Thursday 2 February 2012

Outside of Society

The Czech music scene, in general, is not something that has impressed me greatly in the time I’ve been living here, overpopulated as it is by “revival bands” churning out turgid old blues covers or mediocre, diluted Blaxploitation-style funk. There are however notable exceptions, one of which is the legendary Dg. 307. The group took its name from a psychiatrist’s drug prescription (Dg. an abbreviation for diagnosis), carrying with it the suggestion that dissidents such as themselves were liable to be classified as mentally ill by the regime of the time, and their early work in particular is genuinely quite psychologically disturbing stuff. Along with their more celebrated sister band the Plastic People of the Universe, a group whose impact here was so immense that they merit an entire separate treatise (an excellent one of which can be found here), they formed at a particularly bleak period in Czechoslovak history: the period known here as “normalisation”, following the Soviet occupation which crushed the Prague Spring in 68.

This political context is absolutely critical – the squalling noise of Dg. 307 is the sound of a generation gasping for air in an environment where creativity has been forcibly stifled, the sound of humanity creaking under the weight of a dismally stagnant and oppressive regime. In the mid-60s, the optimism of the flower children had taken hold forcefully in liberalised Czechoslovakia, with the Beatles in particular becoming huge. I can’t pretend to be a Beatles fan, but their social significance here transcended their music and they became a symbol of liberation, of things to come. More hip, Western influences followed and a generation of beatniks was allowed to flourish, within limits, under Dubček’s “socialism with a human face”. The death of the hippy dream was thus felt all the more acutely here. It didn’t decay and fall apart from within, it was extinguished from outside by a foreign, occupying power. Sure, in the States there may have been Altamont and Nixon, but here there were Soviet tanks on the street. For a brief period anything had seemed possible, now nothing was permitted, and it is this annihilated optimism that gives Dg. 307 their twisted vitality.

Within such a situation, Dg. 307 and the Plastic People perhaps inevitably became representatives of a “second culture” of dissidents and deliberate social misfits. To an extent this may have even been against their will: Milan Hlavsa (1951-2001), a key member of both bands, once argued in a debate with Václav Havel that the Plastic People (and thus presumably also Dg. 307) were not a political or protest band. For many, the “second culture” was simply about finding a life and freedom outside of the mainstream society, rather than overtly attacking the regime. Havel countered that within such a political climate any kind of authentic expression becomes political, regardless of its intent. It is true that the lyrics of both bands are probably less explicitly political than those of the Sex Pistols, who also claimed to be essentially apolitical, at least in conventional left-right terms, but screamed that the Queen “ain’t no human being”. However, it’s not difficult to see that the fragile, morally baseless regime of normalisation, which was so dependent on hypocrisy and the perpetuation of meaninglessness for its survival, had a great deal to fear even from far less specific expressions of nihilistic frustration. And indeed, the response of the authorities, who unsurprisingly felt Dg. 307 and the Plastics to constitute a genuine threat to the status quo, was to panic. Any happenings the bands held were illegal, risking infiltration by the secret police or violent disbanding by the riot police. Dg. 307 vocalist Pavel Zajíček, also a part-time member of the Plastic People and one of the greatest rock n roll stars imaginable – a preposterously talented musician, sculptor and poet of enviably chiselled features, who oozes charisma and dignity, was eventually imprisoned for a year on a trumped up charge of disturbing the peace, an event which was crucial in inspiring the Charter 77 movement. Afterwards he went to live in Sweden and then the USA, but is now back here with a revived Dg. 307, these days somewhat more tuneful than in their dissident heyday and still thoroughly engaging.

Their influences are difficult if not impossible to pick out. The most commonly mentioned reference points for the Plastic People are the Velvet Underground, Beefheart and Zappa, from whom the Plastics took their name. In the case of Dg. 307, however, any influences they might have are warped by their disgust with the political and social environment in which they live, up to the point where they are unrecognisable, and to my ears they sound much more like Throbbing Gristle or Neubauten (this is back in 1973 – the first industrial rock band?). Their early recordings, for understandable reasons, are not of the best sound quality, but their desperate rage is very much in evidence in their shouted vocals and pulverising, tuneless din. Their lyrics, some of which were used against Zajíček in his trial as an example of the band’s “anti-social” nature, are characterised by vulgarism and intentionally inept rhymes, conveying exquisitely the atmosphere of banal stupidity that pervaded in the cultural living death of mainstream 1970s Czechoslovakia. They are not easy to translate, based as they often are on naïve rhyme and wordplay. However, the following translation, imperfect as it is, can provide some indication of what their early work was about.

Dg. 307

Utopenec (1974)

topim se ve sračkách
svýho přemejšlení
topim se vobden
nic se nemění

chci s někým mluvit
každej je z gumy
nebudu je rušit
mastěj vlastní struny

sežral sem všechnu moudrost
v podobě hovna
nemám velkou radost
z toho hovna zrovna

holky se svlíkaj
je právě jaro
ptáci zpívají
něco se stalo

peníz se ztratil v pivu
penis se válí v klidu
dlouho sem nečet knihu
zbožňuju pohled klínu
noha se lepí v klihu
netěším se na zimu

je mi 23
a mám špatný sny
sem slepec
žádnej světec

třesu se když se vzbudim
sem tam chodim
piju 10 piv
je mně špatně z nich

vim co je to nuda
nevim co je to filosofie
vim co je to onanie
vim že život neni zrůda

Drowning Man (1974)

I drown in the shit
of my thoughts
I drown every other day
nothing changes

I want to talk to someone
everyone's made of rubber
I won't bother them
they're looking after their own

I've swallowed all wisdom
in the form of shit
I don't feel any great
satisfaction from it

girls are undressing
spring is here
birds are singing
something has happened


money's lost in beer
my cock swings freely
I haven't read a book for a long time
I worship the view of a crotch
my foot is stuck down with glue
I'm not looking forward to winter

I'm 23 years old
and I have bad dreams
I'm a blind man
no saint

I shiver when I awake
I wander from here to there
I drink 10 beers
then I feel ill

I know what boredom is
I don't know what philosophy is
I know what masturbation is
I know life is no monstrosity


1 comment:

ASHDAV said...

I feel I ought to add here that I've just received an e-mail from a friend of mine, a former participant in the second culture who was eventually thrown out of Czechoslovakia and spent over 20 years in the USA. Though he broadly agrees with the post, he slightly takes issue with the statement that the normalisation regime stifled all creativity, and points out that capitalism is far more effective at forcing conformity upon us and denying us any breathing space.