Mojo magic: 50 years of Mojo Concerts
When Berry Visser opened Delft’s first discotheque in the late 1960s, he could never have imagined the decision would impact the lives of millions of people for half a century to come.
With fellow students, he ran a small cabaret venue called Mojo Theatre, but despite a weekly 100-guilder grant from the city, it needed to make more money. So they opened disco Polly Maggoo, and it was packed within a fortnight. It was the first time Visser had heard pop music and it changed his life.
Shortly after, at a concert by The Doors, Visser decided he was going to promote concerts. “So I just went to London and met Neil Warnock at [Brian Epstein’s] NEMS, and asked to book Spooky Tooth and Traffic.”
“I remember the first time I met Berry,” says United Talent Agency’s Neil Warnock. “He had long hair and looked a bit like a hippie.”
Returning to the Netherlands, Visser banged on the door of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and asked to rent the main room. They took one look at him and turned him away. So he went back to Warnock, secured Julie Felix, and tried again at the venue. They sold 300 tickets – and Mojo Concerts was born.
Bitten by the promotions bug and inspired by Woodstock, Visser contacted Bath Festival of Blues founder Freddy Bannister, who agreed to share bands with the Dutchman’s as-yet-unnamed festival. “I had no site and no money,” Visser laughs.
In 1970, a young architecture student called Leon Ramakers went to an address in Delft to buy tickets for a Led Zeppelin concert that was taking place in the Hague.
There he found Visser, “a long-haired guy sat at a table with an electric heater at his feet.” The two got talking, and Visser told Ramakers of his festival plans with Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd and Soft Machine.
Full of enthusiasm and keen to be involved, Ramakers wrote to the minister of culture asking for money, but not expecting a response. To his amazement, a week later the minister called him to a meeting and later granted the young student 25,000 guilders. “As a result of the ministry’s contribution, Coca-Cola agreed to put money in too, because they thought that if the festival was backed by the ministry then it must be OK.”
“One year we brought in barrels of petrol and set them on fire on the roof of the venue. It caused quite a commotion”
Meanwhile, Visser received a visit from Georges Knap, “dressed like a salesman”, and pitching an idea for a festival in Rotterdam. The long-haired Visser took one look at him and slammed the door. But Knap persisted, and eventually drove Visser to the site he had in mind in Kralingen. Visser was convinced, and from 26–28 June 1970, Holland Pop Festival (known locally as Kralingen Music Festival) took place near Rotterdam. Headlined by Pink Floyd, and featuring the Byrds, T. Rex and Santana. Taking place two months after fellow Dutch festival Pinkpop, it was one of the first rock festivals on continental Europe.
“It was a fantastic day,” remembers Warnock. “I was on the bus with Jethro Tull and one of them was playing the violin while we tried to get Pink Floyd into the country because they didn’t have a carnet. It was chaos, but it was frontier times back then.”
Dubbed “Europe’s answer to Woodstock”, Holland Pop was a cultural success but a financial disaster. “We lost a million guilders,” remembers Ramakers. “We sold 28,000 tickets but the gates were crashed early on and lots of people got in free.”
Although the festival was organised through a foundation, creditors pursued the fledgling Mojo Concerts. For the next four years, Visser and Ramakers lived hand-to-mouth, borrowing money wherever they could to advance bands because box offices wouldn’t release ticket money until after the shows.
But they weren’t discouraged. “We were young and we loved what we were doing,” says Ramakers. “We were convinced that eventually we were going to make it so we just kept on going.”
This work ethic and passion for music has been integral to the success of Mojo Concerts. Ramakers explains: “It’s good that we’ve made money but the primary reason we do this is it gives us pleasure. If you do something for the love and you do it properly, the money will follow.”
Then, in 1977, everything changed. Arena shows became commonplace, and Mojo Concerts were at the forefront.
“All of a sudden there was a major boost in business,” says Ramakers. “We were doing three shows with Pink Floyd, three with Supertramp, two with Eagles, Bob Marley.
“Before then, you were lucky if you made 2,000 guilders on a night. Then it was boom time.”
“Berry got it. We had similar music tastes. I’ve been working with Mojo ever since”
What put Mojo ahead of their competitors when booking the biggest artists was their attitude – a refreshing change from the dominant long-standing Dutch jazz promoters of the time. “They had the approach that the artist was their employee because they were paying them,” remembers Ramakers. “From the beginning, we understood that we were not the boss – the artist was. All the jazz promoters were stuck in the past and couldn’t adapt to the new rock business. We would make sure the artists had breakfast in the morning, which was something those others never did.”
ITB’s Barry Dickins recalls: “The biggest promoter in the Netherlands at the time was Muziek Expres magazine owner Paul Acket [founder of the North Sea Jazz Festival]. He said to me, ‘Why are you dealing with these bootleggers?’, and I told him, ‘Because they get it, and you’re an old man who doesn’t.’ Berry and I were about the same age – about 20 or 21, so to me working with Acket was like dealing with your dad. Berry got it. We had similar music tastes. I’ve been working with Mojo ever since.”
Opening Pandora’s Music Box
In a story familiar to many promoters, as the years went on, the deals got worse. “I watched them go from 60/40 to 80/20 and then 90/10,” says Visser. His solution, in 1979, was Casa Nova, a ten-day cultural fair for young people at the Ahoy Rotterdam. Rather than relying on increasingly unreliable deals, Visser decided to create other entertainment. Alongside music, it was to feature tech showcases, poetry, circus, lectures, nightclubs, film and more.
It didn’t work and Mojo Concerts went bust. The pair bought the name back a few months later for 4,000 guilders.
Then in 1983, came Pandora’s Music Box – a combination of music, theatre and art. Visser brought in artist and composer Michel Waisvisz and the pair created a programme of what they called “phenomena” – interactive and immersive performances mingling with the audience.
“We had sheep walking the marble floors after midnight; a massage parlour; a lemonade girl standing in a bikini in a glass basin filled with lemonade handing out lemonade in paper cups; old people playing cards. One year we brought in barrels of petrol and set them on fire on the roof of the venue. It caused quite a commotion,” recalls Visser
The immersive theatrical experience blew everyone’s minds. Pandora’s Music Box became legendary, and a blueprint for most festivals today. “Barry Dickins was doing a show with Diana Ross at the Ahoy, and came over to see it,” remembers Visser. “He was flabbergasted and told me if we did it in New York, we’d smash it.”
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