Lou Reed is one of the most integral figures in alternative music history. There are no question marks over how The Velvet Underground gave people a belief that they too could form a band and help inspire kids all over the world. While the New York group never stormed the charts or played shows on the same scale as The Beatles; one can’t overlook their influence.
A clear example of a band formed in the wake of The Velvet Underground’s arrival happened a world away from New York City. In 1968, a 17-year-old teenager named Mejla Hlavsa created a then-Czechoslovakian band called The Plastic People of the Universe. Whilst this band is mostly unknown to people outside of Hlavsa’s native country, their impact in Czechoslovakia played a strangely important role in bringing down the communist regime that ruled the land.
The formation came following some horrifying months from January into August 1968. This disaster came under Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček and became known as the Prague Spring. In August, things came to a head when Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia which led to Dubček being overthrown. The country then started the ‘normalisation process’ as they tried to bring in a new dawn and only a few weeks on from the invasion, Hlavsa formed Plastic People of the Universe.
The band were the face of anarchy, and the communist regime hated the non-conformist attitude that Plastic People of the Universe stood for. Police would shut down their shows; fans were arrested and were, to all intents and purposes, illegal. The band couldn’t perform openly, which led to them becoming the central figure in the underground scene throughout the 1970s.
The illegality attached to their shows only made the scene more exciting. It became an integral vice in people’s lives and offered hope of a brighter future if nothing else. One of the key figures in this scene was Václav Havel; he was a playwright and the first to bring The Velvet Underground to the country after getting records back following a visit to the States in 1967. He played a crucial role in helping the band in 1976 after they were convicted of “organised disturbance of the peace” and sentenced to terms in prison ranging from 8 to 18 months.
Havel helped write the Charter 77 manifesto, which initially forced the regime to lighten the band’s sentences but the long-term consequences of this manifesto would be more significant. This national feeling of anger towards the regime led to people hitting the streets in the mid-80s, which, in turn, eventually led to the iron curtain’s uprising in 1989 when workers and students in Czechoslovakia finally managed to topple the communist government there.
In 1990, Haval was elected president in Czechoslovakia’s first open elections since the end of the Second World War and would be in this position until 1993 when the country was dissolved. Although he had no desire to be involved with politics or have power, the people wanted him in this position, and the fact that he wasn’t power-hungry made him the perfect person for the job.
Reed even went to interview Havel for Rolling Stone in 1990. The singer he was left flabbergasted when the head of state said to him: “Did you know that I am president because of you?” Without this chain of events that began with Havel’s trip to the States that led to the start of this counter-culture, then who knows whether the communist regime would have ended when it did.
Havel then said: “The music, underground music, in particular one record by a band called Velvet Underground, played a rather significant role in the development of our country, and I don’t think that many people in the United States have noticed this.”
When Havel made it over to The White House in 1999 for a state visit, Lou Reed joined him and delivered a memorable performance. The former Velvet Underground man even had a special guest lined up for his set as he was joined by Mejla Hlavsa who formed The Plastic People of the Universe back in 1968 after Haval introduced Reed’s music into his world. This story is proof that the music can provide the necessary hope, leading to real and actual change that makes the world a better place.