Despite being to Europe many times and even living in France for a year, I never made it to the Czech Republic. Growing up, of course, it was Czechoslovakia, part of the Soviet bloc up until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. Then came the Velvet Revolution and eventually in 1993 the split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
I remember during the early-to-mid ’90s learning a bit about the writer Václav Havel who served as the republic’s first president. Aside from writing a lot of poetry and many plays, Havel was a big supporter of the arts and musicians, and had a famous friendship with Frank Zappa of whom he was a big fan (one reason why I was led to learn more about Havel).
In fact, in 1990 Havel even designated Zappa Czechoslovakia’s “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism.” I vaguely remember that causing a ruckus over here when then-president George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker got upset over a civilian being made a liaison with with a foreign country.
Baker told Havel “you can do business with the United States or you can do business with Frank Zappa.” (All of this reads interestingly against growing turmoil regarding our current president-elect’s unorthodox -- and frightening-to-some -- approach to international diplomacy.)
Zappa was a huge underground favorite in Czechoslovakia, despite his music being officially blacklisted by the authorities right up until the revolution. He influenced a number of bands, including several from Prague. The most famous example was a group called The Plastic People of the Universe, named after the Mothers of Invention’s song “Plastic People” opening their second album, Absolutely Free.
By the mid-seventies The Plastic People of the Universe had become quite popular and politically active, getting involved in numerous protests against the Communist regime. In fact, following one of these protests came disturbance of the peace charges and harsh prison terms for the band’s members.
Those punishments (and others) prompted still more protests, including the important Charter 77 manifesto co-written by Havel that prompted still more attempts at cracking down on dissent with arrests of those signing the document. Charter 77 would become a hub of sorts around which gathered the forces leading to the subsequent revolution.
I only know one of The Plastic People of the Universe’s albums, one from 1974 called Egon Bondy’s Happy Hearts Club Banned, which unmistakably demonstrates the influence of early Zappa/Mothers. Apparently the album wasn’t allowed to be released and so bootleg tapes of it were circulated by fans for a few years before it came out on vinyl in France a few years later.
I know of a couple of bands of this same era from Czechoslovakia, my acquaintance with these “Prague Rock” outfits an offshoot of my ongoing interest in Krautrock being produced at the same time right across the border in Germany.
I especially like a band called Fermata, or at least their groovy 1977 album Huascarán (the only one of theirs I know) which reminds me a lot of later Soft Machine. They’re actually Slovakian (i.e., not from Prague). But from the Czech side there’s another group called Modry Efekt -- or Blue Effect -- from Prague that a lot of people like. They often get compared to Yes, with their 1977 album Svitanie (or “Dawning”) usually highlighted as their best (like with these other bands, it’s the only record of theirs I’ve heard).
Been spinning all three of these the last few days. The Plastic People record is clearly accomplished and a fun listen, although not being able to follow the lyrics -- mostly drawn from the works of Czech poet Egon Bondy (another “underground” artist whose writings were censored) -- makes it hard for me to appreciate it fully. Modry Efekt also features some occasional vocals, although they are more part of an instrumental mix and do make you think of Yes (whose lyrics I’ve always found opaque, anyway). Meanwhile the all-instrumental Fermata disc is probably my favorite of the three -- super spacey and pleasurably complex (and great writing music).
Talk soon, once I’ve rock-and-rolled my way over to Europe.