Metamorphosis:

PART 2 - from TO THE HIGHE$T BIDDER to PUDDING EN GISTEREN

The more you feel you've grown The more you feel alone”…

The year 1970 had been a good one for Supersister. The band were something of a phenomenon, being 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. With influences ranging from Soft Machine, 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 release of the single “She Was Naked” had brought the band to a wider audience by the Summer of 1970, and the release of their debut album “Present from Nancy”, recorded under the guidance of producer Hans van Oosterhout, demonstrated that Robert-Jan Stips, Sacha van Geest, Ron van Eck and Marco Vrolijk were innovative musicians with much to offer. 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. Supersister embraced the new “progressive” attitude prevalent in rock music and created long pieces offering variation and constantly changing time signatures, seeking to push back musical and social boundaries. 

This lyrical pessimism prevailed throughout the album. The second side of the album began with the longest track on the record, “Energy (Out of Future)”. A typical Supersister piece, it opened with a complicated time signature giving way to an up tempo musical motif with darker lyrics. The track featured some superb solo fuzzed organ from Robert-Jan Stips and climaxed with electronic sounds more akin to German experimentalists Tangerine Dream, interspersed with a short excerpt of “She Was Naked”, before segueing into “Higher”, a lighter, more melodic song. Released in the Autumn of 1971, “To the Highest Bidder” was another remarkable work, perhaps demonstrating an advanced musical maturity not present on their first album, thanks in part to Supersister having more time to realise their ideas and feeling more comfortable in the recording studio. Adorned in a striking gatefold sleeve depicting two eyes, the record was given a boost when British radio DJ John Peel released the record on his Dandelion label, at that time distributed and marketed by Polydor in the UK, adding “She Was Naked” to the track listing. To assist with album sales in the Netherlands Polydor released an edited “No Tree Will Grow” along with “The Groupies of the Band” (a humorous insight into certain followers of Supersister) as a single. In Britain “She was Naked” finally gained a release as a single, coupled with the edited version of “No Tree Will Grow”. Despite the excellence of the singles, neither release made an impact on the respective chart listings.

This notoriety led to an appearance on Dutch television in February 1971. VPRO recorded Supersister live in concert at Groeneveld Castle in Baarn. The concert was part of a music series aired every Thursday night. The group performed established material such as “Introduction”, “Present from Nancy” and also introduced a new piece, “A Girl Named You”. Prior to the appearance of Supersister’s second album, Polydor records in Holland insisted that the band record a single to capitalise on their growing reputation. Robert-Jan Stips, Sacha van Geest, Ron van Eck and Marco Vrolijk were unconvinced that a new single was necessary, seeing the group’s future as an album orientated band.

Despite this, the pressure from Polydor grew and after some deliberation a new single, “A Girl Named You” b/w “Missing Link” was released. Even when looked at in the light of the times, both tracks were strange choices for release in the 45 rpm format, perhaps much more suited for inclusion on an album. However, with the release of the single, Supersister had the chance to concentrate on the recording of their second album. Recorded in June and July 1971, Supersister’s second album, “To the Highest Bidder” would be a major milestone in the group’s career. With Hans van Oosterhout producing once more, the album would feature four tracks of sophisticated originality. A ten minute long version of “A Girl Named You” opened the proceedings and immediately set the tone of the album. The trademark Supersister rhythmic dexterity introduced the piece, with an arrangement featuring solo flute, xylophone and harpsichord and subtle use of Mellotron in an effective ambient section of an otherwise jazz influenced piece.

“No tree Will Grow (on too high a mountain)” would be remembered as a highlight of the album, if not the entire Supersister canon. Beginning and ending with tape loped sombre electronic sounds, it is a work of dark musical genius… :

life is no good friend
good friendship never ends
the more you feel you've grown
the more you feel alone
start boasting your friends away
you think that is life 'your way'
though you know
no tree will grow on too high a mountain.

This lyrical pe ssimism prevailed throughout the album. The second side of the album began with the lon gest track on the record, “Energy (Out of Future)”. A typical Supersister piece, it opened with a complicated time signature giving way to an up tempo musical motif with darker lyrics. The track featured some superb solo fuzzed organ from Robert-Jan Stips and climaxed with electronic sounds more akin to German experimentalists Tangerine Dream, interspersed with a short excerpt of “She Was Naked”, before segueing into “Higher”, a lighter, more melodic song. Released in the Autumn of 1971, “To the Highest Bidder” was another remarkable work, perhaps demonstrating an advanced musical maturity not present on their first album, thanks in part to Supersister having more time to realise their ideas and feeling more comfortable in the recording studio. Adorned in a striking gatefold sleeve depicting two eyes, the record was given a boost when British radio DJ John Peel released the record on his Dandelion label, at that time distributed and marketed by Polydor in the UK, adding “She Was Naked” to the track listing. To assist with album sales in the Netherlands Polydor released an edited “No Tree Will Grow” along with “The Groupies of the Band” (a humorous insight into certain followers of Supersister) as a single. In Britain “She was Naked” finally gained a release as a single, coupled with the edited version of “No Tree Will Grow”. Despite the excellence of the singles, neither release made an impact on the respective chart listings.

Interviewed to promote “To the Highest Bidder”, Robert-Jan Stips declared; “When we write music the process begins with themes written by me. The other players in the band bring their ideas to them and in the end this all blends together. Sometimes it’s difficult because we differ a lot as individuals, but in the end it always works out well. We have learned to live with the fact that we don’t have a lead singer. On the other hand, for us the instrumental part is much more important.” Sacha van Geest added; “Actually we make this music simply because we like it. 75% of what we write is done to satisfy ourselves with the remaining 25% written with the public in mind. If the audience shows that they like some pieces we play them more often. Of course, it’s very nice when people like what you like.” Stips concluded; ”We saw ‘Present from Nancy’ as the closure of a period, a kind of document of our progression up to that point. The new record is more balanced, more serious, with less humour. Popular music is a reflection of society, maybe that’s why our new record is like it is”.

After a series of concerts in the Netherlands, Supersister performed outside their homeland, undertaking live work in France, Italy and England. In October the band had the chance to work with an orchestra as part of a series of German concerts. The German TV channel NDR commissioned a performance with the Tanz und Unterhaltungsorchester des NDR, conducted by Alfred Hause. Ron van Eck and Robert-Jan Stips wrote and arranged some new pieces for this special occasion, which made for a memorable event. Part of this concert appeared in 2000 as part of the limited edition CD release “Memories Are New”. With the favourable reception of their collaboration with an orchestra, Stips soon announced a collaboration between Supersister and the Nederlands Danstheater (the Dutch Dance Theatre company), a modern ballet with music written and played by Supersister. This music would play a significant role in the creation of the band’s third album. Around this time rumours circulated that Supersister was going to expand its line-up by adding ex-Brainbox guitarist John Schuursma to the group. Despite discussions with this in mind Schuursma did not join the band, although this prompted thoughts of adding new instrumentation to within the ranks of Supersister. To this end Sacha van Geest mastered the tenor saxophone and began to play the instrument on stage at live concerts. He would soon utilise the instrument on the band’s next album. With the magnificent “To the Highest Bidder” Supersister had established itself as a respected album group. Despite being nominated, the album failed to win the prestigious Edison award (the Dutch equivalent of a Grammy). However, the fact that Supersister were even considered for the accolade demonstrated the impact they had made in the Netherlands, the product of much hard work and a desire to better themselves with each new recording. This innovation would lead to another remarkable album and further progression.


Paul Lemmens

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