Rock Music in Czech Lands from the 1960s till 2013
When we examine rock music in Czechoslovakia (and the later Czech republic) before and after the year 1989, several questions emerge. Was alternative rock the same genre as underground music? What was the relationship of alternative rock with the communist regime? Was rock always a protest, oppositional genre in Czech lands or did it sometimes flirt with the mainstream? How was rock different from punk music in Czechoslovakia? In the following introduction, we will focus on alternative rock music and also briefly touch upon the underground and punk music that is represented in our selected lyrics by the bands Plastic People of the Universe and Visací Zámek.
Let’s have a quick look into the history of Czech rock music. Rock music began to be performed in the 1950s. The main center of rock’n’roll concerts was the Reduta club in Prague where The Accord Club band first played the Czech version of Haley’s „Rock Around the Clock“ in 1956. That very same year, Michael Volek pretended to be ill so that his parents let him stay at home and illegally listen to an Elvis Presley concert on a foreign radio station (Konrád, Lindaur, 2010: 10). As the genre called „twist“ became popular, the duo Jiří Šlitr and Jiří Suchý (inspired by Viktor Sodoma who came up with songs such as Mr. Rock, Mr. Roll), played rock songs on bigger stages. Suchý’s main role model was Elvis Presley (Konrád, Lindaur, 2010: 11). What was surprising was that the communist regime did not forbid American and British rock songs throughout the 1950s. The situation changed, however, in the 1960s when rock, similarly to jazz, began to be viewed as a mark of a decadent, rotten western lifestyle. At that time, bands such as the Comets, Olympic, Mefisto, and others were playing and getting wide recognition. The Beatlemania hit Czechoslovakia in 1964, which inspired the band Olympic, a cover band, to play in a similar style and even write songs in Czech. Their rock album called Želva made Olympic one of the most popular bands in Czechoslovakia. Three years later their repertoire comprised mostly their own, original songs. (Konrád, Lindaur, 2010: 46). Olympic and Mefisto, another Czech rock band at that time, became the first professional bands. Their success was based not only on the simplicity and sincerity of their songs but also on their Czech lyrics. It was easy to remember their music and sing along. From 1967 and on, Olympic, Flamengo, and Matadors were the best rock bands in Bohemia. After the year 1990, however, Olympic was no longer so unique and original. While still popular, they became part of Czech mainstream music.
On the other side of the spectrum, more experimental bands, such as The Primitives group, Urfaust band, or Aktual, began to flourish. The Primitives played covers with psychedelic arrangements while excelling in their often shocking stage show including masks, fire explosions, and flying objects such as feathers, fish and buckets of water. Their inspiration were the British freakout bands such as Count Five or Pretty Things (Konrád, Lindaur, 51). Urfaust band created their own experimental, psychedelic performance called Faust and Margaret featuring Mirka Krivankova (voc.) in 1984. However, they managed to record their work, due to unfavourable political circumstances, in 1990s. As for the band Aktual, it was a part of the vanguard scene. The band cooperated with visual artists closely and organized illegal happenings where music and other art genres were connected. Their member Milan Knížák became the head of the National Gallery in 1990s. However, the sphere of influence of Aktual and The Primitives could not be compared to the impact of Olympic, Flamengo, and Matadors.
After the invasion of Russian troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968, the communist regime enforced a period of normalization, which included the suppression of all alternative music. Many musicians emigrated because if they did not pass the humiliating requalifying exams, they were not allowed to play anywhere legally. Bands were also forbidden to sing in English, have long hair, and organize unannounced concerts. Lyrics were severely censored and musicians were not allowed to criticize the regime or politics in any way. The last release before this destruction of the flourishing scene was the album called Kuře v Hodinkách (Chicken in the Watch) by the band Flamengo. The album was considered the best record of Czech rock so far and the Czech poet Josef Kainar even provided the lyrics for the album (Konrád, Lindaur, 2010: 74).
Alternative bands such as The Plastic People of the Universe, DG 307, and Umělá Hmota lost their licenses very quickly. They played mostly illegally or in rented pubs in small villages under the pretext of playing at a marriage or birthday party. Ivan M. Jirous, called Magor, self-published a study about the rock underground in Czechoslovakia called The Report of the Third Musical Awakening (1975). It became a manifesto of the underground scene, a scene that did not want to go into a direct conflict with the regime but rather wanted to live outside of it, in a parallel universe. One of the turning points in the history of the Czech underground was the concert of Plastic People of the Universe in Bojanovice village in 1976. After the unannounced concert where more than 1000 people arrived, several members of the band were arrested and put on trial. The whole event was made very political as will be shown here later. What it made clear, however, was that Czech underground was a counterculture, which means that its internal norms differed from the norms of the dominant culture. The dominant culture as a whole was rejected by the Czech underground scene, and vice versa (Vaněk 2010: 58). The underground scene identified itself neither with the consumerist way of life that the Czech majority led, nor with censorship and suppression of culture by the communist regime. In contrast, the alternative rock subculture was not as radical as the underground counterculture and was interested more in the music itself. The bands from this category (Psí vojáci, F.O.K, Amalgam, Švehlík, Extempore etc.) were usually officially registered bands that played legally anytime it was possible, often during the events organized by the Jazz Section. Some of them began as an underground band.
How do we differentiate between what is underground and what is alternative rock? The differences cannot be easily defined. Some authors believe that both spheres were mutually intertwined. Others understand the underground as a group that perceived itself as uncompromising and exclusive. We understand underground, however, following the definition of Pavla Jonssonová (Jonssonová, 2013: 25), as one of the extremes of alternative music. Underground therefore does not directly oppose alternative music, but neither is it synonymous with it. To read more about the definition of alternative music, see the Introduction to the anthology.
Alternative rock music, as will be shown during our analysis of music lyrics here, emphasized several existential qualities that one managed to hold onto when tested by extreme or dangerous situations. In many cases, people sold out to the regime in some way, or they played for both sides like in an Orwellian double identity game. One of the main existential qualities that the alternative rock community considered to be important was „the responsibility to oneself, one’s profession and work, as well as to close relatives and those dependent on the person (such as children, old parents etc.)” (Vaněk, 2010:61). Other qualities, such as authenticity and freedom, were shown in the resolute ascent of punkrock and new wave bands that both became part of alternative scene very quickly. Bands such as Pražský výběr, Jasná páka, Letadlo, Žabí hlen, and Dvouletá fáma became well-known within the alternative scene during the 1980s. The regime, however, soon began to view these bands as enemies of the state. The hateful attitude was caused to a great extent by an article called „The new wave with an old content,“ which was published in the weekly magazine Tribuna in 1983. The writer of the article who hid himself behind the nickname Jan Krýzl described the new wave rock as a genre that leads young people to passivity, indifference, and anti-social activities. Moreover, he called the lyrics of many alternative bands (Žabí hlen, Letadlo, Žlutý pes, and others) terrible, rough, and stupid. The article was unfortunately very influential. Many bands, including the professional band Pražský výběr, lost their licenses and could not play legally anymore. In the second half of the 1980s, the situation improved for rock bands a little. The Rockfest festival that featured bands from the whole Czechoslovakia came into being, and many non-commercial performers had their recordings published. However, the state censorship was still strong; the secret police and controlling committees were still in force.
After the Velvet revolution in 1989, the recording industry was privatized and new labels entered the scene. [ Monitor and Tommü labels were selling incredible numbers of albums (Tommü released bands such as the thrashmetal band Debustrol, pubrock band Tři sestry, or the skinhead band Orlík). Rock entered the TV and magazines in 1990s. It had been on TV even before (in programs such as Trip Bago and 60). But from the 1990s and on, the TV (especially Czech national television channel) opened itself to alternative bands much more. Many concerts were shown on the channel ČT2, there was a talk show/music program called Noc s Andělem (Night with Angel) which was directed by Pavel Anděl who invited musicians for interviews, played music videos, and promoted festivals and music events. The music series Bigbít – on the basis of which the book Bigbít was published (Konrád, Lindaur, 2010) – was screened repeatedly on Czech national television.
As for underground bands, many of them were in a state of total confusion and disorientation after their main enemy – the communist regime – capitulated. Mythologization of several members of the underground scene occurred – sometimes it included criticism, sometimes it did not (Vodrážka, 2013: 6). Václav Havel hoped, for instance, that the new generation would come with a more objective interpretation of the underground, precisely because it had not experienced it directly. That, however, did not happen. The perception of young commentators is driven by emotions in the same way as was the perception of those before them. Attempts to use an “objective,” non-emotional approach when reflecting on a cultural phenomenon would get us neither to any understanding of it nor to objectivity. Let us have a look at two „extremes“ of the spectrum of Czech alternative music – punk and underground.
WHO AND WHY: Czech underground is a varied group. It contains, apart from the „orthodox undos“ Ivan Magor Jirous and The Plastic People of the Universe circle, experimental rock musicians, and unclassifiable psychedelics. The aim of Czech underground was to create a „second culture,“ a culture that was not dependent on official, state communicational channels and hierarchy of values. The underground consisted of many different mutually heterogeneous planes. Most members were not trying to fight the regime by creating a sort of system of opposition. Political struggle in the form of beating one system with another was not their goal. We could therefore say that Czech underground was apolitical at the beginning. What it did communicate, however, were existential situations and values, new experiences of the body, senses, and culture – that is, an alternative lifestyle; a possibility of how to live in a parallel culture, „next to“ the communist regime. Psychedelic music came with new emotions and the prophetic, transcendental „word“ (Vodrážka, 2013: 181). We can also notice, apart from the psychedelic and rebellious aspects of underground, the spiritual dimension of the culture. Artists reacted openly on the dehumanization and profanity of values in the world of a consumerist society. Their protest was expressed in songs and literary texts written by Magor Jirous, Egon Bondy, and Jáchym Topol.
There were several causes as to why the underground became politicized. First of all, there was the trial of Plastic People of the Universe (Magor Jirous, Svatopluk Karásek, and others) that took place in 1976. The communist regime staged the trial in reaction to the illegal concert of the Plastics in Bojanovice on the 21st of February in 1976 as was mentioned above. The police stopped the concert and forced the participants to leave and disperse in quite a violent manner. But let us first have a look at the history of the Plastics in more detail.
The Plastic People of the Universe
The band Plastic People of the Universe came into being a month after the Russian invasion into Czechoslovakia on the 21st of August in 1968. What followed was a period of normalization and censorship of everything that was non-communist, American, or Western (including all rock music). ThePlastics sang in English (with Paul Wilson, from 1972-74) and played without any major problems until 1970. Having lost their professional license in 1970, they performed only illegally from then on. When Paul Wilson left the band and Vratislav Brabenec (saxophonist) joined in, their music became darker, driven by improvisation, and the lyrics were sung in Czech (most of them were written by the underground guru Egon Bondy). The band members did not consider themselves to be a political band at all. The fact that their non-compromising attitude toward the ruling system became well-known after 1976 was caused mostly by activities of the communist regime. Václav Havel did write an essay called “Trial” where he described the arrest and the trial of the Plastics, and sent letters about the event to his foreign contacts. However, it was the state apparatus that provided a much bigger discrediting campaign against the Plastics and underground culture. The whole trial was manipulated in advance; the chief justice had clearly decided to condemn the musicians. They were to serve as a warning for other subversive and rebellious individuals. Having been accused of obscenity in their lyrics and spoiling of the youth, four of the band members were sentenced to several months in prison. (Magor Jirous, for example, spent nine years in prison during his lifetime). A big wave of protest arose after the trial – both in Czechoslovakia and abroad (also thanks to Havel’s contacts) – and a foundation for the creation of the oppositional informal civic initiative, called Charter 77, was formed. People around Václav Havel put together the Charter 77 document that appealed to the Czech government to protect human and civic rights as it had promised to do in 1975. To explain this a bit more, the communist government signed the Helsinki Accords in the year 1975, which gave a promise to respect the freedom of expression and other human rights. In practice, however, the regime did not keep the promise. That is why hundreds of people signed the Charter 77 document when it was released in the year 1977. The regime responded with a document called the Anti-charter and forced many well-known and popular personalities (including pop singers such as Karel Gott and Helena Vondráčková) to sign the proclamation. Those who signed Charter 77 were pursued, spied upon, and often lost their jobs, or their children were not allowed to study at a university.
Repression by the communist regime continued in the following years. One of its results was the cancellation of the Jazz Section in 1984. Several of its spokespersons were arrested three years later. It was a hard blow for rock bands because the Jazz Section, a voluntary cultural organization functioning under the name of the Community of Musicians, could organize concerts of alternative amateur bands. When rock music became part of the Jazz Section program, many new fans joined the organization. The allowed limit of 3,000 people was exceeded and the state apparatus became afraid of alternative rock music more than ever before. The Jazz Section could only publish 3,000 copies of books and records. However, soon more than 7,000 people shared the books and albums, sending them to their friends and colleagues as well. In the year 1986, the police arrested Karel Srp, the head of the Jazz Section, and imprisoned him for 18 months. At the end of the 1980s, the pressure and surveillance of the state police decreased, which was manifested in a big boom of rock music and organization of bigger festivals and concerts.
The relationship of Czech underground to Charter 77
In contrast to the Charter 77 initiative, the underground community had no internal hierarchy and even young people and newcomers could have their say. Charter 77, on the other hand, had its group of “elders” who fought for human rights within the legality of Czechoslovakia, the legal system of which Charter 77 sought to reform from within. The members of the Charter included many different groups of people – reformist communists, non-communists, as well as Christians. As for the underground community, the influences of American literary works by Ken Kesey, L. Ferlinghetti, and Alan Ginsberg, as well as by groups, such as The Fugs, Greatful Dead, or Velvet Underground, were felt very strongly. We can see American influence in the popularity of Czech music festivals – there was even a festival in 1987 called “East-Bohemian Woodstock,” which was an open reaction to the American Woodstock in 1969. The government canceled the festival last minute and the police even managed to chase its participants away.
Another branch of the Czech alternative scene was punk. Where did it come from? The first mention of this style, the name of which refers to something rotten, unhealthy, nonsensical, or destructive, can be found in the 1970s in the US (Kolářová, 2010: 47). Punk resembled rock music in that it involved simpler chord progressions and nihilistic or critical lyrics (e.g., Iggy Pop, New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Ramones). But Britain was the place where punk took on its political connotations, becoming the movement of dissatisfied young people. The opinion of the British punk subculture is best expressed in the songs by The Clash and Sex Pistols. The resistance of punk against mainstream society that Dick Hebdige talks about (Hebdige, 1979) was focused in Britain mostly on the protest against capitalism. Punks came predominantly from the working-class environment that was left-wing oriented. Such a leftist political orientation and protest, however, could not occur in punk culture in Czechoslovakia. First of all, the punk culture there opposed the communist regime. Unlike in Britain, the Czech resistance movement could not be based on leftist ideas because these were already discredited by the communist party, and manipulated interpretations of the works of Marx and Lenin were forced not only on adults but also on children in schools. Moreover, unlike in Britain, punks did not come from a separate social class (as the ideal of communism was a “classless society”). But then the question is, was punk in the Czech context really a movement? Or did punk only hold onto its most essential value – strong subcultural individuality? What exactly did it protest against?
The Czech punk subculture had two stages: one in 1979-1989 and the other from 1989 until today. During the first stage, punks protested against the values of the establishment and against the totalitarian aspects of communism. Punk stressed the DIY style of clothing and the importance of the punk brotherhood, and it also was connected to Czech New Wave (Vaněk, 2002). Furthermore, the punk attitude was grounded in the freedom to express one’s identity – be it in the genre of music, hairstyles that included mohawks and extravagant colors, clothing choices, or music lyrics. Improvisation and home-crafted music instruments and amplifiers were essential signs of punk. Just like the underground subculture, Czech punk stood resolutely against the majority. Concerts had to be performed in secret and the police often cancelled them. Musicians had to suffer humiliation and long police interrogations.
In the second stage, punk lost their common enemy with the fall of communism in 1989. The “new” enemies of punk came from other subcultures – the neonazis, disco enthusiasts, and emo people (Kolářová, 2010: 68). Punk became mostly apolitical, or it had right-wing ideals. Many punks now work in NGOs, cultural institutions, or are entrepreneurs. Some punks oppose consumerism and globalization. Most of them are, however, focused mostly on music and do not discuss politics at all. There are many young punks who just imitate the style of punk without understanding what punk is really about. Such imitations show that many of the signs of punk suffered commodification after 1989 in the Czech Republic. On the other hand, there are also “punks based on their opinion” (Kolářová, 2010: 81) who do not have a mohawk on their head but are still critical, uncompromising, and choose to stand outside of the mainstream.
The three common features of alternative rock in Czech lands before and after 1989
We can notice several ideas or bodily-emotional attitudes in the texts we selected for this section. The lyrics often reflect the social or personal situation of the authors. There are a few themes or dynamic opposites I wish to present here that can help the reader when interpreting the lyrics.
The musicians we will look at often express existential feelings in the selected lyrics and the mood of the music. The most important one seems to be the value of authenticity (shown as resoluteness, moral integrity, responsibility for oneself, one’s creation and community) in contrast to the selling out to the communist regime, imitating the style of others, or performing a double identity. Why was authenticity so important for rock music? Explanations can be found both in the social sphere and in the sphere of friendship within and outside of the rock subculture. Alternative musicians were often concerned with who they should become friends with. For, it often happened that someone denounced a musician who just defended his own (nonconformist) view of the world to the state authorities, which lead to interrogations and sometimes even imprisonment. Many musicians also tried to keep their double identity (the pro-regime one and the rock subcultural one). The singer Michael Kocáb from the band Pražský výběr sings about what it means to sell out (in reaction to his friend and band member Ondrej Soukup’s selling out and joining the orchestra of the pop singer Karel Gott): “Hey, what do you mean you don’t know where this path leads?/In these new possibilities, you will lose what is left of yourself, and what you need/Is this old piece of junk actually worth you being fried/Selling out to these jerks, making relationships go dry?/Money, it sure won’t wait for you/As soon as you reach for it/ It changes your view.” Talking about the regime as “the jerks” was quite brave at that time. This gesture, as well as Juraj Hertz’s movie Straka v Hrsti (Magpie in the hand) and the subsequent communist campaign against the Czech New Wave, led to the prohibition of the band to play legally from 1983 and on. The band got back together in 1986 and continues playing in spite of a few break-ups and disagreements.
The female singer Monika Načeva sings about nonconformity and authenticity in lyrics written by Jáchym Topol. In the song called „Keep Your Fridge Full“ (Udržuj svou ledničku plnou), Načeva sings: “And your soul is slapped on a platter like at a concentration camp/I’m a servant to myself, my own slave.” She opposes conformity and its results very openly: “And why are yo’ stooped over, what are yo’ carrying?/And why are yo’ stooped over/Everyone’s lookin’ for his way, to get his foot in/Everyone’s lookin’ for his way.” Načeva even keeps the 1st person male gender (of Jáchym Topol), identifies with it, and presents herself in a male shirt and a tie in the music video for the song. Even though the video is from the 1990s when it was very extravagant to play with gender roles, the video still keeps its rebellious charm even in 2013. She describes the stereotypes and roles ironically: “I’m the stud out of all my folks/I keep my fridge full/I don’t talk with my neighbors, I meditate/I keep my fridge full.”
Self-reflection and alternative lifestyle are clear signs of authenticity, when the human being is the principle or origin of oneself and one’s actions while being aware of it. Another example of the emphasis on authenticity and criticism of imitation of others can be found in the song “The Sign of Punk” (Známka Punku) by the band Visací Zámek. They sing: “He wore his wellies always inside out/He thought it was a sign of punk/He smoked everything he could/Thinking it was a sign of punk/But the girls said/That punk is elsewhere.” The band ridicules such attempts at stylishness in the music video to the song Yet, the singer does not lack self-reflection and reflection on the commodification of punk. Later in the song, he sarcastically adds: “Every product finds its buyer,” and self-critically: “But who isn’t a mess after all?“ The band makes it clear that they detest the commodification of punk and the selling of pseudo-punk as authentic punk. They also protest against imitation of anyone, whether it is done in order to be well-liked or from the desire to “have a style.” In other words, it is much more important to have the mohawk inside one’s head than on one’s head, however colorful it may be.
Another feature of the existential dynamics of alternative rock are the feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and alienation in contrast to love as happiness that connects people. Feelings of alienation can be seen best in the lyrics for Monika Načeva and Psí Vojáci (Dog Soldiers), written by Jáchym Topol. Načeva sings in the song called “The Moon“ (Měsíc) about feelings of detachment in an intimate relationship. The world for Načeva at that moment is uncanny, one does not feel at home there: “it’s dark there and it has rusty spots/in one of them I hide/in another there’s two of us. Hell is empty and there I writhe/in those moments, I’m alone, I know who I am/the moon is a lonely place/when I lie naked with you/I cover you with my hair.” Being alone, however, is not something to be condemned. Instead of losing oneself, one can actually encounter and re-structure oneself when alone. Existential anxiety and the knowledge of the fact that nobody can die instead of us – nor live our life for us – can be the first step to authenticity, to take over one’s life. In their song “Razorblades,” (Žiletky) Dog Soldiers use the the musical gradation and intense screams at the end to give an edge to the lyrics that express the tiredness of being oneself, of balancing on the edge of life and death, facing loneliness: “When the moon is in Utah/We grab our heads in our hands/Sealed in lead/ Feelings like razorblades/Razorblades of my ballet dancer/And in a desolate day/Desolate nipples/Tired, mouth on the ground.” The song culminates in corporeal feelings: “Razorblades on the body/Razorblades in the body/Razorblades in the hair/Razorblades and one stitch,” expressing an extreme situation where any stable, secure identity falls apart or dissolves.
Authenticity refers to moral integrity, resoluteness, feelings of hope, and the sublime in Marta Kubišová’s singing (even though she cannot be labeled as a rocker or as a folk singer). She openly distances herself from anger and war in both her songs and personal conviction. Due to her references to freedom, the role of the state, suffering, and her remakes of American songs such as “Hey Jude,” her songs gained a strong political dimension. The song “Prayer for Marta” was sung as a national anthem after the invasion of Russian troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968 in the streets. Moreover, every night at the end of the Czech TV broadcasting, the song was played as a form of protest. She opposed the invasion and any form of oppression, which resulted in her not being allowed to perform legally from 1970 till 1989. The communist party tried to “buy” her and make her join the party in various ways. She was given the choice to continue singing under the wings of the communist party because she was a very popular singer at that time (she sang in the band Golden Kids with Helena Vondráčková). Yet, she never compromised herself, choosing to not to sing at all over being inauthentic. During the Velvet Revolution in November of 1989, Kubišová sang “Prayer for Marta” for the second time in order to support Václav Havel and other speakers on Wenceslav Square. The feelings of liberation from an oppressive government and one’s own negative feelings are expressed in the words: “Let peace stay in this land. Anger, envy, and hatred shall cease, shall cease. People, the rule over your things that was lost will come back to you. Let peace stay in this land.” The song signals the return of freedom, the end of double identities, overall calming down, and the end of paranoia.
As for the communist regime’s paranoia and the paranoia from the regime, the Plastic People of the Universe grasped these themes in the song called “100 points” (100 bodů). The song expresses the communist government’s fear in 100 different cases (fear of individuals, fear of certain qualities or domains, etc.). The Plastics sing in a monotonous voice: “They are afraid of the old for their memory/They are afraid of the young for their innocence/They are afraid even of schoolchildren/They are afraid of the dead and their funerals/They are afraid of graves and the flowers people put on them/They are afraid of churches, priests and nuns/They are afraid of workers/They are afraid of party members. They are afraid of those who are not in the party/They are afraid of science.” The lyrics end with the question: “So why the hell are WE afraid of THEM?” The rhythm and repetition in the song lead the listener into a changed state of consciousness where there is no place for fear. That was also one of the aims of the psychedelic style of the Plastics, a style that is based on the repetition of a strong guitar, drum and bass riff, hypnotic vocals, and frequent improvisations of other instruments.
From the music point of view, we can notice the decomposition of the typical rock song form (ABABCBB) and imitation of natural forces of chaos and creation. It is exactly this sort of shamanism, an organic connection with the world in the moment of its creation, repetition of rhythms, and intensity, that are all connected with new emotions and intensities in rock and psychedelic music. As we have mentioned above, artists were not interested in music as craft, or in virtuoso-like musicianship. The emphasis on ecstasy and rawness characterized most alternative rock. Did rock serve any external purposes? What was its function? It seems that rockers did not seek to cover or suppress the painful reality of social tension but expressed it in music instead. Such activity provoked catharsis, active struggle against nihilism, and rehabilitation of insanity. The idea that rock expressed insanity was not surprising. Many authors of rock songs (Jirous, Topol, and others) argued that the insanity of alternative artists is a very relevant and redeeming answer to the insane regime. What occurred during many psychedelic rock concerts was the loss of a fixed form or identity. Musicians and their audience sought and experienced the organic wholeness of music instead of the logical patterning of fragments they knew from, for instance, classical music. Alternative lifestyle was connected with the protest against mechanical work when the human being becomes a robot and ceases to feel anything.
The Plastic people of the Universe turned their attention to various mythological motives and forces that helped them oppose the machine-like, “artificial,” superficial, and desensitizing music of many mainstream pro-communist artists. By repeating the same guitar riff over and over, playing psychedelic solos, and speeding up during the song, they provoke in their listeners new emotions of flow, abandonment of old structures, and feelings of trance. Their song “Magical Nights” (Magické noci), for example, shows the hypnotic repetition of words: “Those nights of magic, conceived by time/May even drive Koch out of his mind/Those nights of magic, conceived by time/We are living in Prague – and right here/One day the Holy Spirit will appear.” A similar desire for ecstasy and an escape from the body and its rigidity can be perceived in the song “Tree” (Strom), sung by the women from the band Zuby Nehty. They sing: “through the sky deranged words fly/which tomorrow I must remember/I´m not allowed with them/I´m not allowed with them/I just want/I yearn/I want to fly out/pulled to the ground by my body.” Celtic mythology, worshiping of trees, and shamanic techniques can also be traced in their songs.
Another hypnotic repetition of one riff (which borders on electronica and hiphop) can be heard in the song “Another Woman” (Jiná Žena) sung by Načeva: “Maybe sometime it’ll occur to you, suddenly/it’ll be a single moment/ that’ll be it/maybe it’ll be right then that you glimpse the world. … Another woman walked by me/wrapped in the skin of love/so that she could stand life/she caressed the world with her eyes (I should try her clothes on). Yeah, her eyes had a mirror and in them, I saw myself – that woman radiated with love, Maybe, maybe even with the love of me.” The song revolves around the meaning of light, the moment of revelation when one glimpses the world in its entirety. Such intensities contrast with the dark music foundation based on slow heavy beats and a simple but very low-sounding bass line. Načeva presents love here as a window out of nihilism, as a way in which to connect with another person in the cold world she experiences. The eyes mirror both identity and the sharing of the world. Metaphors of light and darkness are used in a similar manner in the Zuby Nehty’s songs “White Birds” (Bílí ptáci) and “Dybbuk.” The lyrics for “White Birds” were written by the poet Kenneth Patchen. In the song “Dybbuk,” the word dybbuk is related to the descent into one’s subconscious, the dark energy of an evil spirit (dybbuk), which is the shadow within us that we need to come to terms with.
To sum up this short introduction, we could say that neither the music form, nor the themes of Czech alternative rock, punk, and underground changed in any essential way after the year 1989. Wider possibilities to record, to sample and mix are reflected in the higher sound quality of recordings, and emergence of new genres (hiphop-rock, dance-rock etc.). But many of the bands mentioned here refuse to record their songs “on the click,” or to adjust their songs to any “grid” during the process of digital mixing. Many of them also reject any requests to conform to the requirements of bigger recording companies in the music industry. Spontaneity, improvisation, and organic elements are still preserved in alternative music in the Czech republic. As to the philosophy of the bands mentioned here, instead of having their enemy in the communist government, they fight racism, commodification of their subculture and elsewhere, as well as superficiality and consumerism in Czech society.
The band Dybbuk (playing from 1983) emerged from the band Plyn (Gas), which was formed in 1980, and slowly transformed itself into the band Zuby Nehty (Teeth and Nails). Only two members – Pavla Slabá-Jonssonová (guitar, bass-guitar and vocal) a Marka Míková (piano, bass guitar and vocal) were playing in all of the three bands. Being called a punk and new-wave band, their vocals, all-female line-up, and feminine lyrics made the band unique on the Czech scene.
Zuby Nehty (Tooth and Nail)
This female-dominated band evolved from Dybbuk around the year 1988. The members of the band are also authors of the songs. They recorded five albums. Their most popular song is the song “White Birds.” The band stopped playing concerts in the year 2000 and played only exceptionally (for example when releasing their Best of album in 2003). In 2009 they began to play live again.