THE MOST UNDERRATED BAND EVER?
Photo courtesy of Filippo Dulio
The Outsiders by Richard Mason
If you ever see a CD with a big CQ on the front, buy it. Don't worry who it's by or what it costs or anything like that for the moment, buy it. Take it home and stick it in your player, then set the program so you miss out the first two tracks. Never mind why, just do it anyway. Make sure that all breakable objects are firmly secured and turn the volume up regardless of what it was to start with. You are now about to experience one of the great popular music recordings of our time, and almost certainly the most unjustly overlooked. You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?
The Outsiders were formed in Amsterdam in the early 1960's. The line-up initially was Vladimir 'Wally' Tax, who sang and played rhythm guitar, lead guitarist Ronald Splinter, bassist Appie Rammers and drummer Leendert "Buzz" Busch. Maybe you've heard of them, maybe not. Chances are if you have it was something along the lines of 'they were to the Pretty Things what the Pretty Things were to the Rolling Stones'. Chances are you heard wrong. This was an extraordinary, incomparable group who've remained unduly neglected for too long. Why? The usual reasons - not commercial enough, going against the grain of the prevailing musical climate, not prepared to compromise - but there was one other serious problem. They were from Holland, and as such didn't exist at the time. Of course, if they'd been prepared to push their luck with a few gimmicks, the Dutch angle might have told in their favour. But no. They didn't even have the decency to record a single cover version in their entire career, during which they recorded about 50 songs. Talk about asking for trouble.
By the time they recorded their first single "You Mistreat Me"/" Sun's Going Down" on the Dutch label Musiek Expres in 1965 the above line-up had added Tom Krabbendam on second guitar (though according to Wally Tax he was "a lousy musician", a fact confirmed by Ronald Splinter, who added that it didn't really matter as Tom's amp was always turned right down!) and had acquired a reputation as a live act that was second to none, not even the UK and US acts who were foolish enough to let The Outsiders support them.
Their following was as committed and wild as their music and stage act, with the result that the band and their fans were banned from several Dutch venues. Still incredibly young (Rammers was the eldest at 19, with Tax, Splinter and Krabbendam being only 17) they released their second 45 on Musiek Expres the following year and then signed to Relax, a subsidiary of a Dutch classical label. Around the same time in Amsterdam they had supported (and, according to Tax, blew off stage) the Rolling Stones, which lifted their national profile to the extent that "Lying All The Time", their first 45 on Relax, reached #45 in the Dutch charts, not bad for a Dutch act apparently! To give the lie to the 'Dutch Pretty Things' tag utterly, the single featured Splinter's exquisite folk-rock 12-string, a strange, almost atonal bassline from Rammers and the by now trademark impassioned yet low-key (i.e. sung rather than screamed) vocal from Tax. Sure, they were influenced by groups like the Stones and the Pretties, though Tax has pointed out that as he and Phil May were friends the influencing may also have been in the other direction, but also by Love, the Byrds, Tim Hardin, Buddy Holly (very evident in the sound of some of the early Tax/Splinter songwriting collaborations) and European songwriters like Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. "Lying All The Time" was the first in a line of classic singles on Relax that included "Touch", "Keep On Trying" and "Monkey On Your Back", a series of 45s that compares more than favourably with the output of any contemporary UK or US outfit, passionate, raw songs that sounded like no-one else.
1967 saw the release of four more singles and an eponymous debut LP, side 1 of which was recorded live and shows the real power and passion of The Outsiders as a superb live band with a wide range of dynamics and an ability to whip up audience that was second to none. "Story 16", which opens the live side, utilises one chord, howling atonal harp, glissando bass and tempo changes that defy description. The way in which the group works together, the unification of purpose and intent, is comparable to that of The Velvet Underground or The Magic Band. Yep, that good. The songs follow thick and fast, punctuated by rowdy audience contributions (legend has it that Tax's father, who invariably attended gigs, would get the audience going on his own) and with no let up of intensity and power. The sound is deliciously raw and primitive, yet this isn't solely down to the less-than-pristine sound quality; the approach of the musicians has a unique, unschooled edge that you'll hardly find in any other bands of the period. The song that closes the live side, "Afraid Of The Dark", begins as a psychotic ballad, the creepy tremolo guitar and dark vocal reminiscent both of more scary rockabilly and that genre's post-punk adherents such as The Cramps and The Misfits, then suddenly without warning becomes a depth charge of a song that goes off in the speakers and careers to its conclusion like a stolen car pursued by the law. A breathtaking end to a peerless side of music.
The other side is all studio, from more breakneck flurries such as "Don't You Cry" and "If You Don't Treat Me Right" to more restrained but no less passionate workouts like "I Would Love You" and "Teach Me To Forget You"; all in all, a fantastic debut LP. Probably no more than twenty people outside Holland bought it at the time. The group's sound was continuously evolving, making use like so many of their contemporaries of additional instrumentation such as Tax's flute and harmonica, zither, balalaika and the occasional horn arrangements.
Obviously, there was pressure to sell records and sound commercial; the group' manager even went as far as to overdub a horn section onto the first single to appear in 1968, "Strange Things Are Happening", much to the band's chagrin. Rifts occurred and first Tom Krabbendam and then Appie Rammers left the group, the latter being replaced by Frank Beek. Relax folded and the group's management sold them to Polydor, on whom the next 45 was released. "I Don't Care"/"You Remind Me" showed a new maturity, with influences from the West coast showing, yet it was still a typical Outsiders venture, albeit with a more overtly 'commercial' sound than anything on the debut LP (a second LP consisting of previously released material from singles and the first LP had been given a budget-price release in 1967 as a gesture to the group's fans). The next and as it turned out final LP was to be a different matter altogether.
CQ (an expression used by amateur radio enthusiasts) featured not only the new line-up, with Beek contributing organ and piano as well as bass and all group members doubling on percussion and backing vocals, but also, according to the sleeve credits, new songwriting combinations, with both Beek and Busch making substantial contributions (though both Tax and Splinter claim that they wrote at least half the LP). Regardless of who actually wrote what, the resultant LP stands up as a staggering achievement. Recorded on an eight-track and produced by the group, the stylistic range of the material, the rich variety and maturity of the lyrics and the sheer power and vitality of the music makes this one of the finest LP's of its era or any other. What the group were not to know at the time was that Polydor already had the Golden Earrings, Holland's most successful group, on its books and were determined to concentrate their promotional efforts on them. They conspicuously failed to get behind the Outsiders to the extent that only something in the region of 500 copies of CQ were released at the time and subsequently the album died a grisly commercial death. But unless you've heard this record you have no real idea of the magnitude of the crime.
Side one, track one; "Misfit". A three-dimensional bass sound not unlike John Cale's on "White Light/White Heat" hits you in the solar plexus, guitar and drums follow up with a devastating counter-punch and straightway you're confronted by one of the heaviest tracks ever, at least a year before the Stooges and aeons away from, shall we say, punk rock as most of us know it. The lyrics are priceless: "We all know just what you are & how come you are what you are & why it just ain't possible to turn you on/We all know just what you want & how come you want what you want & why you're not responsible for what you've done/You thought you could make it; come & join our dance/You thought you could fake it - you didn't stand a chance/You talk too loud when you're out in the crowd - MIS-FIT!" Delivered in what can only be described as a controlled snarl which makes you wonder just how familiar Chris Bailey of The Saints was with the Outsiders, it's worth remembering that despite the extent to which English is spoken in the Netherlands, they weren't even composed in Wally Tax's native language. Makes you wonder how Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or any of those other 'rock poets' would have fared if they'd been required by commercial stipulations to have written all their words in Dutch! The lyrical standard is similarly high throughout the LP; Tax had a rare gift for an original storyline and a telling turn of phrase that invariably compliments the music on this record. "Misfit" contains a stinging guitar solo, thunderous drumming and a final flourish on the bass before "Zsarrahh" changes the mood completely, as balalaika, recorder and 12-string guitars ring out underneath strange treated voices mouthing venomous lyrics about a former lover.
The title track is something else altogether. Distorted guitar reminiscent of nothing so much as Keith Levene's work on "Theme" on the first Public Image Ltd. LP ushers in an ominous bassline with radio static and the sound of the ocean superimposed amid a murk of a mix from which you can just about make it Tax muttering about contact having been lost and imploring over and over "Are you receiving me?" as the maelstrom builds under a sickly fuzz guitar until the inevitable explosion and we're into "Daddy Died On Saturday", by utter contrast a slick chord progression over which Tax wryly relates the tale of a young man whose prospective father-in-law refuses to give his blessing to his daughter's proposed union with such a lowlife...so they poison him. The line "This was more than the boy could take/If he (the father) won't bend - he's gotta break" illustrates admirably Tax's ability to write a superbly colourful yet concise lyric. Beek's rousing piano, Busch's typically muscular drumming and a brief harp solo give the track the musical colouring the words deserve, fitting yet unobtrusive.
The brief "It Seems Like Nothing's Gonna Come My Way Today" follows, a basic blues structure with a mere snippet of a lyric, a beautifully restrained guitar solo and gentle acoustic backing that provides a lull in the pace of the side, albeit one that is all too soon shattered. Four chords each about the size of Steven Spielberg's bank account provide the intro to "Doctor", a nightmare tale of human experimentation (Vic Frankenstein meets Tim Leary?) which without warning changes from a riff-powered rocker with odd vocals (as on "Zsarrahh") into a cosmic free-form fucker of drifting organ, echoed bongoes, roaring feedback guitar, ghostly flute and other effects before reverting to original type. "I'm getting scared/I don't think this is funny any more", opines Tax, and he may well have a point. Not that it gets any less strange; "The Man On The Dune" hurtles at a furious pace with lightning riffing through a song reminiscent in some ways of earlier Outsiders' material with a mostly indecipherable lyric of which all that can be defined is "the man sits on the dune with a pipe in his hand". Then you get a jew's harp bouncing back and forth across the stereo mix and "The Bear", which tells of marital discord over East European surf music, honestly, and lasts less than two minutes.
Happyville begins with impassioned harp and then the drums and guitar thunder in (one aspect of this record that constantly implants itself in the listener's mind is how fresh and, yes, contemporary it still sounds; the guitar and drums on this track are an admirable example of this) as Tax relates in his inimitable narrative style a story of the Dutch sex industry, with some of his finest and funniest lyrics: "I don't mind your enthusiasm/I don't mind your wild orgasm/I don't mind that we're not at home/I don't mind that we're not alone/But I can't understand why you're selling tickets to those nasty guys who don't wear ties/Please be kind and hand me my things and/Call my stand-in, call my stand-in/I won't be back again" . Busch's drum fills on this track and Splinter's careering solo make this an outstanding track lyrically and musically, fresh, witty and fiery.
Then yet again there's a change of pace and mood with the exquisite ballad "You're Everything On Earth", featuring a 12-string to break any heart, sympathetic bongoes and organ backing and another beautifully understated and sensitive vocal performance from Tax. The 12-string is also to the fore on "Wish You Were Here With Me Today", but here strident drums and bass force along Byrd-like harmonies in a performance reminiscent of some of the later singles. "I Love You #2" adds vibes to the list of instrumentation and gives Tax another chance to show his voice is as suited to a ballad as it is to rock'n'roll.
The depth and range of the LP's material thus far has been remarkable, yet in some ways the most spectacular has been saved 'til last. "Prisonsong" begins with Tax telling of his impending release from jail over gentle guitar which swells and feeds back ominously as his narrative becomes more and more impassioned (shades almost of Patti Smith on "Land") until he finds himself in the outside world once more. Traffic sounds mask a furious tempo shift as he tries to take in all the changes since he was inside, then thinks instead of getting back to his girl who he's been thinking of constantly. Almost inevitably, he finds her in bed with someone else and kills them both, then panics and runs, the assumption being straight back to jail in the end. Though it may sound trite just to provide a synopsis of the storyline like this, there is genuine pathos and feeling in this song; the delivery is never less than impassioned and the music is superbly controlled yet wild and emotive rock'n'roll.
Sadly, the Outsiders were only to record one other track before their demise, a superb 45 called "Do You Feel Alright" based on a friend of Tax who terrorized his rich father for money! Once more, the lyrics are superb, including a bizarre reference to Roger Moore, and the music is its equal, the feature here being Splinter's exemplary lead guitar.
By autumn of 1969, Ronnie Splinter had had enough and quit music altogether for a while. The band disintegrated, with Tax and Busch forming Tax Free. Over the years, Wally Tax continued to write and perform in both solo and group formats, but with little or no recognition outside his native land. Long since deleted, original copies of Outsiders' records began to change hands for what might conveniently be described as Monopoly money prices. Only in recent years has it been possible to acquire CD reissues of the aforementioned records. The CD of the first LP features six tracks from the Relax 45s, whereas the CQ CD opens with the "I Don't Care"/"You Remind Me" 45 and finishes with "Do You Feel Alright" and two Tax Free tracks. Also, a double CD set entitled CQ Sessions was released which included three previously unreleased tracks from the CQ era plus 26 alternate takes or demo versions, some without vocals, thus giving a new slant to the tracks in that instrumental versions of tracks like "The Bear" and "Doctor" develop a life of their own. Also included are the first two singles on Musiek Expres, so despite a lack of attention chronology-wise the vast majority of the Outsiders' catalogue is at least in theory currently available through the Dutch label Pseudonym.
How many of you actually look at the section in PSF where all us 'rock journo types' tell you what are, no honestly, the 10 best records ever so you can all go out and buy them? If you're one of them, you might have noticed that my 10 changes from time to time. You know how it is. One thing doesn't change though; I really don't think I could ever come up with 10 LP's that I get more out of than CQ. I really can't emphasise enough that all this sub-Pretty Things business is so much shite. Nor is it even vaguely near the truth that they were the top of the 2nd division garage heap or some other condescending sort of 'compliment'. To say they never got the credit they so richly deserved is a bit like saying Charlie Parker used to play the alto saxophone a bit. Fact of the matter is, those responsible for the documentation of rock musical history as we know it OWE people like The Outsiders and always will. Do yourself a favour; seek out and obtain, by fair means or foul, the aforementioned reissues of their records. If you find that you regret it, don't come bleating to me about how I sold you short or whatever. I shall wash my hands of you utterly. On that you can rely. The Outsiders were one of the all-time greats of rock music and anyone who says different had better be outside in the car park in 10 minutes. I'll be waiting.
Thanks are due in no small measure to the following:
First, to Mike Stax and all the good people responsible for UGLY THINGS, published whenever they get it together, maaan, and available from lots of places, but mainly from Mike himself at 3707 Fifth Avenue #145, San Diego, CA 92103, U.S.A., price about $8. A superb magazine if you're interested in rock'n'roll music of all eras.
Also to Jerome Blanes of Kampioen magazine, who has published an Outsiders biography entitled OUSIDERS DOOR INSIDERS, with a foreword by Ronald Splinter and contributions from Wally Tax, 'Buzz" Busch, Appie Rammers and Tom Krabbendam as well as Outsiders' roadies and associates. You can get in touch via http://www.tip.nl/users/jerome.blanes. A word of warning; if, like me, you have no Dutch, you're in for a mystifying time with the book. An English translation was threatened a while back, but nothing yet. Any news, Jerome?
Jerome says: "I'm working on a translation to English right now. It'll be published by Misty Lane. Feel free to write me at email@example.com if you'd like to know anything."
Finally, and mostly as far as I'm concerned, heartfelt thanks are due to Filippo Dulio, who introduced me to the Outsiders' music, for which I'll always be grateful. If this piece has interested you even slightly then you should investigate THE OUTSIDERS' TOUCH, a superlative webpage by Filippo and others. It's at http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Alley/3486/. Thanks again, Filippo.
As far as getting hold of the CD's is concerned, try Midnight Records, New York on http://www.midnightrecords.com/; they sometimes have all three CDs in stock. But hurry, they're never in for long. Failing that, second-hand bins. If, of course, you have a few hundred pounds/dollars kicking about in that old jacket you hardly wear any more, you could try seeking out the originals. And the very best of luck to you.
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