The band Les Sauterelles stood for the decade of the 1960s, when Switzerland's youth was shaken by rock'n'roll fever.This content was published on December 22, 2011 - 18:15
When in summer 1968 Les Sauterelles ruled the Swiss charts with their hit "Heavenly Club", this success marked both their climax and end. Often referred as the "Swiss Beatles", Les Sauterelles had been the undisputed kings of the scene for years. It was their resounding success that caused their downfall in the same year – a pattern that would repeat itself on and on throughout the history of pop and rock music in Switzerland. Differences over the direction in which their music was going and the sobering reality of their daily professional routine had led the group to an impasse.
Their breakup heralded a similar fate for most other Swiss "beat bands" who had for years been cruising along in the slipstream of their Anglo-American models, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Electric guitars in French-speaking Switzerland
It wasn't first sight love between rebellious rock 'n' roll and conservative post-war Switzerland. Whereas the entertainment industries in neighbouring countries had been quick to find their own stand-ins for "King" Elvis Presley, in Switzerland traditional duos, dance orchestras and occasional dixieland bands were still setting the tone. True, the Hula Hawaiians from Basel had incorporated the influences of Bill Haley and his Comets into songs such as "Chimpanzee Rock" as early as 1957. But they remained alone out on a limb in their surreptitious revolution.
Rock 'n' roll grew in significance at the beginning of the 1960's, first in areas that were more susceptible to new influences because of their proximity to neighboring countries.
In French-speaking Switzerland, a new generation was growing up under the influence of French models such as Johnny Hallyday or Les Chausettes Noires. Leaning toward instrumental electric guitar dominated music, this generation set off an avalanche of their own "yeah, yeah, yeahs".
Les Aiglons from Lausanne were the most commercially successful group with their hit "Stalactite". But their rivals Les Faux-Frères were the most popular band. Larry Greco was among the few solo singers in the tradition of Elvis or Johnny Hallyday and able to compete with the guitar groups. Like all big names in Western Switzerland at the time, he set his sights towards France and signed a contract with a recording company in Paris. This explains why his recordings from the early 60's sound as well very professional.
Beatlemania was behind it all
By 1964 the popularity of instrumental rock music, with its touch of elegance as embodied by the Shadows from England, was beginning to fade. The Beatles and their impetuous, naive pop songs were steadily winning larger audiences among Europe's youth. "She Loves You" was the first major hit on the continent by the four lads from Liverpool. The few professional Swiss popular music ensembles sat up and took notice. And they were right in seeing this music as a threat to their livelihood.
Rock 'n' roll embodied a life feeling and actually had more to do how youth viewed themselve than with music as such. The best musical training seemed absolutely worthless if the feeling wasn't right.
Bandleader Hazy Osterwald's early German-language cover version of a Beatles song sounded accordingly stiff. Young Swiss popular music pioneers Pichi from Zurich as well as The 16 Strings from Aargovia were both too well-mannered and proper to be truly "fab". And the effect of more sophisticated French-speaking acts such as Lausanne singer Tony Rank, who covered Beatles songs in early 1964, or Les Relax could only hint at the frenzy how real rock 'n' roll stirred up among youthful audiences.
Instead, young acts from German-speaking Switzerland came to the fore. "Beat groups" mushroomed throughout the North and East of the country, injecting a powerful burst of enthusiastic energy into the scene. Their musical skills were often limited, but it was precisely because of their tender age and carefree spirit that many of them soon grasped and exploited the spirit behind the craze.
The dimensions of the scene, however, remained modest. Although the rambunctious rock 'n' rollers mimicked international models, their radius of action remained strictly local.
The first downright battle of bands took place in Basel in 1964. The cosmopolitan city on the Rhine was home to the vanguard of the national rock 'n' roll movement with groups such as The Dynamites, The Sevens, The Red Devils, The Sheapes and The Countdowns. Now, finally drums were banging, basses hammering, and guitars wailing. Not to mention the requisite long hair and trendy, psychedelic dress of the performers. English became the compulsory language for singers, whether they liked it or not. Often, linguistic deficiencies were compensated for with phonetic transcriptions and use of a quirky, rough "Esperanto" ("Balla Balla"). Not only was originality not solicited in these early years, it would have been deadly. Youthful audiences demanded faithful copies of the international hits from their local heroes, since the original stars rarely appeared in Switzerland and discotheques did not yet exist.
Soon the best bands were to be found in Zurich, the only Swiss city that nurtured a night life of any sort. Rock 'n' roll was particularly popular in live performances. At times there were over ten clubs in the city that had bands appearing night after night. Zurich also became home to first timid attempts at home-grown rock 'n' roll, and first major concerts with the Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and Jimi Hendrix were also held there. Self-appointed "managers" were all over the place. And the scene soon had its own mouthpiece with Jürg Marquard's "Pop" magazine. In short, Zurich had become the "London of Switzerland".
Zurich's bands were, however, less overwhelming. Toni Vescoli and his Sauterelles dominated the scene commercially from about end of 1965 onwards. Spurred on by the unexpected success of their first single "Hongkong", they set out to conquer the non-German-speaking parts of Switzerland as well as audiences in Germany and Austria. A blues-music scene had been created in Zurich back in 1960, emanating from the talented guitarist Chris Lange, who had delved into the sources of Afro-American music even before Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon did.
In mid-60's singer Heiner "Hardy" Hepp started to preach the gospel according to Bob Dylan and thus sowed the seeds for some remarkable little plants that would blossom at the beginning of the 70's. But Hepp's effort to carve a career for himself in the music capital London were less auspicious. His colleague Susie Klee, today's country singer Suzanne Klee, raised a few eyebrows in 1966 when she succeeded in releasing a record in England with her version of Bob Lind's "Mr. Zero".
From rock'n'roll to pop
The rock'n'roll or "beat music" fever continued to shake young people throughout Switzerland until the end of the 1960's, without ever assuming epidemic proportions. The Nightbirds from Locarno in Italian-speaking canton Ticino cultivated an urban rhythm 'n' blues sound while guitarist Marco Zappa and the Teenagers modeled their music on that of the Beatles and the Animals. French-speaking Switzerland sent The Wild Gentlemen into the fray. They came up an unintentional swan song to the lighter rock 'n' roll of the early years with their nonsensical hit "Gilly Gilly".
Under influence of Anglo-American models, rock 'n' roll gradually grew into an independent art form with socio-political content. The air grew thinner and thinner for the hundreds of amateur bands for whom being part of it all was more important than the quality of the music. Rock 'n' roll had sown its wild oats and was beginning to fade. "Pop" became the new magic word.
May makes everything new - the year of 1968
The few serious and truly committed Swiss rock 'n' roll musicians of the pioneering era were forced to seek new directions for their music. For example singer Barry Window from Basel surfed the soul wave and smuggled elements of Indian music into his own brand of "raga rock". The Sauterelles, as their alter egos, were maturing from the Beatles and experimenting with psychedelic sounds.
But even as late as early 1968 there were very few Swiss bands who were seriously working toward a unique and independent sound. The political eruptions of May 1968, particularly the massive student demonstrations in France, then lead to repercussions in Switzerland as well. For Swiss pop musicians it became the hour of truth: time to burst through conventional barriers - in any sense - and to take a stand.
Liner notes by Samuel Mumenthaler
Translation by Mark Manion
Swiss Pop & Rock Anthology, BEAT Vol. 1 (2003). SD 03101. 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
Hula Hawaiians: Chimpanzee Rock (1957)
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