Monday, January 9, 2012
Plastic People of the Universe - Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned
Recorded in 1974 in communist Prague but not released until 1978 in France Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned is the first album by long-lived Czech band Plastic People of the Universe. Like a number of other bands in the 60's and 70's, these guys were part of an underground rebellion against repressive communist governments that took the shape of rock music--I can't think of a much cooler reason to make music.
I remember the first time I tried to listen to this album, I was a little disappointed in the opener, "Dvacet;" though it introduces the group's appealing instrumentation (including saxophone, violin, some weird keyboards and delay-treated vocals), the melodic pattern is simple and repetitive, and though I'm aware the Czech poetry (written by Egon Bondy) that makes up the lyrics is probably pretty charged, I can't understand Czech and don't have a source for translation. I must have stopped listening and switched to something else before the one-minute mark, when the free jazz-informed sax solo starts with a scream from one of the vocalists, and the group's primal groove kicks in. When I finally gave the album a second chance, I remember kicking myself for not listening just a bit further. Though it's just a couple minutes long, "Dvacet" is a good example of the group's compositional style, which relies on repetitive grooves and sing-song melodies as a backdrop for some pretty wild soloing.
It becomes pretty apparent how Frank Zappa-influenced these guys are (they even took their name from a Mothers of Invention song) after just a few minutes, but I like how they take the irreverent mood and tense harmonic structure of Zappa and Henry Cow and apply it to a much more primitive structure of simplistic but often brutal riffing. "Toxica" spaces out a minor theme with effective theatricality before riff-izing it for a great fuzz guitar solo, while "Magicke Noci" starts with some delirious synthesizer before launching into one of the album's most punishingly foreboding riffs, somehow conjured just from bass, rhodes and drums. "Podivuhodny mandarin" is probably the best fusion of lyrical rhythm and hypnotic riffing on the album--make sure to check out the video of a 2009 performance; these guys are still rocking this material even though they're old and grizzled!
Though a few of the quieter tracks (like "Okolo Okna") might not be as immediate or arresting, the group always manages to set up a unique atmosphere and accomplish some spacey soloing. I also really like their deeper ventures into satirical territory on the short spoof "MGM" (wherein the group imitates MGM's opening lion roar with their own voices) and the theatrical closer "Jo - to se ti to spi," where the vocalizing is almost Robert Wyatt-like. Keep in mind that this is an underground recording (the sound quality is pretty low), but the group's untamed irreverent spirit and counter-cultural defiance always manage to show through--you can easily tell that they're not only risking their political freedom to make this music, they're also having a great time doing it! Good luck finding a CD of this sadly out of print album; luckily it's around for download in quite a few places.