When house music arrived in Holland in the mid-1980s, it was not popular at first with Dutch DJs. It took an exiled Belgian DJ and club promoter, Eddy de Clercq, to popularise the sound in Holland.
Born in Ghent in 1955, de Clercq fell in love with dance music and club culture after becoming a regular visitor to Belgium venue the Popcorn – the birthplace of the country’s first genuine dance music craze, “popcorn.” The sound, a mid-tempo and often pitched-down mixture of ska, soul, Latin jazz, R&B and cha-cha-cha, would later become a commercial force throughout the Low Countries.
De Clercq bagged his first DJ residency in 1972, but it wasn’t until he moved to Holland in 1977 that his career really took off. Not only did he play regularly in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, he also promoted a series of underground disco parties long before the sound was commercially successful. De Clercq opened his first venue, Club de Koer, in 1979. There, as resident, he mixed disco with new wave, post-punk and more.
In 1986 de Clercq co-founded Amsterdam’s Club RoXY, becoming the creative director. He was responsible for promoting Holland’s first weekly house and techno events and later was involved with making some of the earliest Dutch house records. He continued producing and travelling the world as a DJ well into the 1990s. He continues to DJ to this day and is widely regarded as one of the founders of Holland’s modern dance music scene.
In 2005, de Clercq spoke with Bill Brewster about Belgium’s “popcorn” scene and the DJs who fuelled it, his move to Amsterdam and the early days of house music in Holland.
What was your first club experience?
In early 1970, when I was 15 years old, an older friend took me to Paris in his Porsche. He ran a bar/club in Ghent where I lived at the time. After closing his bar, at around four in the morning, we drove down to Paris – a two-and-half-hour drive in his car.
When we arrived we went straight to Le Sept, Rue St. Anne, near the opera [house]. It was very private and exclusive; one could enter this place after being introduced by a member and since my friend knew all the right people there, there was no problem for me to get in.
This was a so-called “discotheque,” a combination of restaurant and bar/club. It stayed open until the last customers left, so the place was still packed when we arrived at seven o’clock in the morning. The upper floor was the bar area and restaurant and downstairs was the club and dancefloor. You could hear the music and noise coming from below and the place was frequented by the Parisian “beautiful people” – artists, fashion models, photographers, trendy gays and lots of assorted freaks. An amazing mix of night people in a very glamorous surrounding.
It was also the club where DJ Guy Cuevas was playing early disco music next to Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango and assorted French pop songs – the typical French taste at the time. Cuevas later became resident at mega disco Le Palace, the legendary club of Fabrice Emaer.
It was at Le Sept that I first heard the hit “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango. The song definitely suited the room and the people gathered – it was sleazy and sweaty and “black” in a glam way. The small dancefloor with lounge seats and private areas around it was surrounded by mirrors. There was some frenetic dancing to a great soundsystem, too. Don’t forget this was Paris and Le Sept was famous for its music and very funky black dancers. But the celebrities surely brought in another element.
It was not uncommon to see fashion model Pat Cleveland dancing on the table next to you, her skirt lifted and showing nothing but the raw naked truth shaved and dyed into the form of a pink heart! Le Sept was also the place where a young Grace Jones drew attention by falling down the stairs while going to the downstairs club – not because she tripped over but because of the photographers waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Or Barry White with the Love Unlimited Orchestra mellowing out in a private corner of the club after a Parisian concert. It was an incredible and mindblowing experience for a 15-year-old boy.
How did you first hear about what became known as “popcorn”?
Before it became huge, the style of music called “popcorn” was first played around 1969 in some Belgian clubs, mostly gay or gay-friendly, that attracted the trendy and fashionable night people. The name of the style came from the Popcorn club, which was famous for the mix of styles of music played by its resident DJs.
Clubbers in those early days were very serious about their music, clothes and the drugs. It was more comparable to the early Mod scene in London around 1964 than the Northern Soul scene of later years. The early clubbers were very dedicated people setting trends in music and fashion rather than following them, nightlife being more of a lifestyle than anything else.
It was at the Popcorn that the first Belgian superstar DJ was born, attracting a crowd of around 2,500 people each Sunday.
Around 1969 the scene in Belgium was concentrated around the bars and clubs of the big cities like Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp, but in summer the scene moved to Ostend. There, it was all about a club called the Groove at night and the Versailles on a Sunday afternoon, where DJ Georges Toniotti was resident and the Popcorn club residents like Luc and Gerrit Vrancken and Lucien PP took over in the summer season.
The clubbers followed these DJs, but also Jeff Callebaut of Club Champou and Freddy Cousaert of the Groove, who were amongst the favorites. Other important and popular clubs included the Golden Gate in Retie and the Chicken Licken and King in Ghent.
In the early years the DJs played an individual choice of different styles of ’50s and ’60s music – doo-wop, R&B, Tamla Motown, ska and some Latin jazz like boogaloo or crazy instrumentals like “Quiet Village” by Martin Denny. Each DJ was famous for his own collection of ultra rare singles.
The styles may have differed, but there was one thing that united and defined the sound: The mid-tempo speed and the “ambience” that each record played in a certain sequence created. DJs often pitched down records like “Comin’ Home Baby” by Mel Torme to give the voice a “black feel” or slowed down the tempo of songs to make them more easy to jive to. Not jive derived from rock & roll, but like a mid-tempo swing or walking tempo where the acrobatics are being changed for more stylish dancing.
Where was the Popcorn club?
Before the Popcorn there was a cafe/restaurant in an old farmhouse called De Oude Hoeve in Vrasene, a small village near Sint-Niklaas, that opened its doors in 1968. Because of the popularity of the music and the ambience the place got too small. De Oude Hoeve was reopened around 1971, with the Popcorn club in an extension of the building, the adjoining barn.
It was open only on Sunday afternoons from around one o’clock onwards. Later it was also open on other nights of the week, but Sundays reigned supreme. The main dancefloor was located in the old barn stables, surrounded by bars and elevated dance stages. The DJ played in a booth elevated above the crowd. It was at the Popcorn that the first Belgian superstar DJ was born, attracting a crowd of around 2,500 people each Sunday.
What can you remember about your first trip to the Popcorn?
The first time I went to the Popcorn club was with a gang of friends from Ghent. Since we had no cars of our own we hitchhiked all the way. it took us an hour to get from Ghent to Vrasene. Most of us arrived around three o’clock, which was peak time. You could already tell how busy it was by following the streets filled with parked cars and well-dressed punters, all heading to this farm in the middle of nowhere.
The place on Sunday afternoon was so packed there was hardly any room to move. People were dancing on the bars, behind the bars and even on the cars parked outside. The atmosphere was so exciting, people started cheering and throwing fountains of beer once a popular tune came on. Sometimes people stage-dived into the crowd or started stripping to the music. The sound was unique, it was instantly recognisable and very decadent to me.
Each Sunday the trick for a DJ was to “break” an unknown record, just like in the Northern Soul scene.
The atmosphere was mostly created by the DJs playing only the intros of the most popular tunes so the crowd could react to each intro. This practice happened at peak times, but most of the time records were played in full. The Popcorn club was also the first big club where gays could dance together in public without being hassled. It was a very liberated, open and friendly kind of place.
What sort of dancing styles were popular at the Popcorn?
Some of the dancers were famous for their stylish moves and certain couples doing the jive got to the point where other dancers just stopped and started cheering and applauding the choreography. But any dance surviving from the ’60s was still popular, especially ska, jerk or whatever individual moves one could do to the music.
What sort of records were they playing? How did they differ from other places in Belgium at the time?
Each club was known for its own style since each DJ had his own unique selection of records, but the sound in general was instantly recognisable as “popcorn.” The early popcorn sound was based on a mid-tempo groovy type of ’50s and ’60s music, combining the styles I mentioned earlier – doo-wop, R&B, Motown, ska, Latin jazz and boogaloo – with some Broadway-type songs like “Whatever Lola Wants” from Damn Yankees or “Stranger In Paradise” from Kismet. Most unusual tracks to program in a dance set, really.
The timing to play this sort of song next to ska or soul, for instance, is important. It had to fit in at the right moment to really come alive. Since the rhythm of “Whatever Lola Wants,” for example, is “cha-cha-cha,” the DJ had to work around the same style and tempo of the records in sequence. So the tempo was pitched down to a “cha-cha-cha” tempo, giving the music a drowsy feel and adding a different flavour to the original.
Most of the records being played were pitched down to mid-tempo, mostly around 98 or 100 BPM. Nothing was really mixed, but sequenced together in such a manner that the rhythm flowed. It was a strict menu of styles that normally don’t mix, but in the hands of these early DJs the sound became strong and recognisable as typical “popcorn.”
Each Sunday the trick for a DJ was to “break” an unknown record, just like in the Northern Soul scene where certain clubs and DJs are remembered for that one record first being played in a certain club. The DJs were mostly a close-knit group of serious collectors as well.
Novelty styles like cha-cha-cha or French and Italian songs were introduced after 1974-1975 when popcorn became a nationwide phenomenon and a whole new generation of DJs and clubbers of mostly French and Italian origin came onto the scene.
What can you remember about the Groove and the Versailles? Were they consciously modelled on what was happening at the Popcorn?
Both are located in Ostend, the major Belgian summer resort. The Groove was a small, late night downstairs bar/club that was frequented by US marines, tourists, hookers and enthusiastic dancers. People from the scene traveled from all over Belgium to hear DJ Freddy Cousaert. In the 1980s he managed singer Marvin Gaye during his stay in Belgium.
The Versailles was only open Sunday afternoon and early evening at Easter weekend and during the summer season. It was located on the main boulevard in a big cafe with a terrace outside and direct access to the beach. When the action was so hot at certain times during the afternoon, a crowd formed outside to watch the madness. Sometimes clubbers ran drunk and naked into the sea. The resident DJ of the Versailles was Georges Toniotti and residents from the Popcorn club took over for the summer season.
Were the DJs very protective about the records they played? Where did they go about finding new records to play?
Some DJs handled their records with extreme care and some even wore white cotton gloves so not to scratch their precious vinyl. The DJs were mostly serious collectors with good connections in the States or UK. Silly prices were paid for certain rarities and it was almost impossible to see what they were playing since the labels were covered up and covers removed. Each DJ became famous for either owning that special tune or breaking new records that defined the sound.
Later, bootlegs were released, mostly compilations with all the hits of the time. Sometimes original singles like “I’d Think It Over,” a big popcorn hit by Sam Fletcher on Tollie Records, were being bootlegged exactly like the original and sold for silly prices too. Shops selling the popcorn sound were limited and one had to travel all over the country to find this. But the DJs were selling cassettes of their sets, so the music circulated anyway.
You started DJing around 1972 at a place called Le Club. What sort of music did you play there?
When I started playing, Le Club in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels had a vast collection of its own records. I was combining danceable records like “Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed, Barry White and Gloria Gaynor, but also stuff from the Blue Note catalogue like “Song For My Father” by Horace Silver, or “Fever” by the Three Sounds.
I also played early French disco from Cerrone when that started to appear later in the decade and funky R&B sounds by James Brown. I played some popcorn too, such as “Watermelon Man” by Mongo Santamaria or more obscure stuff like “Ozzaboo” by Ozzie Torrens and His Exciting Orchestra.
You said that the early years were most important for Popcorn. Why do you think that and what do you consider those years to be?
In the early years, from 1969 onwards, the mix of music was very strict and since the DJs were dedicated collectors, the selections being played were highly respected and sought after. This mix of music was unheard anywhere else and it defined my taste of obscure music as well as my idea of creating a certain ambience to keep the crowd dancing to great black music. After 1974, bland American teen music, silly cha-cha-cha and French or Italian crooner songs – what I would call “pale white music” – came into the mix and changed the sound completely.
These excesses changed the friendly, fun mood of the early years and made people realise that the Popcorn scene had become too big for its own good.
Suddenly new DJs started playing songs by crooners like Connie Francis or Linda Scott, French poppy stuff by Claude François and more and more cha-cha-cha. The early hits were interchanged for new sounds that re-defined the sound. This surely broke up the scene into “hardcore” and “commercial” popcorn.
After 1974, Record companies like EMI started releasing compilations and issuing singles under series titles like Popcorn Oldies . These were mostly filled with the new sound. The market was also flooded with bootlegs. They were not always the best compilations, but exploited the huge demand for popcorn music.
This sound was further exploited by groups like Lou & The Hollywood Bananas, who topped the Belgian charts in 1979 with “Kingston, Kingston” and a year later had a big hit with a song called “Hong Kong Ska.” Of course, new clubs opening all over Belgium programming popcorn, especially in the French-speaking part of the country and some parts of the south of Holland, gave the scene an enormous boost but also made the sound more commercial.
There were some problems too on another level that indicated the beginning of the end of the scene. As Belgium is known for its language problems between the Flemish-speaking and the French-speaking parts, this clash of cultures now came into the clubs together with immigrants of Italian origin. Sometimes massive fights broke out in the middle of the club over nothing. Outside in the parking lot of the club gangs were beating up each other. Police started raiding the clubs and drugs like speed became more and more a problem.
These excesses changed the friendly, fun mood of the early years and made people realise that the scene had become too big for its own good. So the original crowd of the early years went underground. The division between the original scene that had started it and the new was very clear. I already mentioned the similarities between the early and later UK mod scene and this to me is exactly what happened to popcorn. As a scene, popcorn died around 1985, though the sound lived on. DJ Jeff Callebaut, who was resident at the Popcorn until it closed, once told me, “The revival of popcorn music started the day the doors of the Popcorn closed.”
What do you think the legacy of popcorn is to Belgium? Did it have a wider and longer impact on clubs there?
I think that popcorn was the first Belgian club scene that became big nationally and internationally. It defined not only the nightlife scene of those years but also a scene of heavy-duty collectors of rare black music. Clubbers from Holland, Germany and France travelled each Sunday to Belgium to hear Popcorn music. Its impact was felt in later scenes, particularly New Beat in the late ’80s.
Clubs like Boccaccio and AB created their own scenes and sound, just like the Popcorn club had done a few generations earlier. DJs also used the technique of pitching down records, like it was done in the early years of popcorn, to transform the sound and flavour of original recordings. It’s a well-known fact that the New Beat sound was created by the resident DJ at AB in Antwerp playing the track “Flesh” by A Split Second at 33 RPM plus-eight, instead of the original 45 rpm.
You moved to Holland in 1977. What were the differences musically between Holland and Belgium?
Holland at the time was more oriented towards the UK and on its own legacy of the ’60s hippie movement in Amsterdam. Black music was more for the trendy and fashionable crowd. When I moved in 1977 the club scene was very restricted to those groups. Also, Amsterdam offered limited nightlife as only a few bars and clubs stayed open untill four in the morning. Compared to Belgium, where clubs closed around noon, I found this very different. Dutch record shops sold different music than the ones in Belgium, with less variety and more based on the general commercial taste.
Belgians are more individual in their choice of music and the country is more oriented towards France and Italy than the English speaking nations. Their Catholic counterparts bring in more influence then Protestant Holland. In 1977 in Amsterdam, having a good time by going dancing in a club was still a major taboo only practiced by gays or immigrants. Radio and fashion are also much more sophisticated in Belgium than in Holland, even today.
You played as a guest at the Downtown club in Rotterdam as well as your residencies in Amsterdam. What were the differences in music policy like between the two cities and other places in Holland?
In the early years the only real clubs were mostly gay-oriented, like the DOK or De Schakel, especially in Amsterdam. That’s where one could hear an interesting mix of danceable black records, mostly soul, afro, funk, jazz and Latin. Rotterdam was more famous for its bars and clubs that catered almost exclusively to the funk and soul scene, mostly Surinamese immigrants. Utrecht had the first big disco, Cartouche. That was owned by the Poppes brothers who now run Club Escape in Amsterdam.
Where was Club de Koer and why did you start it?
I started Club de Koer in 1979 to be able to play my own style of music and to entertain the following I had created since 1977. Between 1977 and 1979 I used to organise big disco parties at various venues in theatre De Brakke Grond, but also at the well-known Paradiso.
In the early days of Club RoXY, house music was not popular at all. The reaction of the clubbers was aggressive. Even our own staff was anti-house.
These parties attracted a crowd of thousands every month and it’s here that I introduced underground disco. It was still unknown in Holland at the time, before the movie Saturday Night Feverwas released. At Club de Koer I played disco, new wave, some punk and on certain nights I programmed popcorn music as well. De Koer became quite well known as well for live concerts of punk and new wave bands like Soviet Sex, the Raincoats, Marine, Fad Gadget. It was also the “hip” hangout for bands after performing in Amsterdam. Depeche Mode or Lydia Lunch could be spotted on the dancefloor.
When did the first house records arrive in Holland? What was the reaction to them?
Around 1985 I used to organise and play at my own club night, Pep Club, at Paradiso. While playing there I introduced the first house records like “Love Can’t Turn Around” and “Jack Your Body.” These records were not really immediately appreciated, since the style differed so much from the other stuff I was playing then. Shops selling house music were complaining that this style did not sell, so most of the early house discs ended up in the sales bins. That’s where I got most of my collection of the early records. The house scene in Holland was nonexcistent at that time.
When did you open the RoXY? Did this coincide with house music arriving in Holland?
I opened Club RoXY with two partners in 1986 before house music was known as a style to the Dutch public. I really wanted to open a club to play this new music. Also, we wanted to launch a new place in Amsterdam that brought together theatre, a live music venue and club at the same time.
My work was mainly on the creative side of the club and to program bands and DJs for the nights we were open. Next to being co-owner I was playing as a DJ from the very start. On Friday, I programmed mainly new electronic music in all its varieties: house, acid house, Detroit techno, New Beat, electronic body music and so on. Saturdays had a more commercial mix of new and old music like what was popular on MTV. Sundays was “oldies night,” with disco, jazz and of course some sounds related to popcorn. Later we also opened on Thursdays playing rare groove and funk. Wednesday became the alternative night, with rock and punk in association with VPRO Radio.
In the early days of Club RoXY, house music was not popular at all. The reaction of the clubbers was aggressive – people hated it. Even our own staff was anti. It took until 1989 before the music was finally accepted and popular amongst clubbers.
In those years directly after the opening I booked Fingers Inc. from Chicago to play a club filled with 50 people! Their performance that night is quite unique since all three members sang live for the first time, and to hear Larry Heard singing is still a memorable performance today.
We also had Derrick May over from Detroit to play my Friday night to 100 punters. It was a very exciting and pioneering time. There was no other DJ or radio station playing this sort of music, so people were unfamiliar with it and stayed away. Once I had to organise a trip with our staff of 20 to witness the success of Club Boccaccio in Ghent, Belgium to prove my point.
To make the music popular I also flew in DJ Master Scratch, then working at the Hacienda in Manchester to play Friday nights once a month. Baby Ford, M/A/R/R/S and other artists from the UK performed at the club. Although it was a very difficult and long process before house music was accepted, around 1989 its popularity was booming and has been the biggest scene in Holland ever since.
When did ecstasy arrive in Holland. Was it before house, or after?
I remember some people bringing in the first “XTC” pills in Club RoXY around 1988.
Where were the first house nights?
As I said earlier, at Club RoXY from 1987 onwards, on Friday nights. At that I worked together with an English collective called Soho Connection, who started organising the first rare groove nights at RoXY on Thursdays, bringing over bands like the Brand New Heavies and DJs from the London scene.
Later around 1989, Soho Connection was doing nights around Amsterdam called London Comes To Amsterdam. These were the first UK-style warehouse raves and they caused quite a stir. Then overnight, in the autumn of 1989, acid house finally became accepted. Suddenly Club RoXY was the place to be.
Do you think Holland was affected by developments in the UK or Ibiza, or did it develop independently?
In early years, clubs like Boccaccio in Ghent, Belgium, Shoom and Heaven in London and the Hacienda in Manchester were influential, as was the club scene of Ibiza. They were all of big importance because house music was happening there before Holland noticed. But the Dutch caught on quite fast from 1989 onwards, creating their own unique style with the first records being produced and a booming DJ culture. Big outdoor festivals like Dance Valley and Mysteryland were also great for the scene.
The Dutch sound in the beginning was totally different to the UK sound. For example, Fresh Fruit [Records] launched with “Give It Up” by the Good Men, one of the biggest club hits ever. In my own case, I got involved with the first-ever Dutch house record – “Pay The Piper” by A-Men. House of Venus followed soon after with the big international smash “Dish & Tell.” This track was even sampled by Prince for “Thieves In The Temple.” The evolution of Dutch house went very fast from there on.
Backtracking a little, how did you come to bring Derrick May over?
I realised that I could only make the music popular by bringing over the originators that created it in the first place. I had to create a scene at Club RoXY for the music, and since Derrick May was one of my all-time favorite DJ/producers I booked him.
Derrick also moved over for a few years, didn’t he? Why?
He loved playing Amsterdam and fell in love with the city and all the girls here! We became quite friendly and travelled together to gigs around Europe.
What was the reaction to techno in Holland?
Club-wise it was a very and long difficult process for Detroit techno. Musically there were a few producers, like Stefan Robbers in Eindhoven and Miss Djax, that started releasing their own version of techno. And Speedy J of course – Jochem Paap was one of the early Dutch artists with international recognition, being released on Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 label. In Den Haag [The Hague] a small but strong electro scene was active and still is.
Once techno became popular in Amsterdam, Rotterdam followed quite soon as did the rest of the country. But the more accessible sound of groups like Underground Resistance was the popular style of 1989 and trance and gabber, a typical Dutch style, were massive in Holland.
Was New Beat also popular in Holland?
New Beat was shortly popular in 1988 and 1989 but died soon after that. The Belgian New Beat scene formed around AB and Boccaccio became really dodgy and died a quick death. Many of the original creators who were serious about their music started producing techno and the electronic styles that R&S Records from Ghent was releasing.
Who were the most important early house and techno DJs in Holland?
In the pioneering years between 1986 and 1988 the scene was formed around my own Friday nights at Club RoXY, the English DJs from Soho Connection, DJ Abraxas and Jeroen Flamman from Fierce Ruling Diva, Dano and Miss Djax, who organised her own nights in Eindhoven. From 1988 the DJ scene exploded with new names like Dimitri, Joost van Bellen, Marcello at Club It, Paul Elstak and the hardcore scene around Fierce Ruling Diva and Gizmo.
This interview was conducted in June 2005. © DJ History