| 10 Mistakes
It would be a mistake indeed to regard Gruppo Sportivo's 1977 debut as a mere aural equivalent to television's Happy Days. Where Happy Days is retro-saccharine for the masses, 10 Mistakes is retro-kitsch for the intellectual elite. Where Happy Days expresses genuine nostalgia for a bygone era, 10 Mistakes embraces more the absurdity of the era than the era itself. Where Happy Days is Norman Rockwell, 10 Mistakes is Roy Lichtenstein. A main reason for this seeming aloofness is geographical. Gruppo Sportivo are Dutch, having experienced the glory days of post-war American pop culture not first hand, but filtered through TV shows and films as cheesy and overbearing as Peter Calicher's pervasive "96 Tears"-inflected farfisa. Yet what Gruppo lack in true feelings of nostalgia they more than compensate for in wit, musicianship, and their uncanny ability to satirize without the slightest trace of condescension. Indeed, frontman Hans Vandenburg (aka "Vandefruits") unashamedly cops familiar lyrical and musical motifs from pop's past, weaving them so overtly, yet so deftly into his B-movie love affairs, spy thrillers, and sci-fi tales, that only the stodgiest and most litigious listener would think to cry "Plagiarism!" instead of reveling in his obvious love for the genre.
The album opens with the maddeningly catchy "Beep Beep Love," one of only two GRUPPO tracks to garner any US airplay, in which Roger Corman and Tom Petty vie for most-favored-influence status as Vandenburg relates his tale of cartoon space-love. Side One continues with "Superman," a six-minute, four-color comic book love triangle complete with romance, deceit, intrigue, murder, jail time, and the keyboard riff from Del Shannon's "Runaway." Elsewhere, we find the rinky-dink "Girls Never Know," ("Girls never know/What they want to be/That's why they start a family") "I Shot My Manager," a parody of the music business set to BOB MARLEY, and "Mission A Paris," a dime-store spy novel of stolen NATO plans and secret rendezvouses at the Eiffel Tower.
Throughout, the vocal talents of "The Grupettes," Meike Touw and Josee Van Iersel provide an Abba-like sheen to this joyous noise, perhaps most effectively realized in "Dreamin'", a moody sex fantasy piece in which the Abba resemblance is uncanny: "I want a scene in my dream with a movie queen!" Finally, "Rubber Gun" takes a few good natured jabs at the shallowness of the gay bar scene ("Switch on the jukebox and let Louie sing/About his underwear and his rubber loving thing,"), which are ultimately more endearing than critical. While Vandenburg is the obvious conceptual brain of Gruppo, the band is hardly relegated to back-up status. Peter Calicher's inventive keyboards are pushed way up front for maximum cheese-whiz appeal, while the rhythm section of Max Mollinger and Eric Wehrmeyer is confident and aggressive. Still, it's Vandenburg's vision and talent that bring it all together. Indeed, on future releases, Gruppo eased up on the kitsch, Vandenburg's infectious personality playing a more central role in the proceedings with no loss of appeal.
In 1979 Sire Records released a domestic compilation culled from 10 Mistakes (not, by the way, to be confused with Mortimer J. Adler's 1985 book "Ten Philosophical Mistakes"), the following year's Back to 78, and a non-LP single. But after that time, Gruppo's recorded output was available stateside only as harder-and-harder-to-find European and Canadian imports. The hysterically manic Buddy Odor Is A Gas! is a Hans Vandenburg solo LP which to all intents and purposes is Sportivo's third long player. (The line "You think it's a hatrack? Wrong! It's my wife," from the album's "Lock Yourself Up" apparently was not the inspiration for Oliver W. Sacks' 1987 essay "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.") 1980's Copy Copy finds Deaf School alumna Bette Bright putting in a guest vocal performance; an appealing move, as early Deaf School explored a somewhat related conceptual aesthetic. Unfortunately, Side One's second-rate material and the too-smooth production did little for either party's reputation. Throughout the early eighties, the band continued releasing top-notch mock-pop to an ever dwindling audience that was apparently far more concerned with style over substance, simplicity over wit. Pop! Goes the Brain, Design Moderne, and Sombrero Times are brilliantly executed pop albums overflowing with self-deprecating wit, biting cynicism, urban humanism, hopeless romance, and of course, killer hooks.
After a false start with the over-produced and under-written Sucker of the Century, a re-grouped Gruppo were still at it into the nineties, releasing a delightful double cd (Young and Out) in 1992, featuring one disc of sparkling new material ("Young"), and one disc of mostly vault songs ("Out," which, when spoken with a Dutch accent, sounds like the Dutch for "old"), as well as a superlative live record (Sing Sing) in 1995. July 1997 saw the American release of Sing Sing, retitled Second Life (including a bonus five-song CDEP). Vandenburg also continued his solo career in a somewhat more rock-oriented format (1994's Commercial Break, and 1996's Shake Hands with Vandenburg). Gruppo re-grouped once again for a single in 2000, the sensational Topless 16 record in 2004, and a few more new tracks in 2006.
And where a band like THE KINKS is (justifiably) hailed as one of rock's most steadfast yet highly underappreciated outfits, Gruppo's reputation does not even approach that level of recognition.
Irving Thalberg, where are you when we need you?
Gruppo Sportivo: Discography
OUT THERE IN THE JUNGLE / I CAN'T STOP LOVIN' YOU
HOOLA FEVER / NICKLES AND DIMES
BEEP BEEP LOVE
GIRLS NEVER KNOW
I SHOT MY MANAGER
WEHRMEYER - BASS
HANS VANDENBURG* - GUITAR,
MAX MOLLINGER - DRUMS, VOCALS
JOSEE VAN IERSEL - VOCALS
PETER CALICHER - PIANO,
MEIKE TOUW - VOCALS
BY ROBERT JAN STIPS
ENGINEERS = AAD LINK, JAN
SCHUURMAN AND ROBIN FREEMAN
STUDIOS = ARTISOUND, SOUNDPUSH
AND RELIGHT HILVARENSBEEK
ON RUBBER GUN MARK BOON PLAYS
ON LASTING FOREVER AND HENRI JAN
TANS PLAYS SAX
ALL SONGS BY VAN DEFRUITS*
EXCEPT DREAMIN' BY VAN DEFRUITS
AND GRUPPO SPORTIVO
ALL SONGS PUBLISHED BY SOSS/NADA
ART DIRECTION = YOUNG AND UGLY
DESIGN AND PHOTOGRAPHY = DORIEN
VAN DER VALK
LOGO = WOUTER STIPS
THANK YOU = JERRY, BARRY AND LEO
MANAGEMENT = JOHN VAN VUEREN,
TREKWEG 8, THE HAGUE, HOLLAND
ARIOLA BENELUX BV 25464X0T
BEEPBEEP LOVE / RUBBER GUN (12")
ROCK 'N ROLL / I SHOT MY MANAGER
BEEP BEEP LOVE / I SHOT MY MANAGER
(Ariola ARI 15542, Sweden)