Shrouded in steam and smoke, lit by furious, flashing strobes, Eddy de Clercq stands behind the turntables at the RoXY. Beaded with sweat, in deep concentration and completely at one with the music, he builds a compelling, hypnotising soundtrack of electronic beats and basslines. Uplifting house tracks alternate with beautiful, vocal garage and abstract, futuristic Detroit techno. Waves of energy shudder through the crowd, who whoop and cheer with each subsequent track. Football whistles blare, a siren begins to wail. Can you feeeel it? The temperature reaches boiling point as the dance floor explodes in yet another ecstatic climax. But then the DJ makes a radical change in tack. The musical rollercoaster hurtles on into the depths of the night, driven forward by an intense, biting acid track that makes the floor shake. Strange and estranging and going so deep that we seem for a moment to step into an intoxicating dreamworld where time no longer exists.
In the late summer of 1988, over the course of only a few weeks, the RoXY, a stylish, former cinema on the Singel in Amsterdam, grew into a veritable house temple: the dazzling centre of the capital's young house scene and a club whose fame in the years that followed would take on almost mythical proportions. Not only because of the music, but also due to the extravagant clientele, who knew how to create an amazing party atmosphere.
"Everyone mixed together. Young, old, men, women, straights and gays," says RoXY DJ Joost van Bellen. "It was also a safe haven for people who felt different, transsexuals, transvestites, rebel artists, exhibitionists, freaks. All those people together made for such an amazing atmosphere. The local supermarket cashier would be dancing with a bank manager and next to them stood Jean Paul Gaultier and a transvestite from Purmerend, who was actually a lorry driver, but on the weekends he donned a wig and came to the RoXY."
"September 1988 was a real explosion," says Fred Berkhout, a regular visitor to the RoXY from the word go and later A&R manager of labels such as Go Bang! and ESP. "In the space of a couple of weeks, the RoXY became the hottest spot there was. What I was a part of then, I've never seen again since. The total variety of people who would just have such an amazing time together. It was completely new to everyone, which created such an unbelievable feeling."
The moment the house craze exploded in Amsterdam was a triumph for Eddy de Clercq. The flamboyant DJ, originally from Belgium, was one of the pioneers and ambassadors of the new music. He was the first Amsterdam club DJ to feel and understand the power of house, realising that it was the future.
The city suited him, "although I was so disappointed in Amsterdam's nightlife that I started organising parties myself. If it doesn't already exist, you have to create it yourself." In 1977 he put on his first parties at De Brakke Grond. "Those disco nights were very successful, but I felt that I had to stop it at its height, or at least at my height before it was reduced to a soulless exercise. Which is why in 1980 I started at De Koer on the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal with a new musical direction: new wave and punk." The Pepclub nights De Clerq put on post-1983 at Paradiso are also legendary, with an eclectic mix from funk and soul to afrobeat and the first house tracks, such as Steve "Silk" Hurley's "Jack Your Body." "I did that for three years. The Pepclub was a huge success. Every night was sold out way in advance."
In 1986 renovations started on what was set to become an exceptional new nightclub in Amsterdam: the RoXY, founded by artist Peter Giele, financier Arjen Schrama and d Clercq, who took on responsibility for its musical direction. The RoXY opened a year later, in 1987. In the time leading up to its opening, de Clercq gathered a large number of protégés—young enthusiastic DJs including Dimitri, Johnson, KC The Funkaholic, Eng-Bo Kho and DNA from Urban Dance Squad. The fixed DJ fee for a whole night behind the decks at the RoXY was 200 guilders, which was nothing in comparison with the budgets for the spectacular decor that was swallowing a large share of the takings. "For me as for Peter Giele, décor was an important part of the evening," says de Clercq. "At De Koer and the Pepclub I had already been working with décor on the club nights. Peter and I were on the creative team responsible for devising the décor. Then those plans were implemented by Giele and a group of décor artists."
In its first year, the RoXY didn't do well at all. The clubbers didn't want to go there, or at least not in large numbers. Financially it was a disaster. In the crisis that followed, it was mainly de Clercq who had to take the rap. It wasn't just the clubbers, who at that point were mainly into James Brown-style funk and rare groove, and understood very little of the house music he was offering on a Friday night—the RoXY staff didn't understand it either. "The only thing that I could hold on to was my own belief," de Clercq says now. "Then I would go back through my records: 'They didn't dance to that, they thought that was crap.' Once I was in my cellar mixing, I put on Chip E. and could just hear them certifying me insane yet again: 'What do you even like about such an abstract track with no substance to it?'"
Joost van Bellen, who at that point had taken on the Wednesday evening, remembers the arguments between the management all too well. "Eddy was under serious pressure, because the RoXY's expenses were so high, money had to start coming in," he says. "Then you'd hear them shouting in a management meeting and Eddy would storm out again, in tears, and I would try to talk a bit of sense into him. But Eddy was as sure as ever. He believed in house.'
In the RoXY's first year, the 25-year old Joost van Bellen was brought in to give Wednesday evenings a different musical flavour. "I had been putting on parties in a squatters' café or "kraakcafé" under the name of Armageddon, playing music by people like Claw Boys Claw, Fatal Flowers, The Gun Club, The Cramps, that sort of thing, until the neighbours came and broke the door down with an axe. Then we moved to the Jodenbreestraat and started another club with a group of squatters called Armadillo." In 1987 he was asked to play at a new night called Bam Bam that was being set up at the RoXY. It would be every other Wednesday and was being organised in conjunction with Lotje IJzermans' new TV show on VPRO. The American punk legend Henry Rollins even played a concert at one of the first Bam Bam events. But all too quickly it became apparent that setting up the night, the scheduling and the technical editing were so expensive that it was only going to cost more money.
"That's why it quickly switched to an evening of solely DJs and performances in which décor also played a huge role," says de Clercq. With van Bellen's eclectic turntable style, Bam Bam was a combination of musical firsts. "From heavy metal and Johan Strauss to glam rock and old disco. I think I bought my first house record in 1986," says van Bellen. "For me it was like science fiction music. I had always loved Kraftwerk and the Neue Deutsche Welle, DAF and all that electronica. But with the first house I immediately thought, 'Wow imagine if you could put on a whole night of this. This really is future music.' For me it was a dream and Eddy wanted to make that dream a reality. He believed in it far more than I did, also because he was aware of what was happening all over the world, in America, in Ibiza and in England."
According to de Clercq it was "a legendary night," which further convinced him that house was the future—even though only 50 people came to the RoXY. Not long afterwards, in a staff meeting RoXY manager Marc van Staveren denounced the musical direction being taken by de Clercq, whose Friday house night had since come heavily under fire. In response to the question, "Who is for Eddy's policy?" there were only one or two answers in the affirmative. For de Clercq, it still stings to this day. "I had brought in all those DJs and given them a chance, but I got very little support from them. If anyone ever had to speak out, they always remained vague."
The result of the meeting was that the RoXY staff gave de Clercq an ultimatum. If numbers didn't improve rapidly, house would be banned and he would have to go back to playing "normal" music again. It seemed that house would most likely die an early death, but in September 1988 both de Clercq and the RoXY were saved by a miracle. Just before the deadline was up, on that first weekend in September, house took hold of Amsterdam. From that moment on, there were suddenly long queues at the RoXY's door. So began a new chapter. De Clercq was suddenly the man and everything was forgiven and forgotten. By the next meeting, Hans Kuipers, the RoXY business manager, had to admit, "Eddy was right."
But how could the Amsterdam scene make such a radical u-turn? "It was in the air," some would later declare; everything just came together in a short space of time. "People were coming back from holiday," says van Bellen. "Some had discovered house in Ibiza, others in England. There had also been a number of articles in British papers like ID and The Face and then it was suddenly being discussed a lot in the Dutch media. Even the negative articles, such as De terreur van het niets (The terror of nothingness) by Fons Dellen in Het Parool had an effect. They made house feel revolutionary. The older generation didn't understand rock & roll in the '50s either."
The acid party Disco Hippies On Acid that de Clercq, van Bellen, Eng-Bo Kho and Johnson organised on August 6th, 1988 lit the touchpaper. They put it on at The Bank, a former bank building on Haarlemmerstraat, so that they could do it their own way, without any pressure from the RoXY. It was an uncompromising experiment, a night of exclusively acid house at a location that could only hold two hundred people.
"Eddy hadn't slept all night, he was so nervous," says van Bellen. "At times like that he always became an emotional time bomb." But Disco Hippies On Acid was a success. "We were able to congratulate each other afterwards. Eddy hugged me. It was amazing. It had worked. This was a great achievement."
Four weeks later, Soho Connection organised a three-day party weekend. London Comes To Amsterdam played out over three different locations: the Mensa student canteen on Weesperstraat, a warehouse on KNSM island in Amsterdam's Eastern Docklands, and the Mazzo on the Rozengracht. The British organisers, Paul Jay, Graham B and Maz Weston, had settled in Amsterdam a year earlier where, alongside Amsterdam's own DJ Johnson, they had been putting on parties in various locations.
"We had already done a London Comes To Amsterdam in the RoXY with funk and rare groove, the hip London style at the time, and the very first performance by the Brand New Heavies," Paul Jay says. "But a few months later my English friends took me to one of Danny Rampling's Shoom parties in London. I was taken straight from the plane to the club. I had no idea what to expect but Shoom was out of this world. Everything we knew about the club scene was turned on its head, all the DJs and promoters were suddenly doing something completely different: acid house." For Jay the new situation was a big shock. He realised immediately that Soho Connection also had to change tack. "Back in Amsterdam I said to everyone, 'Forget rare groove, this is what we have to do now.'"
This time for the London Comes To Amsterdam weekender they got Danny Rampling over from London. "What I had seen at the Shoom party in London was loads of smoke and very little light," says Jay. "So that's what we did at the first party in the Mensa. But Danny turns to me and shouts over the music, 'I can't see a fucking thing!' 'But this is what you wanted isn't it? The whole room full of smoke? This is Shoom!'" Jay grins. "He turns back to me: 'But not this much!"
For the second night the party moved to a warehouse that was being squatted on KNSM Island, where the organisers were completely surprised by the thousands of people who turned up. "We had a big room for the rare groove and a smaller one for the Shoom acid party," Jay says. "We had hoped for around 500 people, but I think about 2,000 turned up. We totally weren't expecting that." There were no toilets, the drinks sold out in no time, and there was complete chaos at the door when a fire broke out in a pile of rubbish outside that was set alight by some reprobate.
"We had no choice," Jay says, "we had to fling open all the doors to the warehouse before panic broke out. So a large portion of the public came in for free." In the meantime Jay grabbed the microphone and quoted the legendary statement from the Woodstock film: "From now on it's a free festival."
"It was complete mayhem," remembers Fred Berkhout. "But I was nicely spaced. There was an enormous room with almost no one in it. And next to that a much smaller room with strobes and smoke that was packed. The thing that struck me the most was that we heard 'Can You Party' by Todd Terry all night. And I had just signed him to Boudisque. It was extraordinary, I had never experienced anything like it."
Paul Jay woke up the next day with a hangover. "The party was a success, but financially it was a disaster. We'd made a loss, which was a big problem because we had absolutely no money. It left us with a bittersweet feeling." But in the weeks that followed, he realised that he had been part of a historic moment. "All of a sudden the phone was ringing off the hook. Years later people who were there are still coming up to talk to me about it. Even though the English contingent that came to Amsterdam was fairly small, I reckon about a hundred people, a whole load of them went on to become well-known DJs. People like Darren Emerson, Harvey, Terry Farley and Pete Heller."
So the Brits may have set the pace for London Comes To Amsterdam, but the long intro originated in Amsterdam's emergent acid scene. "It all seemed to happen at the same time," says Jay. "On that Friday there was a big article in de Volkskrant. That made a huge difference. These were the years before the internet. The media had a lot of impact."
The opening full-page spread in the arts section in the Volkskrant, with the headline "Acid," described the young house scene, the arrival of ecstasy and the kick you got from immersing yourself in such a "surreal dreamworld" for a whole night: "The hallucinating atmosphere of the light and sound effects and the merciless beat that reverberates through your diaphragm make for a relentless attack on the senses. Even without ecstasy an acid party is an unbalancing trip, where heat, lack of oxygen and racing electronic rhythms seem to create the same effect as artificial stimulants."
It is perhaps not entirely by chance that the house explosion coincided with the emergence of a new mind-altering drug on the club scene. Ecstasy gave you a warm, open and sensual feeling, and more importantly the energy to dance all night. The exuberance of the young Amsterdam house scene was given an extra push when a large portion of the party-goers first experienced E, which at the time was not yet illegal in Holland (this happened in November 1988).
Following the full force house breakthrough in autumn 1988, in the years that followed the new movement reached the furthest corners of the country. For the RoXY it was the start of an unprecedented era of prosperity. When he was in the mood, de Clercq's sets were out of this world. Although over the next few months almost all of the RoXY DJs would successfully switch to playing house exclusively, most paled in front of the magic of the grand master. "When Eddy was on form, it was almost otherworldly," says Eelko Anceaux, who back then had just begun work as a programmer at De Waakzaamheid in Koog aan de Zaan, one of the first house clubs outside of Amsterdam. "Eddy was a very difficult person, but I was always happy to work with him and he and I put on a lot of parties at De Waakzaamheid. The best nights were pure magic. There were very few DJs who could measure up to him at that time."
In the meantime, in Amsterdam, other clubs were catching on, such as the Mazzo, which would later become home to DJs like Cellie, Carlijn and Paul Jay. His London Comes To Amsterdam concept provided another three-dayer in the autumn of 1988, in venues such as the Sleep-In and the Atrium. The party was off the hook, this time with a substantially larger group of English partygoers, who literally danced until they dropped.
Within a year Amsterdam had changed unrecognisably. House had a firm foothold, and in the subsequent years continued to grow, as each year it was spurred on by another generation discovering the thrill of a house party.
"It was the end of the '80s and the 'me' era. In that first period house provided precisely more of a feeling of 'we, with each other,'" says Corne Bos. "Some people said that house was like living on the edge of a volcano, but I never felt that. House was very liberating. As if you were rushing through life, experiencing and feeling everything intensely. There were no boundaries. Everything was possible."
"Those early days were amazing," says DJ Marcello, who was later a resident DJ at iT. "The freedom, the chaos. You could just see that the dark ages of the '80s were over. A completely different age was also dawning for society. When the wall came down in 1989, the Cold War was over and Nelson Mandela was released in 1990—it also helped me to realise that there was space for happiness, craziness and experimentation again."
"It's amazing to have been able to be a part of it, that whole early period," says Jay. "Financially it wasn't easy, but it was all very tense and exciting. It felt as though we were stepping into an unknown world."
"That year I went to as many parties as possible," says Eelko Anceaux. "To the RoXY, Soho Connection. You knew everyone because it was actually still quite a small scene. I really had the feeling that this is it; this is where it's going to happen. House embodies it completely. The feeling of a revolution. You had the idea that you were part of a bigger movement, that things were changing. The feeling that now everything is going to be fundamentally different."
Translation by Boot Translations
With over 60 authors, 140 interviews, 1,000 photos and 600 pages, Mary Go Wild - 25 Years of Dance in the Netherlands represents a comprehensive study of dance music's history in the country. The book is released this week to coincide with the annual Amsterdam Dance Event, during which there'll be a party at Melkweg, on Wedesday 16th October, to mark the occasion.