An Englishman Digging up Dutch Undergrounds – An Introduction

January 8, 2014
by Richard Foster

In which a big excuse is made; primarily in the interests of laziness…

Thinking about time is a dangerous thing to do nowadays; you can end up freaking yourself out completely for one. Especially when you harness your fears about the ephemeral nature of time – and your “place” in it – to a (self-inflicted) “duty” to create and share content of a webzine. Becoming a human unit of production is a dangerous thing – that way lies madness – and when I ponder the consequences of my own unit-like behaviour, I’m often reminded of Lord David Cecil’s son’s reply when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up; “I want to be a neurotic like daddy”. Oh dear.

…an excuse masquerading as research.

Why all this waffle about time? Well, recently, whilst staving off any latent, time-induced neurosis, I thought it would be smart to try and tie my “real life” activities in with my Luifabriek activities. Writing for Luifabriek is cool, you dig, and writing for my other lover, Incendiary is way cool too, but it leaves precious little free time. And as managing our time to an online diktat seems to be a “first world” attempt to rebuild satanic mills of yore (albeit in a psychological sense), the onus is on us to go that bit faster on the cyber treadmill. Luckily, my “real life” activities outside the cosmic bubble of music writing have somehow veered towards the cosmic bubble of writing about music (it’s the subject of my MA thesis, natch) so I thought, hey, let’s be smart AND lazy, non-neurotic AND an efficient human unit of production all at once; and write about the subject of my thesis in these here very pages.
Now before you all fuck off wailing, let me tell you what the line of enquiry is. I’m going to look for love in the Dutch underground. Love and respect. See, I’ve always had a hunch that Dutch underground/independent/alternative music has something of an ongoing identity crisis, particularly when it tries to measure itself against the international “opposition”. The Dutch underground never seems to feel confident about making a quantitative or qualitative judgement about itself in its “designated field”.


An old ULTRA 2012 poster. For “colour”, you dig?

Recently (well, yesterday at time of writing but recently sounds better doesn’t it? Anyway…) MTV ran an online article about the current Dutch underground (or standard alternative/intelligent pop scene, as it’s fast becoming), quoting some movers and shakers, from national media to bookers to label owners. It wasn’t the greatest or most comprehensive article in the world (when are snapshot reportages any of these things anyway?) but it tried to be a sincere attempt at saying something about the scene and hosted one or two very succinctly put remarks. One of which touched on my thesis

“Therein lies the inherit contradiction of the Dutch underground: in a nation that advocates practicality, its participants are actively pushing in the other direction — even when the numbers aren’t in their favor.”

The shock of the MTV website having something of interest aside, I’m not going to follow suit with an attempt at some journalistic, all-embracing, holistic “synthesis” on this topic; at the end of my research I don’t expect to have any answers. And MA thesis research ain’t looking for the big answers. No, we’ve got to bring some impartial, Germanic, academic seriousness to the enquiry. With nary a mention of who I am, or why I’m doing this, (personally speaking). Rather, I may be able to place my own perfectly formed (and erodible) grain of sand – covering a small period of time – on the historical beach.
What I’m going to do (or what the outline of my orientation, justification and my methodology is, to use prof-speak) is to examine one era, the Post-punk era. The alternative music falling under this moniker and “accepted” time span (1978-1982) is seen – by however few – to have some weight, culturally in Holland. Meaning we can look to measure it against other similar outbursts of the same energy elsewhere. It’s also an era that is well covered with primary and secondary sources; (Vinyl magazine, even articles in Melody Maker or NME on the Dutch bands from Brits like Andy Gill and a whole host of secondary literature, such as the fab releases on Lebowski books; Martijn Haas’s Doctor Rat, Harold Schellinx’s ULTRA and Dirk Polak’s autobiography for instance). It’s an era that has been documented on national TV and radio (and an edition of the VPRO magazine in January 2012), and recently celebrated by the Minny Pops and ULTRA tours as well as Utrecht’s Central Museum exhibition of 2012. And (and, and, and) it’s an era that can successfully plunder (in a theoretical sense) the works of Pierre Bourdieu, Adorno, the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Hebdige et al) for a smidgeon of academic “justification”. Yeah. Let’s bring on board all that socio-music critic stuff. Why not.

In_March_2012_ULTRA_NijmegenAnother old ULTRA 2012 poster. For “colour”, you dig?

But, please note, I’m not going to subject you to a whole host of sub-interlecshual rumination of what I think is or isn’t worthwhile culturally. Part of my research will be to interview people involved in that scene, and the reappraisal of that scene. Using interviews as a base for research was in part sparked off by the fact I know a lot of the people involved (due to my own involvement in the 2012 ULTRA/Minny Pops tours) but given the final push by thinking about an interview I did on Incendiary with Andy Moor from The Ex, Dutch DIY punk band extraordinary.  In his chat with me, Andy said:

“To be honest I don’t know that enough about the Dutch scene. We don’t seem to be part of it, we don’t get invited into it, I don’t even know how they see us, whether they see us as an old Dutch punk band.”

I’m still flabbergasted by the ramifications of this remark; the idea of that a band rightly lauded in such “rock hotspots” as the UK and the USA – and by dudes supreme such as Thurston Moore – are completely adrift of their own alternative peer scene is nuts, frankly.
So I’m gonna grab a bunch of people like Oscar Smit (Vinyl) Leonor Jonker and Peter Bruyn (Gonzo) Wally Middendorp (Minny Pops) and I hope to find similarly enlightening things in the course of their interviews, things that refute or give a fuller or alternative form to Andy’s observation. And I’ll stick them up here, unabridged (but edited) and later look to use as a partial base for my own findings. Interviews can be tricky mind; as they allude to a whole set of non-academic or unreliable avenues of enquiry; maybe the main reasons why they are loose enough to be stuck up here, in a more journalistic context. We have to remember that actor reminiscences (to use yet more prof speak) can be counter-productive; in an article about the Czech underground under Communism, Trever Hagen * rightly pointed out that:

“Clearly depending on purely on nostalgic memories belies certain scientific research.”

Still, they are a direct from the stream, so to speak, and maybe useful to ascertain where a bridge between past and present may lie. So let’s quote Hagen again – for further justification.

“However we can take the interview itself as a convergence zone wherein the performance and rehearsal of knowledge along sociobiographical lines illustrates and potentializes pathways for future conduct, particularly when the interviewee is actively involved in contemporary music making. In other words, the narrative produced is a cultural resource in itself for the individual.”**

So. Here goes…
Take a deep breath Richard, for this will be a long job, Mein Hearty; and you’re going to get a whole host of Sisyphus moments cropping up…

* Trever Hagen: “Converging On Generation: Musicking in Normalized Czechoslovakia,” Mapping the Merry Ghetto: Musical Countercultures in East Central Europe, 1960-1989, East Central Europe, 38, (2011) 307-335.

** Ibid.,  312.

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