Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Shocking Blue—
The Shocking Blue


Released 1970 on Colossus
The Seth Man, October 2004ce
The Dutch quartet Shocking Blue are renowned the world over for their chart-topping single “Venus” and rightly so. The American release of their second album “At Home” was creatively re-titled as “The Shocking Blue” with a nekkid group cover shot and dropped the terrifyingly mythic “I’ll Write Your Name Through The Fire” but more than made up for it with the inclusion of two excellent heavy singles (“Mighty Joe” and “Send Me A Postcard”) that shore up the “The Shocking Blue” as an album stunning in its unrepentant simplicity of execution in a most screamingly barebones representation of rock’n’roll as refracted through a highly original and infectious take on the acid rock superstar sounds of the day.

Not least of all due to the urgency of the vocal delivery of Mariska Veres. Veres was a young, curvaceous and large-eyed Lorelei with a bosom ripe to the point of bursting and a voice to match that cuts through everything Teutonic as hell while not budging an inch from her towering summit of self-possession and poise. Her word is final, so do NOT mess with Mariska for she is an unmessable Babe: Half-Hungarian, half German and ALL WOMAN, everything that comes from her throat is so trance-like in its grandiose delivery of emotionally cool and unflagging authority it’s unnerving as Hell. Her vocals are SO strident and confident that they barely need the excess of ambient-miked reverb that this self-produced monster boasts to near-“Zep II” proportions: boosting each and every element up to a weird elevation of grandeur that goes up, up and away into the furthest reaches of Nether Nether Land and stays there.

But there is more to Mariska’s ice-fire exhortations than meet the ear. For although not singing words of her native tongue, she confidently strides across all barriers while unflinchingly delivering (though occasional swaying in and out of heavily-accented English.) This is further compounded by the fact that she is singing what is in essence a very basic set of unornamented lyrics whose modest vocabulary and limitations often keep everything in a suspended state trapped halfway between thought and meaning and are made even more incongruous by Mariska’s recitations. But she don’t care, and neither do I cos in her youth she sang Gypsy songs to her father’s accompaniment on violin and with that cool dose of Romany magic parlayed into the mix, it’s heady and unstoppable stuff.

Shocking Blue show themselves to be a band with the heady arsenal of a fifty foot high female voice plus three musicians that for all their basic skills are able to keep themselves in a tidy and layered freefall of weirdly organised arrangements with rhythms that at first blush seem to tilt and trip uncoordinated over themselves. But it’s soon apparent that these rhythms are purposeful devices in conceiving a weird Lowlands Top 40 acid rock-funk left untouched but informed by the previous Ne(an)derland rock’n’roll Muziek Expres that kept-a-rollin’: with such luminaries as The Outsiders, Q65 and The Motions gnawing through the pre-psychedelic onslaught of roughhewn, pilled-up ravers the likes of which R&B renegades The Stones and The Pretty Things and other roughnecks had been pumping out to the approval of fevered Dutch fans since the mid-sixties. But now at the very tail end of the sixties, the prolonged incubation of hippie culture that would culminate with Woodstock (and be aborted in its moccasin’d tracks one season of the witch later just outside Dick Carter’s Altamont Speedway) had quickly fanned out throughout Western Europe. And by the time it gathered strength those last few months of 1969 just prior to those eventful three days in upstate New York, Shocking Blue had already been incorporating elements of many of the charting Rock bands of the day. Taking the female vocals from Jefferson Airplane, the fire Little Richard lit under Creedence Clearwater Revival, the chaos overdrive of The Who, the organ and drumming combinations from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and borrowing a spare sitar from Ravi Shankar they channeled all this into a brutal and idiosyncratic pop format of the harshest variety. Although loaded up with stoned Rock of many colours, it was made to snap to attention with an uncommon discipline for a group of such Aquarian leanings and “The Shocking Blue” album is at first listen nearly impenetrable beyond its pop veneer because for all the discernable influences at play, separately they are hard to pinpoint with accuracy. Reined in with an ultra-tight and simple construction, it makes the album even now a surprising blast of freshness with instances of memorable melodies, hooks supreme and near-approaching funk breaks and rhythms nailed brutishly simple throughout. And all this with nary a cover of “Proud Mary,” “Somebody To Love” or “See See Rider” for Shocking Blue laid out a spread of mutant originals all penned by their guitarist, Robby Van Leeuwen.

One-time guitarist for the previous-mentioned The Motions, Van Leeuwen also occasionally steps out here on sitar fantastically wrecked and with no attempts of pseudo-philosophic/religious motives or ‘ragas-to-riches’ wallpapering as they provide rich and exotic backing on several tracks and not for token fad appeal. And the rhythm section comprised of Klaasje van der Wal on der bass and Cornelis van der Beek on der drums are excellent. Van der Beek shows himself capable of breaking out and hauling out on occasion like Keith Moon but mostly resigns himself to the slow-but-ever-animated-in-its-uphill pace of Ron Bushy on “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Combine all this and you’d ordinarily get a mess nobody would wanna clean up but just gently close the door on, steal quickly away on tippy-toes and wretch in private. Instead, the coarse and rigid songwriting and arrangements square off so weirdly with its precision detailing and refinements I’m pulling up a front seat and gonna let it wash over me in an effort to forget all serious stuff for a while and just become ensnared in its raging stupidity, “Eight Inches High” sitar and just laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh and cry and cry and wonder why and forget about figuring it out and just squeeze it and let it all run down my leg in all it’s cusp of Woodstock’n’Altamont dreamtime-ness.

“Long And Lonesome Road” kicks off and it’s already grabbing you by the collar as the song’s imagery sees Mariska’s already well into a dream time zone like a banshee Bobbie Gentry hitting the road off into the desert while singing at the top of her lungs a love letter from Damo Suzuki: “On a Sunday night!/while driving my car!/In ze sky a fallin’ star!!/Tellin’ myself I don’t go too far!!/And trust by de sound of zeh rain!!!” Oh, at this point I picture her lace-up top heaving and nearly bursting at the seams with the chorus: “Well I wonder well I wonder vere I am!!/Cos dere’s a long and lonesome road!!/Zat find oww verldt!!/Uff you und me, babe!!” Over Doug Ingle, Jr. organ placement, wah-wah’ed fuzz guitar and pounding tom-toms like Mo Tucker on war drums along the Mohawk that continually break out into Keith Moon circuits, one must come to the conclusion that this is hardly the meat and drink of a group deemed ‘one-hit wonders.’ In fact, it’s uproariously psychedelic and it’s flying right into your face with no warning and questing into the beyond all at once. “Love Machine” follows, opening with an off-beat and off-kilter drum pattern against a spatial guitar pattern. The entire first sung line? I have no idea. Mariska is singing about a “luff” machine, and judging from what I can comprehend, it also makes “ze veldt” or “vumman” “turn arrund!!” and right there stands the genius of Shocking Blue’s lyrics. The blatantly obvious and timeless truth wrapped together and you figure it out. Set behind a jaunty piano, no less.

Another syncopated drum pattern begins “The Butterfly And I”; perhaps in right-on solidarity with the “In-A-Gadd-Da-Ertegun” guys. A modulated tempo turns into a fuzz guitar and blaring brass outro and here is the first entry of sitar of the album and it’s ‘light’ like a butterfly. But it’s not ‘heavy’ like ‘iron’ or ‘led’ until gets mysteriously hijacked into a completely uncalled for fuzz guitar-led brass outro with plenty of room for the van der rhythm sectionals to sneak in some much needed highlighting during it’s many breaks, if only so the trumpet blares out like this one song on Duke Ellington’s “Far East Suite” album I once liked to mimic by putting my lips together and wheeze out a succession of high pitched mouth fart replicas. In key, no less.

In its surrounding environment, the ultra-famous “Venus” sounds even better. In every way, it is a defining moment for Mariska and one that established her as Benelux’s own Grace Slick and Rock Love Goddess supreme. And with that combination “Pinball Wizard” introduction leading into the tranced-out, repeated “Lucille” phrasing and that Beatles Group “Get Back” guitar phrasing that despite sounding all “Gettin’ back to grassroots, yeah! Kinda, uh...EXPERIMENTAL: y’know? Like, rilly!” as well as that whole “Hey Loretta/those high heeled shoes/an’ I love that sweater” McLarkey shtick, it’s so compact and since no one element overstays its welcome EVER, it’s far more tolerable and suited as a spice than that run-on five-course meal performed on a rainy London rooftop by four damp superstars.

“California Here I Come” compares favourably with Iron Butterfly playing The Count Five’s “Pretty Big Mouth”... or The Count Five playing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” come to think of it only with better lyrics. Like: “When ze sounds goin’ down!!/Silence is ze only sound!!” Hey, I want to hear THAT. In stereo. On headphones. NOW! But I have the distinct feeling I already am because there’s a welter of guitar crosstalking already in process raking the side of this weirdly static monolith of outgrown garage punk.

“Poor Boy” begins with an introduction that is entirely left field, even for Shocking Blue as the entry of a psychedelic instrumental that crosses live ’67 Airplane jamming around eastern modalities against quavering sympathetic sitar string buzzes that quickly pick up speed. An overdubbed acoustic riff sticks its head in outta nowhere only to duck out just as quick as everything slams into high speed and into an inevitable breakdown. Enter the voice of Mariska lamenting the title plaintively sweet over and over and it turns the whole scene into one of long shadows lamenting across desert hills. Quoting Shocking Blue lyrics at moments like this are like painting pictures of what you saw from a train window last week with a tar brush on toilet paper so suffice to say, this track is achingly sad beyond its lyrics and speaks of dreams that have just about run dry as you’re down to your very last dime and kicking down the road wondering what the hell is gonna become of you on this dusty flea-bitten speck they call earth when you’re so far away from home and nobody cares or knows what a downer you’re currently on. The accompanying music is the stuff of gathering clouds and it only parts for Mariska to directly address all the world’s drifters and with such outrageous compassion it kills me almost as much as the quick and accidental premature fade in the middle of her reaching out. And with it, the first side is over.

Side two begins with “Mighty Joe” as the solid and consistent arrangement of simple, uncut blocks of Rock continue almost AND not the least like “Venus” until the chorus sounds. The breakdown features that lazy “Get Back” riff, but here the whole vibe is cross-pollinated with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Honey” bitch-in-heat moan stomper with assembled acoustic guitars and even a detuned acoustic slide breakdown that creeps in out of nowhere. Mariska is all-cautionary to some poor virgin smitten with Mighty Joe (“wiz ze bass voice”) and she warns: “I fell for him baby and then!!/He made me a woman!!” which could mean any number of things. Namely, that “Mighty Joe” is a sexual predator, a rapist, a surgeon, God or just (as I most strongly suspect) some whisky-suppin’ n’er-do-well “wiz ze bass voice.” I mean, there seems to be something missing from this plot but then again, that’s par for the course with Shocking Blue and since it strikes me as entirely charming I warm to it with a vengeance.

Like with the next track, “Bool Weevil.” “Bool Weevil” is really “Boll Weevil” but not THAT “Bo-Weevil.” Who cares? There’s a zillion songs about boll weevils. Umpteen songs about boll-weevils. Songs about bo-weevils into next Thursday. They chew up crops and they’re pests so who the fuck would write a song about boll-weevils, I ask you? OK, it’s a prehistoric rock’n’roll theme reincarnated, so cool it and relax and don’t worry about the boll-weevils ‘cos I’ve sprayed twice and choking on fumes of anti-pestilence. But I can’t relax because Shocking Blue are kicking up another Little Richard-fuelled rhythm and oddly, this time they’re playing a very primitive type of funk that hasn’t yet been assigned a sub-genre. Actually, it sounds more like The Archies covering Creedence’s “Travellin’ Band” on a locked groove with the drum pattern playing a syncopated dance beat. This song is fucked up. Shocking Blue are fucked up. I need to open a window, this record is REALLY getting under my skin and I’ve sweated through three shirts in the past 15 hours listening to this record, thinking about this record, writing about this record and living this record and if I wake up as this record with its four nekkid Dutchpeoples on the front cover hovering in and out of focus below an afterthought blue triangle bearing the legend ‘The Shocking Blue STEREO CS-1000’ then it’ll be a relief cause at least it won’t be as a cockroach because after all...I’ve sprayed twice.

You see what happens when you listen to this record? You get giddy as all hell after one play and when overdosed on multiple spins it becomes a very, very funny record. And not because it’s bad (cos it isn’t), a novelty or you get to sneer at the ineptitude of it from some lofty critical moral high ground. No: you’re laughing at the fact that some group actually pulled off what may be one of the most truly wrecked albums of 1970 because (and bear with me on this is) it’s EVERYTHING that it is NOT. It’s highly original, but it isn’t. But the way it’s all fused together in such a highly industrious manner befitting of Low Country personalities it makes it sounds like nothing else even though its primary influences are Top 40 acid rock. Mariska sounds like Grace Slick, only she doesn’t because her voice is far more controlled, lacks vibrato and is entirely lacking in sarcasm. The band would be heavy Rock, only they’re performing pop songs. They’re psychedelic, only they perform dance tracks like “Boll Weevil” and I haven’t sprayed yet. They’re a disposable pop band, but at least a handful of their songs are still remembered over thirty years on... And on and on into infinity. Everywhere I turn for some angle, some telling clue, some portal to open up and at least hint at what Shocking Blue is all about and how they did it they’ve gone and shape shifted off into a raga concerto, a middle-eastern tinged death dirge or a song about bo-weevils (so I’ve sprayed twice) or even achingly sad 1970 road trip anthems of lament to top all the sunset processions into the dying west featured in “Two-Lane Blacktop,” “Vanishing Point,” “Zabriskie Point” and even “Kelly’s Heroes.” What WAS it about 1970? Huh? Huh? What the fuck was up with that year? Wait, I know! It just came to me:

“It was the one and only time in rock’n’roll culture where innocence and experience were on equal footing with each other in every way. And those two opposing attitudes didn’t fully comprehend each other.”

No, that’s not it, either (although it made perfect sense an hour ago but now, I’m back to square one and “Fun House.”)

(Oh, well never mind) Anyway, not only did Colossus Records have the lamest art department on the East Coast, but they couldn’t read, either. Not only did they misspell the easiest part of the word “Boll Weevil” (and consequently I have sprayed twice for nothing) but they listed the next song as “Acka Ragh.” Now admittedly, it IS a fantastic name for a song but even before completing one full listen of it, it is obvious it is “Acka Raga” for this is an instrumental featuring Van Leeuwen on sitar. Set against a simple drum and cymbal repetition with a fistful of bongos, it’s a lot more convincing than your typical Rock sitar fare from late sixties soundtracks, and there is an energy pulsing through this song that keeps it from getting filed as a dated period piece... Which it is, but it’s far more satisfying than dull filler like The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Main Theme From Psych-Out.”

The classic “Love Buzz” opens aridly with an ultra-reverbed Erkin Koray guitar pattern and already I’m dying in the sun for a quench from the wench as the drums kick in with a slow-paced, dehydrating precision. When the rhythm kicks in on an odd beat at the entry, it’s even more parching. And there standing at the oasis’s edge not budging an inch stands Mariska, emitting her siren call hypnotic as you please with an unblinking vocal delivery that is all powerful. She holds a tall cool one in one hand, but she’s buzzing, you’re buzzing, the sitar is buzzing like a Stanley Milgrom warning and you begin to hallucinate voices in the far distance of the mix that are barely perceptible in the background... and probably entirely unintentional. But with the pure “My Generation” liftoff in the middle with van der Beek punishing his snare in the process you think you’re swimming in the oasis with Mariska! You’re both wet! And getting wetter! She smiles, reaches for the tall cool glass for you and... WHAHAPPENED? You’ve landed even further back from the oasis then you were before (that’s what) and it’s back to nothing but Sisyphusian dry heat and a sleepwalking robotic zombie pace. (I know Nirvana covered this song but for all its static qualities, why didn’t Gary Numan? Well, looks like he fumbled a primo opportunity, cos The Prodigy already over-sampled it into even more starkly electronic terrain and with add-on middle-eastern dirge-iness landed it on their recent album under the title “Phoenix.”)

With a sinewy, trance-like sitar riffing, “I’m A Woman” enters and Mariska’s vocal display is as passionate as ever. Maybe even more and they are never undermined by either lyrics or her accent, which I have already accepted with open arms: “Ahm a vuman!!/Yes I am!!/Makes souls grow out!!” I don’t understand it, but it’s undulating slowness and swaying belly-danciness is entirely hypnotic and such a sexy slow burn, it makes Roxy Music’s “Both Ends Burning” sound like “Paranoid.”

Their single “Send Me A Postcard” closes the album with a manic sendoff in a fuzz guitar burn-out of the most wildly agitated kind. And accompanied by two-tiered organ and crashing drum fills that thrill and spill all over the place plus Mariska’s most searing delivery of the entire album, it all comes together with this absolute killer. “Send Me A Postcard” was a big European hit single for Shocking Blue and was enough of a sensation in Turkey to be covered by Mavi Isiklar in 1971 as “Ask Cecegi.” Both tracks bear trademark heavy lead fuzz, and if it was an instrumental it could be mistaken for a Davie Allan & The Arrows motor-psycho nightmare soundtrack. Luckily it’s not, for now Mariska has shaken out her outgrown mod beehive to let it all hang out and way, waaaay down. She’s so loose she’s peeling off some clothes and remarkable turns of phrase like: “Lookout for the day I gets a little rum!” and “Ain’t no love like mine in town!” and “Come down on me when I’m alive!”

Actually, she doesn’t sing that last one, but I always hear it, anyway. And I love it.

And I love Shocking Blue. Still don’t know why, though. Might be because I can’t figure them out.

I don’t know what to say at this point, except that the more I think of Shocking Blue, the more I cannot for the life of me figure out how the arrangements piece these songs together with such strange continuity and heightened clarity. They’re so deft and flow into each other so unobtrusively (With the exception of “Venus” but even there, despite being hammered into my head throughout the seventies on near-consistent AM radio play, still does manage to pass by unaccountably and swift) you’re not able to consciously count on where the chorus comes in, where a beat is nailed with deadly accuracy, where it gets straddled by a guitar solo or even the measure of much of the drumming. And I’m glad for it, but it’s just so strangely mapped out, I gotta doff my cap to Robby Van Leeuwen just for the arrangements alone and then a second time for the boys in the band. And a final time to Mariska, because after all: I am a gentleman.