Small Wonders 

Stunning CD reissue of unmatchable Swiss group proves, once again, the importance of sifting through rock history

Stunning CD reissue of unmatchable Swiss group proves, once again, the importance of sifting through rock history


Complete Recordings (Kill Rock Stars)

LiLiPUT is one of those bands whose obscurity belies their true importance and influence. The Swiss group’s recent two-disc reissue on Kill Rock Stars is a must for fans of the label, as LiLiPUT virtually wrote the book on grrl punk. Indeed, many people who’ll hear these recordings for the first time thanks to this rerelease are already fans of the bands influenced by LiLiPUT—Sleater-Kinney, or Bratmobile, or Chicks on Speed, or even Book of Love, who covered one of their songs in the ‘80s.

Originally called Kleenex, the group consisted of experimental filmmakers Lislot Ha on drums and Klaudia Schiff on bass, along with two men. Armed with a short set of four songs, they started playing shows in Zurich in the mid- to late ‘70s and soon met Marlene Marder, saxophonist for another local group. Marder was so struck by Kleenex that she learned their four-song repertoire on guitar by memory, just from what she’d heard at their shows. She ended up joining the group one night when they started to repeat their four-song set to satisfy an audience’s encore request: The original guitarist walked offstage in shame, and Marder took his place right then and there.

For the next five years, Schiff and Marder would remain the mainstays of the group, with different drummers and singers coming and going. As Complete Recordings shows, their sound developed considerably during that time, and yet they stayed true to several core themes and ideas that rendered their body of work remarkably coherent.

The Kleenex recordings were made when the members were just learning how to play their instruments. As a result, their sound was truly unique at a time when most punk bands tended to stick to the same routine chord progressions and song structures. From the tone-bending whammy-bar effects that outline “1978” to the call-and-response vocal-guitar sparring of “Ain’t You,” Kleenex proudly and ably constructed songs from “nonmusical” sounds. Squeals and coos that wouldn’t seem out of place in a soul or R&B tune actually serve as melodic components, instead of just emotive punctuation. Some two-and-a-half decades later, these recordings still sound utterly distinct, coursing with an energy that many bands since have tried to channel, but with only limited success.

The group’s first vocalist, Regula Sing, contributed a thick, clipped Germanic accent and delivered sing-song melodies with a plodding new wave charm. The playfulness of the music nicely offsets the lyrics, which grapple with sometimes thorny themes of female identity, sexual autonomy, and cultural politics. In “Madness,” when Sing confronts her inner demons, she admits to having mixed feelings about her problems. “Hey madness, I-I will be free,” she demands, then just as quickly changes her mind: “Hey madness, I-I need you so.”

“Beri-Beri” is a chronicle of the perils of being a people-pleaser. “Give it all, you can do it better,” Sing encourages herself. But set against a descending melody, her dangling carrot, “and each day you feel nicer, and each day you feel nicer,” comes off sounding deliciously sarcastic, suggesting instead a real lack of progress.

In “Ain’t You,” one of the group’s defining moments, Kleenex examine the conflicted emotion of desire. “Ain’t you wanna get it on?” they ask in unison. The guitar answers with a trebly echo of the vocal melody, as if to say, “OK, if you wanna.” The singers then feign a lack of interest, coyly posing the query, “Don’t you want to wait around?” The guitar’s response this time likewise seems less enthusiastic. The chorus continues to play off these opposing impulses, beginning like an admonition before turning into an unmistakable confirmation of shared lust: “Take your radio and your lies,” Sing sings, “Take your radio and your love / Take it in and take it out. / Push it in and push it out / Push it out and push it in.” Sexual autonomy in this case is not a ready excuse for unfettered hedonism, but rather a complex network of contradictory impulses.

The band’s first single (which consisted of “Beri-Beri” and “Ain’t You,” along with “Heidi’s Head” and “Nice”) sold out of its pressing in a matter of weeks. Influential BBC deejay John Peel loved the record and gave it plenty of airplay, leading the English label Rough Trade to release two singles in the UK before the Kimberly-Clark corporation threatened to sue the band. As it turned out, this legal wrangling coincided with the first of many lineup changes: Sing was replaced by Chrigle Freund, a precocious teenager whose more limber vocal style allowed the band to expand its range. Thus the stodgy mid-tempo songs of Kleenex gave way to more driving, complex material of LiLiPUT, with tight saxophone parts contributed by another new member, Angie Barrack.

The new name suggested both the power derived from collective action (as in the way the tiny Lilliputians were able to contain Gulliver) and a diminished focus on the individual—they insisted that the “i”s be lowercase in the spelling. Meanwhile, the “three times in a week” that the members report practicing in the song “Türk” allowed them to develop their highly personal instrumental styles more fully. LiLiPUT scored a minor British hit with “Die Matrosen,” a bass-driven song organized around a great saxophone riff and a unison whistle chorus. The B-side, “Split,” strings together a series of words—more for sonic effect than for their abstruse meanings—and sets them to an infectious, sax-driven oompah beat.

The minimal rhythmic structures of LiLiPUT’s songs allowed them to create dramatic contrasts with only the slightest of variations. “DC-10,” for instance, trades on an inverted beat (on the 1 and 3) and frenetic guitar and sax riffing. The occasional added or dropped beat creates an overlapping sound as the riff catches up with the song’s pulse, finally giving way to the sustained sound of amp noise and a sax bleat, suggesting the plane’s takeoff.

Ha and Barrack left the group in mid-1980, during a time of cultural unrest in Zurich. Many students were upset that the government maintained a distinction between high and low art by funding only those artists who represented the tastes of the wealthy class. This dilemma affected the band personally. Schiff, a visual artist of some repute under her full name Schifferle, was living at the time off large grants for her paintings. Adamant that LiLiPUT was credible as an art venture, Marder applied for grants for the band and was repeatedly denied.

There was no question that LiLiPUT’s music had the depth and complexity to be considered art. Although Marder denies any direct link to Dadaism (which had its roots in Zurich), it’s tempting to make the connection: The sleeve of the band’s single “Eisiger Wind”/”When the Cat’s Away” parodies artwork by Hugo Ball. And just as the Dada artists sought the participation of nonartists, so too did punk rock encourage nonmusicians to pick up instruments and play. Rock music has always provided a powerful setting for high-art ideas delivered in a dum-dum way, and LiLiPUT delivered on that promise with a singular mix of amateurishness, sophistication, and wit.

After “Eisiger Wind” was released, the band faced another lineup change. Chrigle Freund left, Astrid Spirit became the new singer, and Beat Schlatter (drums) and Christoph Herzog (saxophone) joined as itinerant members. The new group recorded three songs before the men departed, leaving the group a trio yet again.

In this new trio context, LiLiPUT employed a more democratic approach, with the members swapping instruments. This later lineup is responsible for the group’s two albums, LiLiPUT and Some Songs, both of which came out in the early 1980s. Disc two of the reissue includes these records in their entirety, along with a non-LP single, “The Jatz” b/w “You Did It.” This material marks a stylistic departure for the group, with Spirit adding a violin (not to mention cake pan and finger cymbals!) and doubling on percussion and bass.

While the ethereal world-beat stylings of the albums aren’t as immediately compelling as the earlier recordings on the first disc, they do reward repeated listenings. The group in some ways returns to its roots, taking an experimental approach that recalls the work of another ground-breaking female punk outfit, The Raincoats, who similarly used cyclical beats and fused together musical and nonmusical sounds. For instance, on “Tschik-mo,” the primary melody comes from the repeated sound of bass strings being struck with a mallet to create a percussive metallic tone. Elsewhere, Spirit heightened the exoticism by singing English words for their sounds rather than for their meanings, and by singing nonsense syllables that constructed a credible language—at least in the context of the songs.

The stop-start, herky-jerky quality of LiLiPUT’s music makes it seem all the more precious. It’s as if we’re given the opportunity to eavesdrop on people while they’re learning a language—or, more appropriately, making one up as they go. Blissfully unconcerned with the strictures of grammar—whether linguistic or musical—LiLiPUT and Kleenex left for us a formidable recorded legacy that remains influential and innovative. That such a great band could remain so unknown for so long is just one more reason for us to sift constantly through history to find what has fallen through the cracks.


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