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Czech Rock Band Emerges From Underground With U.S. Tour

April 25, 1989

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (AP) _ A Czechoslovakian rock band whose leaders were jailed in the 1970s is touring the United States in what its guitarist calls ″a sign of better times″ for Eastern Europe.

Initially denounced as ″moral filth″ by the government-run Czech press, the band endured two decades of legal trouble before obtaining official status last May and changing its name from Plastic People of the Universe to Pulnoc, the Czech word for midnight.

The three-week American tour, which began Saturday in Chicago, is the group’s first opportunity to perform abroad and ″an incredible turn of events that no one could have dreamed of even a few years ago,″ said Timothy W. Ryback, a Harvard University lecturer and expert on Eastern European rock.

Although little known in the West, the group has attracted an enormous following in Czechoslovakia through underground recordings and small concerts under its original name, Ryback said.

″For 20 years, the Plastic People have been unquestionably the premiere underground rock band in Czechoslovakia and probably all of Eastern Europe,″ he said.

At a nightclub here Sunday night, the band’s lead singer and only female member, Michaela Nemcova, traced haunting melodies over a background of guitars, keyboards, drums and cello.

The crowd, mainly students from nearby Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, responded with three encores even though the Czech lyrics were incomprehensible to most.

″We’re not touring just for ourselves, but for everyone back home,″ guitarist Milan Hlavsa, 39, said after the show. ″It’s a sign of better times, of hope, for our country.″

Hlavsa, one of the band’s original members, dedicated Sunday’s show to dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and the band’s former manager, Ivan Jirous, who are both in Czech prisons for political crimes.

But Hlavsa, who also spent six months in jail during a government crackdown on rock bands in 1976, insisted the group’s message was not political.

″To us, rock ‘n’ roll means life, joy and creativity, and to our fans, it means they can unwind, they can feel some sort of freedom,″ he said through an interpreter. ″But I know it can be dangerous, even if it’s not political.″

Hlavsa and guitarist Jiri Kabes formed Plastic People in 1968, shortly after Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital to crush the democratic social and political movement known as Prague Spring.

At first, they were tolerated by the authorities. But in 1970, their official status was revoked and they emerged as leaders in what Jirous termed Czechoslovakia’s ″second,″ or unofficial, culture.

Despite their popularity, all of the band members must work at other jobs to support themselves. Keyboardist Josef Janicek is a school janitor; drummer Petr Kumamdzas, a hospital orderly; cellist Tomas Schilla, an X-ray technician.

Ryback, the Harvard expert, said the band’s recent acceptance of official status has eased their circumstances, allowing them to obtain top-quality equipment, to perform openly and, perhaps in the future, to issue albums through the state record company.

But, he said, the move was controversial.

″I think they have alienated some of their fans, because it looks like they cut a deal with the state,″ he said. ″But that’s probably unfair, because they have gone through a hell of a lot.″

The band also planned to go to New York, Knoxville, Tenn., Washington, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, performing mainly in nightclubs with a capacity of 100 to 400.

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