Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Ex Week, No. 2:
A Tumbled History
(Part 1, 1979-90)

September 11th, 2009

If you’ve spent a little time around Dutch people - or at least the ones you can run into at music festivals, or as visitors to North American cities’ art scenes, and so on - perhaps you’ve noticed, as I have, that they tend to combine an air of relaxation (which can be cheerful or grumpy, but either way I simplistically credit to the country’s general social liberalism, with tolerant mores yet a secure social-safety net) with an extraordinary degree of energy, which I attribute to a strong culture of physical fitness. They’re the healthiest hard partiers I’ve seen, and the most laid-back of restless souls.

No doubt if you’ve spent more time around Dutch people, you don’t have any such reductive stereotypes. But I do find them handy to explain the joyous contradictions in the sound of Amsterdam’s The Ex, who are in Canada this week for a series of shows along with Ethiopian sax veteran Getatchew Mekuria - the incredible way in which improvisational looseness is combined with rhythmic precision, radical anger with gentle irony, combustible noise with subtle detail.

And with all that energy, the Dutch band that formed in an anarcho-punk squat in 1979 has gotten a great deal done in 30 years, crisscrossing the world and evolving through myriad unpredictable stages, including major lineup changes, while preserving a recognizable sonic core (in short: barbed wire, dancing) and a consistent ethos of autonomy and compassion; with each metamorphosis they do not cancel out or leave previous developments behind. So gradually they’ve come to seem less like a typical band - which, in the natural metaphor provided (like so much else) by the Beatles, resembles a small group of buzzing, forward-moving insects - than like a coral reef, or the ever-expanding supercolonies of ants or fungi that can run beneath the surface for thousands of miles.

Rather than recount that process here - you can find it on the band’s site, wikipedia, etc. - I want to document it visually as best I can. There are gaps in the record (at least where the archaeological site of YouTube is concerned), but it’s a rough guide.

1980: Fuck Elise (Amsterdam)

Rare visual documentation that The Ex really was, once, your typical young punk band, wan and snotty and simplistic. I find the absence of women almost shocking – it wouldn’t last long and would become permanently unthinkable when Katherina took over the drums in 1984; her crisp, complex percussion lines are, to this day, part of the secret of the chaos-clarity blend noted above. (There have been other women in the group at various stages. But even in this crude infancy, notice that the band’s bird-flipping seems to be about the overplaying of a certain Beethoven bagatelle, with Terrie (I believe) willing to risk the impatient boos of the conformist-punk crowd by plunking out a sarcastic statement of the theme. Maybe not the most articulate denunciation of elitist culture in their catalogue – not to mention the not-exactly-feminist approach – but a sign of thematic impulses that would return, deepened, in the coming years.

1981: The Sky Is Blue Again (Amsterdam)

What did I say about Dutch speed? One year later, with a song from debut album Disturbing Domestic Peace they’re still obviously of their Crass-etc. moment, but the goofiness is gone, and vocalist G.W. Sok (whom I’ll call henceforth by his given name, Jos) has begun to solidify his signature, wordy, visiting-lecturer-on-meth mannerisms. And the Dylanish harmonica was certainly non-standard equipment.

1983: Bouquet of Barbed Wire (Amsterdam)

Sabien Witteman was the first female drummer in the Ex, from 1982-1984 (she’s now a successful painter and photographer in Burgundy, I believe), with a startlingly different personal style than Kat’s, though some of the same searching rhythmic approach. Then again, Jos himself is in a not-so-flattering football-ref jersey – 1983 was not a kind time for fashion. But this is stone-classic early Ex, the lead track of the first of a series (that arguably just keeps going) of sonic-breakthrough albums, Tumult (coproduced by the Mekons’ Jon Langford). Sure, it sounds a helluva lot like the Fall, but its churning, stalking pace is such that it wouldn’t sound so out of place if they threw it into a set today.

1984: Jack Frost is Innocent (TV)

What’s this? A proper music video? You won’t find many of those for the Ex. Perhaps there was a brief thought of breaking through to larger audiences during that post-punk/new-wave period - after all Tumult was nothing compared to the quickly following Blueprints for a Blackout, in which a sound-sculpturing (or, in this video, dismantling) spirit became central to the Ex-periment - double-bass, organ, violin, oil-barrels, accordion, beer-crates, piano, marimba. Likewise the lyrics were becoming less hectoring and more apt to convey their agit-prop autonomist lessons via more absurdist parables and such. Don’t miss the cute coda with the banana.

1986: They Shall Not Pass (in spirit, Catalonia)

Okay, spoke a bit too soon. This heavily didactic tune comes from 1936, a double-single package marking the 50th anniversary of the Spanish revolution; kind of standard Clash-era strident-studious punk, but I wanted to include this video for all its terrific historical photography, posters and other images.

1986: No Fear (Utrecht)

Dim sound on this clip, but the video archives seem to thin around the middle decade of The Ex’s existence, and you do get an excellent view of: Kat’s kit style (it’s as if she plays the drums with her posture); the guitar-scraping, springs-sproinging, prepared-instrument approach that would be all over the Too Many Cowboys album (including this track, the following year), leading the band away from anything like traditional punk rock; and, finally, Jos with megaphone, which would be his signature prop (with its political-rally associations) for many years.

1990: Das lied der steinklopfer (with the Dogfaced Hermans)

In the late ‘80s, perhaps with its original base in the anarcho-Amsterdam scene getting a bit dispersed (a decade will do that to a radical youth community), The Ex started making much more diverse connections. On 1989’s Joggers and Smoggers they begin collaborating with members of Amsterdam’s vibrant improvised-music scene, which would be a crucial influence on their future directions (it also included Lee and Thurston from Sonic Youth). At the same time, they become almost sister bands with similarly imaginative, political, post-punk units from around the world, including not only Canada’s No Means No, Mecca Normal and Rhythm Activism, but most pivotally, Scotland’s Dogfaced Hermans, with whom they recorded this song, by Weimar-era Jewish anti-fascist journalist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky. That’s the great Marion Coutts, I believe, on vocals; after she quit music a few years later, (see Comments). DFH guitarist Andy Moor would become a permanent member of The Ex.

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  2. Brian says:

    One of the most interesting gaps is side two of Aural Guerilla (1988). Poly-rhythmic Peter Hammill cover (!) leading into a shit storm that fades out one instrument at a time to just the sound of Sok breathing. It’s the roadmap to the Ex of the 90s, more so than Joggers and Smoggers.

    ps. You’re harshing on the strident youthful declamation a little bit. Why the need to put it in, figuratively speaking, quotation marks?

  3. Katherina Ex says:

    Hi Carl,
    great work!! I just wanted to say that the voice on the Stonestampers Song is mine, not Marions. Best wishes Katherina

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