“Sometimes we even are progressive and we listen with attention to the Mothers of Invention”…

The Netherlands at the end of the Sixties is a country on the move: Everywhere the growth of a youth counter culture dominates. Newspapers and television are full of stories of long haired “freaks” calling for more freedom, abortion on demand, white (free) bikes, soft drugs, Phil Bloom – the first naked woman on TV and the growth in popularity of science fiction novels and the books of Tolkien. The rebellion of the youngsters is set starkly against the grey and rusting “traditional” society; the young seek new alternatives. Above all, the music adopted by, and made by this generation reflects an urge for freedom, for renewal, for opening up new horizons. In England groups such as Pink Floyd and Soft Machine began life at clubs such as UFO in London’s Tottenham Court Road playing hour long improvisations and immerse an audience lying on the ground before them with a wall of sound augmented by the liquid light projections of Mark Boyle. In the Netherlands a musical reaction had to come. It is a country often at the forefront of new visions and is known as a tolerant society. Musically, a new generation is looking for something else than the three minute pop songs that largely comprise the domestic Top 40, at this time dominated by the Bee Gees, Cliff Richard and Dutch singers delivering tear jerking ballads. At this moment Holland found its own underground heroes. The future of Dutch music seemed to be found in Supersister.

Supersister were something of a phenomenon. They were among the first of the Dutch groups to make some impact in Britain, where DJ John Peel was a firm champion of their records on his BBC Radio One show. Their music stood alone from other bands. It is possible to spot the stylistic influence of British bands such as Soft Machine, early Pink Floyd and Caravan, but this was also fused with other influences ranging from Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (a band named checked in the song “Corporation Combo Boys”) to the music of Erik Satie and classical music. Supersister relished long, instrumental pieces, with lots of solo’s varied with short, often hilarious intermezzos. Songs sung in English about a non-existent girl named Nancy or having tea with the spiral staircase gnome revealed that wit was a vital ingredient of the band’s work, alongside some breathtakingly original music. Supersister were very much a band in keeping with the spirit of the era.

The Supersister story begins in 1965 at the Grotius College in The Hague. Drummer Marco Vrolijk began a school band with friends Arnold Slagter (on tea-chest bass) and Gerhard Smit (on guitar, clarinet, vocals). Adopting the name The Blubs, Vrolijk soon sought out another musician to complete the line-up of the band. Robert-Jan Stips was well known at the Grotius College for his exceptional musical prowess. A winner of many cultural contests, Stips began playing the piano from the age of five and was an obvious enormous talent. When approached to join The Blubs Robert-Jan was honoured by Marco’s request to join the group and readily agreed. Rehearsing in the attic of Marco Vrolijk’s parents house, The Blubs began to perform occasional concerts, mostly featuring Robert-Jan Stips on vocals and harmonica due to the absence of a piano at many venues. In 1966 the group was expanded with the addition of Theo Nijenhuis on guitar. Around this time the band changed their name to Q-Provocation, which was later shorted to Provocation. During this period Robert-Jan Stips began to work for an organisation called Morgenstond (translated in English as “Early Morning”), a cultural company which represented and organised operettas and ballets, and with his wages Stips purchased an electric organ. Provocation soon acquired a manager in Bart Spoelstra, who within a short time found the pace of the music industry too much and was replaced at his request by Dick Zwikker. Towards the end of 1966 Arnold Slagter was replaced by bass guitarist Ron van Eck. It was soon after van Eck’s arrival that Provocation gained a wider recognition when they performed in the gardens of the Soestdijk Palace for the birthday party of Queen Juliana. The headline “Beat music in Palace Gardens” appeared the following day in the Dutch press and resulted in increased interest in the band.

By 1967 the influence of psychedelia began to take hold and further changes were instigated in the ranks of the band. Theo Nijenhuis departed the fold to be replaced by Sacha van Geest (flute) and Rob Douw (trumpet, toys and vocals). Rob would introduce the band to influences from the burgeoning hippie and alternative scene which would soon change the feel of the group entirely. Provocation began to explore new musical directions, intent on appealing to the growing “underground” audience.

Their live performances during this period saw poets, dancers and body painters participate on stage and a lightshow utilised to great effect to enhance the performances. The influence of the emerging Canterbury band Soft Machine began to take hold on Robert-Jan Stips in particular, who adopted the effects of fuzz and Wah-Wah pedal on the organ in a similar way to that pioneered by Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge. In keeping with the times, Rob Douw began to organise a psychedelic musical “happening” which would go under the name “Sweet Okay Supersister”. At the last minute the event was cancelled, in part due to opposition to such gatherings taking place, but the band adopted the name of the proposed event, later shortening the name to Supersister.

On one such night Peter Sjardin from the band Group 1850 came along to a session bringing with him two acquaintances, his manager and record boss Hugo Gordijn and producer Hans van Oosterhout. Both Gordijn and van Oosterhout were impressed by Supersister and immediately offered the band the chance to record a single, released in the Spring of 1970. With Supersister’s repertoire being somewhat lengthy, the task during the band’s first recording session was to come up with two pieces, each no more than three or four minutes duration. Hans van Oosterhout advised the band to re-write either one of the calmer pieces or an intense up tempo piece for their first single. Typically, Supersister combined the two ideas and the highly innovative “She Was Naked” was born. Coupled with the eccentric “Spiral Staircase”, the single was released on the independent Blossom label and reached a height of number 11 on the Dutch singles chart, perhaps assisted by a memorable performance at the Holland Pop Festival in Kralingen (later known as the Dutch version of Woodstock). Thanks to the success of “She was Naked” and through the support of Dutch DJ Willem van Kooten and A&R scout Fred Haayen, Supersister soon signed a contract with the Dutch division of Polydor Records. The first result of this new association with Polydor was the release of the single “Fancy Nancy” b/w “Gonna Take Easy”. Eager to remain unique, the A-side of the single was strange, but innovative. “Fancy Nancy” was a parody of Elvis Presley and late fifties rock and roll blended with progressive influences. The reaction to the single in the Dutch music press was stunned amazement and the hoped for commercial success failed to materialize. Despite this, producer Hans van Oosterhout recognised the underground appeal of Supersister lay more in the world of albums than singles. In four nights Supersister recorded their first long playing record, the marvellous “Present from Nancy”. The music recorded acknowledged Supersister’s influences, but was uniquely their own. Fuzz-bass, floating flute solo’s, choral elements and complex but tuneful arrangements were all part of the puzzle, with lyrics written in English by Ron van Eck and music written by Robert-Jan Stips.

The title track, “Present from Nancy” opened the album. A piece divided into two parts, the track began with an almost Latin influenced motif before evolving into a new movement dominated by fuzz bass and impressive flute solo. “Memories Are New (Boomchick)” was a work of three parts which began with a typical, almost whimsical Stips musical excursion for the “Memories Are New” section, before the organ dominated innovation of “11/8” took hold. The “Dreaming Wheelwhile” brought the work to a more sedate conclusion and had the spirit of Erik Satie looking over it.

The album’s second side opened with the Zappa-esque “Corporation Combo Boys”, complete with Wild Man Fisher-like shouting at the end and the guesting of former band member Gerhard Smit on guitar. “Metamorphosis” was another multi-facet work of three parts: The first, “Mexico” began with an almost sinister overtone and could have been the soundtrack to any late-sixties European crime movie before van Eck’s lyrics take over. “Metamorphosis”, the second part of the opus, was a typical Supersister excursion into an odd time signature over which fuzz bass and then organ dominates. The last part of the piece is short and succinct; the twenty second “Eight Miles High”. Mexico/Metamorphosis/Eight The closing track on the album, “Dona Nobis Pacem”, written by Supersister and producer Hans van Oosterhout, was another highlight on a near flawless record. Beginning with an evocative Gregorian chant, the music soon departed the cloister for a journey into space with a flute and subdued organ. Just as the listener was drawn into a relaxed state of mind the piece climaxed with a loud crash of a gong. When complete, “Present from Nancy” was a musical voyage of discovery for the listener: long pieces, few vocals and the presence of the unique sound of a Farfisa organ. The album was released as Polydor Medium 2441 016 in the Autumn of 1970. Adorned in a striking black cover with a photograph of the band in a wood recently scorched thanks to manoeuvres by the Dutch army, the album instantly stood out on the shelves of record shops. The inside of the gatefold sleeve was an elaborate cartoon drawing complete with slogans such as “We’re not perfect, we’re not original, so if I were you I shouldn’t buy this record”. The combination of highly innovative music and artwork made for a classic album eagerly adopted by the underground audience in Holland. “Present from Nancy” would also have an appeal outside the borders of the Netherlands. Incredibly, the album was released in the USA some months later on the independent record Dwarf label, together with the single “She Was Naked”, the title of which was changed for a US release to “Dona Nobis Pacem” in fear of any back lash from moral groups who might object to any song that referred to nudity in its title! In England the leading light of counter-culture radio, John Peel would soon give British radio listeners a taste of Supersister on his influential show and in Germany Supersister would also gain airplay. By the time of their next, equally excellent album, Supersister would see their work available on a British record label for the first time.

Paul Lemmens

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