Metamorphosis:

PART 4 - from ISKANDER to ...

“What is fame to those who know you?”

In the Summer of 1973, after recording three remarkable albums, a clutch of singles and earning a place as one of the most innovative “progressive” bands to emerge in Holland, Supersister arrived at a creative crossroads. Keyboard player Robert-Jan Stips and bass guitarist Ron van Eck expressed a desire to take the band in a different direction, adopting more free jazz elements and instrumentation with more of an improvisational element to their music. Indeed, both musicians had surprisingly expressed their dissatisfaction with some aspects of 1972’s “Pudding en Gisteren” album in private. Drummer Marco Vrolijk and flautist and vocalist Sacha van Geest became increasingly opposed to this change of musical direction, preferring to pursue a more structured approach to performing and writing. On August 1st 1973 the departure from Supersister of Marco Vrolijk and Sacha van Geest was announced. With studios sessions for a fourth Supersister album booked at the Manor studios in Oxfordshire, England from the last day of September, the urgent search for musical replacements began.

With producer Giorgio Gomelski agreeing to supervise the new record, new musicians were recruited into the ranks of Supersister. Herman van Boeyen was recruited on drums and flautist and saxophonist Charlie Mariano was also confirmed as a new member. Mariano was a versatile player who came from a jazz background. He was accomplished on a range of instruments in addition to saxophone and flute, such as bass clarinet and the Nathasuaram, an Indian oboe like instrument. In his career he had performed with such notable names in the jazz world as Stan Kenton and Charles Mingus, also recording and releasing albums in his own right.

Throughout October 1973 Supersister worked on their fourth album. Giorgio Gomelski strongly put his creative mark on the music recorded and the finished album would be quite different to earlier Supersister work, albeit equally accomplished. With the compositions all written around the conceptual theme of the life of Alexander the Great (Iskander being the Persian name for Alexander), the record headed into jazz rock territory. Depicting in music the story of the battle between two cultures, western logic on one side, eastern magic and mystery on the other, pieces such as “Dareios the Emperor” were stunning excursions into new musical territory for Supersister. The music retained a Middle Eastern element, thanks to the influence of Charlie Mariano’s use of ethnic wind instruments. Throughout the album the band were assisted by the percussive skills of Gong drummer Pierre Moerlin, a band with whom Supersister had been compared.

Overall there were very few musical references to the Supersister of old. The music retained a greater structure with whimsical elements entirely absent. Perhaps the only piece on the album that retains a similarity of older Supersister material was the final track on the record, “Looking Back”, which coincidentally featured Sacha van Geest guesting on flute. Released in December 1973, “Iskander” met with a mixed reception. The previous sense of humour in Supersister’s album sleeve designs was now entirely gone. Adorned in a “straight” album sleeve depicting a stone carving of Alexander the Great, the album came with a printed insert explaining the concept of the music on the record. Despite this exceptional stylistic change, “Iskander” was indeed a fine record. The hard core of Supersister followers was divided in opinion on the direction taken by the band.

Whilst some remained faithful champions of Robert-Jan Stips’ and Ron van Eck’s new musical direction, others were disillusioned. Viewed as an album in its own right, “Iskander” remains a major musical achievement, albeit very different in feel to any other Supersister record. To promote the album Polydor records in Holland released the track “Bagoas” as the A-side of a single. The record was backed with a new version of “Memories Are New” but met with a muted response commercially and failed to chart. To many, the new incarnation appeared to feature fine musicianship but lacked the unique spark of the band of old. Robert-Jan Stips continued to express his enjoyment at performing with the new band, citing the group as fresh and vibrant. The faith in the new Supersister was confirmed by concert promoters who continued to book tours of Holland and France, including an appearance at a festival in Poitiers recorded and broadcast by Radio Luxembourg. Stips also announced that a live album would be recorded on the forthcoming series of live dates, although this failed to materialise.

Aside from this activity, Charlie Mariano began to feel repressed working within the strict environment of one band. Naturally a musical free spirit, he had always performed with a variety of musicians but found himself unable to do so thanks to Supersister’s increasing concert schedule. Eventually this frustration led to Mariano’s departure from the band in early 1974. Reduced to a trio, Supersister went through a period of performing live with different guest musicians augmenting their ranks. Guitarist John Schuursma, saxophonists Rob Kruisman and Fred Leeflang all joined the group on stage at various concerts, although none became part of a fixed line-up. The biggest surprise name to perform with Supersister during this period was former Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean. Upon announcing live dates with the band Dean declared in an interview; “Since I made the decision to leave Soft Machine I also decided to play with many people and bands as possible.” The association with Elton Dean brought Supersister to a wider international press and gained them some notable attention. As a live band Supersister developed into a free jazz group with rock elements. The audience they had gained over the past five years began to dissipate and concert attendances began to diminish. As if to emphasise the inevitable, Robert-Jan Stips confessed to feeling uncomfortable within his own band, declaring that his own compositions didn’t fit in with the improvised pieces the band played on stage.

Fate soon played its hand to force the end of Supersister when Elton Dean accepted an offer to join Georgie Fame’s band and Robert-Jan Stips accepted an invitation by Cesar Zuiderwijk (drummer with Dutch group Golden Earring) join his band on a tour of the USA that began in ten days. Herman van Boeyen soon joined a new band with Eelco Gelling and Harry Muskee (both ex-members of Cuby and Blizzards), whilst Ron van Eck returned to his studies and started the short-lived group Stamp ‘n Go..
 

In 1974 Sacha van Geest returned to prominence when he recorded the album “Spiral Staircase” under the name Sweet Okay Supersister. Among with musicians assisting with his project were Robert-Jan Stips and Ron van Eck, who joined a large cast of musicians to make a unique and remarkable record which brought the lighter, whimsical and humorous approach of the earlier Supersister albums to the fore. Released by Polydor records, the album was also supported with the single “Coconut Woman” b/w “Here comes the Doctor” which featured the Los Allegres steel band. A one-off concert was staged to mark the release of the album, during which the record was performed in its entirety. The live spectacle concluded with an encore performance of Supersister’s classic “Present from Nancy”. The concert would feature the last live performance of any Supersister related band for twenty six years.

Amazingly, in 2000 Supersister reformed to perform at the ProgFest event in Los Angeles. Robert-Jan later recalled; “We all happened to get together for a sad occasion. Our former manager and friend Dick Zwikker died suddenly and we all knew we had to play for him at his funeral. So we did, together with Cesar Zuiderwijk of Golden Earring who was also a close friend. We did a quick half an hour rehearsal the night before and everything felt so amazingly natural after almost 30 years that when we happened to receive the invitation for the LA ProgFest some months later, we decided to accept” 

The band made plans for more concerts, maybe even a new record. After 27 years the spark was certainly back again. All four original members enjoyed playing together again enormously. Following the LA concert concerts were arranged in Holland in Groningen, Tilburg, The Hague and at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. The final show was to be recorded and filmed for CD and DVD release.

 



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Prior to these dates Supersister released a limited edition CD, “Memories Are New”, on the SOSS Music label. The album featured archive live recordings, including those made with NDR Orchestra in Germany in 1971.

The Paradiso concert was an emotional and memorable event and the resulting live album (released under the title “Supersisterious”), and DVD (“Sweet Okay Supersister”) were wonderful souvenirs and received excellent praise from both critics and fans alike. Encouraged by the warmth of the welcome they had received upon reforming, Supersister made plans for more concerts and were considering the possibility of recording a new studio album. Sadly, on July 29th 2001 Sacha van Geest died. With his passing Supersister came to an end. In an attempt to join Nearfest 2011 with the remaining trio, which also did a minor performance in 2010 on Dutch television, on July 20th the astonishing message came from Supersister's website that bass player and lyrics/music composer Ron van Eck passed away after a seven year struggle with an on-going illness. Thus leaving only half the original group.

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In their career Supersister made some of the most original popular music ever committed to disc. In the spirit of the early 1970’s they refused to be tied down stylistically or commercially and it was the pursuit of this ethic and the desire to constantly evolve that made their four studio albums so special. With the remastering of their entire Polydor catalogue on CD, it is time to tune in once more to the unique music of Supersister. Memories are NEW!

Paul Lemmens