Ultra in the 80s: A Real Amsterdam Thing
Ultra was an eighties music-movement experimenting with post-punk and no-wave. Ultra stood for Ultramodern and an approach to music culture that mixed post-punk ideology and anti-commercial attitude while borrowing from the no-wave style; making use of atonal sounds, being experimental with instruments - self built drums, cheap synthesisers etc. - and over-emphasising the clichés inherent to rock/pop.
According to long-time Paradiso promoter Ronald Linger Ultra had a special status within Amsterdam’s music scene of the 1980s: “We were just doing whatever was going on in England, just a bit later. But, there was the Oktopus (youth centre) on the Keizersgracht, they were doing this thing called Ultra. Now that was a real Amsterdam thing. There were guys like the Young Lions and Minny Pops, they were experimenting with all kinds of instruments.”
Ronald’s comment was somewhat perplexing. In a city renown for it’s counter-culture and creativity - particularly at that juncture of time, it seemed odd that something considered a uniquely Dutch approach to music would be somewhat hidden in the background of the city’s creative history.
Harold Schellinx, who was a member of the Ultra-band Young Lions, has documented the history of this Dutch music phenomenon - most notably in his book, Ultra: Opkomst en ondergang van de Ultramodernen, een unieke Nederlandse muziekstroming.
Despite having moved to Paris many years ago, Harold still regularly takes time out to communicate what was going on during the Ultra years. In a phone conversation from his home, he summarised the scene as the Dutch expressing post-punk in their own new way, and it was just a bigger part of what was going on in the world.
“Why was it Dutch? It was the attitude,” he said. Harold compared Ultra to the Art-Rock and No-Wave scenes in New York and London by saying, in those places, the scene didn’t carry the same political edge, and it was this political edge that made what happened in Amsterdam unique.
“It was tied to the squatting movement,” he said, pointing out the ideologies that existed within the movement were inherent in the scene. Squatting was a big part of what made it all possible. However, “It wasn’t just ideological - some people were in it just for the experimentation.”
The squatting scene provided an infrastructure for it. “We didn’t need to worry about money, so we could experiment.” As he explained, you could set up in an abandoned building, and if no one came, it didn’t matter because “money was never an issue, we didn’t think about it.”
Despite the abundance of space that was available for artists to experiment in, it was the Oktopus that became the key to helping all that would spawn from the scene. “It wasn’t really for people like us, but we talked our way in.”
This was important because it opened the door for the ultra-scene to grow beyond being simply about musical performances. Infact, the weekly Ultra nights only ran for 6 months - from September 1980 to April 1981 - before moving on. Harold explained the Oktopus gave the people involved chances to experiment in other media. The centre was not only a podium, but it also housed a recording studio, had audio-visual equipment, a dark room and gave space for creativity in general. Harold admitted, they were really lucky to have access to all the equipment that was available.
Harold explained the Ultra shows at the Oktopus were usually filmed, but joked, “you won’t find much of that around, they were just filmed over on the same tape again the next week.”
The space availed for creativity also spawned a significant music journal called Vinyl, which was an alternative to the mainstream music media of the time. On top of that, many of the people involved with Ultra and the Oktopus went on to become other kinds of artists, writers and journalists.
The fact that Ultra remained largely under the radar of Dutch mainstream media may have had something to do with the conservative Dutch attitude towards new things at the time. Harold said it took the London based New Music Express (NME) to report on it before it got into the mainstream Dutch media. Like Ronald, Harold suggested the mainstream media focused on what was happening in other cultural hotspots - like London and New York. Therefore it required recognition from one of those ‘authorities’ for it to have the thumbs-up to be accepted nationally.
Ultra, as a live scene, probably ended with the last edition of Vinyl that was printed in 1988. However, many of the musicians had already moved on by that time. A number of the performers did continue to play regularly, and others evolved to perform in other experimental capacities.
Essentially, the people within the Ultra scene took advantage of the unique time and place they found themselves in. They used what was in front of them locally to extend ideas that were being experimented with internationally. In this way, they found a way to turn the “real Amsterdam thing” into a unique chapter of Dutch creative expression.