After more than fifty years, Golden Earring is still going strong. The most successful Dutch rock band of all time talks to Tom Springveld about the days of yore and staying true to your sound.
I didn’t know what to expect. Would they still be any good? Of course I could sing along to “Radar Love”—everybody I know can. Now, almost forty years after the conception of the song that made them stars in the US, the band that changed the face of Dutch rock music was still here, about to present their new album, “Tits ‘n Ass,” in Amsterdam’s most beloved concert hall Paradiso. Of all people, I had brought my mother—as if I needed a missing generational link between myself and the four men on stage, each of them in their mid-sixties. We were seated on the balcony. Some Dutch musicians of repute were there as well, and as the concert progressed, I could see them nodding approvingly: Golden Earring was still able to put on a solid rock show.
When George Kooymans formed the band in 1961, he was only thirteen years old. His accomplice, Rinus Gerritsen, was fifteen. They decided to call themselves the Tornados. Since that name was already taken by another group, they opted for the Golden Earrings. The ‘s’ wasn’t dropped until 1969. Two years earlier, Barry Hay, who was born in India but moved to the Netherlands with his mother at the age of eight, had joined the band as the new lead singer. With five studio albums and one major US tour under their belt, the self-titled “Golden Earring”, released in 1970, was the first LP to top the Dutch charts, and also the first to feature Cesar Zuiderwijk on drums. Together these four men formed the classic Golden Earring lineup. And they still do.
The seventies were to establish Golden Earring as a world class rock band. In 1973, “Radar Love”, a sultry, energetic song about a guy who hits the road to see his lover, was picked up by radio stations in both the US and the UK. During the US tours that followed, soon to be famous bands like Aerosmith and Kiss were Golden Earring’s opening act (allegedly, Earring’s road manager Maarten Baggerman forbade Gene Simmons to spit blood on their white stage floor). In November 1977, the roles were reversed. Golden Earring supported Aerosmith, who had hit it big in the US with their top ten singles “Dream On” and “Walk This Way.”
Earlier that year, Golden Earring had opened for the Tubes, an eccentric rock band from San Francisco. In a 2008 video interview with Dutch music website FaceCulture, Mr. Hay gave a vivid account of the events leading up to August 16, 1977, the day he turned twenty-nine, which also happened to be the day Elvis Presley died. “I was in Chicago,” Mr. Hay said. “The night before we had played in Detroit, opening the Tubes. It was one of my favorite bands. They had a kind of porn-like show with a naked woman on stage, and songs like “White Punks on Dope” and “Young and Rich”—that appealed to me enormously. At the time we were very much into speed, which we took with us in plastic bags. They thought it was coke, and although we tried to explain it was speed, that didn’t matter—everything was ‘toot’ for them. Soon they started calling it ‘white cleanser,’ after a Dutch detergent by the same name. In line for the toilets they snorted it up and went completely crazy.” While laughing uncontrollably, Mr. Hay continued, “They put on a spectacular show; everything went twice as fast. The chick was hurled in all directions—it was amazing, and obviously we became good friends with the band.”
Reminding the question he was supposed to answer—Where were you on the day of your twenty-ninth birthday?—Mr. Hay slowed down to get the facts right. No doubt his eyes, as always hidden behind sunglasses, were lighting up at the thought of that night in Chicago, thirty-five years ago. “Imagine the Hyatt Regency, overlooking the lake,” he said. “A long corridor with rooms on each side. The doors between the rooms are all open. I’m in the party room, where things have gotten completely out of hand after the concert. I remember passing out in the restroom and lying with my cheek against the toilet bowl. Girls were coming in to pee—I kind of saw that happening with one eye. They got me back to my senses by blowing white cleanser up my nose with a straw”—this recollection caused more laughter—“and when I woke up there were twenty man going, ‘Hey, he’s back. Happy birthday!’ After a while I fell asleep again. In the morning I was woken up by our Polish tour manager Marek, who said, ‘Barry, Barry, wake up man. Elvis is dead! Elvis is dead!’ I clearly remember him saying that. Apparently I replied, ‘I’m all shook up,’ and went back to sleep. Talking about respect.”
It took Golden Earring five years to top the success they had in the US with “Radar Love.” With their 1982 hit song “Twilight Zone”—inspired by Robert Ludlum’s book “The Bourne Identity”—the group reaffirmed its status as internationally successful rock band. The accompanying cinematic music video was a hit on the newly established television channel MTV. “Twilight Zone” had a fairly positive aftermath—the subsequent singles, “The Devil Made Me Do It” and “When the Lady Smiles,” went on to become minor hits in the States—yet not as positive as Golden Earring had hoped. While “When the Lady Smiles” topped the charts in the Netherlands—their fifth number one hit—and reached the third place in Canada, the Americans seemed reluctant to embrace the song. It is believed this had to do with MTV refusing to broadcast the original video, in which a nun is supposedly violated in the subway. An edited version couldn’t make up for the damage done: in 1984, “When the Lady Smiles” peaked at number seventy-six in the US Billboard Hot 100.
From the mid-eighties onward, Golden Earring took it down a notch with regard to making studio albums. Had they made seventeen between 1965 and 1985, between 1985 and 2005 there were only seven releases. Their immense discography now comprises seven live albums, seventy-four singles, and twenty-five studio albums, including “Tits ‘n Ass,” the first Golden Earring album since 2003’s “Millbrook U.S.A.” Despite artistic and financial crises in the early and late eighties, Golden Earring managed to stick together. The band cherishes its live reputation. “We keep doing shows—but dosed,” Mr. Kooymans said earlier this year, when I caught up with him and Mr. Hay in the bar of a fancy new hotel in Amsterdam, where the latter—despite the fact that it was only 11:30 A.M.—had already summoned a waiter to fix him a Bloody Mary on the rocks.
Mr. Hay, who moved to Curaçao in 2007, admitted that he would rather have stayed on his Caribbean island and do nothing and all. But now and again duty calls, especially when you’re about to release a long awaited new album. “It’s too cold and wet here,” he said from behind his sunglasses, referring to the Dutch weather, making it clear that he wouldn’t mind getting on a plane right there and then to fly back home. “I’m a lazy bum. I always have to be pushed into doing things. Sometimes my wife Sandra says, ‘You should do that, you coward.’ Then I’m like, ‘Okay, fine, if you want me to.’ ” Mr. Kooymans, who lives in Belgium, went on to say that Golden Earring isn’t the kind of band anymore that comes together and says, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to rehearse, and in six months we’ll have a new record ready.’ “It’s all going a bit slower nowadays. And we don’t really mind, because the slow pace eventually contributes to the result. There has to be a vibe that makes us want to go for it. And once that unwieldy machine starts going, it goes.”
The white-haired guitar player wouldn’t dare to call Golden Earring a Dutch band. “We don’t think in terms of Dutch or Belgian or whatever, right? You’re from Curaçao, aren’t you?” Mr. Kooymans asked Mr. Hay jokingly. “Exactly,” Mr. Hay was quick to reply, while his laughter started rolling again. “We’re actually an Antillean band!” I wondered aloud if the fact that he’s been living abroad for a couple of years now had changed his perspective on the Netherlands. “I don’t know,” he said. “People sometimes say that the lack of culture on Curaçao blurs your vision on the outside world, but I’m in the Netherlands often enough to prevent that from happening.” “Nowadays it doesn’t really matter where you are, does it?” Mr. Kooymans suggested. “It doesn’t,” Mr. Hay agreed. “I just like it there because I’m a chilly person. And the music is great. That stimulates me. When you’re standing next to a big black guy with one hell of a voice, you just feel like an inferior pinhead. I think I’ve become a better singer since I live on Curaçao.”
This remark is noteworthy, coming from a man who called himself an “incredibly bad singer” after working on the 2008 Blue Note album “The Big Band Theory”—recording songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” and Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man”—with the renowned Metropole Orchestra. “I’m just the singer in a band, which is very different from singing with an orchestra,” Mr. Hay explained. “Perfect pitch is a defect. It irritated me that there was this musical director at the orchestra who was such a perfectionist that he took all the character away. When you hear Mick Jagger or even Elvis sing, they’re a little off sometimes, but that’s character. That’s what makes it great.”
With Golden Earring, Mr. Hay doesn’t have to worry about a musical director telling him what he can and can’t do. He knows exactly what kind of band Golden Earring is—a no-nonsense rock band—and wouldn’t want to pretend otherwise. And although he’s been the lead singer since 1967, he is convinced that making music can never become a routine. “That’s just impossible. Don’t you need discipline to make something a routine? We don’t have discipline.” “Over the years, we’ve created a certain style,” Mr. Kooymans said. “It’s very difficult to really break away from that. That’s what makes us us, a trademark. It’s the composition, the song, that should hold the surprise or emotion.”
Who knows what the future has in store for Golden Earring, the most successful Dutch rock band of all time? Will they keep going until they drop, as Mr. Hay once said? And if they do, will there be enough time for a follow-up to “Tits ‘n Ass”? Whatever happens, the band is proud of the latest addition to their oeuvre. “I think it’s a genuine Earring record,” Mr. Hay said, sipping on his Bloody Mary. “Somebody even told me it reminded him of “Moontan.” Then you’d say: ‘Damn, haven’t we made any progress these last thirty”—actually it’s forty—“ years? But on the other hand, we stayed true to our sound. This is us, this is how we sound, and that’s it.”
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