Thursday, September 3, 2009

Diesel Or Premium Unleaded

I’m not sure when the concept of the ‘driving song’ or ‘cruising tune’ came about. I imagine it required both the automobile and the in-car radio/stereo to have been developed. The 50s/60s produced a good number of songs related to cruising in cars, or going on trips, or just songs that lent themselves to the ambience of the open road. A ‘driving’ song doesn’t necessarily have to feature a lyrical subject matter that relates to driving or cars (though it helps). The more important aspect is if the song feeds into that sense of freedom and adventurous energy that can accompany being on the open road. The Beach Boys’ ‘I Get Around’ is the perfect example of a song that covers all the bases, as are ‘Jump In My Car’ by Ted Mulry Gang, Yello’s ‘The Race’, or The Beatles’ ‘Drive My Car’, and I always get a buzz out of listening to Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, or The Wallflowers’ ‘One Headlight’, whilst driving around city streets at night - not that I do a lot of that these days (honest I don’t). Company Of Stranger’s ‘Motor City (I Get Lost)’, ‘You Get What You Give’ by New Radicals, or Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ work similarly well on the open road, and always induce a boost in volume to the brink of blowing the speakers. And then there are the summer cruising songs - something like U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’, Richard Clapton’s ‘Capricorn Dancer’ (that one’s more of a lazy, hazy summer day feel), Tim Finn’s ‘Made My Day’, Van Halen’s ‘Summer Nights’, or Don Henley/The Ataris’ ‘The Boys Of Summer’.

I guess the idea of the perfect driving song is open to interpretation, and subject to individual tastes, and the circumstances involved - city streets, open road, daytime, night time, season of the year, driving alone or with company, the mood of the driver, convertible or hardtop, unleaded or premium - the variables are endless. I would venture to say the one common element is that a good driving song affirms a sense of freedom and can instil a coursing energy - but it’s wise to restrain that coursing energy from feeding into the car’s throttle. After all, it helps to have a valid licence to enjoy the full benefits of owning a car. Doubtless I’ve missed mentioning dozens, or even hundreds, of great driving songs, but one particular song which I’ll expand on a bit is a track that, for me, resonates most strongly on the open road, and naturally enough in summer - ‘Sausalito Summernights’ by a Dutch pop/rock group called Diesel.

For Australian readers in particular, at this point the temptation might be to say “no, no, Diesel was an Australian, or at least an American born, Australian based musician”, to which I would reply “you are absolutely correct”, but the Diesel behind ‘Sausalito Summernights’ was a different variety. At some point I’ll write a post about the American born singer/guitarist Mark Lizotte, who came to prominence on the Australian music scene during the late 80s as Johnny Diesel (with his band The Injectors), and released a string of hit albums during the 90s under the shortened title of Diesel - but that’s another story.

Diesel, of the Dutch variety, had their origins back in late 1978, when one time drummer with prog-rockers Kayak, Pim Koopman, hooked up with guitarist/vocalist Mark Boon (ex-Hammer), bassist Frank Papendrecht, and vocalist/guitarist Rob Vunderink (ex-Cobra and ex-Hammer) to form a new pop-rock outfit. Diesel originally began as a side project while its members considered other options (Koopman was a staff producer with EMI), but the chemistry proved good and by 1979, Diesel had fired up into a fulltime concern. The band built up a sold following playing regular club gigs, and within a year had signed a recording deal with Polydor. Their first couple of singles, the polished ‘Goin’ Back To China’ (Ne#28) and the quirky rocker ‘Alibi’, attracted a moderate amount of attention in the Netherlands, and a few other European territories. Diesel did have an advantage in having an in-house producer with Koopman, and he helmed production on the band’s debut album, the cleverly titled ‘Watts In A Tank’, originally released in the Netherlands during 1980. What’s in a tank of Diesel you ask? Well, the tanks ingredients comprised a solid mix of harmony-laden guitar driven rock and catchy power pop, with one or two slickly produced soft metal ballads thrown into the formula. The album performed reasonably well at home, and spawned two further minor hit singles, in the jaunty rocker ‘Down In The Silvermine’, and the aforementioned ‘Sausalito Summer nights’ (written by Vunderink and Boon).

During the eighteen months following the release of the ‘Watts In A Tank’ album, the membership of Diesel became as fluid as the band’s name. In late 1980, both Boon and Papendrecht left to join another outfit called Tutti Frutti, replaced by Hugo de Bruijn and Wijnand Ott respectively. Pip Koopman remained with the band on a part-time basis until 1981, when his duties as a producer rendered his ongoing involvement with Diesel time prohibitive (Kim Weemhoff came on board as drummer). Diesel carried on as a live act during this period, and began leaning towards a more overtly country-rock style, but the prospects of recording a follow up album appeared slim. That was of course, until ‘Sausalito Summernights’ started to attract some attention Stateside. The track possessed all the hallmarks of a classic riff-laden rocker from Steve Miller Band, and its likely that many first time listeners Stateside, would have mistaken ‘Sausalito Summernights’ as a new Steve Miller Band track (think ‘Jet Airliner’). Regency Records (through MCA) organised a North American release of the single ‘Sausalito Summernights’, and the source album ‘Watts In A Tank’. The track became an A.O.R. radio favourite, and by September ‘81 had debuted on the U.S. Hot 100, and Canadian rock charts. ‘Sausalito Summernights’ had that classic commercial brand, guitar driven rock sound. The opening guitar riff hooks you from the get go, and the song takes you for a rocking ride of fun and (mis)adventure on a classic California road trip. In fact the whole lyrical motif of the California road trip no doubt also contributed to the song (and Diesel) being mistaken by many as American. Lines like “We left for Frisco in your Rambler”, “We blew a gasket on the Grapevine”. and “I’ll have a burger and a root beer” screamed West Coast road trip - it was a virtual theme song for anyone taking the trip from L.A. to Sausalito. I’ll confess, prior to writing this post I didn’t know exactly where Sausalito was (I am from Australia after all), but apparently it’s located in Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay area, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge - hence the song’s line “We’ll get across the Golden Gate”. Regardless of locale, the song evokes such a strong sense of the open road, that on one particular occasion, when listening to the track at home, white marker lines appeared dividing my living room, and the carpet turned to bitumen. Of course, that may have had something to do with adding those three week old mushrooms to my pizza the night before.

‘Sausalito Summernights’ went gooooooooooold (sorry Austin Powers moment there), and led the Dutch group Diesel to a stopover inside the U.S. top forty (#25) on an 18 week road trip of the charts during the latter part of ‘81, whilst ‘Sausalito Summernights’ arrived at the ultimate destination on the Canadian charts (#1). It’s been a rarity for a Dutch based artist to score a hit Stateside, Golden Earring, George Baker, and Shocking Blue being among the few to make a genuine impact on the U.S. charts (if you don’t count the Van Halen brothers). Unfortunately, Diesel’s hit making tank ran empty after the surprise resurgence of ‘Sausalito Summernights’. Despite vocalist/guitarist Mark Boon returning to the band for a late 1981 U.S. tour (during which they opened for the likes of Grand Funk, and Joan Jett), Diesel’s line-up was substantially different to that which had recorded the ‘Watts In A Tank’ album (US#68). Bassist Bas Krumperman was on board for Diesel’s sophomore album, ‘Unleaded’, released in 1982 on the Atco label. But allegedly poor material and shoddy production resulted in an inferior product that remained for the most part in the shop, with hood up. Personnel problems continued to plague Diesel, and by 1983 the ever changing line-up featured ex-Turbo singer Leen Barbier, and ex-De Munck bassist Andre Versluijs (spell-check off). The single ‘Leader Of The Pac-Man’ tanked for Diesel, and the band coughed and spluttered along in various guises until 1985 - by this stage they were a six piece including Henk Hager and Jans Looman - at which point it got a little crowded, so Diesel pulled over to the side of the road and temporarily abandoned their vehicle.

By 1988, a new crew, featuring Pim Koopman and Rob Vunderink, and fronted by singer Jeroen Englebert, managed to push start Diesel back into action with the minor European hit ‘Samantha’. The follow up single ‘Colorado’ failed to ascend to rocky mountain high heights, and by late ‘89, Diesel was once again out of gas. Mark Boon then went on to form a new band called The Zoo, who released the album ‘What’s In The Package’. Diesel remained stagnant until 2000 when founding members Pip Koopman and Rob Vunderink fired up the engine, and joined a new support crew on the 2001 album ‘Diesel On The Rocks’, a mix of previous material, covers, and three new tracks. Interest in the band was revived sufficiently to encourage the One Way label to release the original 1980 album ‘Watts In A Tank’ on CD for the first time. In 2004, the original quartet of Koopman, Vunderink, Boon, and Papendrecht joined forces for a one off charity gig, but despite some promising indications of further Diesel-related activity, the band only managed to crank the engine into action for the occasional short road trip in the years through to 2007.

For more info on Diesel (the band) check out the website at -