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Plastic People of the Universe

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PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE

Few bands have demonstrated the revolutionary power of rock music like the Plastic People of the Universe. Though formed in 1968, shortly after the Soviets rolled into their hometown of Prague, the Plastic People weren't overtly political--in fact all they did initially was cover songs by American bands like the Velvet Underground and the Doors. But their simple dedication to playing music would transform them into important political and cultural figures. Within a year they were Czechoslovakia's foremost psychedelic band, and their popularity and their freaky pageantry irked the communist authorities, who were implementing a program of cultural "normalization." Officially banned in 1970, they went underground, practicing in abandoned buildings and playing word-of-mouth gigs in remote locations. In 1973 and '74 they recorded their first album, Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned, a mix of Zappa-esque prog, eastern European folk melodies, and free jazz. Though cassettes were smuggled to London and beyond, the record wasn't pressed for the first time until '78, and then it was done in western Europe without the band's knowledge. In '76 band members were arrested during a show for disturbing the peace, and two of them were imprisoned. Galvanized by this injustice, a resistance movement that included Plastic People fan and future Czech president Vaclav Havel drafted Charter 77--a petition for human rights that would eventually culminate in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Meanwhile the group continued its beleaguered existence for another decade, releasing several more albums along the way. Several members went on to form a group called Pulnoc with some younger musicians, releasing a record in the U.S. on Arista and making a brief American tour, including a Chicago performance with Elliott Sharp at Randolph Street Gallery. In 1997, Havel asked the Plastic People to re-form in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Charter 77, and they had such a good time they've continued to play together since. They had one gig last year in New York, but this is their first U.S. tour, and it's timed to coincide with the stateside release of six of their recordings by the Czech label Globus International. Among them is 1997, a recording of their reunion show, which features a new lead guitarist and finds the band sounding a bit more hard rock than usual. But their musicianship is at an all-time high, and the intensity level is pretty close. In the ultimate expression of, uh, democracy, the tour is funded in part by Philip Morris. Friday, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.

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