Swiss Miss

Long out of print, the yelps of the Swiss band LiliPUT reveal a hidden history of women in punk

The title of the Web interview reads, "Give a Kick to the People With Singing." Astrid Spirit is talking with Die WochenZeitung about her stint as singer for the one of the greatest bands of all time. The questions and answers are in German, but translation software spits out a joyfully twisted English version. Yet this cross-cultural babel couldn't be more apt. Back when the punk spew of the Sex Pistols was contaminating the continent in the late Seventies, the founding members of Kleenex picked up guitars and began to shout the few English words they knew: "Ain't you wanna get it on?!" As the group morphed into LiliPUT at the legal behest of the tissue company, their Anglo lexicon expanded to include only enough rudiments of the language to give voice to the most basic yelps of pure discovery.

Kleenex had no agenda. They had four songs they would play over and over. One night, when original female members Klaudia Schifferle, Lislot Ha, Marlene Marder, and their boy guitarist were a few rounds into this repeat cycle, the guy stepped offstage for a break. Saxophonist Marder scooped up his ax to relieve him, and the girls found they didn't really require his services. Soon vox-frau Regula Sing took over up front, the contrast between her glottal rumblings and her bandmates' schoolgirl taunts making for a yowl-and-response beatfest. During the next five years, the band went through two more singers and pressed a few singles that kids in England bought by the score and New York punk DJs used as sugar for their no-wave club sets. As LiliPUT, the band made more tasty singles and two spacey albums, and then, before breaking big, broke up. Twenty-five years later, they were the last of the very great punk bands who remained impossible to find.

For a brief time in 1993, you could send a check to Switzerland and Marlene would send you an exhaustive two-CD LiliPUT collection she had compiled to satisfy requests. The set contained all the singles and album tracks, as well as several unreleased and live cuts. But her stash was soon depleted. This week, the Kill Rock Stars label, which has wisely appropriated LiliPUT as foremothers, will release the 45-song reissue, which sounds surprisingly current alongside the Sleater-Kinneys and Le Tigres of our day.

But while the Kill Rock Stars connection makes sense, the buzz that would reverently claim this group as proto-riot grrrls might mislead anyone who bristles at that movement's more doctrinaire tendencies. The most striking thing about LiliPUT is how free they sound--free of history, free of songcraft's straitjacket. Sure, you can hear Wire's drive, the Slits' quest to abandon the rigid 4/4, X-Ray Spex's rude sax blare, and new-wave ska's anticipatory jump. The grrrls' school is welcome to retroactively infer Bratmobile's jump-rope chants or Sleater-Kinney's two-singer crosstalk from LiliPUT's shouts and pogo beats, but if you stop there, you're missing a ton of the fun. Listen and you'll also hear a grooved-out Krautpop that foretells the gutsy pulse of bands like Komeda, the roof-raising abandon of the B-52's, and a grunting primitivism drawn as much from the band's own fantasies about where the wild things might be as from the trashy dub-punk throbbing out of London.

That translated interview has Spirit saying, "It concerned us not music as occupation, but around it, to live desireful." LiliPUT's vision of punk is less about telling anyone where to get off and more about just plain getting off. It's for fun, and you're in on the joke from the first track, "Nighttoad." With Sing playing the heavy, "Get yourself lost/Drive forever!" and Schifferle squealing back, "Nighttoad! C'mon!" On "Madness," Sing confronts and intimidates her demons: "Hey Madness/What do you want?!" In a similar vein, those four original songs--"Heidi's Head," "Beri Beri," "Ain't You," and "Nice,"--show up early in the compilation and pack a club-tested wallop.

And they don't stop. When Sing left after their first tour in 1979, she was replaced to even more agile effect by live-wire high school dropout Chrigle Freund. With a reedy voice like a hyper, Teutonic Dusty Springfield, Freund provides a spunk that makes for some of the band's most purely ecstatic moments. The 1980 single "Split"/"Die Matrosen" is a must-hear combo. "Split" features the nonsense war cry "Hotchpotch, Hugger-Mugger, Bow-Wow, Hari Kari!" and "Die Matrosen" balances a driving verse with an elfin whistling chorus. Other faves from this phase are the live track "Turk," a showcase for the full-on percussive spaciousness of Freund's vocals, and "Wig Wam," with its fussy verse "Don't you-oo wanna work?/It would be better for you-oo" counterbalanced by another oblivious chorus of "ooah-ooah." The band remains as pushy as ever on these tracks, with a metronomic clamor that's stronger than chaos. At times elemental, LiliPUT can fill up sonic space when they want to, and this power is in evidence on songs like "Eisiger Wind," another Freund-fronted wonder that builds from an insistent verse into a slamming surf chorus with handclaps goading along a surge of guitar.

LiliPUT generally steered clear of the overtly political. Marder says for all that has been written about them by Greil Marcus types desperate to connect them with Zurich dada, they never considered themselves part of any of that. But, as the band played amid the swirl of the city's youth riots, the pleasure-positive approach celebrated self-determinism. And sometimes the messages seem more trenchant still. Take "Hitch-Hike," a song with a melody as plaintive and innocuous as "Downtown," economically describing a girl who "had no money to pay the train." She finds herself pushing a guy off, yelling, "Let me be!" over percussion provided by a jittery rape whistle.

The later years, with Astrid Spirit at the mic, tapped the band's proggier impulses. The single "The Jatz"/"You Did It" is a dream of polyrhythmic wicca-punk. Later songs on disc two display a little more savvy and forethought, but this focus is as satisfying as the earlier squeaky-toy joy. So pick it up. They might be LiliPUTians, but they should be giants.

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