PART 1 – from PRESENT FROM NANCY to TO THE HIGHE$T BIDDER
“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 SoftMachine 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 have varied with short, often hilarious intermezzos. Songs sung in English about a nonexistent 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 lineup 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 that 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 hisrequest by Dick Zwikker. Towards the end of 1966 bass guitarist Ron van Eck replaced Arnold Slagter. 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 hippieand 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 vanOosterhout 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 multifacet 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”.
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 backlash from moral groups who might object to any song that referred to nudity in its title! In England the leading light of counterculture 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.
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 name 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
PART 3 – from PUDDING EN GISTEREN to ISKANDER
“It’s really hard today to find some truth There’s even acid in your apple juice”…
By the close of 1971, Supersister had reached a new height of popularity and the band was at a new peak of their creative powers. Released in the Autumn of 1971, “To the Highest Bidder”, the band’s second album, was a remarkable work that was a logical progression from their debut opus, “Present from Nancy” and perhaps demonstrated 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, “To the Highest Bidder” was given a major 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. The critical acclaim for the album had led to a series of concerts in the Netherlands, followed by 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 & Unterhaltungs- orchester des NDR, conducted by Alfred Hause. Robert Jan Stips and Ron van Eck wrote and arranged some new pieces for this special occasion, which made for a memorable event. 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.
By the beginning of 1972 Stips’ plans of collaboration with the Nederlands Danstheater were cemented. Subsidised by a grant from the Dutch Department of Culture and choreographed by Frans Vervenne, the ballet, with a working title of “Signalen” (“Signals”), was premiered on March 3rd 1972 at the Circusgebouw, Scheveningen in The Hague. For the performance of the ballet Supersister played live in the orchestra pit. By the time of the premiere, the name of the work had been changed to “Pudding en Gisteren”, names of characters in a very old Dutch joke. The ballet, which was directed by Walter Nobbe, was performed in a scenic backdrop of bright coloured lighting and visual projections on a huge screen at the back of the stage. The combination of ballet and rock music was generally well received. For the first performance the newly commissioned music was well performed, although the ballet dancers occasionally failed to synchronise entirely with the musicians. Despite this, the critical reception to the ballet was enthusiastic enough for the Nederlands Danstheater to take the ballet on tour, albeit without Supersister.
Running parallel with preparations for the ballet, Supersister entered the Phonogram recording studios in Hilversum to begin work on their third album. With ‘fifth member’ Hans van Oosterhout assuming production duties once more, the album Supersister would deliver was destined to remain one their most loved creations. Opening with “Radio”, a catchy, succinct melody, it was chosen to precede the release of the album by being released as the A-side of a single (coupled with the excellent instrumental “Dead Dog”). Perhaps due to the title and more “commercial” nature of the song, “Radio” gained airplay in the Netherlands and reached number 21 in the Dutch singles charts.
On the first side of the album, “Supersisterretsisrepus” was a short interlude that introduced the darkly humorous “Psychopath”. The lyrical black humour present on “To the Highest Bidder” continued:
It’s really hard today to find some truth
There’s even acid in your apple juice
I don’t think it’s too hard to understand
there are people who don’t even trust a helping hand
They prefer to drawn in water than in the drifting sand
Some of them have already cast their dice
they hide in alcohol or Jesus Christ
And others grew completely out of bounds
now the festival of violence is all around
and the cry of one’s despair is no more than a sound
The album’s second side was dominated by “Pudding en Gisteren (Music for Ballet)”. Perhaps the ultimate Supersister music, the piece adopted the familiar time signature changes, long flute solos and electronic sounds; in short, an adventure in music, influenced by the work of Erik Satie. A superb exercise, “Pudding en Gisteren” would be recognised as a major achievement. Released in the early Summer of 1972, the album “Pudding en Gisteren” was hailed by critics and followers as the finest album by the band to date.
Adorned in an elaborately designed gatefold by artist Wouter Stips, Robert Jan’s elder brother, the front had a small see-through-hole in which part of the comic strip cartoon, which comprised the inner gatefold, could be seen. This comic strip inside the gatefold sleeve related to the scenario of the ballet but it also is a satirical comment on the music industry at that time. As an added twist, a cryptic message within the comic strip gave instructions to cut along the bottom of the glued tab of the sleeve to open out the cover to reveal pictures of the band and full credits printed on the inside.
Around this time the band appeared at the Holland Festival, held at the Circusgebouw in Scheveningen. A mobile recording unit was despatched to record Supersister’s set, with a live version of “Wow” appearing on the compilation album “Superstarshine Volume Three” the following year. Some weeks after the release of the album in the Netherlands, the record appeared in Germany and Britain under the translated title, “Pudding and Yesterday”. Once again Supersister were nominated for a prestigious Edison award (the Dutch equivalent of a Grammy). This time the band won the “Best New Album” category. Independent in spirit, Supersister appeared at the award ceremony, broadcast live on Dutch television, using the occasion to pass comment on the “false” nature of such ceremonies, as they perceived it. When accepting the award from the event’s host Willem Duys, Robert Jan Stips deliberately dropped the statuette, narrowly missing the toes of Mr. Duys. In stead of performing the expected song “Radio”, Supersister launched into a version of the “ghost” track on “Pudding en Gisteren”, with Stips miming on an organ made from a cardboard box. This irreverent attitude appealed greatly to fans in Holland, and was seen as an act of brave defiance against the expected norms of the Dutch record industry. Soon after the event, Supersister declined offers to perform in Britain and the USA, preferring to remain in the Netherlands.
The band courted further controversy in March 1973 when they appeared the bill of an event at the Vliegermolen in Voorburg featuring artists who had won an Edison Award. The three hour event was broadcast live on television and featured artists such as The Eagles, Slade, Rod Stewart, Colin Blunstone, Rory Gallagher, Ry Cooder, Chi Coltrane and The Who. Alongside these performers appeared the Dutch acts Livin Blues, Kaz Lux and Supersister. The vocalist Chi Coltrane (billed to perform prior to Supersister) had exceeded her rehearsal and sound checking time much to the annoyance of the band. When Supersister took to the stage they performed only a fraction of their allotted time with a rendition of an excerpt from “Pudding en Gisteren” before walking off stage. Afterwards, following some criticism from the Dutch press, the band cited the poor sound balance for curtailing their performance. Soon after the Edison event Polydor records released a studio version of “Wow” as the Aside of a single with the track “Drs. D” as the B-side. Surprisingly, given the popularity of the song in concert, it failed to make an impression on the Dutch singles chart. The release of the single “Wow” seemed to herald the arrival at a creative crossroads for Supersister. Robert Jan Stips and 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 the “Pudding en Gisteren” album in private. Marco Vrolijk and 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.
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. 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.
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!