"You must be quite surprised to read this mail as you wrote to me a little more than a year ago.
"I could probably come up with thousands of excuses for this late reply but I will stick to the truth:
"I have been back in the sixties (and before) mentally for the past year and a half where I have been researching and writing my new book about the man behind the very first Danish-languaged rock-LP, 'Hip' by the band Steppeulvene, released June 1st 1967." (11/14/12)
Indeed, I was, for I'd emailed Jan Poulsen more than 15 months ago -- at first, to get some basic information about The Lost Kids, a Danish punk band best-known for a) a singer that sported funny monster makeup, and b) "Coca-Cola Freaks," a single released in 1979.
Having seen the odd clip or two floating around Youtube, I wanted to know more about this band, and the kind of scene that produced them. On further reflection, I had to expand the quest, once I learned that Jan had written SOMETHING ROTTEN, the first definitive account of the Danish punk scene -- and, though it originally appeared in September 2010, is definitely worthy of wider exposure.
After all, that's my main rationale for doing these interviews, whether they happen over the phone, or the transatlantic magic of email...if I haven't seen it in print, and it's interesting to me, it'll probably be interesting to you, as well. So here we are.
At any rate, now that Jan's finished his latest book (see below), here are his responses -- which come to you, like a light from a distant star, as he answered them on November 4, 2012 (following my original 8/12/11 email on the subject). Enjoy, and while you're at it, make a point of tracking down some of these records...because it's all about the music, isn't it? To me, anyway.
CHAIRMAN RALPH (CR): As you mentioned, you've been involved in the scene from the beginning: tell me about your background (journalistic and/or musical), and what set you on your current path.
JAN POULSEN (JP): I was born in 1962 and became obsessively interested in pop and rock music at a very early age. I was five years old when I bought my first 45-single in 1968. From early 1973 I was a big David Bowie fan and that was quite unusual as I was just ten years old and Bowie was considered “adult-music” here in Denmark. He was not that successful here in the 1970s. My boy-classmates at school were mainly listening to Sweet, Slade and Suzi Quatro and my girl-classmates to The Osmonds and Bay City Rollers. The older boys I did know at the time were listening to hard rock such as Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep. So you could say that I was quite alone with my taste of music during my early upbringing.
The very first concert I went to was David Bowie the 29th April 1976 in Copenhagen on his Station-To-Station tour. I was 13 years old then. The following years I saw Lou Reed, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Ian Hunter and many, many more, and I was reading the British weeklies NME and Sounds and the monthly ZigZag and I was especially drawn to the articles on punk. When I heard about a Danish punk band, Sods, I went to a concert by them at Christiania (the free state within Copenhagen) in the early spring of 1978 and that was just their third of fourth concert at all. I became a punk and at that time we were just 20-30 punks in Copenhagen. Shortly thereafter I began working at the tiny record store Superlove, one of the few stocking punk records in Denmark at the time. We did also sell badges, fanzines and the British weeklies. Nearly everyone interested in punk in Copenhagen at the time bought (some of) their records at Superlove and I became friends with almost all of them. And quite quickly I noticed that we shared the “same” background: The others had also been very alone at school with their fondness of Bowie and those artists. Many of the people I met at that time are still my friends today.
In 1981 I began writing about music for a few magazines and I contributed to the encyclopedia Rock Nu (a very successful book about punk and new wave published by Politikens Forlag) and the same year I did also begin as a DJ for Danmarks Radio (the national Danish Radio) where I continued working as a DJ, host and music journalist until 2000; the last five years of the 1990s with a daily show called Popshop where I interviewed everybody from members of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin via Bowie, Iggy and Patti to the smallest UK or US-indie band of the time.
In the same 18 year period I wrote for several magazines, booked concerts, published my own fanzine (Adventure), had two labels (Addiction and Guiding Light). After 2000 I have mainly written books, among other titles biographies on Denmark's first (and best) punk band Sods (later to be known as Sort Sol) in 2002, David Bowie in 2006 and a brand new one about Eik Skaloe of the '60s band Steppeulvene (published 8th November 2012).
CR: Obviously, one major reason for writing a book like yours is to document history that would otherwise go ignored by the world by at large. What other factors led you to write SOMETHING ROTTEN (and is it available in English)?
JP: Yes, that was my main motivation and especially because the early Danish punk scene didn’t look like other punk scenes that I was (am) aware of. We had a scene where music, art, poetry and performance art melted together in one big scene: People were participating in each other’s “business” in an extraordinary way. Poets were reading between the different bands at gigs, musicians were playing at openings of art exhibitions and in between, and all the time various performance art took place. Many of the punks and scenesters in Copenhagen were doing all things and sometimes at the same time, so when you went to a “show” (gig, art opening, poetry reading, whatever it was) it was very exciting as you very often didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.
No, unfortunately, the book is NOT available in English but for all non-Danish speaking/reading people I can add that the book is richly illustrated and it comes with a COMPLETE discography with all covers shown and ALL information about the records listed. And, as we all know: Discographical language is universal.
CR: Everyone has their favorite pre- and post-"Year Zero" '77 story...what's yours? What kind of music scene existed in Denmark before punk came along?
JP: The Danish music scene pre-punk was just as boring as the British scene with the few obvious exceptions (Bowie, Roxy, Cockney Rebel, T. Rex, etc.) except that we didn’t have that exceptions, ha-ha. To cut a long and boring story short you could say we had two sort of bands here pre-punk: We had the usual bunch of bands just copying the sound of the day in USA and UK which I think all mainland European countries had at the time. Music with no edge at all, with musicians playing it safe to please their audience. And the other sort of bands were political agit-prop bands reporting from the far left of the political scene. Musically you could sometimeS – though rarely – find something of interest here and lyrically too but very often the lyrics were very dogmatic. Danish rock at the time was colourless and very short of fantasy and exciting ideas. That’s why punk was not just a good “idea” – it was necessary.
I may have lots of pre- and post-1977 stories but I try not to focus on them as I won’t damage or pollute my otherwise open mind. I am always moving – often forward but sometimes backwards – looking for new music. And today I consider an old record which I have never heard before as a NEW record. For me today music is out of time and I do listen to music from all periods and from many scenes. Of course I do have some favourite scenes and periods and the 1970s punk scene do still mean everything to me as this period covers my formative years. Having said that, it is very rare that I play the 1976-77 stuff today. I tend to go for the early post-punk and the year 1979 is my ALL TIME favourite year in music with a dozen brilliant DEBUT albums from UK alone (The Pop Group, Swell Maps, This Heat, The Slits, The Raincoats, The Fall, The Undertones just springs to mind and there are many more) and fantastic (non-debut) albums from Wire, The Only Ones, Public Image Ltd, Throbbing Gristle, Buzzcocks and a big handful of excellent US-albums too: Debut-LP’s from both Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, “New Picnic Time” from Pere Ubu, “Soldier Talk” from Red Crayola and more. As said: 1979 was a FABULOUS year.
CR: What event helped to jump-start the whole scene? I'm assuming it was the Sex Pistols' Scandinavian tour, although if memory serves me correctly, they only did two gigs there, right? Still, the Pistols' music translated really well in Scandinavia, probably better than a lot of other places - what made you guys different from the audiences that they faced back in the UK?
JP: Correct, the Sex Pistols’ two concerts at Daddy’s Dance Hall in Copenhagen the 13th and 14th July 1977 kickstarted the Danish punk scene as well as their visit to Sweden and Norway on the same tour did the same thing there (as many of their gigs also did many places in the UK – just think of the legendary 4th June 1976 Manchester-show, where everybody [the myth goes] in the audience that night went out and formed his/her own band the following day!).
I don’t know if the Pistols’ music fared better here in Scandinavia than other places but the reason they came here was of course that they were not allowed to tour UK and we were just a ferry away (well, 18 hours sea ride but still – just a ferry away!).
CR: Two of the bands that everyone mentions are the Lost Kids, which led me to you, of course, and the Sods -- who lasted well beyond the initial '77 explosion, and underwent a series of stylistic makeovers. What made them important, and who else would you put in that category of seminal/influential bands?
JP: Being the first Danish punk band Sods was very important for the coming “generations” of punk bands here. But as you say they didn’t stick very long to their original 1977-sound but progressed very quickly and were always going in new directions. Their first LP, “Minutes To Go” (recorded in 1978, released in February 1979) is close to their early sound with a heavy dose of Siouxsie-inspiration but already on the time of release they didn’t sound the same. Their second LP, “Under En Sort Sol”, does have some parallels to the postpunk Mancunian scene (Joy Division, early ACR etc) and on their third LP, “Dagger And Guitar”, produced by Chris Butler of The Waitresses and with a guest appearance of Lydia Lunch, they were going in many directions. Between their second and third LP, ie 1980-83, they peaked creatively in my opinion and recorded hours of material which to this day has never been released and probably never will be. Unfortunately. Some of this material are finished songs, some are long improvisations with guest musicians etc. Very, very exciting stuff indeed.
As for Lost Kids – they were looked upon with a sceptical eye from many of the young punks in Copenhagen as they were older and some of them had had a foot in the “hippie-community” and just turned themselves into punk when it became “smart”. Many saw Lost Kids as fake and posers. However, for a short period of time Kate Svanholm (known then as “Pussi Punk”) was their co-singer along with Jan Jet and she became a kind of pin-up star and for many non-punks she became the “face of punk”. Without her – live and onstage – Lost Kids were nothing. And to prove my point you can just listen to their two LP’s: The first “Bla Bla” with her and the second “Bla Bla 2” without her. The second sucks big time and everybody – as in E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y – will say that.
CR: How did the scene change within the time period that you cover ('77-'85), and which bands played the biggest roles in making that transition happen?
The scene changed as as long as more and more punks and bands appeared. Musically, the first key point was the big Concert Of The Moment concert at Saltlageret in Copenhagen 9th November 1979 (documented on a triple LP released a year later on the Irmgardz-label) where approx. twenty bands from Denmark and (two from) Sweden played. That night the scene went in two directions: Some bands were either digging the postpunk from UK and/or searching for new ways to go and that goes for Sods and No Knox of the old school and the two debuting bands Art In Disorder (known that night as McVærk) and Ballet Mecanique (known that night as Identity).
And others were sticking to the old 1977-sound and many of these bands like City X and especially some of the great bands from Aarhus like The Zero Point and War Of Destruction (both of whom did not play at COTM) became the second generation of Danish punk. A little later Ads and Before (both from Copenhagen) made quite an impact and became successful on the scene with Ads going in a goth-direction and Before in a more poetic/hypnotic direction with the enigmatic frontperson Fritz Fatal. However, Ads did never release an album, Before did.
And I will also mention the band Kliché which was not a punk band per se, but they were born out of the millieu in a way and often shared the bills with the punk bands. They were the only band who had some commercial success with their debut-LP, the strong Eno/Devo/early Roxy Music-orientated “Supertanker” from 1980.
CR: How did the industry respond, once it became clear that people wanted to hear this kind of music? Did the need to sing in Danish vs. English (as the Lost Kids did) limit the prospects of international success? Were there any bands (besides the Sods, perhaps) that could have made it worldwide, along the lines of the Clash, or Sex Pistols?
JP: The record industry did not respond to punk at all. The only label interested were Medley which were an indie label with a major label profile though they were not seen as an indie label as their main staff were “outbreakers” from CBS. However, these two guys, Poul Bruun and Michael Ritto, were great people and very supportive of the punk scene but they didn’t have much time for the scene as they were busy building up Medley which they had just established in 1978.
Compared to other countries very few local punk (or punk-related) records were released in Denmark as we didn’t have any pressing plants at the time. The last one had been shot down after the big oil-crisis in 1973. Therefore, we had to go to Germany or Holland to have our records manufactured, which was very expensive. Instead, the cassette tape had a strong life wihtin the punk scene and many bands released their music on cassette.
I don’t think any bands were thinking in terms of success or international stardom and such things. Bands were playing for all the right reasons and to give an example: As said, Sods released the very first Danish punk-LP, “Minutes To Go” in February 1979, and after almost 25 years available it had sold 5.000 copies. I think, that says it all.
And no, I don’t think any Danish band beside Sods could have made it. And I don’t think that it has something to do with singing in Danish or not. In my opinion the Danish bands – besides their individual qualities – were simply not strong or original enough. Full stop.
CR: You mentioned five months to set up a meeting with Jan Jet: what were some of the other logistical and practical challenges that you encountered in writing your book? How do the folks involved look back on their roles, especially since there was little chance of becoming hugely successful at it?
JP: As said success was never a parameter on the Danish scene as I see it. Most of the people I spoke to for the book looked back to the period with fond memories because we must not forget: Though it all looked dark and serious and gloomy to many people – and it was serious business – we did also have a lot of fun. We were kids without any respect for the older generations and we were trying to create OUR places, our positions in society, and many of us -- the early punks-- did succeed one way or another I suppose.
My big challenge was to find people from the early days. Although many of them are my friends I would say that a handful of people were pretty difficult to track down. But in the end I managed to. Otherwise, it was a long roller coaster ride researching and writing the book though it was also boring and time-consuming transcribing interviews but that’s part of the job, isn’t it?
Dansk Punk Blog (And if it reads a bit funny, it's because I hit my "Translate" function...but there's lots of good info and pix here:)
Martin Hall (Official Website):
Not directly relevant, but an amusing tangent, nonetheless:
Remember: as new entries are posted, previous ones are pushed further back, and seem to vanish off the page -- but they're still here! For a complete list, just click the "Archive" button (above), then hit the appropriate link to find your favorite interview.