From the beginnings till 1985 - It was a long way to Swiss dialect rock. A bunch of avantgarde thinkers as Mani Matter, Franz Hohler or Kurt Marti helped Swiss dialect to get a new reputation.
High German, which was an intrinsic element of traditional "Schlager"-hits, and didn't seem to be suited to the driving rhythms, belting guitars and buzzing hi-hats of rock 'n' roll. And Swiss-German dialects didn't appear to be much more attractive. How could the spirit of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" be expressed in a language rooted in regionalism if not provincialism?
And yet, it happened! In 1967 Swiss-German dialects were "set free" by a circle of enthusiasts, poets, artists and musicians. Mani Matter, Franz Hohler, Sergius Golowin, Kurt Marti and others set out to treat Swiss-German dialects in a fresh, avant-garde fashion.
Then, along came Bob Dylan. He had just antagonized his folk fans by turning to electric guitar, and thereby also inspired Swiss musicians. Singer/lyricist Polo Hofer of Rumpelstilz, a band founded in 1971, focused on Dylan's music. "Just Like Tom's Thumb Blues" was the musical model for the first dialect-rock song recorded. In 1973 "Warehuus Blues" ("Department Store Blues") was released privately in limited numbers and at first could only be heard in jukeboxes in the vicinity of Hofer's home town, Interlaken. Rumpelstilz became more widely known with the release of their first album "Vogelfutter" ("Birdseed"). Their breakthrough came in 1976 with the album "Füüf Narre im Charre" ("Five Fools on Wheels"). The combination of dialect with Jamaican reggae their songs "Kiosk", "Teddybär" or "Rote Wy" ("Red Wine") were innovative and popular.
New sounds from the east
But what was happening east of Berne? Anton Bruhin, underground multimedia artist, painter, poet and virtuoso on the Jew's harp, was making an important contribution in "liberating" the Zurich dialect. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and harmonica, his "Liebeslied" ("Love Song") sounded rather conservative. But verbally it was typical rock 'n' roll: "E schöne Zug vo dr Wasserpfiffe, en tüüfe Stoss is Ursi ine" ("A long drag on the hubble-bubble, a deep thrust into Ursula").
In 1969 The Minstrels, three chaps with beards, long hair and a folk style, enjoyed one of the biggest hits in Swiss dialect with the raucous "Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa" ("Howdy, Mrs. Stirnemann"). Surprisingly most Zurich musicians, who formerly had been quick to employ electric guitars in early rock 'n' roll years, now were reticent to combine their native dialect with rock music. Toni Vescoli served as role model. After the end of the rock 'n' roll band Les Sauterelles he switched to country guitar and hit the charts with dialect songs in this genre.
On the other hand the Zurich group Lise Schlatt relied heavily on electric instruments. Their 1971 song "Flipi Tripi" was trendy in using psychedelic colors. But this did not earn them the nationwide success they were hoping for.
But Zurich and Berne were not the only hubs for change. Numerous musicians from Eastern Switzerland were experimenting with folk traditions in new contexts. In 1975 Töbi Tobler from Appenzell (former drummer with Tabularasa along with Max Lässer and Hardy Hepp) founded the Trio Toblermit. They explored the possibilities to mix folk, pop, blues with rich Appenzell folk music. "Miti Monet" became the first dialect-pop song to use Eastern Swiss-German dialect. In 1975 Walther Lietha, committed folk singer, guitarist and composer, had his hit "I bin e Vogel" ("I'm a Bird"), sung in the dialect of Graubünden. And in 1984 the Lietha/Lässer band further proved the poetic potential of the Graubünden dialect with "Schwarzi Bluamä" ("Black Flowers") .
One source of inspiration for dialect-rock was folk music and folk songs. Rumpelstilz transformed "Stets in Truure" ("Always in Mourning") from a folk song into a soulful ballad. Peter Hinnen, experimental yodel and "Schlager" star, stunningly combined yodel and flowing seventies-funk in "Nudel Jodel" ("Noodle Yodel"). Michel Villa climbed the charts with a witty rendition of an old folk song from Valais, "Dr Tifel isch gschtorbu" ("Devil Is Dead").
Swiss dialect-rock musicians also created original folk songs, such Span's "Louenesee" ("Lake Lauenen") or "Alperose" ("Alpine Roses") by Polo Hofer's SchmetterBand.
While Polo Hofer's first band Rumpelstilz were the forerunners of jazzed-up dialect-rock, Grünspan were the originators of the straight rock variation. Their single "Bärner Rock" from 1974 was "Warehuus Blues'" rockin' brother. "Warehuus Blues" was Rumpelstilz' earlier prankish version. The exchange between Polo Hofer and Grünspan, who shortened their name to Span in 1976, remained intense and productive. In 1978 they formed Polo's SchmetterDing. "Psychomotorische Wältschmärz-Reggae Nr. 117" ("Psychomotoric World-Weariness-Reggae No. 117") became a crowning jewels in Swiss dialect-rock.
Dialect goes punk
Punk and new-wave provided surprisingly few impulses to dialect-rock. TNT screamed "Züri brännt" ("Zurich's on Fire") into the mikes. Sperma just praised their own scene with "Züri Punx" and Bernese Glueams made rhymes like "Twist isch eis im Näscht, gisch em dr höllisch Räscht" ("If You Twist in Bed, It'll Cave In Under You"). While Crazy from Lucerne loudly proclaimed "Ech well frei si" ("I Wanna Be Free"). Swiss punkers were fast, hard, loud, simple and short-lived from the very beginning. New-wave, the intellectual and more open version of punk, proved to have more stamina.
Taxi, an inventive combo built up around mastermind Dominique Grandjean developed their unique treatment of dialect.
"Campari Soda", today a cult song, was hardly a commercial success upon release in 1977. The group's only album, "Es isch als gäbs mich nüme me" ("It's As If I No Longer Existed") contains other gems such as "Du Du Diva Du" ("You, You Diva, You"). Its oriental interjections heralded future sampling techniques.
Hardy Hepp's 1982 "Mensch Meyer", actually title song of a Swiss television play bearing the same name, is an interesting experiment. In addition to piano, sampled recordings from the Escher-Wyss Industrial Park served as an ominous sound backdrop.
Singer/lyricist Albert Kuhn's group Frostschutz from canton Aargau did not shy away from adorning their pop-rock-wave music with accordion sounds. "Handtäschlifrou" ("Handbag Lady") is one of dialect music's pearls in early 80's. "Nüt" ("Nothing") by Claude from Zurich also falls within this category. A minimal song, it was the first dialect rap song to be released on record.
The new wave from Berne
Ex-Trem Normal was the name of a trio that set out to revolutionize easygoing Bernese rock music in 1983. "Warum" ("Why") and "Welcome to Schwitzerland" became cult songs of a new movement which combined solid craftsmanship with sophisticated post-punk spirit. But alike many others before, Ex-Trem Normal's star was to burn only for a short time.
Then a group called Züri West worked their way onto the crest of the new Bernese dialect wave. Singer/lyricist Kuno Lauener captured young people's emotions triggered by occasional police brutality during demonstrations and the eviction of squatters in "Schwinigers". "Flachgleit" ("Flattened") protested the demolition of the "Zaff" (Berne's alternative cultural center). In 1985 Züri West released their first recording "Splendid" as live maxi-single. Although not yet commercially successful, they demonstrated that Swiss dialect-rock could do more than simply following the leader Polo Hofer and his brand of music.
Liner notes by Higi Heilinger
Translation by Mark Manion
Swiss Pop & Rock Anthology, MUNDART Vol. 5 (2003). SD 03105. 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: www.soundservice.ch