The Times JUNE 11, 2006 - by Mark Edwards


Tom Stoppard's new play centres on the pop band whose arrest launched a human-rights movement. He discusses how artists change the world with Brian Eno and Mark Edwards.

After years of writing about rock bands who think they are rebels, but whose rebellion consists mainly of wearing a certain kind of clothes (ones that might have been a bit rebellious when Marlon Brando wore them half a century ago), or spitting on stage or getting a bit uppity in business class, I have finally located a band who can genuinely lay claim to the title of rebels, a band who altered the world they lived in, a band who brought down an entire political system. Let's get this clear, says Tom Stoppard, sensing the way the journalistic mind works. The Plastic People did not bring down communism. Bother.

The Plastic People Of The Universe may not have toppled a regime, but when two members of the Czech band were arrested in 1976, their trials became a rallying point for dissent and set in motion an extraordinary sequence of events that Stoppard has incorporated as one of the main threads that weave through his new play Rock'N'Roll.

The trial of The Plastic People Of The Universe band members effectively refocused on Czechoslovakia the international attention that had wandered since the Soviet invasion eight years previously, led directly to the formation of the human-rights organisation Charter 77, and thus kicked off the chain of events that would culminate in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Vaclav Havel became president.

To mark the opening of Rock'N'Roll, I have been invited to listen in on a conversation between Stoppard and the musician Brian Eno, which is talking place backstage at the Royal Court Theatre during a break between technical rehearsals. My role, I assume, is to sit in the background and make sure the tape recorder is working; but Stoppard, who began his own working life as a journalist, is quick to draw me into the conversation when he reckons that my hunt for an angle may distort the facts.

Milan Hlavsa, who founded the group, said in several interviews that they weren't interested in bringing down communism. What they wanted was to play rock'n'roll music, says Stoppard. A question to ask, then, is: were those two things as separate as he thought at the time? The band were clearly not dissidents; in fact, they were rather disparaged by those actively opposed to communist rule as a bunch of lazy hippies who remained wilfully disengaged from the political debates of the time. But their decision to remove themselves from the official culture made them the perfect example of living in truth - to borrow Havel's own phrase. Doggedly pursuing their own artistic vision was itself a resistance to totalitarian culture.

Simply playing rock'n'roll was not a wasted, isolated gesture, says Stoppard. And, by extension, one could make a grand claim for the potency of art in general - including rock'n'roll - and its ability to alter society. Do you think that's a romantic view? No, no, says Eno. I think they were very clear about not taking a political position, but being artists - for them - was definitely a moral position. They very much chose what kind of artist they wanted to be and which kind they wanted to emulate. They were very clear that certain bands were good, The Velvet Underground in particular. Identifying with that band was a clear moral position to take.

What's interesting is that their two heroes were, to most western people, I would say, diametrically opposed: The Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, Eno continues. This is a very strange combination. The Velvet Underground represented an intuitive, streetwise, un-arty approach to making music, and Zappa was the exact opposite: his music was very hard to play and he was very engaged politically, aiming his music and his message at the system. The Velvet Underground didn't even acknowledge that there was a system.

It's not easy to locate Plastic People albums these days - but not impossible, thanks to the internet. They are well worth the effort. Don't expect them to sound like either The Velvets or Zappa: it is the tension between the two styles that seems to create an entirely original hybrid. Its closest relations probably lie among the German prog-rock bands of the 1970s.

The Plastic People were introduced to the music of The Velvets by Ivan Jirous, an art historian who assumed the role of the band's artistic director, helping to stage their concerts - psychedelic happenings, complete with outrageous costumes and elaborate light shows. There aren't many bands who have had an opening for an artistic director: the VU themselves, of course, for whom Andy Warhol played that role; and, you might argue, The Sex Pistols, for whom Malcolm McLaren went far beyond the usual scope of a band's manager. There are other parallels between The Plastic People and The Sex Pistols. Both bands were at times effectively banned from playing live, although the minor scuffles endured by The Pistols were never on the same level as the major police actions used to disrupt any attempts by The Plastic People to play a gig.

Do you think The Plastic People's status was conferred on them by the authorities, that if the authorities had been a little cooler about it, just ignored them, nothing would have happened? asks Eno.

It's an interesting point, says Stoppard. I'm not even sure the authorities at the top did worry too much about them. I think they simply annoyed the cops.

The authorities can confer dissident status on just about any band, it turns out. Eno has brought a book with him, Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, which documents the last Soviet generation. It contains a copy of a document sent out to the regional committees of the Young Communist League, headed, an approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions. For each of the thirty-eight bands listed, the document cites the type of propaganda they are guilty of spreading. You might expect to see The Sex Pistols on there (guilty of punk, violence) and perhaps Black Sabbath (violence, religious obscurantism), but how about Pink Floyd (distortion of Soviet foreign policy), Van Halen (anti-Soviet propaganda) or Talking Heads (the myth of the Soviet military threat)? I can see why the authorities were worried about those things, Eno says, but I can't see how they identified those things in these groups. I think the difference between the communists and us was that they believed in the power of art - and we don't, in a way. They believed that it could make a difference. You only have to think of the Russian socialist-realist painters - artists being very clear that they should take on the mantle of being part of the great leap forward of society.

Here, if an artist wants to save the world, if one takes Bono as an example, they don't try to do it through the music, says Stoppard. The music, or their celebrity, is there to promote or finance the act of saving the world. This seems to be the inverse of what Jirous and his friends were predicating their lives on: that the way you save the world is by looking after the way you live yourself, by making sure that you yourself behave in a certain way.

Isn't this exactly what people mean when they say things like The Beatles changed the world, or Elvis changed everything? When you make a piece of art, one of the things you're saying is: imagine a world where we could be like this, says Eno. So it does force a change on you - even without an overt message.

So, rock music can be powerful despite a lack of content. In fact, The Plastic People suggest an even stronger argument than that. Their political significance is directly attributable to the lack of any political content in their songs.

Prosecuting rock'n'roll musicians was, if anything, more significant than arresting some famous scientist or academic, says Stoppard. Because the scientists, the poet, the essayist were actively opposing the regime, whereas the musicians were just a pain in the arse. What Havel realised was that this represented something very dangerous: now the state could put you into jail simply for being the wrong sort of bloke.

I'm sure that was because there was no content, says Eno. If you're asked to sign a petition to support some intellectual, you might think, 'Hmm, I'm not sure I fully agree with his position on this or that point.' But with the band, there's nothing to disagree with. The fact that they weren't dissenting made them a better rallying point.

Thinking about this really confirmed what I've always thought about art. That it's not a marginal activity. It's central. But if I really believe that, why don't I just concentrate on it? Why don't I stop pissing around with politics? Perhaps, suggests Stoppard, you should commute between the two.

But, counters Eno, nobody likes commuting.

Rock'N'Roll is at the Royal Court, SW1, until July 15, then at the Duke of York's, W1, from July 22