Fred’s coming of age


Fred’s coming of age

Soon after hearing his first live band, FRED DE VRIES saw the Rolling Stones and signed a Faustian pact with the Devil.


EVERY now and then, while walking my dog, I listen to a podcast called Turned Out A Punk. Its host, Damian Abraham, who is also the singer with Canadian punk band Fucked Up, interviews people who are or were punk rockers, or whose lives have been changed by punk. I probably fall in the latter category — I stopped listening to punk rock after 1985, when it got stuck in conformity, repetition and violence. But the anti-corporate, do-it-yourself punk attitude has never waned. So I enjoy Abraham’s interviews, which have nerdy, fanboy elements. They don’t go very deep but they are invariably entertaining, especially when Abraham hosts the likes of Jello Biafra, the outspoken founder of San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys.

Anyway, Abraham always starts with a question about how someone got involved in music: the first gigs they saw, the first records they bought, how they first heard of punk rock. So I thought that at the start of what will inevitably be a strange and eventful year, I should give you, the reader, some context about my background and answer some of the questions Abraham poses to his guests.

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I would tell him that I vividly remember the first punk band I saw. That was The Police. Now please don’t immediately shout that The Police were not a punk band, because they were. And I’ll explain that in my next column. But before we get to the punk era, let’s start with my “rock years".

My introduction to live rock music happened on a hazy August Saturday afternoon in my hometown of Rotterdam. I had just turned 14 and my mother had taken me to a public square in the city centre,  Schouwburgplein. We sat on one of the wooden benches positioned around square fountains where small kids could romp in calf-deep water. Of course, I knew pop music from my transistor radio, especially the pirate station Radio Veronica which used to broadcast from a ship in the North Sea. It was like LM Radio — a station where you could hear cool stuff, heavy bands such as Black Sabbath, Golden Earring and Free, who in the early 1970s all had unlikely top 40 hits with songs like Paranoid, Back Home and All Right Now.

Every Thursday, me and my school buddies would rush to one of the local record shops to get a paper version of the Radio Veronica Top 40 and see how our favourite bands were faring, shouting in anger and disbelief when a tearjerker like Huilen is voor jou te laat kept our long-haired heroes from the top of the chart. August 1973 was a mixed bag, with the hopeless Rote Rosen by German crooner Freddy Breck keeping the number one spot for weeks on end. But Alice Cooper’s Halo of Flies was making its way up, reaching fifth spot, and Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water was threatening to break into the top 10.

We religiously watched the 30-minute pop programme AVRO’s TopPop that had started in September 1970. We were particularly chuffed to see David Bowie doing a six-string fellatio with his guitarist Mick Ronson while performing The Jean Genie. But so far, I had not seen a live band (although here I must add that we used to play football in the streets behind our house, and sometimes there was a beat combo practising in one of the garages, but we were too young and too fixated on the ball to pay any attention to them, and they shouted at us if the ball came too close).

All that changed on that day my mum took me to the Schouwburgplein. I think we had gone for an ice cream from Capri IJssalon, and I was happily devouring my favourite flavours, strawberry and malaga, when I noticed people setting up musical equipment at the other end of the square. I told my mother I was going to have a look. She nodded, closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face.

There were a lot of long-haired guys in faded jeans, at least 10 years older than me, fiddling with instruments and amplifiers. I watched, waiting for the spectacle to begin. One of the hippies saw me and said: “You probably want a picture of the band?" And before I could nod, he gave me a black and white photograph that showed the five members of the band that was about to perform. They were called Bronco and they were from the UK.

After a while, they started to play. I stood, watched and listened, mesmerised. This was real. I was now officially part of the fraternity that understood the power of rock music. When the show was over I walked back to my mother, proudly showing her the photograph. I can’t remember a thing about the performance. I can’t say if it was good or bad, I had nothing to compare it to. But the thrill of watching live musicians right in front of me was immense and unforgettable. Fifty years later, I still get excited when I see people walking on stage, plugging in and blasting away. There’s always the promise of something unforgettable, that electricity that fills the room and carries you to hitherto undiscovered, magical places.

I held on to the Bronco photograph for many years, kept in a box stuffed with rock memorabilia like old Top 40s, tickets and posters. Last week, during the Christmas holiday, I embarked on a little search to see if I still had it, but so far no luck. Maybe my mother chucked it away after I left the parental home, with a box of rare 7-inch singles she thought I wasn’t listening to any more.

As you will appreciate, I always kept a warm spot for Bronco. With the help of a fantastic little book called Eksit, written by Rotterdam journalist Kees Vermeer, I discovered that they had a gig in the Eksit club that same night. The free open-air gig on Schouwburgplein must have been part of a municipal initiative to bring some life into the rebuilt downtown area of Rotterdam, which had largely been destroyed by the Germans in 1940 and could use a shot in the arm.

Much later I read up on Bronco. They were formed in the late Sixties, arising from the ashes of an outfit called Band of Joy, which also featured Robert Plant and John Bonham. So there is a tenuous connection to Led Zeppelin as well. Bronco made three albums full of what we would now call country rock, with folk and psychedelic influences. Their Rotterdam gig was most likely to promote the third,  Smoking Mixture. In due course I found their first two albums, Country Home (1970) and Ace of Sunlight (1971). And recently, at a record fair in Fish Hoek nogal, I finally acquired Smoking Mixture.

Bronco’s vocalist was a guy called Jess Roden, who was invariably labelled a “blue-eyed soul singer", a way of saying he is a white guy who sounds like a black soul singer. As a tribute to my rock initiation in 1973, I followed his career as well and scooped up albums featuring his voice. Hence I have no fewer than five of his solo records (mainly soul and funk-inspired stuff). I also have the album by The Butts Band, which he formed with Robby Krieger and John Densmore after The Doors disbanded.

From there on things developed at an ever-increasing pace.  Two months after Bronco, I saw the Rolling Stones at Ahoy in Rotterdam. This was part of their European tour, coinciding with the release of the Goats Head Soup album and its accompanying single, Angie. I can still picture myself as a spotty 14-year-old kid, sitting among much older freaks and fairies, watching Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts rocking through their best songs, kicking off with Brown Sugar and encoring with Street Fighting Man. Mick was dressed in a glittering, tight blue onesie while Keith looked elegantly wasted in his velvet jacket with a red rose. The hippies next to me accidentally broke a bottle of vermouth, with the smelly contents soaking into my green parka. They laughed. I laughed too, I couldn’t care less, I was witnessing the first gig that I had bought a ticket for, all by myself, sitting among dope-smoking, alcohol-imbibing weirdos from all over the world, who shared a space with me, a shy teenager way out of his comfort zone.

This was the day I signed a Faustian pact with the Devil and would be addicted forever. Soon I found myself in the handful of Rotterdam clubs that offered live music. The place I frequented most, Eksit, had a “house dealer" called Bertus who stood near the entrance pushing “Rode Libanon" or “Afghaan". Me and my friends were still good boys, we didn’t smoke dope and kept the beer consumption down to two a night for financial reasons. We were here for the music and these were the years when you could see the crème de la crème of international and local bands for the price of two beers (all the clubs received generous government subsidies).

One of the early highlights was a gig by the political Dutch band Bots, who excelled in socialist anthems. I can still effortlessly sing along to their song De Lange Weg, with the fiery chorus, Kom socialisten trek ten strijde/ Kom socialisten wees paraat/ Onze strijd is niet langer te vermijden/ Als je maar weet waar het steeds om gaat."

I also saw the notorious British band The Pretty Things (filthier than the Stones") who had just entered their hard rock phase, and I was duly impressed by their unwashed looks and extremely long hair. But the highlight for teenage me was a gig by Budgie. They were a Welsh three-piece who were at the forefront of heavy metal in the early Seventies, combining skull-crushing riffs with clever melodies and a surprisingly high and soulful voice, courtesy of bespectacled bassist Burke Shelley. Van Halen, Megadeth and Metallica were huge fans. Metallica later covered Breadfan and Crash Course on Brain Surgery for their Garage Inc. album.

When I saw Budgie at Eksit in January 1976 they had released five albums, all of them stone-cold classics now. We were sitting right in front (those were the days when you sat on the floor), some three metres from the stage, near the speakers on the right. We were totally in awe. The massive sound, the closeness, it was almost too good to be true for a 16-year-old. Somewhere I must still have the pictures we took. And I will never forget how my ears rang that night when I walked home. And how I woke up and was still half deaf. Wrecked ears, all part of the deal with the Devil.

And then, to answer Damian Abraham’s main question, on March 23 1977, I went to my first punk rock concert, featuring Wayne County & the Electric Chairs, Cherry Vanilla and The Police. And I wasn’t impressed. But that’s for the next episode.


Spotify - Fred’s Wild Years

Bronco: Country Home

♦ VWB ♦

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