The Plastic People of the Universe, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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As blurbs go, “the only rock group to have altered the course of European history” is pretty much unbeatable. It was the imprisonment of several members of this band by the Czech authorities that led Vaclav Havel and others to write Charter 77 and thus ultimately (in the argument of Tom Stoppard’s play Rock’n’Roll) to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Four of the 1970s line-up form the core of the reformed seven-piece who made this first UK appearance (no doubt spurred by Stoppard’s play) to mark the 30th anniversary of Charter 77.

They were supported by a too-rare London appearance from Peter Blegvad, John Greaves and Chris Cutler, alumni of the British “research group” Henry Cow/Slapp Happy, which worked broadly the same musical left-field.

The intervening decades have seen Messrs Blegvad et al move closer to the musical mainstream, but The Plastics remain a “heritage” group. The strong influence of Frank Zappa’s early freak-outs is audible, as is the kind of European musical mutation that led, further north, to “Krautrock”; indeed the new guitarist Joe Karafiát sounds at times uncannily like the late Michael Karoli of Can. More bizarrely, their taste for pumping in unison at gloomy riffs reminded me of Black Sabbath – although hardly in the same lyrical territory, since The Plastics utilise texts by the likes of Christian Morgenstern and the philosopher Ladislav Klima.

Musically, I’m afraid it does not really constitute a revelation. There is only so much frenetically squeaking sax I can take, and after the first three-quarters of an hour Vratislav Brabenec’s playing grows markedly less gripping.

The PPU are icons, but their status derives from their having been symbols first of a rebellious culture of youthful exuberance,
and then of the individual oppressed by the state, rather than from unique musical power. I mean, imagine Margaret Thatcher being toppled by Pinski Zoo, or Nixon by Lothar and the Hand People!

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