The eccentric genius of Group 1850
Group 1850 was one adventurous rock bands of The Netherlands in the late sixties. Agemo’s Trip to Mother Earth and Paradise Now were two of the best albums ever to come out of the Dutch psychedelic era. Over the years their reputation grew, especially internationally. In the frequently changing line-ups of the band, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Peter Sjardin was the only constant factor. This is the quest for a unique talent that managed to stay a mystery for all his life.
Mid-sixties Dutch musicians used to look sharp while performing. Jacket, tie and shiny shoes. And a deep bow after each song. Amidst all this politeness the band from The Hague, led by young musician Peter Sjardin looked out of place. It already started with the band name: The Klits. Indeed, it refers to the female anatomy. Shows were theatrical experiences, that often cumulated into total chaos and anarchy.
“Peter was obsessed by music, even as a young kid”, brother Frans Sjardin reminisces. “As a kid he played endlessly on his mouth-harp. He badly wanted a piano, but my parents didn’t approve. When he went to live on his own at the Slijkeinde in The Hague, he did at last buy one. Peter was at that time already busy rebuilding organs into some sort of primitive synthesizer: the organizer. I did help him. Dad had an electrotechnical company, which was very helpful.”’
In December 1964 Hugo Gordijn sees The Klits when they are performing in Scheveningen. Afterwards he is approached by Peter. “For a reason I stood out. He took me backstage and asked me out of the blue if I wanted to be their manager. Something in my appearance gave him that idea that I was suited for that task. I was totally inexperienced in that department. Still, I took that chance. Peter had an intriguing intensity about him. Because of his electronic experiments his music sounded completely different from other bands at the time.”
In the beginning of 1966 The Klits morph into Group 1850 (also Groep 1850). The band, besides Peter Sjardin, then consists of Daniël van Bergen on guitar, Ruud van Buuren on bass and Beer Klaasse on drums. The band introduces itself in a fitting way. During their first show, in the Casino in The Hague, Peter Sjardin smashes his beloved organizer to shreds. Group 1850 has established itself.
“Peter was weird”, mesmerizes Beer Klaasse, with a sense for understatement. “He had a kind of devotion I have not seen since in the music business. Music, especially sound, was an obsession to him. By the way in the beginning we played mostly covers of songs by The Beatles and The Zombies. We once played at the Paradiso Amsterdam as support act to Pink Floyd. That was a turning point. That band played so freely, that’s what we wanted too. From that moment on we concentrated on our own work and we began to improvise more.”
With ‘Look Around’ and ‘I Know (Le Pensee)’ the first two singles were released, both flopped. Success arrived with their third single: ‘Mother No Head’, a creative conversion on the nursery rhyme ‘Father Jacob” (Jacob in Dutch sounds like Yes Head). It’s recorded with the help of the Urker Mannenkoor (a male choir from Urk). “Peter wanted that choir in the lead”, Beer Klaasse remembers. “Our producer Hans van Hemert didn’t want to hear about it. While we were gone for a while, he wrote the lyrics and recorded it himself. We just had to accept that. It became our sole hit. For years Peter had to reluctantly interpret the bit that wasn’t his in the first place.”
His artistic revenge came 1968, with the debut album ‘Agemo’s Trip to Mother Earth’. The mind-blowing combination of pop, rock, psychedelia and nursery rhymes is groundbreaking, certainly to Dutch standards. Hans Wesseling made some important contributions to the lyrics. The music free of any limitations still manages to amaze, even almost half a century later. It is also the first concept-album by a Dutch band.
The cover was just as revolutionary: the front shows a three-dimensional picture, which should be seen through a pair of enclosed spectacles. “The cover was my idea”, says Beer Klaasse. “As kids we ate Planta margarine (a brand much consumed in the Netherlands in the time). It was delivered with three-dimensional pictures in those days. I was quite keen on them. That came back to me when we were discussing the album cover. It turned out to be quite a hassle. In the Netherlands there was only one photographer with a suitable camera. In the picture you see everybody with a link to the album. We, our girlfriends, Hans Wesseling with his wife and children. It was all meant to emphasize that this was a cooperative enterprise.”
In 1967 and 1968 the band played a lot of shows, in Holland and abroad. Group 1850 shared the stage with major acts like The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and The Troggs. At the end of 1968 the line-up falls apart. Beer Klaasse blames it on Peter Sjardin’s increasing consumption of drugs after his move to Amsterdam. Hugo Gordijn persists that Group 1850 was drained ruthlessly by Golden Earring-manager Freddy Haayen, who needed musicians for The Boots; a new band for his protege Jack Eckhardt.
In Amsterdam a new line-up of Group 1850 emerged, with bass player Dolf Geldof, drummer Martin van Duynhoven and guitar player Dave Duba. Daniël van Bergen rejoined after six months. The way Peter Sjardin recruited new bandmembers was as unconventional as his musical ideas, experiences Dolf Geldof.
“I played with the band Burning Sun”, the bass player remembers. “To make some extra money, I performed with a band in Germany. Apparently, Peter Sjardin set his eye on me, because he sent some bandmembers to Germany to abduct me. During a show they dragged me of the stage. I managed to give the singer one of my basses. ‘I think I won’t be back’, I shouted over my shoulder, while I was pushed in a car. We drove full speed back to The Netherlands. That’s how I ended up with Group 1850. It says a lot about Peter. He had dominance over the people around him. Everything had to be his way. He was a very charismatic human being. He always had beautiful girlfriends. The kind we could only dream of.”
The band became the regular band of the Amsterdam hippie club Fantasio. Group 1850 also were the support act to Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. “He was very impressed by us”, Dolf Geldof remembers. “Frank Zappa just started his own record company and wanted to sign us. Because of legal obstacles that didn’t happen. A big shame. Who knows what could have become of that?”
Because of drastic line-up changes Philips doesn’t prolong the contract of the band. The music department of the V&D stores (in those days the largest chain of department stores in the Netherlands) comes to the rescue. They are willing to release the new album by Group 1850. Paradise Now appears in 1969. It is less whimsy as the first, but has more musical coherence. The combination of mystic lyrics, musing melodies and exotic sound creates a new masterpiece. A milestone that is built in just a few days, according to Dolf Geldof: “I think we started on a Friday evening. We kicked off by consuming an immense amount of stuff. Subsequently we started to play. There was nothing on forehand. It was simply improvising. On Sunday evening we ended. Out of all these hours of music Peter compiled the album. It could not have been easy. But he made perfect choices, which emphasizes his enormous talent. He was brilliant, but also had a dark side to him.”
The reviews were very positive. Paradise Now sold to an excess of 100.000 copies. A staggering number for such a complex album. Still, Group 1850 doesn’t profit much from this success. The chaos in Peter Sjardin’s head starts to derail the band as well. Shows are messy. The behaviour of their front man becomes increasingly unpredictable. The credit he gained because of his talent, vaporizes quickly. Also, the foreign interest in the band vanishes. The posh British booking agency N.E.M.S. was initially interested in Group 1850 on and seemed to have big plans for the band. Some bandmembers, including Dolf Geldof, managed to get arrested after a show in London because of buying illegal drugs. N.E.M.S. immediately breaks all ties to the band. “They held me in custody for a week”, Dolf Geldof recalls. “It was an enormous setback. They really loved us in England. I sometimes think of what could have been if this incident hadn’t happened. All doors were closed for us from then on.”
In the first half of the seventies Group 1850 largely disappears from the public eye. They regularly do shows, but no new music is released. In 1975 a new studio album sees the light of day: Polyandri, a surprisingly good album with Golden Earring’s Barry Hay and Hans Dulfer as guests. It is a last sign of life. Shortly after the band calls it a day. Group 1850 goes in style, Dolf Geldof.
“We recorded some tracks in Weert in the studio of Johnny Hoes (he was known in the Netherlands as a tearjerker singer and entrepreneur). Apparently, he saw potential. Johnny was a simple guy, but also a business man. Tough. No-nonsense. Peter had on the other hand an enormous power of persuasion. We were only a few days at it and the both were gone. Shortly after to be found at the landing strip of airport Gilse-Rijen. Peter had persuaded Johnny to protest air pollution that way. Johnny’s daughter Jacqui, in control of the business, tried to get him admitted in a clinic. She thought that her dad had gone bonkers. It tells us a lot about Peters power over people around him. Had he been a minister, he would have converted half the world’s population, I’m sure about that.”
The bass player remembers the final show well. “Drummer Dave Duba and Peter had the bad habit to ‘spike’ out drinks: without us knowing they added all kinds of drugs. During that show, about 500 in the crowd on a festival in Purmerend, they did it again. Midst of a song I felt I was fainting. I just could stumble to the car of Hugo Gordijn. The band continued the show. It took 45 minutes to regain my wits. I rejoined them on stage. They were still playing that song. Because I still felt dizzy, I focused on the tips of my shoes. After half an hour I looked up. I don’t think we had ended that song yet. On the grounds I saw a lonesome guy roll up cables. Everyone else was gone. In a couple of hours, we managed to clear the place completely.”
Laughing: “That was our swansong.”
About that time Hugo Gordijn also calls it a day. “I endured it for nine years. It was over. I was in a new relationship. My new girlfriend didn’t appreciate the phone ringing in the middle of the night because Peter wanted me to hear a new song or wanted me to come to Amsterdam. She was right. It was the drug-abuse. Peter had always been a special person. The substances had enormous impact on his psyche. I could no longer communicate with him. He was uncontrollable. I told him that that was the reason for my decision. He didn’t live up to our agreements and was sometimes gone for days. As his manager I was held accountable for everything. Also, financially. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
In that same period, he distanced himself from his brothers. “Peter should never have gone to Amsterdam”, states Frans Sjardin. “In The Hague bars close at a certain moment. In Amsterdam life goes on twenty-four seven. Peter loved it, but it was his downfall. There were always quarrels over money. I wanted things to be dealt with properly. Peter discarded all the planning. Capitals were spent on drugs. Money disappeared into the pockets of his vague entourage. Nobody had a grip on him. It was very tragic. Over time I recorded a lot of shows on a Revox tape recorder. I had about 250 tapes. One day he demanded them back. He claimed he had the right, so I had no other option than to give them to him. The same with all the pictures I did have. A short while ago I was approached by a French record company, they were prepared to pay a huge sum for each hour of Group 1850 music I had. I’m afraid we have to accept all is gone forever.”
In 1981 Peter Sjardin reappears briefly with a new band: Sjardin’s Terrible Surprise. An edition of 1000 copies of the live-lp: Live 1 is released. The former revolutionary tried all too obviously to compete with Herman Brood (a Dutch rock’n roller, whom was very popular in the Netherlands at the time) with a nervous sounding kind of rock, including female background vocals. Nothing came of it, ironically the girl singers re-appear in the band of Herman Brood.
“I was invited by Peter to come to a show”, Hugo Gordijn remembers. “He had outrageous plans. Would I please join in again? Everything would be bigger and better. After the show we would discuss this further. I waited for several hours, but once again Peter did not show up. He left without a trace. It was the same old song. Nothing had changed. And the show wasn’t that great after all.”
Over the same period a solo-album of Peter Sjardin was planned, Changes. He played all instruments by himself: percussion, guitar and keyboard. The recording came from the late seventies, 1978 according to some sources. The title song is based on a Group 1850 song ‘Verandering’ (change in Dutch) that had been composed in the late sixties, But doesn’t appear until 1975 on the Group 1850 album ‘Live’. Changes was never officially released and the reason for it has gone in the mist of time. Could it be a business conflict with the Frysian label Universe Productions and the artist? Was something wrong in the pressing? Did the record company have other reasons to reject this production? When I ask Peter about it in 2011, his reaction was one of complete surprise. He seemed to have totally forgotten he ever made the album. It was clear to me that further questions on the subject would be pointless. The musician clearly had no idea what I was talking about.
The fact is that the vinyl got pressed and the whole edition minus a box of 30 pieces, was subsequently destroyed. A cover was never designed. The surviving pieces have found their way to high-end collectors since. For decades no copy was ever offered for sale, which makes “Changes” one of the rarest and most legendary albums of Dutch origin. Because there have been no copies sold, it’s impossible to estimate the value.”
After the flop of Sjardin’s Terrible Surprise Peter Sjardin disappears once again. In the following thirty years, he is not seen or heard of. Where could he be? How is he? The scarce bits of information that leak out, give reason for concern. He was heavily into drugs, some said. He would be involved with organized crime, according to others. Other rumors suggested he still lived in Amsterdam, in a dark and barricaded basement in De Pijp (a quarter in Amsterdam).
In the fall of 2011 I did all I could do to find him. All trails led to a dead end. His brother Frans hadn’t spoken to him for many years. Same with Hugo Gordijn. Former bandmembers like Wouter Planteijdt, Beer Klaasse and Dolf Geldof also lost touch years ago. I stumbled on badly maintained accounts on Hyves, Linkedin and MySpace. Messages through these sites remain unanswered. A phone number I found on one of them appeared to belong to a district nurse in the east of the country. Other phone numbers were no longer in use. Contacts with local authorities were fruitless as well.
I did get an address where he lived recently. One sunny autumn day knock at the door of a building in an old part of Amsterdam. It looks like there had been a big fire recently. Builders that are having a lunch break, don’t know anything about the previous tenant. Neither does a neighbor, a young female student. Peter Sjardin seems to have vanished from the face of the earth.
“At the time I distanced myself from him”, Hugo Gordijn sighs. “If he would pop up, willing to make music again, I still would lend him a hand. Whatever happened, I strongly believe in his talent. I often notice there is still a lot of interest in Group 1850, also abroad. I don’t think something will ever come from it. It’s a pity. Nobody in the Netherlands was as creative as he was. It could have been different, if he showed a little more restraint, Peter could have been great. Enormous.”
In the beginning of 2012 I report of my queries in the magazine Lust For Life. I accepted that further research would be without results. But it is this publication that leads to a surprising break-through. It was read by someone who knew of the whereabouts of Peter Sjardin at the time and hands me over the essential details. The man is prepared to mediate between us for an interview: The first Peter Sjardin will do in more than three decades.
It proves to be hard to make a definitive appointment with Peter. It becomes obvious that the musician, with his girlfriend, lives a self-chosen isolated life. It seemed hard to let someone into his own little universe. The first appointments got canceled. ‘To busy”, his girlfriend and self-aclaimed manager Titia explains a few times. ‘We are not up to it yet’, is another excuse.
Weeks go by. Until one Saturday afternoon I am face to face with man I have been obsessively searching for. I decided to ignore a voicemail that suggested to delay the meeting once again. Peter Sjardin welcomes me all the same. With his young girlfriend he lives in a shelter for people whom are homeless after a fire. It is the second time Peter had to rely on such a shelter. He looks fit and moves brisker than you’d expect of a 65-years old.
His speedy energy is nothing compared to the stream of words that starts to flow and seems to be unstoppable. He tries to answer my questions, but he usually floats away after a few words. Peter starts to ramble about the purpose of proper ventilation, the advantage of a manually pulled boat over an airplane (‘you have time for one and other’) and a revolutionary weapon that consumes all plastics in the world. Peter Sjardin is like a television that switches channels all the time. Fascinating and inimitable. The questions don’t seem to get through to him, partially because his hearing abilities seem to have diminished.
Once in his room it becomes obvious there is another reason for delaying the appointment. He and his girlfriend have been busy for weeks to create a setting for living room shows, which was his aim for the future. He wanted to offer me a sneak preview. The walls were covered with red cloths, lights were shining everywhere in all colors and shapes. Underneath the television was a news ticker, where the words ‘Sjardin…live…Amsterdam’ rotated endlessly. On the table stands a cup with a flickering fake flame. Peter Sjardin smiles and points: “Look, everything’s on fire again.”
I am directed to a hot spot on the ‘venue’. A nicely decorated wheelchair. The stream of words keeps flowing. There was a lot of turbulence in his life, that’s what I can detect from it. He was already special as a kid. “I wouldn’t sleep”, he tells. “My parent tried to keep me restrained to the bed with a safety harness. The only thing I could do was to look outside the windows, to see the lights outside. As a young kid I was already fascinated by lights and electricity.”
That interest was genetically destined. His father was the manager of an electrical company. “And my mother had a transcendental gift”, he adds loosely. As a kid he was drawn to music, but his dad didn’t want to know about it. “There is no proper living to be made with music, in his opinion. I should not drag a future wife into poverty.”
Still Peter starts experimenting with electronical devices at a young age. He creates his own keyboard instrument, a precursor of the synthesizer. “I put six generators next to each other and controlled them by joining them through bicycle chains. It was awesome. I was constantly inventing things. Or learning about them. I mastered the musical saw. That was not as easy as it is sometimes suggested.”
Once out of the house, he devoted all his time to music. Paul Ackett, whom later would be the producer of the North Sea Jazz Festival, took care of the band, that turns out to be Group 1850 later. “We recorded our first work in the GTB-studio in The Hague”, recollects Peter Sjardin. “The crew consisted of old men, who never came outside and were soldering the whole day. Then over sudden we came in, with our long hair. We looked awful to them. They couldn’t wait to see us leave.”
We did a lot of shows those days. Of course, something broke occasionally, but Peter Sjardin doesn’t agree with the picture his bandmembers painted of him as a notorious demolisher of keyboards. “It wasn’t sensationalism. I wanted to make a statement to the audience that wouldn’t go unnoticed. I especially wanted to create conditions for others to be creative.”
That’s also the reason I dislike rehearsals. “When you’re good everything will fall on its place on stage. Just as in the studio”, according to Peter Sjardin. That’s how the album Paradise Now was created, one of the masterpieces of Group 1850. In the early days he cooperated with the famous Dutch producer Hans van Hemert, a past of which the musician has bittersweet memories.
“In the core a cool guy”, Peter Sjardin continues. “He did outstanding work, but he forced himself to be the singer of hit single Mother No-head. It got nasty when he started to fool around with my girlfriend. One day I pointed a gun at him. A plastic toy filled with lemonade, but he didn’t know that. He took cover and spontaneously peed his pants.”
His girlfriend now interferes: “You don’t fool around with Peter. He has a strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Peter Sjardin Doesn’t seem to hear that.
“Liberty in music is important”, he imperturbable continues. “I want to be open to all things that spontaneously present themselves. That’s how we made Polyandri. Hans Dulfer came by to participate. I met a little boy that could play the piano. The few notes he played made to the record. He is now a big shot at a bank somewhere.”
In the years that follow Peter Sjardin is consequently portrayed as a victim of the drug culture of the sixties. A musician whom slowly sank in the swamp of liquor, drugs, women and lunacy. Peter Sjardin is annoyed by that image. “The substances I used, amongst them amphetamines, were proscribed by a doctor. There was a time I was heavily in to booze; bit stories of excessive drug abuse are simply not true. I don’t need drugs to be creative. I probably smoked three joint in all my life.”
His girlfriend nods: “That might even be an exaggeration.”
Peter Sjardin tells there might be a more serious reason for his disappearance. From what I understand of his ramblings, he was one of the first victims of identity theft. Thanks to an inheritance he had become a wealthy man, but the money vanished because of a British criminal who stole his identity.
“He always was around”, Peter Sjardin continuous. “He copied everything I did. Even drove the same car. A Jaguar E-type. At first it was kind of funny, but then his intentions became apparent.”
Once he finds out, the harm is already done. Because of this sinister character Peter Sjardin ends up in what he calls the tentacles of the English underworld. “It all ended when my substitute was found at the bottom of a ravine in England. Dead. The whole thing had me, as it were, paralyzed for years. Above all I lost my entire fortune. The police were powerless and advised me to stay low. That’s why I remained invisible for 16 years.”
It’s impossible to check this claim, it could all be the product of a paranoid mind. Anyway, the ordeal is over, he smiles. He can finally focus on the future again. When asked about his most beloved music the answer tells it all, “The music I am working on now. I never stopped playing all these years. I have sufficient material for several records. I also want to perform again. In my former house I was creating an environment, that had the possibility to invite other musicians and an audience. We were also working on a videoclip. The fire consumed all my equipment, so that caused quite some delay.”
Peter Sjardin and his girlfriend are waiting for a new house to be assigned to them. Then they will continue what they were working on before they were brutally interrupted. Halfway the interview he sneaks behind his keyboard. He improvises skillfully. Sound comes from all corners of the room. Yet, the master in not satisfied. The equipment is not well adjusted yet. Would I come back in a few weeks, for a real show? - he asks.
“Music is associated with in colors”, he explains, shortly before I say my goodbyes. “Just let children in a classroom hear music and before you know they’ll will all shout “red”,” green”, “yellow”. I want to make music and show the matching colors.”
Laughs: “Money has to be made, so we’ll fit in commercials. But only healthy products.”
This interview also had an unexpected follow-up. It broke Peter Sjardin out of his isolation. He got in touch with manager Hugo Gordijn again as well with some of his former bandmembers. In November 2014 he appeared with his girlfriend and manager at the ARC record fair in Utrecht when a repress of Paradise Now was presented. There was even talk about a comeback: on a keyboard bought by Hugo Gordijn a rejuvenated Peter Sjardin started to work on new music and there was even talk of a comeback to the stage.
It’s sad that this all wasn’t meant to be. On May 16th, 2015 Peter Sjardin dies suddenly of a heart attack. The loss is memorated by many on social media, but the death of one of the greatest talents and most colourful persons of Dutch pop music is completely ignored by the Dutch national media. It is telling that in the years since he got honored with extensive articles in foreign media instead, like in the American Ugly Things and the British Flashback magazines. His name lives on also thanks to connoisseurs worldwide. Especially the first two albums of Group 1850 are treasured by fans of European psychedelia, And quite rightly so. Peter Sjardin may be dead, his music lives on.
- Robert Haagsma