Last night I was lucky enough to catch the Plastic People of the Universe live, not far off their 40th anniversary as a band, albeit with changing personnel over the years. Usually I’m pretty sceptical about going to see anyone that… old basically, having had a few bitter, should-have-known-better experiences seeing drug-addled or merely bereft-of-ideas/dignity old punks doing the rounds. But all this cynicism is no way to go through life! And the Plastics are indeed different. Though musically less radical than their sister band Dg. 307, the Plastics are indisputably the most important Czech band of all time in terms of their historical impact, evidence of which is the fact that they figure as a central part of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock n Roll. Although back in the days they claimed not to be a dissident band, they were nevertheless forced into that role, and their lyrics and music have a disturbing quality which was certainly enough for them to be considered a threat by the communist elite: perhaps simply failing to acknowledge the regime was seen as the greatest insult.
Most of the male members still sporting variations on the classic “Czech former dissident” chic, which these days means long, straggly grey hair unravelling out of a frequently sparse and unevenly distributed array of remaining follicles, an abundance of beards and jam-jar glasses accompanied by an avowedly scruffy dress sense (none of them, perhaps reassuringly, look anywhere near as cool as ultimate rock star Pavel Zajíček), they remain the Bohemian art-rock band par excellence. This look, in combination with the band’s vocal style – the vocalists themselves alternate, none of them actually singing but all with a remarkably similar, scathingly weird style, at times even vaguely reminiscent of Mark E. Smith – lends them an image of something like deranged, admonishing preachers, hippies gone badly wrong. All, that is, except for the younger Eva Turnová, replacement for deceased bassist Milan Hlavsa, whose husky delivery is strangely rather sexy, an odd counterpoint to their uncomfortable sounding music. The music itself is clearly influenced in part by post-hippy experimental rock like Beefheart, the VU, the Doors, but with enough of their own warped input to make them quite unique and not only limited to one particular period in time, with similarities not only to the aforementioned Fall but sometimes also Killing Joke and other post-punk, as well as incorporating free jazz elements in the form of Vráťa Brabenec’s sax playing, plus bizarre synth noise and classical string instruments.
In this country the Plastics have spawned hundreds of imitators, but remain head and shoulders above them – although the clones capture the Plastics’ sinister dissonance, they invariably sound turgid and lumbering, whilst the Plastics themselves still manage to sound quite light on their feet, often approaching funky. Last night was a perfect example – despite their advanced years they sounded youthful and relevant. The old regime may no longer be around, but they know there’s plenty left to kick against. Either that or they just carry on ploughing their own furrow regardless. A Czech legend.