Digging up Dutch undergrounds – interview with Ronnie Kroes

February 25, 2014
by Richard Foster

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Ronnie Kroes was active on the alternative scene in the punk and post punk years; especially in Amsterdam.  Amongst many, many other things she conducted interviews, worked on the door of the Oktopus club in Amsterdam, and had her ear photographed for the ULTRA poster; as well as running around town, watching bands and artists and generally involving herself in the scene, in whatever way she could. Nowadays she promotes bands and the arts through her own company,  Rock&Ronnie.  We meet up at de Bailie.  Almost before she sits down, Ronnie immediately starts to talk about the prep questions I’d sent in advance for the interview…

 
A brief note: As I will use the interview for research purposes, I’ve tried to edit as little as possible, to keep the feel of the original interview intact; but any reference to what I consider personal matters or names of partners and family have been omitted. And some of my rambling questions have been shortened, and a number of interjections and “conversational gambits”, (noted down when transcribing the interview) have been reorganised to create a more readable and coherent piece. The full transcript is in my possession and available on request.

 

Ronnie: I’ve been thinking about your questions a lot. I have a few things that I thought “hey, I have to tell him.”

Richard: It was actually about the two bits [note: “bits” here is taken to mean bits of questions sent to Ronnie before the interview] between the UK and Holland, the idea that the UK is often seen as a (cultural) leader. And when you talk about music it’s easy because there were big record companies, big distribution channels and the radio, whilst not perfect had outlets for underground music…

Ronnie: John Peel…

Richard: Steve Barker…

Ronnie: And they had good magazines, New Musical Express, Melody Maker…

Richard : Blah blah blah! So there’s a lot. So in one way you could answer this question and say it was down to lack of resources [note: in that Holland would never challenge UK as a musical player]. But I don’t think that’s the full story, because that would give a flat appraisal which would in turn ignore the aesthetic qualities of Dutch music. For years, when I’ve been doing my magazine, people have always said to me, “oh well Dutch music isn’t that good” and I think “well that’s just bullshit” (laughs). So it was a case of… and thinking about your era… how did you use British music? Was it an inspiration or did you think “actually we can do that?”

Ronnie: Well, there were a lot of things where you got connected with the music scene, but not in the way today you are connected. You don’t know immediately. So we had a few things where we… of course the scene I was in, was very into English music and American music. We knew about it because of the English magazines. So we bought the New Musical Express, The Face, the ID, these sorts of magazines, maybe some underground things. There was the Athenaeum news stand.

Richard: The hotspot?

Ronnie: Yeah… Maybe you get some things there, and you had some underground magazines, some squat things…  And the radio, well that was much more difficult. You didn’t get that much extra music there, so you would go to the record stores; all the people there would advise you what to get so we’d go there. Places like No Fun records… and of course the club scene. And then Paradiso, Melkweg, where you’d check out the bands. And well we only had OOR for a “certain” Dutch magazine. [note: here probably Ronnie means specific?]. But in the OOR there was a lot of attention for Dutch bands and new things – it wasn’t that bad, the OOR, but nowadays it’s much worse. Sometimes you could really pick up on new bands there. But nowadays… and did we really think about things like your question? I don’t think so because we’d also check out American bands.

Richard: Yeah, it didn’t matter?

Ronnie: Well, you went to the Paradiso then; it was a lot more like a club. Every Thursday night there were bands, [note: I presume Ronnie means the “D-Day”, i.e. “Dutch Day” nights run by Mark Honingh from 1981 onward] and we just went, and we didn’t even know them but you just know that there was always something like new talent there; nice. Nowadays you don’t get it that much. Maybe the Subbacultcha! scene has a trademark in Amsterdam, but back then the only thing like that sort of trademark then was the Paradiso scene on a Thursday night for bands.

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Richard: Was this elsewhere?

Ronnie: Everybody says, you know, it was over the country, but it was a really small scene, even in Amsterdam it was a really small scene. We had a few places where everybody went and you’d always meet the same people. It was like the art scene, the Rietveld… and it was also connected with the squatters, and then the music scene, and that was really overlapping with the punk scene. Everybody in the punk scene was also in the New Wave and ULTRA, and maybe later the punk scene became a divergent one, a spin off. And of course you don’t have mobile phones so you’d have places where you’d meet and the scene was there, where you would meet. You could meet at the squat disco place like Disco Bizar or maybe the squat houses and some cafés and some clubs like Mazzo and De Koer and sometimes even the discos but it wasn’t such a big scene. And of course Wally knew more about the big scenes in places like Rotterdam. But I never went out of Amsterdam, maybe Haarlem, I knew people in that scene but further in Holland? No. Wally was more a programmer of course and he knew about what was happening, but I was much more into the Amsterdam scene.

Richard: Do you think that’s prevalent in Holland where they stay in one town, and they stay in that town and they don’t bother going elsewhere?

Ronnie: Yeah, very much.

Richard: How all of what you did fit in with the rest of Dutch society? Did it feel Dutch, what you were doing? Did you feel it was making a statement in and about your own country?

Ronnie: Yeah well… A lot of erm… like the arts scenes from the Rietveld, they were really into being Dutch, and you had the New Nature Group, the New Wild Ones, with wild painters like Peter Klashorst and you had a small video art group and they [note: Klashorst and Maarten Ploeg] had their own disco, the Disco Bizar, and they did videos, and the Rabotnik TV, all the things you saw at Centraal [note: here Ronnie means the “God Save the Queen” exhibition, Centraal Museum Utrecht, March 2012]. I think they were doing the thing “as Dutch”. It was more artistic but there were definite cross overs like Soviet Sex, which was set up by artists. The club they had played a lot of non-Dutch music, but they were presenting themselves like the new Dutch frontier in the arts. But the music scene, I don’t know about that really, if it was the same. But ULTRA, I know you could say that was really Dutch, and the punk scene was Dutch and they were presenting themselves… I was also partly in the scene of The Ex and the Rondo’s and they were really specific with certain Dutch texts and their involvement with political squatting and anarchists, but they were really active with scenes in London too.

Richard: Terrie went abroad, to London a lot didn’t he?

Ronnie: Yeah! And he had lots of contacts in scenes like Crass, and people came over, but that was a real Dutch family, also very much on their own, and that was a Dutch scene and very cosy and nice and Dutch too. That is the sort of… I think when they went abroad they were known as a Dutch group. I think they were seen like that. The Ex and the Rondo’s were a family tribe.

Richard: I’m interested in this idea of community. Some British people base their identity round bands from a certain area; so you know Manchester with Factory and Liverpool with Zoo and people would make connections with a city and a sound. And some people, not all, some would follow these labels or bands on the strength of that. And later on, link it into things like football teams. Your community sounds much more practical and political. Where did the identity come in, in terms of place?

Ronnie: Ah, well the identity was more of a group thing I feel. Not about place and not exactly with one band. Because there weren’t really any big bands. Maybe the Minny Pops was the biggest band to follow, but they didn’t have a following of hundreds of fans who came, it was more like the ULTRA scene was followed. I think the scene came together because of the scene than the bands.

Richard: So much more a community thing?

Ronnie: Yeah.

Richard: And did people make a big deal out of the scenes in Holland? Like they would for, say a club like Eric’s or Hacienda in Liverpool or Manchester?

Ronnie: I went to London once; you know that I’m really also into the garage and sixties scene?

Richard: Yeah.

Ronnie: I went alone and I thought I’m gonna do all those famous clubs – and you still had a lot of clubs in London dealing with that sort of scene. And I thought, ‘oh great’, and I came there and there were no more than 25 people. And I was so disappointed and I thought it would have been massive there, because I read a lot about it and saw lots about it in magazines, and then you see a club night and then you see the 25 regulars there and then, wel, nou…hmm? That’s really strange eh? That’s the English scenes I think; they were brought to us here like really big scenes, but when you go there… I went to London; at the time there were a lot of bands staying with us at home, we were like a hotel at one point…. and then we went to London and stayed with them and they had squats off the Portobello Road, and we had to put money in the meter and… wow! We were really much more privileged, much better squats. Anyway, when I was there I visited ID magazine because they were looking for a sort of trend spotter in Amsterdam, and I went there to ask for the job and he was just living in a normal house and… wow… I thought, is this really the great ID magazine? (Laughs). Also very funny, when you’re abroad you think this must be the big scene and the magazines must have big offices, and when you get there it’s just a small scene.

Richard: Was that brought to you through the English papers? That sort of message?

Ronnie: Yeah. You’d read the papers like The Face and New Musical Express and ID and you would read about all the scenes and the clubs and think whoa, this must be a big thing. And then you’d come to London and see that it wasn’t so big as you thought. Funny!

Richard: British music likes to overplay things whereas the Dutch maybe look at things more practically. I think that’s changed a bit in Holland where they are much happier to accept that foreign things can be very big and they can use them in a different context. Whereas with your scenes it was maybe more that you took inspiration from Britain and America and reused them to do your own thing?

Ronnie: Yeah, yeah I think so.

Richard: What did you feel about the whole Centraal exhibition, the “God Save the Queen” exhibition? What did you feel about that? Did you think they did the whole punk/post punk thing justice or did you feel it was a bit commodified, like a marketing exercise?

Ronnie: It was a good exhibition. There were a lot of things that I didn’t even know about, a lot of scenes I wasn’t part of when I was young. Which was also funny. But of course it is always difficult to represent something in a museum. I mean, you can’t really get a feel from the exhibits what it was like at a squat or a small club. So it’s nice to see all the stuff but yeah… That’s a museum for you, but it’s good that they tried to do a little bit more with workshops, to get a feeling from the do it yourself thing. It was a bit strange to see things in a museum. And also the book, writing a book about ULTRA… wow is it so important?

Richard: Maybe this idea of importance, looking to show something as nationally important. That people were choosing to say that this, (ULTRA, punk) is important. Do you think it’s good? Do you think Dutch people really do this, or care about this?

Ronnie: Dutch people never think that things are that important! (Laughs) Even now. You know the scenes here, so you know I was also part of the first house parties over here. I was part of the Department Store… So there was a scene like four people. We were doing those parties and I was flyering those clubs at the time. It was so small… and now it’s seen as a big success because of that book on dance [note: “Mary Go Wild”]. And this book about 25 years of Dutch dance and we’re not even in it… I can understand, as there were so many small clubs doing things like that, here’s a little club, there was our little club… altogether it’s great and when you look back on it you think it was a big scene, the house scene in Amsterdam. And it’s like you out all the pieces together like in Centraal Museum, and you have something big, and like these house clubs.

Richard: So your memories can equate to something like SUB071 in Leiden. From your side – and say SUB’s – it was always about the practical matter of getting a gig. At SUB there are what, 15 people or so, and when there’s a gig it sometimes gets written up – by people like me I hasten to add – as something more. Do you feel that in Holland nowadays people are trying to make an identity for things that have past? Did they do this in your era?

Ronnie: Because also maybe people put these things together and say hey maybe there’s a big scene?

Richard: Yeah a retrospective thing.

Ronnie: I think that IS happening right now. Because you were only a small part of it you don’t think about it at the time. Back then there were like 10 people doing ULTRA parties in the whole of Holland, (laughs) and they also crossed over into the house scene and you’d see them there too. You could say it’s important maybe but only because it was the start of something not as a big scene.

Richard: I wonder what drives this retrospective thing; money? Pride? For you I bet it was just entertainment at the time, just something to enjoy yourself. What do you think drives these ideas?

Ronnie: There’s no money in it (laughs) The ULTRA book did OK, but didn’t sell that much. And it’s more like… yeah; looking back on things and putting it into perspective, seeing that it’s more than a small scene. And it was more than a small scene; because there were many connections, and also many connections abroad, heh?

Richard: Yeah I remember buying Minny Pops on some compilation in the UK!

Ronnie: It’s more like people are interested in history and now it’s a sort of history writing (laughs) and now it’s more a case of “look at me I was part of history.” But that’s only erm… a lot of people were part of it but not many actually say “I’m important.” That’s not the Dutch way, you know?

Richard: And yet you get this feeling that erm… I always think that when Dutch people slag off their own music they are actually on one level not that interested in music. Any music. I have this theory that a lot of the people like yourself, Wally Harold, yourself Oscar, etc., you’re all actually interested in music as music; and that’s why you’re still talking about music and being involved. You promote Turkish bands for example. You are a bunch of music in a country that’s not really musical??

Ronnie: Well music is music. And now we have the big house deejays to show off. Is that live music? That’s also like the Dutch scene. But then we have no bands to show off like Golden Earring or you don’t get big impact of Coldplay of stuff in Holland. But there are a lot of pop podia you know? I think that’s where it’s very special in Holland. There’s still lots of money and interest in Holland for these venues, and they are still subsidized and I think that’s something special in Holland, and good; because you don’t have this in other countries. And there are a lot of people at these venues who are interested in music, but not especially Dutch music.

Richard; I wonder if through the venues, the Dutch scene is replicating the country’s history as middle men, I’m not saying it’s wholly business like, but maybe the venues here know they don’t have to create or support something locally; I’m not sure yet whether it’s through a lack of confidence or interest but I do know it’s easy to get British and American bands to play, so why get a Dutch band in. Do you think it’s essentially practicality or due to a lack of confidence?

Ronnie: No, not confidence. Confidence can also be monitored and learned. In my time there wasn’t much of a pop education and now when you look at it everybody can go to pop academies and learn to be a pop musician and be in a band. And in my day you really didn’t know much about that. I think confidence to be a musician or a deejay is much bigger now, everybody wants to be one. And they think they can make money out of it. All these young kids think “oh I can make money out of it”. I think it’s really strange sometimes.
I don’t know if the industry has changed that much because there is still no money. Maybe some house deejays but bands aren’t getting much money to get out and learn.

Richard: Why can’t Dutch bands get abroad, get over the borders?

Ronnie: Sometimes. Jacco Gardner is one example. But like Daryll-Ann, you hear people and they say “oh why don’t they break in US, and they are fantastic blah blah”, and nobody can pinpoint that. But also there’s some easiness of Dutch bands compared to British and American bands who really, really, really, really work for it; getting their thing together, and they live like shit and play for 5 dollars… and Dutch bands are like “oh I have a job also,” and moaning that they have to drive to Groningen for 100 euros… oh better not… it’s also a sort of mentality that you don’t really get in England say. And it’s not every band in Holland but I think a lot of bands here have it. Because I also worked for De GRAP you know, the Groep van Amsterdams Pop Muziek, and there were a lot of bands and we’d say well you can get a gig there and there, and they’d say “oh it’s not enough money” or “oh I have to go to a party for my mother….” And that sort of thing really wouldn’t happen to a band who were dedicated and going to make it.

Richard: A good example of that recently is Fat White Family, a London band who went on the so called prestigious NME tour, and they got around 50 or 100 quid a night, between 7 of them, and they had no hotels and had to sleep together in this van. And they did it for what, 2 weeks? I’d love to see a lot of Dutch bands do that, they’d go mad.

Ronnie: And in America I saw bands paying to get a gig! You had to pay and then get the money back from the bar. And I suggested it to the Patronaat should we do that? (Laughs) And no way, no band will pay.

Richard: This idea of identity, as regards the music; is there anything in the music that the post punk and punk era addressed in Holland? Did you look around and think yeah this says what I feel. You can draw a parallel with say the Sex Pistols. The Pistols’ singles were very much about Britain. God Save the Queen, Anarchy in the UK….

Ronnie: Yeah there was of course. Especially in the scene round The Ex. It was all political. Everybody about sexism and racism and the housing problems. And we had the big stuff about the Queen, you know? Geen Woning Geen Kroning… So everybody was protesting. Even once at that time, I phoned in to a radio questionnaire, which had the topic, ‘should lyrics in music be about love or be about issues?’ And then I phoned them and shouted “of course it should be about issues! Not about love!” (Laughs) I remember that because I thought what the fuck was I saying, but it was a political scene then. ULTRA was more art, dada art and bands like Doe Maar, they had a sort of poetic side. Also very commercial of course.

Richard: Doe Maar are a very interesting band in that context because they were a commercial band that also came out of an earlier and more politically aware scene, they were in their 30s in the late 1970s weren’t they? And they still managed to cross over. They could have been a link.

Ronnie: Did you see the documentary about them? You should do. The problem with them was they were picked up by all those little girls which was something they didn’t really want. And they had wives and they were not a dumb young boy band. A strange thing.

Richard: Can I ask you about the media in Holland? What do you think of the media then and now?

Ronnie: I think the media is always a problem in Holland. To get more and better music in Holland is always a problem. And now all you have is the VPRO. And sometimes that doesn’t do much. OK now you have the internet and there are more magazines and blogs. But the big media is always difficult, they had a youth cultural magazine on the TV in our day, but now do you see any new up and coming bands playing in full on Dutch TV? Nowhere. It’s not important for them. So in a way a lot of media is missing. And OOR is surviving but all the others are small niches, Lust for Life and Music.nl… it’s not really…

Richard: Do people think hard enough about the role pop music can play here? Or is it too comfortable? Is that a Dutch “thing” or is it because of the money? Why was that different for you? Less money?

Ronnie: There is of course money in public radio and TV but they don’t choose to do it and also the money that goes to pop music is always the smallest amount. And the money goes to theatre, ballet, the arts, always money in that. It hasn’t changed in 30 years that policy; it’s still the same. And it’s still the same in the Dutch media, and radio. And I don’t know why. I can’t pinpoint that really. But there’s also a lot of, with Noorderslag and lots of people talk about it for a week, and then they put it on TV as a feature in the news and then it’s… gone. For another year. And the big festivals like Lowlands only really show foreign acts.

Richard: Well it’s similar to when ULTRA was splashed ULTRA was splashed on the VPRO in February-March 2012, and you had Siouxsie Sioux on the cover, and… why… And that Andere Tijden programme about punk where they showed that standoff between squat kids and kids from the provinces. And every bit of music sound tracking it was British. So you had Theatre of Hate on it, Kirk Brandon… Joy Division, from a local TV show… and I’m thinking, there’s no fucking way anyone would have seen that… Siouxsie was on it too, the Cure… and whilst watching I thought, “why do Dutch people feel the need to make a point about social conditions in Holland using another countries music”? Why?!?

Ronnie: Of course bands in ULTRA played their own sound, inspired by other music. I don’t think there’s something to see, of course in the idea of “Dutch” music. What was Dutch music? Dutch music has always been inspired from abroad, from the Middle Ages on, because we’re such a small country. And what is really Dutch music, it doesn’t really exist I don’t think. Yes we have Dutch lyrics but in itself it isn’t Dutch. And of course Holland is an immigrant country. You maybe have the Klompendans or something but in terms of traditional folk or dance music, it’s only very little and that is difficult to say it’s really Dutch.

Richard: The British folk scene is a big thing and very much part of our musical heritage.

Ronnie: But also things like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, when they started they were also inspired by the blues from America so they don’t have a real “English” side in that sort of copying.

Richard: Oh I see your point. But in Britain, I would be amazed if there’s a programme on say the 1960s on TV and they used, say, De Clicheemannetjes or Ramses Shaffy; to comment on British history the exclusion of all other music. (Laughs) And if they used it, that British people would just accept without comment that using that music would mean it would show a point about British people.

So is it more a sort of classic Dutch practice of assimilation thing where the Dutch accept things and take them in rather than it being a display of any lack of confidence? Or did they not know?

Ronnie: There wasn’t too much around I think. What really was Dutch music from ULTA or punk or the 1980s were a few bands and they were so underground and they had so few singles out… and they weren’t played on the radio…. The only thing that you can think of was Doe Maar or Herman Brood, that sort of bands. And on the radio, 90% of music was from abroad, and then 10% was Dutch and of that 10% maybe 1% is ULTRA related or punk related. There wasn’t that much actually to be played and to be heard; and if you don’t have internet the only thing you could do was to buy the singles from a few shops. And that’s what you did, buy the singles. And maybe some cassette. The cassette scene…

Richard: I can’t think of one Dutch figure who would be totally similar to say an Anthony H Wilson or Andrew Loog Oldman if you go back further. A sort of impresario figure that used to be very noticeable in the British independent scene.

Ronnie: Producers?

Richard: Mavericks. Bill Drummond is another one. You know, they produce, release a book, become managers…

Ronnie: Ah you had a few; the people at Red Bullet and lots of people in studios. But there’s not any cross over stuff, they only do one thing or another. And there are famous people but they are always in the background and only later you learn about them. The only person I can think of is Ferry from Excelsior, lots of tentacles. And Wally tried it a bit with Plurex and ULTRA… but that was only for a short time. Maybe Leon at Subbacultcha!, but he’s in the background and they do it all a little bit…

Richard: One last question. Do you think behaviour is too important here in Holland, as a Dutch person interested in music? There’s the Provos and ULTRA that really stand out in terms of showing off visually and not being afraid to look stupid. The things that I can think of anyway.

Ronnie: Well, behaviour, of course it’s always in networking. That’s very important in Holland, what I’ve noticed anyway; and the bands that do well in Holland are those that are a big success. It also is a problem that the hypes are faster now, in the 80s bands were already busy for about a year and maybe the OOR wrote something about you. And now they write about you before you’ve had a single out. Maybe that is not too good a position. And behaviour, how to show that for a musician? I mean it can happen in some scenes like rap, a sort of behaviour has to be part of the act but in Holland overall there’s not much of that. You read things that say “well the music was good but the rest wasn’t so important”. And in the 80s, if anyone looked like they wanted to look different people thought “huh, posers”. Maybe we also started that posing thing!

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