Minny Pops \ Biography
Formed around tall, bespectacled vocalist Wally van Middendorp in 1978, Dutch art-punk electro pioneers Minny Pops released several singles and an album on their own label Plurex before joining Factory Records in 1980. Following a string of acclaimed singles such as Dolphin's Spurt, Secret Story and Time, and becoming the first Dutch group to record a BBC session for John Peel, the group released keynote album Sparks In a Dark Room in 1982. Two further albums followed before the band split in 1985, though in 2012 Minny Pops reformed for a string of anniversary shows to coincide with archive live CD/DVD package Standstill To Motion.
The creative anchor of Minny Pops was Wally van Middendorp, a key participant in Amsterdam's underground Ultra art scene, and the founder of indie imprint Plurex in early 1978. His first single, provocatively issued as Tits, coupled We're So Glad Elvis Is Dead with Daddy Is My Pusher, and married dark humour with angular new wave. In September Minny Pops formed as a predominantly electronic band, taking their name from a primitive Korg rhythm box called Mini Pops, and having something in common with Suicide, The Normal and The Human League. This first line-up, featuring Wally on vocals and drum machine with bassist Frans Hagenaars, guitarist Peter Mertens and two dancers (one of whom was Wally's brother Rob), made their live debut on December 12th at the Brakke Grond in Amsterdam.
Of this early period Wally recalls: "A lot of people couldn't understand the visuals or the sounds because we were working with distorted guitars and bass. At that time people in Holland didn't realise there were new upcoming groups with new ways of approaching their music. One of the first ideas was to play really mechanical music with weird noises in it. Scratching guitars, very simple vocals, and a simple bass line reinforcing the drum-machine beat. The stage act was also very strict. We didn't move, we stood like statues and occasionally moved our hands. That changed over a period of time."
Minny Pops wasted little time in recording a twitchy first EP, Kojak, issued on Plurex in March 1979. By June the line-up had changed to include guitarists Dennis Duchhart and Stef Emmer, after which the group recorded their debut album, issued in September as Drastic Measures, Drastic Movement. Much of the album was resolutely left-field, with abrasive opening instrumental Springtime sounding like an outtake from Metal Machine Music. Explained Wally at the time: "It's background music which you can't ignore, new muzak. The title gives you the idea of a nice, flowing song. It's like a big drill! Actually, it fits in with the pacing of the set, which is confusing as well. The album's full of confusion. There's nice songs - and then all of a sudden total distortion."
During 1979 live performances were restricted to shows in Holland, including a major date at the Melkweg with Red Crayola and Scritti Politti in April, and a support slot with XTC at the Paradiso in December. The group also played a dozen dates around the Netherlands with the Comsat Angels in September. Both Kojak and Drastic Measures attracted international attention by virtue of Rough Trade's expanding distribution network, along with a prominant review in British music weekly Sounds. "A fine album filled with the sort of contemporary, essentially 'electronic' conciousness recently witnessed on the brilliant new PiL album," enthused Dave McCullough. "Perhaps the liveliest and strangest album I've heard all year."
However, it was not until the group joined Factory Records that they began to attract widespread attention. After being booked to support Joy Division at dates in Den Haag and Eindhoven in January 1980, Rob Gretton then invited Minny Pops to play with the band at the Factory (aka Russell Club) in Manchester on April 11th. While in England the visitors also performed at the infamous Bury 'riot' gig with Joy Division and Section 25 on April 8th, and played their own headlining show at Derby Blue Note on the 10th. By now Frans Hagenaars had departed, and Minny Pops recruited their first synthesizer player, Willem (Wim) Dekker, who would team up with Wally as the musical core of the group.
NME writer Andy Gill found much to like about Minny Pops, even if their unorthodox live presentation was somewhat challenging. "When I saw Minny Pops supporting Joy Division earlier this year in Manchester, they adopted the odd habit of standing silently, arms folded, for as long as a minute after each song. This caused considerable confusion amongst the audience, who seemed unsure whether to clap, shout, or ask for an encore. Their expectations were confounded by a device as simple as Wally's explanation for it. 'We figured that normal rock and roll is set up as a fast-paced set - one song ends, the next starts within four seconds. I thought that if you break up the pacing between numbers, it might give people a chance to look over what you've done.'"
Minny Pops returned home for a Dutch tour with The Tapes in May, resulting in a live EP featuring Night Out, Dolphin's Spurt and Mental (this last song later re-worked as Een Kus). In August the group returned to Manchester to record their debut single for Factory with producer Martin Hannett, as well as completing a short headlining tour of the north of England in August, taking in Leeds Warehouse, Sheffield Blitz and the Beach Club in Manchester.
In a barbed review of their show at the Beach Club, Mick Duffy of NME had this to say of an approach to live performance which bordered on performance art. "Wally, Minny Pops' lead singer, whose height is maybe just a little extraordinary. He's a wiry, gangling figure approaching seven feet tall. Sporting an ill-fitting plain dark suit with trouser legs and sleeves desperately short, an all-American-boy haircut and large, square-rimmed glasses, he looks like a caricatured Elvis Costello on stilts... Minimalists in sound and likewise in movement, they remain almost motionless throughout the entire set. Their feet seem to be permanently glued to the ground. They never smile, never communicate with us or each other between numbers. Occasionally one member, usually the bassist, attempts some half-second clockwork-clone jerk with his rigid limbs. Then all is still once more. Minny Pops are interesting statues but alienating performers. There is no encore."
Interviewed by Sheffield fanzine It's Different for Grils [sic], Wally explained some of the problems the band faced at home in the Netherlands, where there was just one music magazine, no fanzines, and next to no radio play for bold electro-explorers. "It's a strange situation, us being in England doing a single and hardly getting any press back home in some way. It's getting better since we're doing this Factory single, but before that people said, 'Well, you know, your music is not so good...' The music hasn't changed between April and now, but since we could tell people we're doing a single for Factory they say, 'Yeah - I always thought your music improved a lot over the past few months."
Minny Pops cut their Factory single at Strawberry Studios in Stockport with celebrated producer Martin Hannett, working as Benelux cousins The Names recorded Nightshift next door. The line-up featured Wally and Wim, together with new bass player Leon van Zoeren and interim guitarist Pim Scheelings. Recorded in a single day, Dolphin's Spurt (Fac 31) coupled a harder version of a standout track from Drastic Measures with a newer song, Goddess, the latter more indicative of the direction the band would take on their second album. The mercurial producer mixed the tracks several weeks later. "It's strange working with Martin Hannett," observed Wally. "He just lets you record whatever you want. He told us, 'Just go ahead and record whatever you think is suitable and I'll see what I can do with it.' Sometimes he laid down on the floor of the mixing room for half an hour at least, just thinking."
Released in January 1981, Fac 31 was housed in a smart Martin Atkins sleeve that played on the Philips corporate house style, offering an ironic nod to the group's Dutch heritage. Reviews were excellent, and the band gained a notable ally in Paul Morley of NME. "Daniel Miller has said that he likes music at either end of the scale - Throbbing Gristle or Silicone Teens. Nothing midway. Minny Pops are, simplistically speaking, floating somewhere in between. Intellectuals light-heartedly treating serious themes, or a pop group losing their trust in surface coherence: whichever way, they're wilfully retarded. They could, though, quite easily be a Mute group, and if I had a daytime Radio 1 show they could quite easily be very famous. As it is, they're on Factory, so they'll probably be treated as half-human."
Here Morley identified a core dilemma for Minny Pops. But for their involvement with Factory the band might not have been widely heard outside the Netherlands. This was, however, a double-edged sword, since the iconic Manchester label was made top-heavy by the success (and legacy) of Joy Division and New Order, which tended to overshadow other groups such as Section 25, A Certain Ratio and The Names. Hannett's sharp production of Dolphin's Spurt suited Minny Pops perfectly well, yet the freewheeling 'occasional labour in culture' work ethic prevailing at Palatine Road ran contrary to Wally's own instincts and experience. "Factory's attitude is different from ours. They wouldn't explain exactly where and what time we should turn up unless asked. So it takes a while to get used to their way."
In November 1980 Minny Pops returned to Britain to play a London show at the London School of Economics with A Certain Ratio and the Au Pairs, as well as recording a radio session for John Peel comprising Dolphin's Spurt, Mono, Jets and Ice Cube Wall. In December the band rounded off a busy year with a date supporting a still-embryonic New Order at Hal 4 in Rotterdam, then flew to the United States for a short seven date tour of the East Coast. Together with four dates in New York (at the Rock Lounge, Peppermint Lounge, Mudd Club and Hurrah), Minny Pops also performed in Hoboken, Toronto and Boston. Despite losing around $700, the tour should be seen as a success at a time when few bands from mainland Europe not called Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream were taken seriously in Britain and America.
Whether North America was ready for Ultra-affiliated performance art was another matter, if the reaction of the Toronto Globe and Mail is anything to go by. "Van Middendorp chanted over a pair of synthesizers (one live, one on tape) and some simple guitar and bass riffs. When the taped synthesizer (definitely the musical star of the show) was in high gear, the outfit sounded a little like a dirty Gary Numan, When it was in low gear, the result was something resembling Nina Hagen played at slow speed. Occasionally, Van Middendorp recited some emotionally wrought free-form poetry without musical accompaniment. Actually, bizarre as all this sounds, the result, in some perverse sort of way, was not unlistenable or uninteresting. Although the concept was ultimately more interesting than the music itself, I didn't go away with the feeling that I had seen just another ordinary rock and roll band. There was obviously something happening there. I'm just not exactly sure what it was."
Both Minny Pops and Plurex went from strength to strength. November 1980 had seen a three page feature on the Dutch scene in NME, and during 1981 Plurex would release a raft of records by cutting edge Dutch artists including Nasmak, Young Lions, The Tapes, A Blaze Colour and (via the Manchester connection) Eric Random. Indeed the label's extraordinarily high standard of packaging often matched that of Factory itself, courtesy of design director Rob van Middendorp. Minny Pops returned to Britain in April, playing with Comsat Angels and The Delmontes in London, then supporting New Order in Nottingham and Birmingham. In October the group completed a Dutch tour with Factory Benelux labelmates The Names, and on the 24th even travelled south to Italy for a one-off show in sunny resort Gabbice Mare.
The group were also writing material for their second album, though recording was delayed by the departure of guitarist Gerard Walhof, who was not replaced. A powerful demo tape was made in July, and one track from it - Een Kus - issued in October as a free flexi disc with Vinyl magazine. Sparks in a Dark Room was eventually taped at Arnold Muhren studio near Amsterdam at the end of the year, with Wally and Wim joined by bassist Pieter Mulder and a live drummer, Orpheus Roovers. As a result, Sparks sounded like a very different group to the one which created Drastic Measures two years earlier. Nevertheless, the self-produced sophomore set was a dark electro-pop triumph, with the motorik, analog rhythms of Dream, A Feeling, Trance and Tracking rubbing shoulders with eerie, occasionally even menacing essays such as Black Eye and Vital.
Released by Factory Benelux in May 1982, Sparks drew praise from Chris Bohn in NME. "Their sound is based around tight, slight rhythm figures, out of which half melodies and exquisite synth lines spring. Once you get over the vocalist's gregorian moan, which contributes to the overall aridity, you'll sense the sort of subtleties in Minny Pops that makes minimalism the worthwhile thing it is. On the other hand Blue Roses has the lush lurch - or should that read lurch of a lush? - of Simple Minds at their grandest and best."
Back in Amsterdam, Dick Rijken of Vinyl seemed to miss the point entirely. Despite praising the polished production, and the evident danceability of much of FBN 15, Rijken found the (ironic) gloom of Wally's lugubrious lyrics and vocals simply too much to bear. "I find myself at a bit of a loss confronted with the combination of disco and doom... Melancholia, dependency and weltschmerz are well represented. The musical structure is fairly simple on the whole - not only the tight rhythms, but also their chords and modulations are pretty predictable. Add to this the fact that the vocal, low and dark in tone, and lacking in volume, follows the tone of the musical framework and the monotony becomes tense and unhealthy."
Factory Benelux also released excellent non-album single Time (FBN 11) in April, while another Minny Pops single, Secret Story, appeared on Factory (Fac 57) six months later. Unfortunately, the group was by now fragmenting, having already played their last live dates the previous December. At the beginning of 1982 Wim Dekker, Pieter Mulder and new drummer Ruben Ootes recorded an instrumental EP, Werktitels, under the name Smalts, while Wally acted as master of ceremonies on an ambitious epic Crépuscule package tour, Dialogue North-South, which wound through France and the Low Countries in February. Some of Wally's confrontational dialogue is preserved as 'Raving Lunatic' on Crépuscule's souvenir album, Some of the interesting things you'll see on a long-distance flight, while Smalts also contributed a short set to the Amsterdam show.
Wim and Wally were subsequently commissioned to write the score for a musical play, Poste Restante, recorded in October and subsequently released on Plurex. Unfortunately the soundtrack album was a patchy affair, as was a Minny Pops reunion album 4th Floor in 1985, and neither record scaled the artistic peaks of Dolphin's Spurt, Time and Sparks in a Dark Room. In reality, the Ultra-inspired, experimentalist Minny Pops had disbanded following a group meeting in August 1983.
During 1983 and 1984 Wally and Wim returned on Factory with a brace of 12" electro-dance singles under the name Streetlife, following Act On Instinct (Fac 97) with No More Silence (Fac 124). LTM also issued Een Kus as a farewell Minny Pops single in 1984. Outside the recording studio, Wally continued to work in an executive management role for a number of labels, including Boudisque, Megadisc, PIAS, Sony and Roadrunner. Wim Dekker, Ruben Ootes, Pieter Mulder and Zip Boterbloem reconvened as Smalts in 2002, releasing It's Good to be on a Well-Run Ship on CD through Staalplaat, which found room for an updated version of Kogel, one of the great lost Minny Pops tracks from two decades before. Much of Minny Pops back catalogue would be remastered for CD and issued by LTM between 2003 and 2004.
In January 2012 Wally, Wim and Pieter Mulder returned to play the first Minny Pops live gigs in three decades, performing at the Melkweg in Amsterdam on 7 April as well as four anniversary shows in Britain. For these dates the group were augmented by guitarist Mark Ritsema, and later Thomas Myrmel. Further gigs followed in the Netherlands and Belgium, with the Melkweg performance preserved as a bonus CD with the subsequent Factory Benelux reissue of Sparks.
"I feel really happy everything has been more than I expected and performing feels really great," Wally told The Quietus. "It hasn't been an easy process. We used to be a very static band in the 80s, but now we've become much looser and the songs have become freer. In March, I think, we added Thomas to the line up, someone who deals with sound manipulation and programming. This moved us forward towards making new versions of the songs. In January when we first reformed we had closer to our original sound, but by April came new interpretations."
The group also undertook two suite performances of Drastic Measures, Drastic Movement in Amsterdam and Brussels, while a detailed history of Ultra by Harold Schellinx was published by Dutch imprint Lebowski. To coincide with these various retro-futuristic events LTM also released an archive CD/DVD package titled Standstill To Motion, which combined a live album recorded at the Melkweg on 19 March 1981 with a bonus DVD featuring vintage live footage from 1979, 1980 and 1981. Minny Pops also negotiated an unlikely support slot with former Guns and Roses guitarist Slash at Hammersmith Apollo on June 6th, and cut a brand new single, Glistering/Waiting For This To Happen, a double a-side recorded in Stockport by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, an avowed fan.
"To be honest I was pretty nervous about it," admitted Wally of Minny Pops' surprise return to the studio. "I asked all the band to come up with material, but things seemed very up in the air, just a few ideas. When we went into the rehearsal room, though, somehow things suddenly just clicked and we came up with two new songs. And while I think they are both typical Minny Pops songs, they sound very organic - and I think that's a major departure from our early work. Tim was producing and he encouraged us to record it all in one take, and it worked really well. It feels very light. A major step forward for us."
2012 Minny Pops images by Jos van Vliet and Leonor Jonker