Trembling on my legs: the five faces of Henny Vrienten

1 The Nederpop Henny

They are engraved in the collective audience, sentences like: “Don’t come knocking on me, my door is locked. Let me sleep once or I’m going to die.” Or: “I didn’t become what you wanted, but daddy, listen. I do the things I do with my eyes closed.”

Pop in your mother tongue. The charts may now be full of it, from hip hop, synthpop to inhaker, but for a long time pop music was convinced that singing in Dutch was too angular and hard for songs. That it is too explicit, so light and simple. Or just too pompous, very different from the fine roundness of English songs in which everything seems to fit together easily and feelings can be described so much more beautifully.

’32 jaar’, composed and sung by Henny Vrienten, became the first hit success for the band Doe Maar in 1981. And many more would follow, from ‘Doris Day’, ‘Is Dit Alles’, ‘De Bom’, ‘Pa ‘ to ‘1 Night Alone’. No life song. With Doe Maar, the love for ska, reggae and direct lyrics, Vrienten proved that Nederpop could be hip. And concrete. And certainly exaggerated and exaggerated. In love? “Trembling in my legs.” Cheating on me? “You’re chasing your dick.” Worried about the world, calling out politics: “Pretend your nose is bleeding.” They became popular sing-alongs who did not bow to their subject choice, capturing the stubborn, brooding feeling of the current generation, with a wink or a layer of irony.

Doe Maar laid a foundation for Dutch pop music. Where folk singers and troubadours like Boudewijn de Groot have never wanted anything else, countless pop artists have gradually been inspired later on. From a somewhat soft cabaret-like style to rap with catchy R&B choruses.

Vrienten herself has started to muse and reflect more on solo albums. The ego parked for a moment, the heart wistfully open. About how friendship could falter. About oblivion. Or the relaxation he found when he looked for the animals in the clouds in a hammock. (AK)

2 The ska-Henny

Pre-Doe But there were few signs that Henny Vrienten would develop into the greatest champion of ska and reggae in the Netherlands. As Ruby Carmichael and Paul Santos he made traditional English pop songs. As a songwriter for others, he wrote Christmas songs for The Cats and the tearjerker ‘Moeder Wat Is ‘t een Herrie’ (Melchior, 1980). Shortly after contributing to the Dutch punk classic ‘I Dunno’ with Sammy America’s Gasphetti, the ska revival of groups such as Madness and The Specials emerged from England. Vrienten went in search of the source and developed a lifelong love for the ska music of Toots & the Maytals and the dub reggae of producer Lee Perry.

In the early Doe Maar it was Ernst Jansz who introduced calypso and reggae on the first album, made without Henny Vrienten. When Vrienten joined Doe Maar, it was on the condition that the band would focus on ska music and, less emphatically, reggae. The first singles ’32 Jaar’ and ‘Smoorverliefd’ bore Vrienten’s ska signature, also in the bass parts that he virtuosoly glued to his vocals. after the album Doris Day and Other Pieces with ‘Is Dit Alles’ and the clearly Bob Marley bassman Ashton ‘Family Man’ Barrett influenced ‘Distraught’, Vrienten took his reggae love one step further with the dub album Do the Dub (1982).

After a nod to Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse” in “Nachtzuster” and the big band reggae of “Dance Music” on the reunion album Finished In his solo work Henny Vrienten increasingly distanced himself from Jamaican influences. “We borrow that music,” he said in 2019. And “you can’t keep playing music from another culture all your life”. Vrienten drew reggae from the novelty atmosphere of Dingetje (‘Ik Ga Weg Leen’) and brought respect for a type of music that has since belonged to the palette of Dutch-speaking pop musicians, with Kenny B as the main standard-bearer. (JV)

3 Henny as a style icon

When Doe Maar started, reggae was the band members’ favorite style of music. That was hardly visible in their clothing style. Henny Vrienten now and then wore a yellow-green-red striped sweatband around his wrist, but otherwise most of the rasta paraphernalia of the time (knitted hats, casual clothes) were absent. Although one attribute was honored, the love for weed and the smell of joints.

Their appearance was rather inspired by the new wave of British and Dutch musicians of that time. Vrienten’s T-shirts, with the sleeves cut off – so that the shoulders stand out well – had already been made popular by Herman Brood. The denim jacket, also with cut sleeves, belonged to punk.

Henny Vrienten was the most extravagant member of Doe Maar. His jeans were tight, the cowboy boots pointy and he also added something unique to a jacket: a turned-up collar, for example. At concerts, he wore a bandage around his forehead that is often referred to as a sweatband, but it was a knotted, self-cut strip of cloth. More stylistic than functional.

Vrienten was also the most androgynous band member: he had a quasi-casual haircut, wore eye make-up and sometimes a loose tunic of blue glow.

This is how Henny Vrienten grew into a fashion example. Primarily for young fans who, like him, cut their hair short (apart from a thin braid at the back). Later, the Vrienten style was everywhere. The cover of the album had a lot of influence Skunk (another word for Dutch weed), from 1981. The cover was divided diagonally in the colors fluorescent green and fluorescent pink. The fluorine effect was already known at that time for punk, for socks and accessories. After Skunk the colors were suddenly everywhere: from T-shirts to shoes, posters, caps, school diaries and the buttons (round pins) with which young people at the time expressed their taste in music. It turned out to be a pink-green decade. (HC)

4 Henny the antihero

From childhood nostalgia to a status of mythical proportions. The Doe Maar craze of the eighties was quite disproportionate – closer to mass hysteria of screaming girls with green-pink buttons, a band could not come. It was frightening, according to Henny Vrienten and the rest of Doe Maar – pop idols for teenage girls who were only in their thirties. They also had great difficulty with young girls singing along to their adult lyrics (“you’re chasing your dick”).

The band disbanded in 1985. A liberation. “An image of me was created, an image that had nothing to do with myself anymore,” Henny Vrienten told NRC in 1992. “And the bigger that image became, the smaller my need to fill it. When it was over, I just wanted to leave. Out of the spotlight, out of the limelight.”

Vrienten always felt uncomfortable with popularity. He was an idol willy-nilly. The role of the handsome boy on a poster: no. The toll of fame: heavy. In the broadcast of TV program Summer guests in 2012 he called himself “a pop star of nothing”. Being a pop star was an abstract profession anyway, he thought it was slightly ridiculous.

He preferred to be in the shelter. The process of making songs was important to him. And Vrienten believed in craftsmanship, as a composer for films and sesame streetand later also as a solo artist, choosing the time of the release of his albums himself.

He felt more relaxed in the excitement of the Doe Maar reunion concerts, from 2000 onwards. The late appreciation for their music felt quite beneficial and he was more relaxed with ‘the band’. The ballast of the years was gone, he told NRC. “Playing makes you such a boy! Until you see yourself in the mirror on your way to the toilet and think: who is that man again?” (AK)

5 Henny the composer

Henny Vrienten will live on as the front man of Doe Maar, but he devoted most of his life to ‘commissioned music’. He composed roughly two hundred children’s songs, two complete musicals, and over ninety film soundtracks, for films such as without a trace, The Discovery of Heaven, Sonny Boy† Very occasionally he had a cameo in those films, for example as mariachi in Abel.

‘Vlieg Met Me Mee’, from the Abeltje soundtrack, sung by Trijntje Oosterhuis and written by Vrienten:

The composer’s Vrienten had a preference for simple, clear arrangements and attractive melodies. Furthermore, its enormous scope is striking. He effortlessly switched between many genres, usually pastiches to light music styles such as polkas, waltzes, cocktail jazz, bossa nova, chansons. He often made them rhyme with ‘tunes from the past’, he said in NRC in 2014: “Three notes and I know it. Everything you’ve ever heard is stored somewhere.” And he liked to mix in a dash of irony, as he did with Doe Maar.

You can hear that especially in the 140 songs he wrote for sesame street† They are contagious, you can sing along right away. They are often reminiscent of his great predecessor Harry Bannink, although Vrienten uses more afterbeats and other pop elements. The reggae rhythm regularly swings by, which made Doe Maar famous. In 2018 he gave a children’s concert in Paradiso with the best songs from the nursery program. In a YouTube video of de Volkrant see him rehearsing. The actors immediately take on their roles of Ieniemienie, Tommy and Pino. In the video, Vrienten expresses his preference for singing actors: “They can bring a text into the limelight so flawlessly. It is all very clear and there is immediately a story attached to the song. They play such a song as a character.”

‘We have a gas stove at home’, with Caro Emerald, written by Vrienten:

His children’s songs often stayed under two minutes, with his acclaimed musicals he filled an entire evening. Here too he is eclectic and nostalgic, here too Bannink is never far away. For Ciske de Rat (2007) he delivered, among other things, Jordaan songs of barrel organ quality, the rhythm of a big band, a muscular protest song in the style of Brecht and Weill, and a gripping soldier’s march. For Petticoat (2010), which he also made with writer André Breedveld, he immersed himself in the light, cheerful pop music of the fifties, the time before Elvis. “The charm is dripping off,” said NRC.

Vrienten valued his composing as a nine-to-five job, pleasantly far away from the limelight. He told NRC in 2016: “Writing songs is cutting and pasting for me. You can be very romantic about it, but sometimes writing songs looks suspiciously like work.” He compared it to how his father, who was a carpenter, could work endlessly on a chair: “It is a craft, and not much more than that.” (WT)

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