggle, incarceration, harassment, and violence, the Plastic People quietly disbanded in 1984, but in no way stopped their anti-government activities. Finally, in 1988, a year before the "Velvet Revolution" and the ascendancy of the poet/writer Vaclav Havel (a longtime supporter and occasional lyricist for the Plastic People) to the presidency, the band was given government permission to perform under the name Pulnoc ("Midnight"). With three original Plastic People in the group (Milan Hlavsa, Josef Janicek, and Jiøí Kabeš), Pulnoc recorded an extraordinary debut for Arista in 1991 (City of Hysteria), and a difficult-to-find live cassette recorded at New York's vaunted experimental performance space PS 122. Unlike the radical, dissonant sounds of the Plastic People, Pulnoc had a more traditional guitar-based rock sound and production polish, but its accessibility in no way detracts from its greatness as a record. There has been little music from Pulnoc since City of Hysteria, though there was a reunion and tour of the country in 1997. But, whatever the case, this story had a much happier ending than anyone could have anticipated. Although much work is required in finding what little recorded work they made, the payoff is well worth the effort. ~ John Dougan, Rovi