"Art? Yuck! Art is revolting! Arrogant, boring, elitist, abstruse, archaic!" This was Kleenex bass player Klaudia Schifferle's vehement reaction when asked to explain their band's "artistic statement". In 1978, Kleenex was Switzerland's first major all-woman band. Wave became the stylized rebellion against the music culture of the 1960s and 1970s.
Thin creatures in torn leather jackets with bleached, spiked hair and beer bottles in their hands were popping up in Swiss cities. "Punk rules!" became the motto of this small, but - despite claims to the contrary - rather fastidious scene.
Punk rock was their mouthpiece: brute, loud, crude, three-chord noise oscillating between emphatically displayed boredom and defiant non-compliance. In contrast to preceding generations, the punks sought to pick fights not only with their parents but also with (what they called) the "boring old farts" of the sixties' generation, who themselves had become part of the establishment. The Zurich punk band Sperma sneeringly screeched "Woodstock isch Scheisse gsi!" ("Woodstock was crap!"). In doing so, they also targeted that generation's music, attacking its commercialized forms that revolved around itself in ever-weirder patterns during mid-70's.
Avantgarde 'n' Roll
Punk music of course wasn't originated in Switzerland. The Dolls from New York, the raging revival of former rock 'n' roll stars and the war-horse sounds of British pub-rock groups all contributed to the growth of punk in England around the beginning of 1976.
Paradoxically, punk's real roots were to be found in London's urban art and fashion scene. Malcolm McLaren, the man who "fathered" the Sex Pistols and thus punk rock, placed great importance on appearances from the very beginning. He insisted on having underground designer Vivenne Westwood to create the band's attire. Punk wasn't what its name (trash, rubbish) suggested. Punk had style. It was the combination of avant-garde esthetics with retrospective approach to rock 'n' roll.
It intentionally sought to provoke through dilettantism, foul language and tattered Nazi insignia. Punk was visual music. And it meant fun - at least for those who were involved from the beginning.
From jet set to the provinces
Punk was thoroughly British, and at the same time it was a phenomenon that infected all Western culture. Small cliques of innovative artists and musicians were forming everywhere during mid-70's. Their common goal was the rejection of the oppressive atmosphere of the cold war, the oil crisis, or terrorism and counter-terrorism.
In Switzerland Zurich became punk's hub. A city that had been wasting away musically since the carefree days of rock 'n' roll, now again became center for new musical demolition crews. The soundtracks were provided by unconventional bands such as Taxi with their underground dialect or the performance specialists Troppo. The Nasal Boys, the first "real" Swiss punk band, and Dieter Meier (who later gained fame as Yello) with his icy truncheon-rock ("Cry for Fame") both came from what could be labeled as "alternative jet set".
But punk quickly broke out of its exclusive avant-garde circle and spread to the kids in the neighborhoods. A small scene blossomed around bands such as Dogbodys, TNT, Sperma and Mother's Ruin. The quality of music sank promptly, but the credibility factor soared. And with home-made fanzines (fan magazines), the tiny punk community commanded their own platform for communication. A number of small independent labels endorsed these young local bands by releasing singles in very small quantities.
Other Swiss cities soon followed, Berne for instance, which boasted a punk cellar-bar and a punk group (Glueams) of its own. A few particularly bold bands, among them No Fun (later known as Hungry for What) from Büren (canton Berne) or Crazy (canton Lucerne) even had the guts to bring punk music to semi-rural, "provincial" areas.
Western-Swiss rockers as forerunners of punk
Cosmopolitan Geneva provided fertile soil for punk in Western, French-speaking Switzerland. In general, the punk rockers there were much older than their counterparts in German-speaking Switzerland. Groups such as Le Beau Lac De Bâle, who had fought against the excesses of art rock with simple but colorful guitar riffs since the mid-70's, were the forerunners of punk.
Other bands, the Yodler Killers, the Bastards and Technycolor represented a French-speaking punk movement that was strongly indebted to classic rock 'n' roll. French-speaking Switzerland and its neighbour France had long represented a safe haven for aging rock veterans like Gene Vincent or Vince Taylor. And it is interesting to note that the differences between German- and French-speaking Switzerland with regard to musical evolution remained even after the first punk boom had faded. Bands in French-speaking Switzerland - e.g., The Zero Heroes and The Tickets - emphasized a sharp, energetic style of rock inspired by new-wave groups such as Joe Jackson or The Police.
The further development of style in German-speaking Switzerland was more complex. The punk pioneers The Nasal Boys signed with CBS and were promptly re-named "Expo" (under pressure from the music industry). Pop mastermind Kurt Maloo's trio Ping Pong flirted more openly with commercialism which, in the general climate of unrest of the 80's, soon earned them harsh criticism for "selling out". Plus there were projects such as Blue China, Yello and Grauzone (Grey Zone) which, resorting more and more frequently to electronic equipment, mirrored the icy climate of the early 80's.
The age of techno music arrived. Punk's noise had faded and once again the primordial force of rock 'n' roll had succumbed to reality. The scene drifted apart. This gave way to new wave, or more precisely, to German-language new wave, whose most successful Swiss representative was singer Vera Kaa. But even if a number of new wave representatives succeeded in spreading positive vibes on the scene, the 80's were, in general, not a fun time. The short, hot summer of new wave was followed by a long, icy winter.
In retrospect, the punk and new-wave bands that lasted longest were those which treated punk playfully and adapted it to Switzerland's small dimensions - as exemplified by Zurich's group Hertz. One of their songs underlayed musically the official biography of Willy Ritschard, an uncommonly popular government minister.
A few representatives of the urban wing of the scene, for example, Kurt Maloo (Double), Dieter Meier (Yello) and Stephan Eicher achieved pop star status. A number of influential figures in contemporary Swiss rock music, such as singer Franz Treichler of the Young Gods, still have their roots in punk. And it is striking to see that more than a few children of the punk revolution rank among nowadays opinion leaders in media and arts. Punk, similarly to rock 'n' roll in the 60's, had very limited political message. But it offered the valve through which the frustration of the restless youth of the 80's could escape.
In England punk played an important role in race integration. In Switzerland it broke through another kind of barrier: no other musical movement launched as many female musicians as punk did. The Zurich all-woman band Kleenex even achieved a degree of international fame. American pop philosopher Greil Marcus put them on a par with the artists of the Dada movement. So it would appear that precisely because punk never claimed to be art, it became one of the more important artistic statements of its time.
Translation: Mark Manion
Swiss Pop & Rock Anthology, ROCK Vol. 3 (2003). SD 03103. 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