Maximum impact

Post-punk rock band 'Minimal Compact' reunites to celebrate their drummer's 60th birthday.

Minimal Compact (photo credit: Philippe Levy)
Minimal Compact
(photo credit: Philippe Levy)
In this little country of ours, we occasionally find ourselves looking for world beaters – something or someone we can be proud of and say, “they led the way.” While our hi-tech wizards manage to break new ground, the same cannot generally be said of our commercial music artists. But around 30 years ago, Minimal Compact was blazing a trail across Europe with its rough-and-ready offering of postpunk rock music. After eight years of plane and train hopping and nine albums, the members of the quintet called it a day and went their separate ways, although there have been sporadic reunions.
The latest get-together will start on Thursday (January 26), when the maturing rockers strut their stuff at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv, followed by a concert at Zappa Jerusalem on Saturday (January 28) and a final show at Barby in Tel Aviv on February 2. The “pretext” for the latest get-together is the 60th birthday of Dutch drummer Max Franken, the only non-Israeli member of the band, who will be joined by guitaristvocalist Berry Sakharov, guitarist-vocalist Rami Fortis, vocalist Sammy Birnbach and bassist-vocalist Malka Spiegel.
When Spiegel, Sakharov and Birnbach began developing an interest in the aftermath of punk rock, they were in a cultural vacuum. “There was absolutely no punk scene or post-punk scene here back then,” recalls Birnbach.
So the threesome packed their bags and relocated to Amsterdam where, over time, they were joined by Fortis and Franken.
The 63-year-old Birnbach had already laid the groundwork, having spent time in London during the heyday of the punk rock era in the mid-1970s and spent a year in the British capital in 1966.
“That was a great year,” says Birnbach. “I saw loads of great bands at places like the Marquee. I remember the first group I saw there was [American pop group] The Lovin’ Spoonful.”
He also caught most of the young British pop-rock acts of the time. “I used to go there two or three times a week. I saw them all there – The Small Faces, Yardbirds, The Move – and I saw [blues revivalist] Alexis Korner at the [Soho club] Zebra, and some jazz musicians like [mercurial saxophonist] Roland Kirk. Those were great times.”
Birnbach also had his 15 minutes of fame. “In Israel, I got to know Rob Huxley and Stan Solomon of [Israeli 1960s rock band] The Churchills, and I appear on the cover of their first record.”
That brief stint with Israel’s first rock band and catching all those great gigs in London instilled in Birnbach an enduring love of rock and other related styles. Prior to Minimal Compact, he made a living as a DJ and wrote poetry.
But even with his rich education in rock and pop, Birnbach still wasn’t a musician. “I wrote lyrics, but when we started out, only Berry was a real musician. Malka just took up the bass and started learning as she went along, and Fortis wasn’t a real musician back then, either. We were all limited.”
Even so, Fortis had already put out his landmark 1978 record Plonter, which was Israel’s first punk offering.
However, that lack of artistic skill worked to the band’s advantage. “I think that gave us our own special sound,” observes Birnbach. “Even Berry, who also did all the arrangements of the songs, said that if he’d played with other musicians on his level, he would probably have ended up playing sort of clichéd jazzrock.”
Birnbach says that the whole Minimal Compact phenomenon was the result of serendipity. “We thought we’d just do a seven-inch record. I knew a musician called Dick Pollack [from Dutch band Mecano], and he said he’d help me produce a record any time.”
Contact was soon made with Marc Hollander, who had just established the Belgium-based Crammed record label, and the disc was duly made. Prior to that, Birnbach and co. had only played for their close circle in Amsterdam. “People really liked what we were doing,” says the vocalist. But the word about the band had not yet hit the streets in Holland.
Meanwhile, the self-titled mini-album, which included “Statik Dancin’” and “Creation Is Perfect,” started getting some air play and began making waves in Britain. Word then got back to Holland, and things started taking off in Europe for the four, who were joined by then part-time drummer Franken. It was time to start take things seriously.
“We started rehearsing and doing gigs, and then we recorded [the band’s first full album] One by One,” says Birnbach. “We started performing all over Europe. It was a busy time.”
The quintet worked at a feverish pace in concert and in recording studios for around seven years until the members opted to follow their own individual paths, although Sakharov and Fortis also enjoyed subsequent success as a duo.
Next week, the 45+ crowd, and the younger set who have joined the band’s following over the years, will have another opportunity to catch the unique Minimal Compact vibe. Guest artist Colin Newman, formerly of British new wave band Wire fame, will enhance the onstage proceedings.
Minimal Compact will perform on January 26 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv; January 28 at Zappa Jerusalem; and February 2 at Barby in Tel Aviv.