Dutch Post-Punk Experimentalism
The Minny Pops
by Martijn Voorvelt1. Prologue: 'Dolphins Spurt'
Who remembers The Minny Pops?
Up front we hear a relentless rhythm machine going chop-a-tee-ka-chop-a-tee-ka-chop-a-tee-ka. A dissonant guitar phrase and a simple bass line are repeated as if they are stuck in a groove. In the background, a vocalist recites half-intelligible texts about Rachel, a coconut and a dolphin - the robotic repetition of the words robs them of everything human or natural. Behind this, an amorphous wash of sped-up voices going ha-na-na, na-na, like a congregation of shamans. This is one of the Minny Pops' most accessible moments, called 'Dolphins Spurt.' Clearly these young men are not simply here to entertain. This is experimental art, disguised as pop music. And it reaches a surprisingly wide audience, as this music is very much of its time. For it is 1979: after the death of punk, many young pop musicians suddenly feel the need to experiment, to invent and test new sounds and new methods of creating pop music, often with a minimum of technique and a maximum of ideas. The Minny Pops were one of The Netherlands' most successful exponents of this movement.
2. Post-punk experimentalism: international
One of the most creative consequences of the punk movement was a brief, wide interest in musical experimentation. Between 1977 and 1983, many young musicians experimented with song form, instruments (especially the suddenly inexpensive rhythm machines and synthesizers) and studio techniques, considerably extending the language of pop and rock music. In the UK, this movement produced acts as different as Wire, The Raincoats, Nurse With Wound, Throbbing Gristle and Gang of Four, simultaneously rousing interest in older rock experimentalists such as Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, This Heat and Henry Cow/Art Bears. Both in the U.S. (DNA, Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu, The Residents) and in continental Europe musicians joined this experiment-craze. Typically, musical experimentation went hand in hand with an appetite for independence; the monopoly of the large recording companies was temporarily broken, while hundreds of independent companies (indies) were founded. Many of these valued artistic expression over commercial success and had no trouble marketing experimental (according to the established music industry, "difficult") music. Equally typical was the quick demise of this movement, at least in the UK: during the early eighties most experimental pop was either annexed and "tamed" by the large record companies, or confined to the margins and forgotten (in the U.S. and on the European mainland this was a more gradual process). However, influences are still audible in, for instance, many dance and ambient styles, post-rock bands such as Tortoise and Godspeed, You Black Emperor, and "industrial" acts such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails.
3. The Netherlands
In The Netherlands too, many young pop musicians began to subvert pop and rock conventions. Unfortunately, this interesting phase in Dutch pop history, if at all remembered, has rarely been taken seriously afterwards, which is consistent with the typical and often heard Dutch saying "Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg" (act normally; that way you're crazy enough). However, between 1979 and 1983 "avantgarde" was temporarily hip, and many people could enjoy experimental sounds through VPRO Radio show Spleen or read about them in the magazine Vinyl. Although the Dutch experimentalists often watched and copied their British colleagues' every move, this movement produced some very original, genuinely Dutch acts such as Morzelpronk and Nasmak.
With hindsight it is possible to identify four main strands.
- Amsterdam: the squat movement. This large social movement spawned many punk bands, some of which showed experimental tendencies, notably The Ex and Morzelpronk. Both are typically guitar bands, evolving their very recognizable styles from the premise that lack of instrumental technique does not necessarily hamper creativity, on the contrary (after all, they were part of an anarchist movement!). Morzelpronk was a "guitar collective" led by Dolf Planteijdt, who had a recording studio for like-minded bands since 1979, the Koeienverhuurbedrijf (Cow Rental Company). Several members of Morzelpronk would later play in other (more or less experimental) guitar groups, such as Kong, Kleg, Dull Schiksal and De Kift. The Ex soon attracted international recognition with their combination of harsh, atonal music and socially engaged lyrics. They would increasingly use free improvisation, inventing new ways of playing guitar, and are still widely regarded as one of the most exciting live bands in the world.
- Amsterdam: art academies. Generally, these bands were less interested in freedom and improvisation, and more in electronic beats, discipline and repetitive structures. Wally van Middendorp had founded the seminal Plurex label, that would sustain The Minny Pops and many side-projects from 1978 onwards, such as the trio Smalts and Stephen Emmer's solo work. Musicians like Emmer were also involved in founding Vinyl magazine, instrumental in disseminating knowledge of experimental post-punk bands, and coining the "Ultra" movement (for "extreme" electronic music). Other interesting Amsterdam art bands, though perhaps more mildly experimental, included The Tapes, who had a great talent in constantly developing their intricate arrangements, and the gloomy "art collective" Mecano (see below).
- Nijmegen: Mekanik Kommando. A band with an electronic basis but with boasting two bass players. Darlings of the Ultra-movement, they gradually developed a more introvert, dreamy musical style. The members are still involved in interesting musical projects.
- Eindhoven: Nasmak and friends. Like The Minny Pops, Nasmak were from the South of the country were interested in repetitive structures, but their music was less harsh and mechanical, more fluid and danceable. Their first record (on Plurex) was hailed by John Peel as the best continental record of the year. All members had their own side-projects, such as + Instruments (Truus de Groot with varying personnel including Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth).
These four strands did not remain neatly isolated. Several collaborations evolved, such as Valori Plastici (with Nasmak's Joop van Brakel and Mecano's Dick Polak), and there were many "outsiders". Worth mentioning is the duo of Harold Schellinx and Ronald Heiloo, who moved to London and recorded Commuters, a collection of poetic miniatures sung by Art Bears-vocalist Dagmar Krause.
During the early eighties, The Netherlands caught cassette-fever. After 1982, many experimental sounds were disseminated through underground cassette networks (out of which the important music shop Staalplaat evolved). Thus the continuation of experimental pop was ensured, albeit on a more marginal scale. Many of the above-named musicians are still active, and new experimental acts have come up, but pop experimentalism has never again attracted as much interest as in the post-punk days of Ultra, Vinyl and Spleen.
5. Epilogue: 'The Mutant Jasz'
Industrial sounds: gases flowing through pipes in a huge factory hall. A huge drum beat, and a staccato violin going "tu-ti-tu-tu-tu"... And again. And again... A cold, post-industrial society in decay is summoned by these doom-laden sounds, while a sombre, male voice speaks through a megaphone - "emotive machinery matches the cold light of day...it features the world, materialized in grey..." Dated though this music from 1983 may sound, it is still unlike anything else in its dark (anti??)-communist mood, its stark instrumentation, and the way the "songs" take their time to develop. A cross between Joy Division, Laibach and Kurt Weill, perhaps. Innovation rarely sounded so old-fashioned, and pessimism was rarely so enjoyable...
But who remembers Mecano?
Also see Martijn Voorvelt's homepage
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