The music or the men?


The music or the men?

Can we separate the artist from their art? The answer to this question will determine whether FRED DE VRIES has a chance to rerelease some of the songs he recorded with friends over 40 years ago.


I’M struggling with a dilemma and I need your advice. It’s a bit of a story but it’s interesting, so bear with me.

Let’s start with a bit of background. As you may have read from the small bio on this site, I used to play in a punk band. Our name was Zero-Zero (it was a type of Moroccan hashish, but we used the name because it exemplified the radical idea of a new beginning). We hailed from Rotterdam, Zoetermeer and Utrecht, where we were based as students. We formed in late 1979, inspired by all the fast and furious bands we had seen over the past two years, and whose main message was: you don’t have to be a musical genius, anyone can do this, all you need is three chords and a few words. Pick up a guitar and play. Write your own tunes. Release them on your own label. Do it yourself!

So we heeded that advice, me and my best friend Sven. At high school we always dreamt about starting a band (we already had a name, Smudge). And now we would actually do it. Sven would sing, I would play guitar and we would both write songs. Our first tune was Rotterdam, Rotterdam, a three-chord tribute to our hometown. We soon found a drummer, Annemiek, a fellow student who had never touched a drum stick in her life, but she was funny and kind and looked the part. Then we found another guitarist, Peter. When I met him on campus, he wore a denim jacket with the logo of the progressive rock band Yes sewn on the back. He had long hair and a beard. And on top of that he was classically trained. Not very punk. But he was a great guy who never lost his cool, despite all the taunting and teasing. And having him join the band was in fact the ultimate punk gesture: no uniforms, no labels, no rules. Then we asked a young woman called Loes, an ex-girlfriend, to play bass. She immediately bought a white Fender and mastered the instrument in a matter of weeks. Apart from Peter, we were all absolute beginners, clueless but excited.

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In May 1980 we played our first gig at the annual festival celebrating the reconstruction of the inner city of Rotterdam after the devastating Nazi bombardment of 1940. We performed in front of a shoe shop with a couple of local punk bands. We were a shambles, but at least we had achieved our first goal: a gig. From then on we practised every week, and soon we had a dozen or so songs that were actually quite good, or so we thought. “Interesting", people would say in a polite way. I guess what made us different was that we refused to play run of the mill (faster, faster, faster) punk but tried to incorporate tempo changes and even the odd reggae rhythm, while keeping the songs poppy enough to appeal to a broader audience. My favourite bands at the time were Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, Wire and The Clash.

Anyway, in 1981 we went to the studio of Rotterdam punk collective Rondos, who were massively political and encouraged young people to fight for change through art, music, writing, whatever. “Destroy the entertainment" was one of their slogans. Their studio was, if I remember well, in the bunker of the huge villa where they were squatting, not far from the wide river that cuts Rotterdam in half. It was a hot summer evening when we went there. I can’t remember if we had to pay or if this was charity, part of the long road to the revolution. The people from Rondos showed us how to operate the recording machine, which was a basic two-track system. Sven’s sister pushed the record button.

We laid down all the songs we knew, then we picked three to appear on a punk compilation featuring five other bands: Utrecht punk heroes the Lullabies, all-girl band The Nixe, a slightly younger group called Bizon Kidz, a raging Rotterdam outfit called Neo-Pogo’s, and a band I didn’t know and whose name didn’t sound particularly appealing, The Rapers.

The album was released in 1981 on the non-existent Rock Against Records label. One thousand copies were pressed. They cost 7.50 guilders in the shops (less than half the price of your average LP at the time). The front cover featured a black-and-white nude photograph of the bassist of the Lullabies, with the bands' names written on his torso. If you turned it over, you saw his back with the song titles. The label just gave you the names of the bands. We shared side B with The Nixe and Bizon Kidz. The record appeared to have no title. We were all given a few copies (I still have one) as payment.

Not long after this release, our band and most of the others fell apart. The Utrecht punk explosion lasted from 1979 to 1982, which is about right for any punk experience: sprout, blossom, die.

Front and back of the cover of the nameless Utrecht/Rotterdam punk compilation from 1981.
Front and back of the cover of the nameless Utrecht/Rotterdam punk compilation from 1981.
Top: The Nixe on stage, photographer unknown. | Bottom left: Lullabies in front of Utrechtse Muurkrant (Wall Paper) © Jeroen 'Buffel' Meyerink. | Bottom right: The Nixe, photographer unknown.
Top: The Nixe on stage, photographer unknown. | Bottom left: Lullabies in front of Utrechtse Muurkrant (Wall Paper) © Jeroen 'Buffel' Meyerink. | Bottom right: The Nixe, photographer unknown.

Now let’s fast-forward 40 years. Somehow I got in touch with someone called Ossy, who runs the Italian label Rave-Up Records, based in Bologna and specialising in reissues of obscure punk albums from the 70s and 80s. We communicated by email about the possibility of releasing more Zero-Zero songs. Alas, I could find only seven, not enough for an album. Last October I met Ossy in her Bologna shop, and she suggested they could instead rerelease that nameless album with the nude cover from 1981, which over the years had become a  collector’s item (copies sell for R1,500 on Discogs). Great idea, I thought. And maybe we could add one or two Zero-Zero songs as bonus tracks.

The next step was to find and contact the various bands. Bizon Kidz, Lullabies and The Nixe were easy. Neo-Pogo’s were much harder, but with a first name and the information that the person used to work for a newspaper in a small town called Ede, I eventually tracked down the singer on Facebook. He was excited and sent me a bio and lot of band pictures.

The last ones were The Rapers. I put out “looking for" notes on the various Holland/Utrecht punk pages on Facebook. No luck. But then someone gave me a contact for their singer, an email. “It’s 12 years old, so it may not work any more," he said. I gave it a try, and the same day I received a reply. Yes, he replied, they were happy to participate. I cheered. Mission accomplished. Or so it seemed.

Because the next day I got another email, this time from a woman who as a teenager was also part of the Utrecht punk scene. I knew her, a feisty, pretty girl who sang with one of the bands. She told me how as a 17-year-old she had been seriously beaten up by four guys from The Rapers. It was so bad that it left her with a heavy concussion. She added that she had struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder ever since. It was a long, devastating email, and for privacy reasons I will not go into detail.

So, here’s my dilemma. Should we go ahead with the rerelease of that album? And if so, should there be space for The Rapers (they featured with four songs)? The problem is that I have only heard the story from one side (I did mail the singer of The Rapers, who answered that he doesn’t know anything about beating up a young woman). The victim didn’t lay charges, understandably because the Dutch police in those days weren’t keen on punks and didn’t take violence against women very seriously (“Asking for it, dressed like that," was the common opinion). But the allegations may very well be true; it’s not something you make up for fun or to seek attention.

Here’s the argument for keeping the album as it is. The record was released in 1981 and its sound and package are a document of that time. The fact that it features a band called The Rapers who were later accused of beating up a young woman is part of this legacy, and shouldn’t be hidden. That said, should there be a warning and explanation on an insert or in the liner notes? The alternative is to leave The Rapers out, replace them with four other songs and add a statement about the reason for this omission.

It comes down to one urgent question: do we give space to people who have ideas we don’t agree with, or to people who have (allegedly) done things that are utterly despicable? In rock and rap there’s a long list of these, all of them men, many of them brought to the surface by the MeToo movement. Artists such as Ryan Adams, R. Kelly, Jimmy Page, David Bowie and even Bob Dylan have been accused of sexual assault. We still listen to them, revere them. And what to think of French rock star Bertrand Cantat, singer with the popular Noir Désir, who beat up his girlfriend so badly that she died the next day from her head injuries. Cantat went to jail for murder and served half his sentence of eight years. But Noir Désir (who disbanded in 2010, three years after Cantat's  release) are more popular than ever. Their song Le Vent Nous Portera has over 82 million listens on Spotify.

And what about Charles Manson, whose cult was responsible for the gruesome murder of five people in Los Angeles in 1969, among them actress Sharon Tate. Mason’s music has since been released on record and can be heard on Spotify, where more than 3.5 million people have clicked on Look At Your Game Girl. Or Guns N’ Roses’ Steve Adler and Axl Rose, both accused of domestic violence? What about Michael Jackson and the allegations of child abuse? And let’s not forget Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his 13-year old cousin; or Chuck Berry, who was jailed for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. Can we/should we separate the artists from their art? Should we separate their art from their behaviour in the real world? Should we stop listening to Guns N’ Roses, Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Noir Désir and all the others mentioned in this list?

Zero-Zero (Fred, Sven, Annemiek, Peter and Loes), taken at various gigs.
Zero-Zero (Fred, Sven, Annemiek, Peter and Loes), taken at various gigs.

It doesn’t stop there. What do we do with the pop stars whose political views we find reprehensible? Metal guitarist, gun fanatic and hunter Ted Nugent is a member of the far-right organisation Oath Keepers. And ex-Smiths singer Morrissey, the former hero of the underdogs, queers and outsiders, has been seen sporting a badge of For Britain, which by all accounts is a pretty awful right-wing club (Morrissey denied he is far right). Does that mean we should never again listen to The Smiths' stunning songs or Nugent’s crushing guitar riffs? When asked about the Morrissey issue, Nick Cave wrote on his Red Hand Files website: “Morrissey’s political opinion becomes irrelevant. Whatever inanities he may postulate, we cannot overlook the fact that he has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition. This is no small thing. He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty that will long outlast his offending political alliances."

I think I can find myself in this analysis, although whenever I play The Smiths I cannot help wondering what happened to this empathetic soul who wrote such insightful lyrics for songs such as Hand in Glove and Cemetery Gates, hymns for the marginalised. Physical violence is different from questionable political views. There is no excuse for men to beat up women. Yet we happily listen to Guns N’ Roses, Chuck Berry, Noir Désir and all those other creeps.

So here’s my dilemma. Apart from the name (which isn’t even proper English), there was nothing problematic about the four Rapers tracks on the album. They had titles such as Pogo on a Nazi and Mind Your Own Feelings. And I don't think the alleged beating up of the 17-year-old woman had happened yet. So should the album be rereleased as it was, albeit with an explanation? Or should the four Rapers songs be replaced by something else? Or should we just give up on the idea of a reissue?

I’ve been mulling over these questions for days now, and I’m not sure. Your thoughts?

♦ VWB ♦

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