Music freaks breathe new life into Wageningen pop culture. Bands will be springing up all over the place and there’ll be gigs galore. It’s going to be just like old times again if Popcultuur Wageningen has its way. The town is going to be the musical hub it was in the 1980s, and a player in the Dutch music scene.
Photos: Unitas Wageningen, Stichting Popcultuur, Rick de Leeuw, Ton van den Born
Bands will be springing up all over the place and there’ll be gigs galore. It’s going to be just like old times again if Popcultuur Wageningen has its way. The town is going to be the musical hub it was in the 1980s, and a player in the Dutch music scene.
Back in 1989 Nirvana almost performed at Unitas. ‘When we were tidying up we came across a cassette tape, but we thought 500 guilders was too much and they got put to one side,’ says Gert-Jan Kat, a member of the Wageningen youth club’s band committee (‘baco’) at the time. A shame in retrospect. But even without a performance by the future world-class band, the Wageningen pop scene was lively enough in the 1980s.
‘Looking back you can see two sides to the scene,’ says Joost Witte, drummer in the Wageningen pop group Toontje Lager, who scored some national hits later with Lente in Twente and Stiekem Gedanst. On the one hand there was the homegrown Wageningen music circuit which boasted as many as 80 active bands in its heyday. Troost, an originally left-wing music café in the building which now houses barbecue restaurant Kelly’s, had a local act on the programme almost every week for years. Many of them were young bands ‘who could barely play five chords,’ according to Witte.
Middle of nowhere
The other side of the scene was the many famous Dutch and foreign musicians who performed in Wageningen. Hans Dulfer came, and later his daughter Candy. De Dijk played here, and so did Urban Dance Squad, OB40, and Echo & the Bunnymen. De Tröckener Kecks were a pretty regular fixture at Unitas (see box).
‘Our goal at Unitas was to become a venue for national bands,’ says Gert-Jan Kat. There were pop venues all around the country at the time and Unitas was up there with the likes of Tivoli, Doornroosje, De Effenaar and Paradiso. Kat: ‘Bands like Claw Boys Claw, Ivy Green and De Kift loved coming here, amazed that you could get full houses in Wageningen.’
A lot was possible in those days, recalls Guido van Vulpen. When he joined Unitas in 1988, he didn’t know much about pop music. ‘But they put me in front of a mixing board and said, you can do that, surely.’ It was the start of a brilliant career as a volunteer lighting and sound technician.
Van Vulpen remembers a concert by the Skatellites one Sunday at Unitas. ‘They came in and wondered where on earth they were. This really is the middle of nowhere! But their mood quickly changed once they started playing. And afterwards they ended up at Droevendaal, where they had the time of their lives. That is typical Wageningen: there is no need to make things complicated.’
Cooking for the band
At the end of the 1990s the Wageningen pop culture started going downhill. Kat, Witte and Van Vulpen have different explanations for this. Lack of budget, a different audience, a more serious atmosphere at the university, changing ways of listening to music, the lack of a venue after Unitas went bankrupt, and the rise of dance and DJs. But now it looks very much as though that pop culture is making a comeback in Wageningen. ‘A place in Wageningen which people mention as somewhere they can go to hear live music. That is the idea,’ says student Wouter Thomas, who has been actively involved in Popcultuur Wageningen for one and a half years now. The volunteers collective, which grew out of Unitas in 2009, organizes shows and festivals at various locations in Wageningen and wants to offer local talent a platform.
The 1980s pioneers like the sound of this. Van Vulpen: ‘Popcultuur has that attitude that it doesn’t have to be complicated. The musicians are really treated like guests. People underestimate how much atmosphere matters to musicians. A lot of venues are highly commercialized. The programming and organization is not done for the fun of it or with passion; it’s just work. Then I think there is less understanding of how musicians think.’
‘We always cook for the musicians ourselves,’ adds Wouter Thomas. This tradition was inherited from Unitas, where it was always done. ‘Musicians really appreciate that.’
According to Van Vulpen, not having premises of its own has its advantages for Popcultuur. ‘They look for a venue that suits the act. A brilliant solution actually. Popcultuur acts as a kind of agent, working with the library, Loburg café and the Junushof theatre. The more suitable venues there are, the nicer it gets. Keep it that way; keep it flexible.’
‘Popcultuur is growing,’ says Wouter Thomas. ‘The volunteer group has doubled and that means we can organize more events. Our main aim is to give everyone, including international students, a sense that it’s lively around here. There is a cosy atmosphere in Wageningen, with a lot of potential. Good music should be part of that.’
‘Our first gig at Unitas was - I have just looked it up – on 4 January 1985. The room was just like so many in the Netherlands and we felt at home there. The clammy smell of full ashtrays and stale beer from the night before, which hit you in the face when you opened the door. The grumpy bartender trying to tidy up the bar during the sound check. The volunteer proudly serving up a pan of mushy pasta with an indeterminate sauce. All of it contributing in its very own way to the success of the evening. Perhaps it was a tacit sense of togetherness that I liked so much. An unspoken bond, which you got with the audience during the show as well. The outside world was far away, and we had created a world of our own, with its own logic.
Our last gig at Unitas was just under ten years later – even your own logic has a limited shelf life, luckily. I will always cherish the happy memories though.’
ABC of Wageningen Pop
A pop concert to wind up the academic year. Formerly at Unitas, since 2010 on the Conventplein in town.
Big annual festival on 5 May, first organized in 1980 in Wageningen and Haarlem. The Wageningen band Toontje Lager was the big act in the first festival. The Kabaal am Gemaal podium has been a feature since 1998; other podia with dance and hiphop followed later. The latest addition in 2013 was Sena Talent Stage, Popcultuur Wageningen’s own podium for ‘rising talent’.
Bimonthly musical concept from Popcultuur Wageningen and Junushof theatre. The first Birdland was held on 7 January 2015.
Concerts in the music room at Wageningen café Loburg, for 150 people max. Loburg Live collaborates with Popcultuur Wageningen. See live.loburg.com.
National festival with young talent held in 30 towns. Popcultuur Wageningen organized the Wageningen edition early in October, with venues all around town.
Quiet is the new loud
Monthly acoustic concerts in the Wageningen town library, mainly singer-songwriters. Started in 2011.
Stichting Popcultuur Wageningen
Volunteer collective organizing concerts and festivals at various venues around Wageningen. Set up in April 2009. See www.facebook.com/popcultuurwageningen.
A youth club which used to have a clubhouse on the Generaal Foulkesweg and has not had a permanent home since 2009. Unitas was set up in 1935 as a student society and was open to all youth from 1972. There was an active band committee, the ‘baco’. Stichting Popcultuur Wageningen was started by former members of this committee.
Annual thematic festival in the Torckpark. Wageningen musicians play numbers by the artists who performed at the legendary Woodstock in 1969.