Post-punk's Dutch Uncle
The Ex usually gets shoved lovingly into that frayed pocket of our shared international punk heritage: the relentless old-timers. They’re a political (anarchist-socialist, as far as I can gather) Dutch communal enterprise that’s been kicking around since 1979, and, good for them, they’ve kept up their musical profile through sheer principle and commitment to the always-broadening punk sonic ethos.
I know lots of Ex fans, yet what they love is not the political content but the sound: the steady thread of drums, rants, and intuitive repetition that runs through all their albums. Before they committed themselves to the eclectic ethos, they were a punk singles band in the ‘80s. Singles. Period collects all (or rather, most) of their vinyl singles from 1980 through 1990, many of which were in danger of being bought and sold by collector-scum at increasingly inflated prices. Score one for anarchy: now we can all listen in on the early history of this fascinating band. Some of it’s horribly dated, sure, but on the whole this is a loud and raucous collection with enough weird moments to justify stuffing it in your punk-elder uncle’s Christmas stocking.
I can’t tell you exactly how punk slipped through the dikes into the Netherlands, but it did seem like a fertile ground even despite the Shocking Blues, Foci, and Golden Earrings, which dotted their sonic landscape through 1979. This was a depillarized nation that spawned a gang of non-hippie radicals called “provos”, given to smoke-bombing royal entourages in the 1960s, but who later helped transmogrify Dutch society into the astonishingly liberal one we all envy today. Drugs, gay marriage, soak-the-rich tax policies: you gotta wonder what a Dutch punk would bother to rebel against, which probably explains the healthy extremes of anarchy, squatting, and sabotage that the Ex used to shout about constantly. But it worked, and hell, can you think of any other band that would bother covering Eritrea’s independence anthem today?
Singles. Period is beautiful and relatively comprehensive: well, as comprehensive as you can get with such an anarchic back catalogue. It’s eleven singles (some shared with other bands), and 25 songs, arranged chronologically and twitching all over the flat post-punk map. It all begins with your basic punk rants which are indistinguishable from the seven-inches churned out by, y’know, the Exploited and the Mekons around the same time: gruff shouter, two chords, full speed ahead. “Human Car”, “Cells”, “Apathy Disease”, “Stupid Americans”: these songs all sound like a committed but undistinguished band squatting in the punk space. Listen again and you’ll notice that these “stupid Americans” have “let evolution get so out of hand”, probably because we’re just a buncha fat troglodytes, but read the line again and think Kansas. Hate to turn the Ex into prophets, but this song was 1980, the year of Queen Beatrix and Ronald Reagan, and here we remain, letting evolution get out of hand in 2005. At least in terms of our pseudo-rational educational system.
And that’s the funny thing about this CD: no matter how dated the politics, how irrelevant the issue, the songs here still sound perfectly Left, dry, and righteous, and also entirely “right”. That is, the Ex’s take on the issues of the day—El Salvador, squatting, apartheid, terrorizing the corporations—is smiled upon by history. Granted, Dutch society in the ‘80s was among the most liberal in the world, what with the drugs and the depillarization and the gay pride and the progressive taxes, so their DIY-anarchy was actually fortified by this same “society” they railed against. But hey, we here in repressed America will dig it, and indeed a song like “New Wars”, though Holland-specific in 1984, twists our American gut today: “To increase our profits we’ll buy you new wars.” (According to the liner notes, the momentary bass-squeak on this one “caused many a record player’s needle to jump out of the groove”, let’s hear it for CD’s!)
The singles get more cantankerous, atmospheric, and snarky as the tracks roll on, almost as if to mock the plasticene visage of Queen Beatrix and her snot-nosed corporate courtiers. “We’re Gonna Rob the Spermbank” demolishes the myth of meritocracy (this spermbank consisting only of “talented people” seed) at the same time it makes us smile (with Jon Langford on drums too!). “When Nothing Else is Helpful Anymore” offers some very practical bomb-making instructions, and I’m just glad that the band’s privileged grad-student American fans will likely ignore the recipe. This is followed through by the excellent “Rara Rap”, which is lots of pro-sabotage ranting collapsed over a hilarious skittering beat. Additionally, it was recorded in the posh Sweelinck Conservatory (the band were snuck in by a sympathetic insider), thereby creating the sonic equivalent of an intestinal parasite loudly rebelling against the host. Excellent stuff.
As if to emphasize the Ex’s expansive growth, the record’s three best tunes come at the end. “Stonestampers Song” and “Lied der Steinklopfer” are both versions of an old Kurt Tucholsky lyric, a mordant wince at the Berlin Wall’s souvenir rubble: “Who drives off, on the road we constructed?” The English version is wet-faced stone-stamping at its funkiest, where the German side (with the help of the Dog-Faced Hermans) sounds like the Weimar utopia they long for: it’s the sound of millions of bicycles getting returned across the border, really. And then there’s the last track, “Keep On Hoppin’”, a Mekons cover (from a split single). Cross-channel pollination has never been so fruitful as in the Mekons-Ex relationship, and here we have almost a dance-party coming from these dour Dutch anarchists, albeit with a bust of Winston Churchill staring by the door.
This is a great compilation: even the rudimentary punk singles at the beginning grow in volume when you repay ‘em with the klieg-light of “Rara Rap” and the phosphorescent “Stonestampers Song”. Hell, I’m sure some of this stuff could even make Theo Van Gogh leap out of his grave and start hoppin’, however much that chain-smoking filmmaker considered America (The United States of America!) to be a paradise compared to the Netherlands. Preaching to the converted? Sure. But think of all the posh sperm the Ex may have liberated and redistributed with one bright single in 1983