Many ambitious Swiss musicians viewed the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s as a tremendous opportunity. Earthy rock - sometimes delirious and lost in the stars - set a clear contrast to earlier light and danceable rock'n'roll. To be progressive became the new motto.
The hip-swinging rock 'n' roll of the 50's and 60's was giving way to a more cerebral style of rock. This new style had to be "progressive", although no one knew what this specifically meant. Long drags on mind-altering substances didn't sharpen senses for terminological discussions and subtle comparison either.
The lowest common denominator of "being progressive" was an "anything goes". Stylistic differentiation between blues, jazz, rock and classic was abolished. Taking commercial factors into consideration was frowned upon.
This also marked a time of giant egos. Many bands formed communes in the backwoods and spent nights in interminable jam sessions. But despite these collective rituals, rock music of the 70's (in contrast to 60's rock 'n' roll) was marked by individualism and self-realization. Solo improvisations grew longer and longer, and domineering poses and macho mannerisms reflected new self-assurance. Rock music soon developed a tendency of gigantism. No wonder that following punk generation later wrote off many internationally most successful rock bands as "dinosaurs".
As exhilarating as this boundless freedom in the land of progressive rock could be, so insidious it could also be. While strumming few basic chords on guitar had qualified anyone of average talent for membership in early rock 'n' roll bands, now conservatory training seemed a virtual necessity, in order to execute unison staccato passages paired with sudden changes in rhythm. Moreover, the rock musician was well-advised to be versed in tarot, Celtic mythology and Far-Eastern philosophy. Not to mention to keep handy a copy of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead", next to the mattress on the floor. Otherwise you were in danger of not even being able to explain the meaning of your band's name, besides the distribution of roles in the rock suite that you had composed.
"Sitar Boogie" and expressive dance
Krokodil was the first progressive rock group in Switzerland. They earned widespread attention for their unique music (and not for their behaviour). Krokodil was the Zurich version of a "super group", the latter being a further phenomenon of 70's gigantism. Guitarist Walty Anselmo, drummer Düde Dürst and singer Hardy Hepp had been active on the rock scene for years. Together with English bass player Terry Stevens and harmonica virtuoso Mojo Weideli they formed a band in which they wanted anything to be possible. Krokodil's roots were in blues, folk, rock 'n' roll and Jimi Hendrix' music.
These influences are particularly evident in the group's early work, documented on the hypnotic sitar boogie "You're Still a Part of Me". But Krokodil, considered above all in Germany, as one of the leading rock ensembles, continued to become more and more unconventional. The prophecy of a big breakthrough for the band from Zurich with three singers of equal status never materialized. The longer the band was underway, the worse conditions became. Numerous other formations were performing in Krokodil's slipstream, but all of them were significantly less widely known.
The former blues band The Shiver from St. Gallen had a hit with "Hey, Mr. Holy Man", a psychedelic piece with Gregorian overtones produced by Steff Sulke. Ertlif was the band that established progressive spirit, combined with expansive classic rock arrangements, in pop-oriented Basel. Brainticket was very different, a studio project bringing together international personnel and the cream of the Basel music scene. Their technically demanding instrumental music was conducive to drug experimentation and expressive dance. It has withstood the test of time surprisingly well.
Progressive rock bands were everywhere, from French-speaking Switzerland(Pacific Sound) to the Bernese midlands (with Scorpion experimenting with German texts since mid 70's) and down to Italian-speaking Ticino (Marco Zappa). Musical epicenter of the Swiss rock movement was the Sinus Studio in Berne, where recording engineers Peter McTaggart and Eric Merz left no wish unfulfilled. They were ready to take every risk in order to produce "flipped out" music.
Into the charts with hard rock
International bands such as Deep Purple, Free and Led Zeppelin embodied a hard rock whose roots lay closer to the blues and which produced a number of surprisingly successful spin-offs in Switzerland.
One of the first Swiss hard rock bands was Toad, a blues-rock combo built up around a guitarist of Italian ancestry, Vic Vergeat. Their debut single "Stay!" rocketed onto the Swiss charts – something that no other Swiss hard rock band had ever been able to achieve. Toad was also successful as a live act in neighboring countries. Tea enjoyed similar popularity. The voice of their lead singer, Mark Storace ("The Maltese Falcon"), overshadowed those of rivals such as Tusk's Ernesto Vögeli (who later served as the protagonist in the novel and film, "ter fögi ische souhung") and Joint's Giovi Russo.
Shortly thereafter Mark Storace also howled Krokus onto the charts. What was to become Switzerland's most successful rock band, first set sail from the pretty provincial town Solothurn in 1974, initially with only moderate success. After two albums, the band switched to a pounding, uncompromising hard rock style and were soon counted among the international elite of the heavy metal scene. Their album "Metal Rendez-Vous", released in 1980, marked a turning point in the band's career. It sold more than 150'000 copies in Switzerland alone, a true sensation at the time. "Headhunter" (1983) was a further musical and commercial triumph. With over 2 million copies sold it was the most successful Swiss album ever. Krokus achieved superstar status in the United States.
None other than Woody Allen insisted on using 50 "Headhunter" jackets as a background in one of his films. Krokus were the only Swiss rock band that found resonance with mass audiences. They had less luck, however, with the business side of their activities. Instead of retiring to luxurious villas in Beverly Hills they ended up back again in Solothurn after endless quarrels with their management and countless changes of band members – big fun but small returns...
The sound for powerful emotions
The appearance of punk and new wave music put the brakes on the classic rock boom. Many listeners were tired of the excesses and all-too-familiar poses of self-declared superstars and were looking for new trends. Unless for large sectors of the public, rock did not lose its fascination. It remained music that could express powerful emotions besides the hum-drum of daily life. This enabled many rock musicians to maintain a solid livelihood. The varieties were manifold: pub rockers such as the Looney Tunes attempted to bring rock music back in gear by referring to past heroes such as the Rolling Stones and Small Faces.
The Swiss Horns revived the early-70's tradition of combining guitar rock with brass choruses. Extremely productive Irrwisch preferred grandiose keyboard sounds. Infra Steff's Red Devil Band strove to sound like doyen Frank Zappa. Circus from Basel served up an intricate mixture of jazz and symphonic rock.
The circle is closed
In early 80's, among the second generation of Swiss heavy metal once again there appeared a band which found resonance far beyond Swiss borders: Celtic Frost from Zurich. In contrast to traditional heavy metal of bands such as Krokus, Celtic Frost were regarded as avant-garde for their radical fusion of brutish death metal with influences from modern classical music. Ever since, they have influenced generations of young rock musicians throughout the world. Their album cover of "To Mega Therion" was designed by famous Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who, in the early 70's, had also done covers for other Swiss progressive rock bands such as Shiver and Island. Thus, the circle was closed.
Many critics regard the period of Swiss rock music from late 60's to early 80's as dark era which brought forth little to last for long, as a time when form dominated content. The "Rock" CD in this collection may cause many listener to disagree.
Truly the seventies were not a golden age for Swiss rock music. But despite general "darkness", there were exciting experiments and brilliant flashes which brightened the horizon.
Liner notes by Samuel Mumenthaler
Translation by Mark Manion
Swiss Pop & Rock Anthology, ROCK Vol. 2 (2003). SD 03102. Produced by swissinfo/SRI and SUISA-Foundation for music. Producers: Hardy Hepp, musician (head of task group). Christian Strickler (swissinfo/SRI). Claude Delley (SUISA-Foundation for music)
Swiss Pop & Rock Anthology on CD: Box Vol. 1-5. Distribution: Sound Service