Shocking Blue: Robbie van Leeuwen, Cor van der Beek, Mariska Veres, and Klaasje van der Wal - via creative Commons


One scene in the miniseries The Queen’s Gambit was all it took to put the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue, and the band’s sultry singer, Mariska Veres, back on the media map. You know the scene. The drunken dance-and-crash scene of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), choreographed to Shocking Blue’s 1969 smash hit, “Venus,” a perfect 3-minute piece of music-cinematic pairing. But what became of Mariska Veres? John Kruth was determined to find out for PKM.

I’ve never been much of a TV fan, but as this quarantine has dragged on, my lovely wife, Marilyn, and I have taken to building a fire every night and cozying up on the sofa with the dog and cat to watch old film noirs. Marilyn’s programing criteria mandates that all actors smoke and drink heavily and be dead. Vintage clothes, old cars and shadowy cityscapes are a serious plus.

But after a while, I’ve come to find her night-time pals to be a depressing lot, with all their stupid affairs, failed burglaries and messy murders. Inevitably, I need to escape from the black and white world and catch up to the ‘60s and ‘70s, at the very least, and watch something her late father might not have deemed “prehistoric.” I’m also not much of a chess buff, although I have stopped on a number of occasions to watch the hustlers play while strolling through Washington Square. But the word on social media was that The Queen’s Gambit was a must-see. So, taking a break from the usual crew of desperadoes, we tuned into Netflix and gave it a shot.

It wasn’t what I expected, and soon I found myself drawn into the drama, particularly when the protagonist Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) took a serious plunge into decadence. With a smear of lip gloss and a whole lot of eyeliner, the lonely orphan nerd suddenly transformed into Anita Pallenberg’s doppelganger. Woozy on Librium and booze, she prances about the house in various states of undress as the Dutch ‘60s band, Shocking Blue, cranks out “Venus” on her TV set.

This brilliant bit of drunken choreography includes “Beth” dragging a trash can of empty liquor bottles to the curb while the neighbors watch aghast, a moment of spontaneous puking into one of her cherished chess trophies, and collapsing to the floor, but not before smacking her head against the coffee table. And suddenly voilà! the enigmatic Shocking Blue came boomeranging back into my life.

With a smear of lip gloss and a whole lot of eyeliner, the lonely orphan nerd suddenly transformed into Anita Pallenberg’s doppelganger.

For most Americans, the band was simply a one-hit wonder, an anomaly from Holland… But it turns out they had a lot more to offer than that sinister earworm, “Venus.” Formed in 1967, in The Hague, by songwriter/guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen of The Motions (one of the original Nederbeat groups – the Dutch version of American garage bands), Shocking Blue was originally comprised of drummer, Cornelius “Cor” van der Beek, bassist Klaasje van der Wal and singer Fred de Wilde. Their decidedly psychedelic moniker, was said to have been inspired by the lyrics of Cream’s song “Strange Brew:” “She’s a witch of trouble in electric blue.”

While their debut single, “Love Is in The Air,” garnered little airplay, their sophomore effort, “Lucy Brown Is Back in Town,” released on the Pink Elephant label, managed to reach No. 21 on the Dutch Top 40.

Musically, Shocking Blue was hard to peg. While their solid rhythm section comprised of guitar, bass and drums, was regularly augmented by an array of instruments including sax, sitar, banjo and mandolin (usually played by van Leeuwen) their repertoire freely leapt from proto-glam to kickass country rock. Their choice of cover songs revealed van Leeuwen’s uncanny knowledge and passion for American roots music. Dutch rockers interpreting country songs wasn’t something one heard every day, but Shocking Blue recorded a cool cover of “I Ain’t Never,” by Mel Tillis and Webb Pierce. Tillis claimed he wrote the song but split the credit with Pierce in trade for a pair of Webb’s boots he coveted. “Them old boots cost me over eight hundred thousand dollars in royalties,” Tillis later groused. While Webb’s original version of the song went to No. 2 on the Billboard Country Charts in 1959, Mel later took the song to No. 1 in 1972, the same year Shocking Blue released it on their album, Inkpot.

“I Ain’t Never” – Shocking Blue:

Robbie Van Leeuwen’s obsession with American music was apparent with one listen to The Big 3’s 1963 update of Stephen Foster’s 1847 smash hit, “Oh, Susanna,” which they renamed “The Banjo Song.” Tim Rose, Jim Hendricks, and the future “Mama” Cass Elliot gave Foster’s famous tune a rock ‘n’ roll edge with a driving guitar riff straight out of Henry Mancini’s theme song to the popular TV show Peter Gunn. Whether a flagrant case of plagiarism or merely “inspired by” The Big 3, Robbie kept the music fully intact, note for note, chord for chord, while re-writing the lyrics, transforming the obscure novelty folk number into the pop smash “Venus,” and topped the Billboard charts in December 1969. Other obvious influences can be heard in the song’s intro, which kicks off with chiming suspended guitar chords by way of Pete Townshend’s “Pinball Wizard” from The Who’s Tommy (released only a few months before “Venus” in March 1969).

In 1988, Cor van der Beek, confessed that “Venus” “was stolen from The Beatles.” While one might comb the Fabs’ albums looking for the source of the song’s irresistible guitar hook, but it was actually Billy Preston’s electric piano groove from “Get Back” (imitated by Cees Schrama of Golden Earring) that van der Beek was referring to. It also didn’t hurt that Robbie van Leeuwen’s lead guitar break on “Venus” strongly resembled John Lennon’s slinky licks on The Beatles’ chart-topping 1969 single.

“The [tune’s famous] guitar riff was stolen from another song,” van der Beek explained, referring to The Big 3’s “The Banjo Song.”

Right about now, you might wonder why Tim Rose never sued Robbie van Leeuwen for swiping his song. There is no definite answer. Some have pointed out that lyrically “The Banjo Song” borrowed more than a few lines from Stephen Foster, but by then “Oh, Susanna” was well into the public domain. Then there was the question of Tim Rose’s nicking Bonnie Dobson’s classic ballad of the post-nuclear world, “(Walk Me Out in the) Morning Dew,” of which he claimed one quarter of the royalties after recording the tune in 1967.  Dobson didn’t squawk as Rose’s arrangement of “Morning Dew” was soon covered by the Grateful Dead and Jeff Beck.

Shocking Blue via creative Commons

Regarding “Venus,” Tim Rose wisely chose to keep his mouth shut, hoping not to draw attention to his own plagiaristic trespasses, as he also claimed credit for Billy Roberts’ murder ballad “Hey Joe,” later made famous by Jimi Hendrix.

Robbie van Leeuwen was obviously hip to American roots music and had no qualms about re-working it into great pop. For their 1972 single “Rock in the Sea,” van Leeuwen employed the electric mandolin and lifted a verse directly from the Holy Modal Rounders’ “Mole in the Ground” (who’d copped it from banjo picker Bascom Lamar Lunsford). Shocking Blue’s “Navajo Tears,” which featured Robbie on mandolin and saxophone, employed the melody of “The Trees They Do Grow High,” a traditional folk song sung by Joan Baez, Pentangle and many others.

“Rock in the Sea” – Shocking Blue, lip synching the song on Dutch TV:–E

While the viciously destructive insect, the boll weevil, has been celebrated in song since the 1920s by everyone from Bessie Smith to Leadbelly, and swing fiddler Tex Ritter, Shocking Blue’s version, which kicked off their 1969 album At Home, was clearly inspired by the doomed rockabilly singer/guitarist Eddie Cochran.

Listening to Shocking Blue’s 1972 single “Inkpot,” one hears strains of the droning tambura groove of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” which, in turn inspired Norman Greenbaum’s low-riding boogie “Spirit in the Sky.”

No matter what their source of inspiration, or which direction their sonic compass pointed, Mariska Veres inevitably became the group’s focal point. Her striking looks – long dark hair, cut into bangs (said to be a wig) framed her alluring kohl-ringed eyes. Dressed in wild print blouses, short skirts and high boots, she drew comparisons to every sultry brunette who ever fronted a rock band, from Grace Slick, to Cher and Linda Ronstadt.

Regarding “Venus,” Tim Rose wisely chose to keep his mouth shut, hoping not to draw attention to his own plagiaristic trespasses, as he also claimed credit for Billy Roberts’ murder ballad “Hey Joe,” later made famous by Jimi Hendrix.

But Mariska had something extra… She was Romany—an exotic cocktail of Hungarian, Russian and French. One of three daughters, Mariska began her career singing and playing piano with her father, Lajos Veres, a violinist with a gypsy orchestra. By 1963, she was singing with a twangy guitar group called Les Mysteres, who recorded a righteous reverb-soaked cover of “Summertime.”  Her first solo recording was released in April 1965 by Imperial Records, a bouncy cover of the theme song to the Peter Ustinov film Topkapi, heavy on the bongos and bouzoukis. The flipside featured Veres singing Brenda Lee’s “Is It True?” in Dutch.

While at a party celebrating Dutch rockers Golden Earrings’ first No. 1 hit in Holland – the goofy, groovy “Dong Dong Diki Digi Dong”—Shocking Blue’s original manager Cees van Leeuwen (no relation to Robbie) heard Veres wailing with a group called the Bumble Bees and decided the irresistible Mariska would be the ideal singer for his fledging band. Robbie immediately agreed, claiming she was “quite different from all the other girl singers.” Mariska soon replaced Fred de Wilde, who, after moderate success with Shocking Blue’s first efforts, had been drafted into the army.

Mariska Veres of Shocking Blue at the Hilton Hotel in Amsterdam by Joost Evers via Creative Commons

With the change in personnel, nearly every article written about Shocking Blue compared the band to Jefferson Airplane. But the similarities between Mariska and Grace Slick were superficial at best. To begin with, Veres would prove a more versatile vocalist, and while Grace was a legendary wild woman and provocateur, Mariska was said to be a gentle soul who loved cats, didn’t smoke, shunned drink and drugs, and warned her bandmates upon joining their ranks that relationships were strictly out. Years later, Mariska told the Belgian magazine Flair: “I was just a painted doll, nobody could ever reach me. Nowadays, I am more open to people.”

But Mariska had something extra… She was Romany—an exotic cocktail of Hungarian, Russian and French.

Recorded on a two-track machine, “Venus” was first issued in the Netherlands in July 1969, with the B-side “Hot Sand.” Songwriter/producer and A&R man Jerry Ross (co-author of the Supremes’ hit “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and producer of Bobby Hebb’s 1966 smash, “Sunny”) heard the song on a jaunt to Europe and signed Shocking Blue to Colossus Records, releasing “Venus” in the States. It soon rocketed to No. 1 in America and subsequently topped charts in Switzerland and Belgium and went to No. 2 in Austria, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands. From that point on, as Robbie said, “everything started spinning right away.”

Shocking Blue followed “Venus” with the hard rocking “Send Me a Postcard.” Packed with crunchy guitars, Doors-flavored organ riffs and burly drum fills, “Postcard” climbed to No. 11 in Holland, followed by “Long Lonesome Road” which made it to No. 17.  Robbie believed that Shocking Blue’s massive success “gave other Dutch groups belief in their own potential.”

Send Me a Postcard – Shocking Blue

“We’re just as mod as the Americans,” he claimed on the band’s first tour of the States. “I think [they] all thought we would be walking around in wooden shoes!”

Throughout 1970 and 1971, second guitarist Leo van de Ketterij joined the band on tours of South America and Asia. Their grueling schedule of performing and constant pressure to crank out a series of chart-topping singles (including “Mighty Joe,” which shot to # 1 in Holland, along with “Never Marry a Railroad Man,” “Hello Darkness,” “Shocking You,” and “Inkpot”) soon began taking its toll on the band’s creative leader.

“It was extremely difficult for me to write all the music and lyrics alone,” Robbie explained.

From 1967 to 1974, Shocking Blue released eleven albums, At Home (1969), The Third Album (1971) and Inkpot (1972) being among their best. Bassist Klaasje van der Wal was the first casualty, quitting the group in 1971, replaced by Henk Smitskamp. Whether due to an ongoing battle with depression, or mounting friction within the band, van Leeuwen left Shocking Blue in 1973. Robbie’s next project was the prog-lite band Galaxy-Lin, who released their self-titled debut a year later, featuring the frothy but forgettable single “Long Hot Summer.”

Now led by guitarist Martin van Wijk, Shocking Blue soldiered on, morphing into a not-so-funky funk group. Mariska soon threw in the towel, choosing to pursue a solo career. Re-uniting with Robbie van Leeuwen as her producer, she cut a track called “Louise,” which remained unreleased. A reconstituted Shocking Blue managed to play a couple of concerts in 1984. But it seemed the spectacular fire they once conjured had cooled considerably.

“We’re just as mod as the Americans,” he claimed on the band’s first tour of the States. “I think [they] all thought we would be walking around in wooden shoes!”

A little interest in Shocking Blue was rekindled in June 1989 when an obscure trio of grunge rockers from Seattle called Nirvana released their debut album, Bleach, featuring a wild remake of Shocking Blue’s 1969 single “Love Buzz.”

Although she recorded and performed live sporadically over the next few years, Mariska Veres would not take her next bold artistic leap until 1993. Transforming into a Dutch jazz diva, Veres formed the Shocking Jazz Quintet, recording Shocking You, an album comprised of hard swinging arrangements of 1960s and ‘70s pop tunes. The curious set kicked off with a bopping remake of the Zombies’ “He’s Not There,” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Propelled by walking bass, cascading piano chords, crisp rim shots and riding cymbals, and waves of fluid alto sax riffs, Mariska gives her best Ella Fitzgerald. The group revisits Shocking Blue’s “Shocking You,” “Never Marry a Railroad Man,” and tosses off a Latin-jazz rendition of “Venus” that is drop-dead cool.

Shocking Jazz Quintet – “Venus”:

Other surprises included Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” as a sweet nostalgic ballad, while Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” reveals that fine rasp in Mariska’s voice. Her arrangement of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” is the album’s most “shocking” moment of all, bordering parody (think Spinal Tap in a cocktail lounge). But all in all, Shocking You was an interesting experiment, three years before Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard made jazz safe for lawyers. During this time, Mariska also performed and recorded intermittently with yet another version of Shocking Blue. Her long-term partner, guitarist André Van Geldorp played on a pair of tracks, “Body and Soul” and “Angel,” produced by van Leeuwen at Bullet Sound Studio in Nederhorst den Berg.

Shocking You was an interesting experiment, three years before Herbie Hancock’s The New Standard made jazz safe for lawyers.

While Mariska was often compared to Grace Slick, her career was more akin to Linda Ronstadt’s, who sang with a rock ‘n’ roll growl before cutting an album of jazz standards and tender ballads in the mid-1980s and then diving into the traditional Mexican mariachi music she grew up with on 1987’s Canciones De Mi Padre (Songs of My Father).

In 2003, Veres dug deep into her Romani roots, recording arguably the best music of her career, the glorious Gipsy Heart album with virtuoso violinist Andrei Serban. Pouring from the speakers, the music is at once dizzying, urgent and passionate.

“You can tell right away she has Gypsy music in her roots. I don’t have to read her bio for that. She’s genuine and really sang her heart out,” popular Croatian recording artist Gordana Evačić said.  “Her distinctive voice is both strong and mellow at the same time. Then she suddenly roars without effort or strain, sliding those melodic lines so gallantly. It is clear, the lady is a goddess. I can’t compare her to anyone. I know those melodies and style very well. I share that enchantment since childhood, being a cimbalom player myself. [The cimbalom hammered dulcimer commonly used in Gypsy music.] We have similar influences over here. [Gordana lives in Koprivnica, Croatia, close to the Hungarian border with her husband, guitarist/singer/songwriter Miroslav. Together they play an entrancing sonic concoction of blues and gypsy-inspired folk/rock.]

“Cimbalom, bass and violins are rooted in our traditional music,” Evačić explained. “The more I listened to Mariska with Shocking Blue, the less surprised I was by how great her Gypsy music was.  In her rock era, she definitely had that fire and passion which she directed into her voice much more than in her live performance, which altogether made her absolutely adorable.”

Among Gipsy Heart’s highlights are “Dzselem, Dzselem” – (meaning “I wish to” or “I want to”) a fervent song packed with images of tents, the road and the tragedy of the Roma being murdered by “the Black Legion,” while calling for Romani youth worldwide to “rise high.”

Shocking Blue via creative Commons

Sadly, on Dec. 2, 2006, Veres died at age 59, just three weeks after being diagnosed with gallbladder cancer.

Out of the public eye, Robbie van Leeuwen continues to express himself with visual art, while “Venus” has continued to lead a life of its own. In May 1986, the song took the American charts by storm once more, hitting No. 1 for the second time, by way of British girl group Bananarama. Recorded by everyone from Tom Jones (1970) to Alvin & the Chipmunks (1988) to Southern Culture on the Skids’ smoldering swing version of the tune (1995), “Venus” was most recently covered by Russian rockers Mongol Shuudan in 2004, who sped the tune up, slathered it with grungy guitars and sang it in Russian, except for the chorus which was shouted phonetically in English. “She’s got it,” would become “Shizgara.”