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PRESENT FROM NANCY/TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER (Polydor 843 231-2) [1970/1971]


ISKANDER/SPIRAL STAIRCASE (Polydor 843 453-2) [1973/1974]

Supersister was a unique Dutch group whose entire output (six albums) was released on three CDs in 1990 by Dutch Polydor. All are well worth having and reward repeated listenings.

I first heard Supersister in the upper-Manhattan record store Pantasia in the mid-seventies, while browsing for obscure imports. (Pantasia later moved to Yonkers; I have no idea if it is still in existence, but if it is it deserves to be checked out.) The album SPIRAL STAIRCASE SASS (also known as SWEET OKAY) was playing. I wasn't paying close attention, but it sounded like a demented take on disco. It stuck in my head after I'd left, and the next time I was in New York City I returned to Pantasia and looked for it. I had of course forgotten the album's name by then, but I was lucky and found it anyway. As it happened, that was Supersister's last album. Subsequently I found all but one of the previous LPs. And later I picked up NEVERGREENS by Stars & Stips, Robert Jan Stips' solo album, a 1976 follow-up to Supersister. And later yet I bought albums by Gruppo Sportivo, a Dutch group (despite the Italian name) produced by Stips...but I'm getting ahead of myself now.

With a name like Supersister you'd expect a black female disco group -- maybe a Donna Summers spin-off. And the manic "ooooh!"s and "ahhhh!"s that punctuate one portion of SPIRAL STAIRCASE SASS might lend credence to that expectation. But in fact Supersister was a quartet of young (very young at the beginning) Dutch males with a strong progressive attitude.

Supersister released their first album in 1970, and the musicians pictured on PRESENT FROM NANCY's front and back covers look like teenagers. Although I cannot document it here, I believe they ranged in age from 14 to 16. Whatever their age, their musical abilities and ambitions were mature. Like most progressive rock musicians of that era, they did not think of "prog" as a category, but as a release from categories. Their music was far-ranging. An unsigned (but probably by Alan Freeman) article in AUDION #24 (March, 1991), written soon after the Polydor CDs came out, credits them with having been influenced primarily by "the Canterbury scene, and in particular the music of Soft Machine, Caravan and Egg" and by Frank Zappa. "Supersister's style involved a very multifaceted, complex concoction of rock, beat, psychedelia and jazz fusion, extensively featuring keyboards, flutes, a lively song style and many surprises. In common with many Canterbury bands, Supersister had no guitarist (a guest guitarist, one Gerhard Schmid, is featured on one track), in their music processed keyboards and bass guitar being given more freedom as solo instruments."

Robert Jan Stips was the keyboard player and lead vocalist (all vocals/lyrics are in English); Ron van Eck was the bass player; Sacha van Geest played flute and tenor sax and contributed vocals; and Marco Vrolijk was drummer and vocalist.

PRESENT FROM NANCY is an amazingly accomplished album for such a young new band. Here one finds piano segueing into Gentle Giant-like angular melodies, with Zappa-esque vocals. (One twenty-second track, "Eight Miles High," consists of the single lyric -- taking off on the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" -- of "Eight miles high, and the living is easy!") Into this is blended cabaret, maniacal laughter, and Canterbury-style instrumental sections. (The inner sleeve of the original LP has "psychedelic" art and doodles interspersed with lyrics and credits in the "hippie" style of the time.) And all the tracks are segued into side-long suites. Very trippy. 

While PRESENT FROM NANCY has ten separately-titled tracks, the second album, TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER, has only four. (Five on the British version of the LP, which includes the single, "She Was Naked." This track also appeared on SUPERSTARSHINE and will be found on the second CD in the SUPERSTARSHINE half.) Two of those tracks, "A Girl Named You," and "Energy (Out Of Future)" are long suites in their own rights. On the CD one album follows the other seamlessly.

PUDDING EN GISTEREN, the third album, has five tracks, the fifth and title track (almost 21 minutes long) occupying the entire second side of the LP. It is in turn a direct continuation from the first two albums, a reflection of the maturity of style with which Supersister began. Here one finds Elvis impressions mixed with avant-rock.

SUPERSTARSHINE is a somewhat different album. It is in fact "Volume 3" of a mid-price series of collections. (Volume 1 was Golden Earring, vol. 2 was Earth & Fire -- both Dutch groups -- while vol. 4 was the Bee Gees....) The album collected together early (1970) non-album singles (like "She Was Naked") along with several album tracks and one live cut ("Wow") from 1972. The three redundant album tracks have been omitted from the CD version of the album, leaving seven pieces -- six singles and the almost-13-minute live "Wow." The penultimate track, "Spiral Staircase," prefigures the final album, which is built on an extension of this song about "a chance encounter with the 'Schizophrenic Spiral Staircase Gnome' and a tea drinking ritual," to quote the AUDION article, which adds, "Gong fans take note!"

The fifth album, ISKANDER, goes off in an entirely different direction. It was not originally recorded in Holland as the other albums were -- and I never heard it before getting the CD. The album was produced by Georgio Gomelsky (who had a hand in early Soft Machine and Gong-offshoot albums) and recorded in England at The Manor (where Oldfield recorded TUBULAR BELLS). A jazz-fusion-oriented album, although traces of Supersister's distinctive melodic style peep through in places, it uses middle eastern motifs and is a "concept album" (as though Supersister's other albums weren't!) based on the life of Alexander the Great (Iskander was his Turkish name). Jazz saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who had gone to Germany to record with the German group Embryo, replaces Sacha van Geest, bringing a fuller jazz sensibility to the music. Drummer Herman van Boeven replaced Vrolijk, and Pierre Moerlen (of Gong) sits in for one track. AUDION notes that "the songs are rather subdued in a much jazzier music featuring Charlie's sax, flute and clarinet playing quite extensively, and with such a leaning the sound draws closer to the likes of National Health," but adds, "As a more sedate and serious respite ISKANDER (especially with the opening and closing deeply ethnic sounding nagasaram solos) is arguably Supersister's most complete and balanced album.." I would question that conclusion. The words "sedate and serious" offer a clue to my disagreement -- one could hardly apply them to anything else in Supersister's recorded output. ISKANDER sounds like Supersister processed and molded into a "respectable" jazz-oriented group, and lacks entirely their sense of humor and fun.

We are offered no personnel credits for SPIRAL STAIRCASE SASS (on either the original LP or the CD -- which also fails to give credits for ISKANDER; I gleaned those from AUDION), but van Geest is back, credited with "Set up, lyrics, and additional musical ideas," while Jan Stips is credited with "musical scores & arrangements." That seems to suggest that van Geest came up with the idea and the lyrics, while Stips supplied the music, and the song credits are uniformly Stips/van Geest, but AUDION claims the album "was entirely composed by Sacha van Geest." AUDION describes it as "To put it mildly, this is one of the craziest and eccentric albums I've heard! Opening as a continuation from the single, we are set for a trip of radical and schizophrenic invention, where almost anything goes: we have rock 'n' roll, calypso music, full-blown jazz-rock riffing (ex-Soft Machine [saxophonist] Elton Dean is featured as guest) and even bagpipes! This tongue-in-cheek set of eccentricity is almost certain to brighten up anyone's day." Indeed. It hooked me!

That was Supersister's last album, a stunning finish to their recorded career -- a blaze of glory in which to make their exit. Why did they break up? One glimpses clues in the musical shift on ISKANDER and the changes in the band which accompanied it. And SPIRAL STAIRCASE SASS would appear to have been a studio creation using only Stips and van Geest from the original band, perhaps fulfilling a contractual obligation.

In 1976 Robert Jan Stips released NEVERGREENS (Dutch Polydor LP 2925041) with a new quartet which he dubbed Stars & Stips. It was a solid successor to Supersister, but apparently failed commercially, perhaps because of the shifts in the music (recording) industry at that time which put an end to many progressive bands' recording contracts. That was as far as I know his last recording of his own music, although he briefly worked with Golden Earring (on their album TO THE HILT) and with jazz flautist Chris Hinze. AUDION says "He later attempted to resurrect the idea of Supersister, with the more electro-oriented Transistor. The results were sadly rather mediocre." His production work with bands like Gruppo Sportivo revealed none of his musical zaniness. None of the other members of the band have surfaced since, and "seemed to disappear from the scene altogether," as AUDION put it. "Yet, Supersister left behind a legacy of exceptional and innovative music that is still as fresh and revolutionary today as it ever was!" I concur.

All the CDs -- Supersister's entire recorded output -- are highly recommended.

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