In the 1970’s, British TV was fond of showing police detective dramas, sometimes British but more often American. With shows like Kojak, Cannon, Columbo, The Rockford Files, New York and Los Angeles came to seem as familiar to the British viewer as London. One detective series, however, Van Der Valk, was different. The detective was Dutch (though the actor playing him, Barry Foster, was British and later popped up playing Sherlock Holmes) and instead of the usual American mean streets, the drama was played out against a backdrop of the bridges and canals, bicycles , trams and cafes of Amsterdam. And instead of the routine car chase screeching to an inevitable finale, Van Der Valk often had a more leisurely boat chase, with the villain in one boat and the detective in the one behind as they pootled round the canals before a convenient bridge offered the opportunity for an arrest (and perhaps the words “u wordt ingekerft, zonneschijn”)
I suspect that the popularity of the programme – its theme tune, Eye Level, was Number One in Britain for 4 weeks in 1973, finally knocked off by David Cassidy and The Puppy Song - had much to do with the outdoor locations. (In much the same way, I had an aunt who sat through TV Westerns because she liked the scenery).The city is, of course, very photogenic and has been the setting of numerous films since then, including Snapshots, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Oceans 12 and the 1999 Silent Witness. It has also been well covered by songs since Max Bygraves and Tulips from Amsterdam in the 1950’s. Perhaps one of the most well known has been Jacque Brel’s In the Port of Amsterdam, recorded by Scott Walker and David Bowie amongst many others. In English language versions, however, the lyrics can seem totally overblown, as far away from the image conjured up by Tulips from Amsterdam as possible – “There's a sailor who eats only fish heads and tails,And he'll show you his teeth that have rotted too soon, that can haul up the sails, that can swallow the moon”
In some ways, songs about Amsterdam have been less successful in capturing the city’s landscapes than TV and film. In some, the ‘Amsterdam’ seems either purely incidental – as in Coldplay’s song of the same name –or in a lyric that could really be anywhere: as in Janis Ian’s Amsterdam. Mainly, one of two sets of imagery have cropped up. One, predictably, has focused on the drugs and hippy legacy. Amsterdam, by American group Guster, for example: “From way up on your cloud, You're never coming down, Are you getting somewhere? Or did you get lost in Amsterdam?” Or Van Halen’s Amsterdam: “wham, bam, oh Amsterdam. yea, yea, yea, stone you like nothin' else can”
The second has been to go back to its art and history-famously with Don Mclean’s Vincent, the sheet music of which is in a time capsule buried under the Van Gogh Museum. Jonathan Richman also had a stab at both the painter and the museum with his ode to Vincent Van Gogh: “Now in the museum what have we here?
The baddest painter since God's Jon Vermeer.” The prog rock outfit King Crimson chose a Rembrandt painting as the inspiration for their 1974 Night Watch epic. Neutral Milk Hotel went back to another famous icon of Dutch history - Anne Frank- with their deeply obscure lyrics of Holland 1945.
Yet there have been some songs that reflected more the writer’s personal experience of the place . Al Stewart, whose sojourn in Brooklyn was the subject of a previous column, wrote about a tour of Holland in his 1972 Amsterdam song. Michelle Shocked reflected “It's 5 a.m. in Amsterdam and this is how I know. There's a church beside a park and it fills the dying dark with five strokes”. The song here, The Holland Song, by Two Nice Girls, from their 1989 album of the same name, is another such personal response to the place. Two Nice Girls, a self-styled ‘lesbian rock group’ from Austin, Texas, came closest to commercial success with Sweet Jane (With Affection), a merging of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane and Joan Armatrading’s Love & Affection. The Holland Song was written by group member Kathy Korniloff when she was 16 and, in an odd way, it is maybe this that makes the song suit the place. Though the lyrics are clumsy at times- “These Dutch are too much, they built this land from the sea” – there is also an almost gauche enthusiasm that, with the harmonies and jazz-tinged folk backing, manage to give a warm and sunlit feeling to the place despite the rain and North Sea breezes. As so many people feel when they visit Amsterdam and wander along the canals and in and out of cafes, the message is - I think I could live here.
Maybe people seem to feel at home so quickly in Amsterdam because they find what they expect to find, whether that is windmills and tulips in the market, Van Gogh’s landscapes or Panama Red - though the unexpected is always there to delight, like mayonnaise on hotdogs and chips. And taking away an image of a watercolour land is as good as any.
Link to song