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ProgBlog goes on a successful mission to Amsterdam to seek out vinyl in some of the city's 30 independent record stores.

Armed with two canvas record bags (and emerging with a nice new Record Mania bag) plus a short hit list of Dutch prog, 14 albums were acquired in 48 hours...

By ProgBlog, Feb 25 2019 09:36PM

My first visit to Amsterdam was as a 20 year old, the first stop on a month-long journey around western Europe by train with university friend Nick Hodgetts, where we attempted to find examples of the cactus Lophophora williamsii on the barges tied up along the canals – archetypal botany student behaviour or an unconscious nod towards Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from the Focus debut album In and Out of Focus – botanical gardens frequently featured in our itinerary as though we were in some sort of competition to tick off the most jardin botanique in a short time. Perhaps the most striking memory is being caught up in a housing riot, a tale related to a family friend on my second visit to the city earlier this month. What Nick and I witnessed was a flare-up of the Vondelstraat Riots which began on 29th February 1980 and lasted for four days, prompted by the eviction of large numbers of squatters from a building on the corner of Vondelstraat and Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat. A second episode of violent street protest coincided with the coronation of Queen Beatrix on 30 April and other, smaller outbreaks occurred in August, September and December and into 1981 and 1982. What we saw, quite close up, was a running battle between riot police and youths wearing crash helmets for both disguise and protection from tear gas armed with baseball bats; the police had a strategic advantage as they manoeuvred their barge-mounted water cannon along the canals, so Nick and I retired to an area of safety.


Amsterdam, August 1980
Amsterdam, August 1980

The 24 hours spent in the city in 1980 was perhaps not as much of an eye-opener as you might imagine, even though the basic hotel where we stayed (the Schreierstoren Hotel, named after the 15th century tower which formed part of the medieval city walls, but apparently no longer present at least under that name) was in the middle of the red light district; the area in front of Amsterdam Centraal involved numerous approaches from individuals enquiring if we’d like to buy drugs but my first day in central London as a fresher a couple of years before was no different and, unlike the seedier Soho, Amsterdam’s Walletjes didn’t really have a threatening atmosphere, possibly because it was bright and sunny, appearing more open-to-all touristy.


The opportunity to return, long overdue after an almost 39 year absence, came about as a consequence of FOMO. My wife had visited the city with friends just before Christmas and based on her description of the architecture and various cultural attractions, together with my belief that there was a rich seam of Dutch progressive rock to be found in Amsterdam’s legendary vinyl record shop scene, I signed up for a two-night exploratory weekday visit, with Susan entrusted to act as some form of guide.

Amsterdam isn’t a big city so we didn’t need to be based in a particular location. We chose the museum quarter where there was a suitably comfortable NH hotel in easy reach of Centraal station by a number 24 tram, and because I’d expressed a desire to visit the Rijksmuseum, specifically for its King Crimson connection. Travelling by Eurostar meant there would be no restriction on baggage allowance so I did some forward planning, cross-referencing reviews of prog bands from the Netherlands, compiled a wish list, and packed two canvas bags for vinyl purchases.



Though we had an early start (the 08.16 from St Pancras International, a direct service to Amsterdam) we encountered a problem somewhere between Belgium and Holland and had to be diverted onto a local service route, reaching Amsterdam Centraal 83 minutes late and desperate for a coffee. Despite the delay, we met up with the family friend at a bar near the Opera House at the scheduled rendezvous time and had a pretty awful coffee. Fortunately, our hotel bordered the Pijp district, a bohemian area characterised by Middle Eastern eateries, artisanal craft shops, old school pubs and cafés where, after checking in to the NH and dropping off our luggage, we came across the exceptionally good Locals Coffee on our way to the first of the record shop stops.

Situated on a corner plot, Locals Coffee has a double aspect through large windows, making it bright and airy. The interior was clean and unfussy with contemporary decor; the counter, channelling Rem Koolhaas’ Fondazione Prada in Milano, is a thing of beauty! Even before stepping inside I was attracted by the sign in the door 'baristas wanted', suggesting that they were serious about coffee. It's really not easy to find a decent espresso-based coffee in mainland Europe outside of Italy but the friendly and helpful staff were all trained to a high standard and produced consistent high quality espressos and cappuccinos. They use Italian roasted beans (Buscaglione of Rome), and their model of espresso machine was the one I was trained on. We made it our local coffee shop, stopping in a couple of times each day, taking time to sample the cakes (excellent) and the pancakes (ditto!)



The local record store, Record Mania (Ferdinand Bolstraat 30) turned out to be another great find where, over two visits I ticked off the top two albums on my hit-list, Glory of the Inner Force (1975) and Beyond Expression (1976) by Finch along with more from my list: Marks (Alquin, 1972); At the Rainbow (Focus, 1973); Royal Bed Bouncer (Kayak, 1975); To the Highest Bidder (Supersister, 1971); plus a couple not on my list which I couldn’t resist, Introspection 2 by Thijs van Leer (1975) because it was in perfect condition, in the €2 bin, and In a Glass House by Gentle Giant (1973), which I’ve wanted on vinyl for some time. This really is a must-visit for anyone into music; well-stocked, friendly and helpful.

There wasn’t much time to seek out other stores before closing time but I did manage to rootle through the bins in Record Palace (Weteringschans 33A) as the owner was bringing in his stock from the pavement for the night. Opened in 1988 and considered to be the vinyl shop of Amsterdam, the Netherlands rock section was quite small but there was a section dedicated to progressivo Italiano which contained a few albums I was tempted by. Feeling a little under pressure as the clock edged towards 6pm, I came out empty-handed, the Supersister compilation being in too poor condition to warrant purchase.


Record Mania, Amsterdam
Record Mania, Amsterdam

As with all our family city breaks, the trip had to include activities for everyone so the next morning, following a hotel buffet breakfast and a coffee at Locals, we made our way towards Anne Frank House starting from the south-westerly edge of the Museumplein with another King Crimson reference, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, past the modern art Stedelijk museum and the Van Gogh museum (saved for another trip), past the Rijksmuseum (saved for later), and past the not-yet-open Second Life Music (Prinsengracht 366). Tickets for Anne Frank House are timed and are only obtained online, though this wasn’t clear from our 2019 guidebook or leaflets from the I Amsterdam tourist information; we had (incorrectly) assumed that getting tickets on the door for a pre-lunchtime visit on a Tuesday in early February was going to be simple and straightforward, so our plan for the day was adapted according to circumstance. Watery sunlight had begun to break through the cloud so we took the opportunity to be real tourists, crossing the IJ by ferry and ascending the A’DAM tower to the Lookout and the Over the Edge swing. This formed one of the a modern architecture sessions of the visit – the former Toren Overhoeks was a modernist icon designed by Arthur Staal (completed in 1971) and the regeneration of the Overhoeks district now includes the angular EYE Film Institute (Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, 2012), a building that rather fittingly appears to be in motion.



We were attempting to take in as much of the city as possible by foot, and as I didn’t have any recollection of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building, founded in the early 13th century, I considered it a must-see. It’s located in the red light district which, thanks to the efforts of the city council who direct visitors to museums and bars and other attractions, appeared quite sanitised. With time getting on and the Begijnhof, the next stop on the agenda beckoning, I skipped Redlight Records (Oudekerksplein 26) but found Records and Books (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 371), a shop that had been on my list, closed. To compensate I was allowed to visit Waxwell Records (Gasthuismolensteeg 8) which I’d also singled out as a potential cornucopia for prog, and it was. I came out with another Dutch classic Mountain Queen (Alquin, 1973) and added to my UK-centric vinyl collection with Free Hand (Gentle Giant, 1975); Out in the Sun (Patrick Moraz, 1977); Sorcerer OST (Tangerine Dream, 1977); and World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976). I’d recommend it for its range of stock and the helpfulness of the staff.



I made a lightning visit to the Rijksmuseum on Wednesday morning, arriving not long after opening and beating the crowds. The building, originally designed by Pierre Cuypers in the late 19th century underwent modern but sympathetic redevelopment by Spanish architects Cruz y Ortiz alongside French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and restoration architect Van Hoogevest, between 2003 and 2013. With an ‘All the Rembrandts’ exhibition opening two days later, the museum was in the final stages of preparation but the painting I’d gone to see, Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), was accessible. It's rightly a world-famous canvas but most importantly from a prog point of view, a track from King Crimson’s Starless and Bible Black, originally recorded in the Concertgebouw but largely over-dubbed because of a malfunction with David Cross’ Mellotron during the live performance.



Day three was also a modern architecture day, specifically featuring Renzo Piano’s NEMO Science Museum (opened 1997) which provided panoramas of the city from its rooftop. The return to the hotel to pick up our luggage was planned to include some gift shopping and, on the same canal-side street, Second Life Music. This was too cluttered for my liking and though there was a section for Netherlands rock, most categories were randomly scattered and, due to the piles of records, sometimes inaccessible. It would be nice to recommend the shop but the two members of staff behind the counter were both deep in conversation with a customer or friend so that it was difficult to speak to them or get served. I took a punt on Ton Scherpenzeel’s Le Carnaval des Animaux (1978), in perfect condition, for €7.


And so our rather successful Amsterdam trip ended. While in Waxwell discussing the remarkable number of record shops in the city, I was informed that the population of Amsterdam is a little over 820000 people, with numbers swelled by tourists (6.7 million foreign hotel-booked tourists in 2017) and that there might be some people who would say there were too many record shops... Not me. I’ve still got the early Kayak albums to look out for and, if it ever resurfaces, Present from Nancy by Supersister. I’ll be back.







By ProgBlog, Nov 8 2015 09:09PM

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road bills itself as ‘the free destination for the incurably curious’ and is basically a synthesis of a gallery and a museum that displays an eclectic mixture of medical artefacts and original artworks exploring ideas about the connections between medicine, life and art. I first visited Henry Solomon Wellcome’s former museum in Wigmore Street as a Botany/Zoology student, sometime in the late 70s or early 80s and though the collection has both moved and expanded, the concept of treating art and medical science as equally valid subjects remains true; it’s an institution that appeals to my sense of the value of medicine and medical research which reflects my professional life, but also satisfies my appreciation of the arts, though I subscribe to the belief that the Wellcome Trust should divest its investments in fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. I attended a British Transplantation Society Ethics symposium in its new home last December which concluded with an evening debate, hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby, open to transplant professionals and the general public. The building itself is impressive, with a neo-classical façade and modern interior; high ceilings, clean lines and a spectacular steel and glass spiral staircase that hints at DNA, designed by Wilkinson Eyre and costing over £1m.

I was there yesterday with my family to visit the first instalment of the States of Mind exhibition, an installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, yellowbluepink where the exhibition space is filled with a dense mist coloured by lights, giving the impression that it’s the colour itself that is held in a state of suspension as you make your way around the gallery. Rather like the feeling when you’re caught in a white-out on a mountain, you lose your sense of depth and you can’t detect any detail in the surface you’re walking upon; I’ve been known to fall over in conditions like these when skiing, even standing still. The effect of the artwork is to make you concentrate on the process of perception itself and, as your environment has an apparent embracing fluidity comprised of colour, your normal cognitive processes are deconstructed and you find yourself working out a different way of seeing.

Psychedelia and early progressive rock were very much keyed in to expanding consciousness. Lysergic acid, LSD, was seen as one route and meditative practice was another; I don’t think it can be disputed that LSD and eastern thinking had an influence on the output of the Beatles and it’s very likely that at least one of these had some bearing on Procol Harum (In Held 'Twas in I from Shine On Brightly, 1968) but while acid would become associated with space rock, inner space as much as outer space, an interest in the philosophy of eastern religions was more mainstream, inspiring (amongst others) John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Yes. Bill Bruford jokingly suggests he’s responsible for Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973) because it was at Bruford’s wedding that King Crimson percussionist Jamie Muir introduced Jon Anderson to the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Transcendental Meditation was fashionable when I was at school and a number of my good friends went off to a lecture hear about the practice; the parents of one of them were concerned that the event was some form of brain-washing exercise. Though I read widely around the subjects of expanding consciousness including a trio of books by Carlos Castaneda and the obligatory The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, I was never tempted to meditate and the only hallucinogens I ever ingested were Psilocybe semilanceata, freshly foraged from Streatham common, and seeds from home-grown Ipomoea violacea (Heavenly Blue Morning Glory.) Both were chosen because they were natural, unadulterated products and, in the case of the magic mushrooms, as a former botany student I was unconcerned that I’d pick something unpalatable. During an InterRail tour of Europe in 1980 with fellow botany student Nick Hodgetts, we were on the lookout for Lophophora williamsii, the peyote. I may have been influenced by the almost lounge-jazz of Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) from In and Out of Focus (1970) but despite some promising signs on barges in Amsterdam, we didn’t find any. Back home, the Ipomoea didn’t work at all and the result from the fungi was mildly disappointing; I succumbed to finding everything very funny and though I thought that my smile was going to spread so wide that my head was going to fall off, there were no chromatic or sonic effects. This contrasts with the coverage of use of magic mushrooms by youths in Barrow’s Evening Mail which described tales of visions of dragons. How prog is that? Perhaps I should have stayed in Barrow...

I have found that live music can lead to transcendental experiences. The dreamy soundscapes of Sylvian and Fripp played havoc with my temporal awareness when I saw them at the Royal Albert Hall in 1993, despite the cramped seating conditions. It felt as though I was transported to another time and another place and, as I’d not previously heard any of the material, it came as something of a shock to find that one of the tracks was called Twentieth Century Dreaming (A Shaman's Song). When I used to listen to Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon (1975) in the dark and through headphones I used to imagine other possible worlds, with the flowing, amorphous sounds conjuring a dynamic spectrum of colours. Though I appreciate stagecraft and thematic stage design, I’d always wanted to see Tangerine Dream in a dimly-lit church. The nearest thing I ever came to them was witnessing Node earlier this year, at the Royal College of Music. The pulsating sequences and sonic washes were mesmerising; the musicians were mostly static but when I closed my eyes the effect was to take me on a trip into inner space, equating the sequences with racing heartbeats or neuro-synaptic transmission.

This effect isn’t only associated with soundscapes or electronica; two years ago watching a reformed Camel performing The Snow Goose in its entirety, I was carried by the music to a dream world where I played out the piece, somehow anticipating and embracing the changes required for the composition when realised without an orchestra. The effect seems to occur when I’m most relaxed, undisturbed by theatrical elements and allowing the musicians to weave their magic. Only prog seems to have that magic.



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