Sunday, 10 February 2013

Dutch popular culture and cycling

Where cycling and music come together, it is very likely you will be treated on Queen’s iconic Bicycle Race. Yes, there we go; that solo of numerous ringing bells halfway the song and of course those powerful lyrics:

“Bicycle, bicycle, bicycle, I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike, I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like!”

It is a great song, always firing off a positive cycling vibe; haven’t we all been humming this song at some stage whilst being out with our bikes?

I have been asked multiple times whether such an iconic song relating to cycling also exists in Dutch language. When asked, various Dutch language songs always spring into my mind. Cycling is so embedded as part of daily life in The Netherlands, that references to cycling in Dutch popular culture are exactly like that. There are numerous iconic Dutch songs, in which cycling is naturally incorporated to express a certain mood.

The first singer-songwriter to be mentioned is Boudewijn de Groot. This legendary Dutch performer has written some extraordinary lyrics, at the heart of many Dutch people. To start, I’d like to treat you on the very famous first lines of his song Avond (Evening). The song celebrates how two lovers finally live together, after many years having to part at the end of a night out. And how is this referred to?

"Now, you never have to put on your coat anymore, hoping your lights will work.”

Probably only to Dutch people, this is a crystal clear reference to cycling. You had a great night, but now it is time to face the fact; you have to cycle home in the dark and it is very likely that at least one of the lights on your bike (front or rear) won’t work, just because they never do. What will it be this time; a failing dynamo? Problems with the wiring or are the batteries flat? Brilliant poetry; cycling is not even mentioned, but every Dutch person just feels what is meant by these lyrics.

Boudewijn de Groot, in some ways the Godfather of Dutch popular music (most of his classics date from the late 60s and early 70s), has another cycling related song on his sleeves. Talking music and cycling, Jimmy is most likely to be mentioned by Dutch people. This song is often nicknamed the lonely cyclist because of its famous first line:

"How strong is that lonely cyclist, docked down on the handlebars, making his way against the headwinds?"

Yes, an iconic Dutch image, even better if you make this person a dad, taking his young child out for a ride (as shown on the original single cover). 

“The sun is shining, strong winds are blowing, there is no reason why I shouldn't go for a ride with that child!”

The image of a cyclist with a child on a seat fixed on the front handlebars (no, it is not dangerous!) is also subject of attention of Dutch comedian Herman Finkers who shelters behind his child when cycling in poor weather (see picture). Finkers: 

“You know Dutch weather; head winds, rain, hail. Fortunately I have a child on the handlebars (audience laughing). We have two children, also one for my wife (more laughing).”

There are numerous references in Dutch popular culture to children on bikes with their parents. Many Dutch people have warm memories of their childhood in relation to sitting on the back of their parent’s bike (now, the child shelters from the weathers behind the parent!). With the years passing by, many forget how uncomfortable this actually was. In Paul van Vliet’s song Veilig Achterop (safely on the back) feelings of nostalgia take an all-time high:

“Safely on the back with daddy on the bike, daddy knows the way and I don’t have a clue. Safely on the back, I am not alone, yes, daddy knows where to go. I remember the smells, I know how it was; my arms around him, my cheek against his coat.”

Wow! As a truly Dutch person I can’t help getting tearful myself whilst translating these words into English.

We have to stick a little bit longer to the image of someone getting a lift on the back of the bike. Regarded as "dangerous" and "against the law" in many car-dominated countries, this is completely normal custom in The Netherlands. Many Dutch marriages wouldn't have been without that one afternoon/evening when the boy took the girl for a ride. I even know a Dutch lady living in the UK who is now married to a British man, after taking him on the back of her bike after the last bus was gone (believe it or not, this happened in Birmingham!). Their wedding pictures featured the original bike of the outing, echoing Eddie Christiani's Spring maar achterop (just jump on the back) from the 1950s:

“My rear tyre is a bit flat, but it doesn’t matter dear, just jump on the back, just jump on the back!”

The latest addition to this theme is a rap-song by Gers Pardoel, with his "Bagagedrager" ("luggage rack"-song). This rap song was a big hit in 2011 in both The Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium; a potential hit when sung in English? 

"Just jump on the back with me, than we go together, I don't know where, but who cares, I know the way"...

You could say that this brings us into a full circle with Queen’s “fat bottomed girls”, although Freddy Mercury never envisioned one of these girls to jump on the back of her lover’s bike. Mercury got his inspiration for “Bicycle Race” from the Tour de France, so the last topic to be covered in this article is to what extend the “biggest cycle race of the world” also inspired Dutch musicians.

In this respect, I can't get away without mentioning composer and musician Rein van den Broek (here pictured playing his trumpet). In the 1970s he composed two iconic tunes for Dutch Radio Tour de France.This radio programme only runs for three weeks per year, with live coverage from the race, back ground stories by Dutch tour buffs and a great mix of feel-good summer music. When Dutch people hear Van den Broek’s legendary  Trumpet Cross opening tune at five past two on the first Saturday of July, they truly know summer has arrived!

Another classic element of this radio programme is “the last 5 km”. At the moment when the first rider passes under the flag of the last 5 km, Van den Broek’s famous Tarantuella Tune kicks in, whilst reporters keep updating listeners live from the race. Reporters deliberately take breaths from their rushed talking for ten seconds or so, whilst the studio’s technician boosts the volume of the tune during these breaks. This mix of talking and music continues for five thrilling minutes or so, until the moment the first rider passes the finish line. At that moment, the music gets rigidly faded out.

It may be well be this Tarantuelle Tune which is on par with Queen’s Bicycle Race for Dutch people. When I find myself in the last 5 km of a lengthy ride myself, I can’t help humming this tune. I won't be the only one…

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