In Czechoslovakia, rock ’n’ roll music was one of the most suppressed forms of expression, but it also played a big part in keeping people’s hopes for freedom alive.
Smuggled recordings by blacklisted musicians such as Frank Zappa, who is considered the godfather of the Czech music scene, as well as The Velvet Underground and The Rolling Stones circulated in copied cassettes or even in homemade records etched onto disks cut from the plastic of X-ray photos. These influenced Czech underground bands such as The Plastic People of the Universe (whose name comes from a Zappa song), DG 307, Půlnoc, and Garage.
One of the biggest supporters of the underground music movement was dissident writer Václav Havel, who personally helped to make recordings by The Plastic People and later co-wrote the human rights manifesto Charter 77 in response to the treatment of the band members following their arrest at an illegal concert in 1976. The manifesto helped put Havel in the international spotlight.
“The Velvet Underground became the Velvet Revolution,” then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said at a 1998 White House dinner honouring Havel, who had by then become the Czech president. Former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed performed at the event.
But many of the Czechoslovak musicians didn’t see themselves as political. They had no agenda of hoping to overthrow the communist state. They simply wanted to create something original, which became increasingly difficult after the 1968 invasion.
Musician Michal Prokop, who has been performing since 1963 and served as a politician after the Velvet Revolution, said rock was very popular among young people before 1968. “The regime tolerated it, but it was presented as one of the symbols of the bankrupt imperialist lifestyle,” he said, adding that it was not all that different from the US or Britain, where authorities sometimes criticised rock music’s alleged ill effects on the youth.
The 1968 invasion ushered in the era of Normalisation, when all Western influence was put on a short leash. Czechoslovak officials were stricter than in other Eastern-bloc countries, as they were trying to push the genies of free expression unleashed by the Prague Spring back into the lamp.
By April 1969, everything related to culture was under state control. “LPs were no longer allowed to be recorded in English. There was a prohibition against some compositions and musicians on radio, television, and in public concerts. A number of people emigrated,” Prokop said.
Performers needed a licence. This wasn’t new, but it used to be a routine process of playing before a panel of professionals who would determine how much you could charge for concerts, based on your technical skill.
Now, the state would take away the licence of any troublesome performer. “By 1974, there was the so-called retraining, which had a completely different goal: to liquidate most of the disobedient people. These were individual examinations, including a political interview on the relationship of the musician to the current politics of the Communist Party. The commission was composed of faithful communists,” Prokop said, adding that many of his colleagues faced retraining, but he managed to avoid it.
“Many people were forced to return to amateur playing, often semi-legal or illegal. Sometimes it was really underground. These were hard times,” he said.
Some Czech bands preferred to fly under the radar, rather than conforming to the state’s ideas. These included not only The Plastic People, but also now-obscure acts like Umělá Hmota, who lost their licences rather quickly in the 1970s.
Blacklisted performers could play at unadvertised concerts in small venues. Sometimes people would pretend it was a wedding reception to explain the noise.
Other bands continued on aboveground, but with changes. The band Blue Effect altered their problematic lyrics and switched their name to Modrý efekt, to avoid using English. They then played at state-sanctioned jazz events, as there were no more approved rock festivals.
There was a reason why jazz was not hit as hard as rock. “Jazz is mostly instrumental music, and it does not appeal to the majority audience. The Bolsheviks understood this, so jazz, even if it is actually also American music, had a much better position. There was no place for very strong emotions, while rock ’n’ roll is built on this. Rock ’n’ roll for us was faith, a gate to freedom!” Prokop said.
But jazz didn’t offer complete protection. Former Blue Effect member Vladimír Mišík, who in 1974 started his own jazz-fusion band called Etc., was blacklisted from performing for two years, starting in 1982.
A big crackdown took place in the mid-1980s to stop the influence of punk bands like The Clash and The Ramones, glam rock from David Bowie, and assorted new wave music that was coming in via cassettes and over foreign radio. An anonymous 1983 magazine article called “New Wave with Old Content” said that the newer strain of rock music encourages laziness and “antisocial behaviour”.
One band caught up in this sweep was Pražský výběr (Prague Selection). They had a successful album and appeared on state television before being banned in 1983.
Not all of the underground scene was in Prague. Another formerly blacklisted band that still performs is Už jsme doma (Already Home), which formed in Teplice, near the German border, in 1985. They brought in a whole new range of influences from bootleg cassettes: The Residents, The Damned, and Pere Ubu, among others.
Prokop didn’t get involved in politics until just before the end of communism. “I did not want to have anything to do with the communists, but I initially did not have enough courage to dissent until 1989. First I signed the petition for the liberation of Václav Havel from prison and then Několik vět (A Few Sentences),” he said. The latter was a petition just five months before the Velvet Revolution that criticised the communist government. The signatories nonetheless faced repercussions until November came.
Things changed rapidly after the end of communism. In 1990, Havel appointed Zappa to be Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism, much to the annoyance of the administration of US President George H.W. Bush. The appointment didn’t last long, and Zappa would later be an unofficial cultural attache.
Zappa, who influenced so many of the early bands, played his last concert in Prague in 1991, joining Pražský výběr on stage. He passed away in 1993.
Prokop briefly traded in music for politics. “I wanted to take part in making our country come back among democratic countries, although obviously I had no idea how complicated the process would be. So I went into it and I do not regret it,” he said. He held various positions between 1990 and 1998, but has now returned to music.
Pražský výběr’s main member, Michael Kocáb, once considered an enemy of the state, led a parliamentary commission in the early 1990s that negotiated the exit of Soviet soldiers from then-Czechoslovakia. In 2009-10, he was Minister for Human Rights and Minorities. The band played at Prague’s Metronome festival in June this year. No further concerts are planned.
Tom Stoppard wrote a play called Rock ‘n’ Roll about rock music from the Prague Spring up until the Velvet Revolution. It ends with The Rolling Stones coming to Prague in 1990, heralding a new era of artistic freedom. The play premiered in London in 2006. When it was performed in Prague’s National Theatre in 2007, The Plastic People played the opening and closing music on stage.
The opening act for The Rolling Stones’ show in Prague in 1990 was the once-banned Vladimír Mišík and Etc.
With the Velvet Revolution now 30 years ago and the Soviet-led invasion 50 years ago, most of the dissident bands now only have a cult following among the younger generation. But they did have an influence on the Czech bands of the 1990s like Tata Bojs and Sto zvířat, who are still going strong today. And they get the respect of the people who are grateful for the freedoms built on rock ’n’ roll.