In response to the sad news of the death of Vaclav Havel, Ed Vulliamy recounts the inspring story of the Plastic People of the Universe and the Velvet Revolution in The Observer, Sunday 6 September 2009
The Second Festival of the Second Culture, organised by the Plastic People of the Universe in Bojanovice on 21 February 1976. Photograph: Ondrej Nemec
Vratislav Brabenec sits on the chair that is his throne in the bar that is his court, the Shakespeare, on Krymská Street in the funky district of Prague 10. His hair is long, and so is his beard; “Ciao, bambino!” he says by way of greeting, holding his skinny arms wide. Many rock musicians have preached revolution, although few can claim to have sparked one – but Brabenec, saxophonist and clarinettist for the Plastic People of the Universe, did. Indeed, of all the revolutions against communism that felled the Iron Curtain and transformed Europe 20 years ago, only one could claim rock’n’roll as its catalyst: that in Czechoslovakia, called the “Velvet Revolution”, partly because it was peaceful – the clenched fist wearing a velvet glove – but also because the band that unwittingly lit the fuse, the Plastic People, were heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground.
This is the most extraordinary story that ever entwined politics and rock music: it began in 1968 when the band were named after a song by Frank Zappa. It continued with the group being championed, after members had been imprisoned by the regime, by the playwright who would become post-communist Czechoslovakia’s first president, Vaclav Havel. It proceeded when Havel appointed Zappa himself to be his government’s cultural adviser and ambassador – until Havel was forced by the US State Department to sack him. But there was a singular irony to the Velvet Revolution: none of its dramatis personae set out with an overt political agenda…