To a lot of people, punk, whatever it was, upped and died in the U.K. between 1976 and 1978. I still remember an intricately gruesome comic strip on the great event: “The 36-month punkreich had kollapsed inna fiery ruin”–graphics showed a pile of twisted bodies, one with a syringe sticking out of its chest–and it looked like not a living thing would crawl from the wreckage. (Though from beneath the postapocalyptic rubble emerged a skinheaded “Rudy”–heroic leader of the now forgotten 2-Tone ska revival.)
Outside of England, where punk purity made no sense, the Death of Punk was meaningless, a tree falling in someone else’s forest. Punk–as a certain form of the public attempt to discover one’s own voice, let’s say, a likely embarrassment protected by anonymous noise was just getting started. “The original scene was made of people who were taking chances and operating on obscure fragments of information,” said Slash editor Steve Samiof of the Los Angeles punk milieu–but his words cover every other scene outside of London. That’s where Liliput started–from zero.
Zero in this case was Zurich, 1978. In the beginning there wasn’t even a name, just bassist Klaudia Schiff (otherwise a painter, under her full name, Schifferle), drummer Lislot Ha, and two men. They had four songs for their first gig. The men slunk off in shame and disgust. In the audience was Marlene Marder (a clerk and mail carrier, as well as a saxophonist for another band); she immediately stepped up to play guitar.
They were all in their early or mid-twenties. They found a lead singer, Regula Sing, and called themselves Kleenex, a perfect pop name (the sound has a snap to it) and a perfect punk name (something you use once and throw away), at least until Kimberly-Clark’s copyright cops forced a switch to Liliput (or, as the band always tried to insist, LiLiPUT). With Schiff and Marder as core members, the band changed vocalists three times, lost their drummer, let a man or two pass through, and so on–and yet the true sound of the ensemble never really altered. As you can hear on the 139 minutes of LiLiPUT, which covers five singles, two albums, and fourteen fugitive or unreleased recordings, the sound was unique at the beginning and it was unique at the end.
Regula Sing had a thick, deep Germanic voice, not built for speed; teenager Chrigle Freund, at the front mike in 1980-81, was lighter, quicker, more personable; Astrid Spirit, 1981-83 (vocals plus cake pan, violin, birdcalls, finger cymbals), moved faster than anyone else, seemingly propelled by a will to avenge unmentioned crimes. Still, it was what came out of the background that defined the music.
Save for occasional head-down, into-the-wind battles like “Madness” (1978) or “Eisiger Wind” (1981), Liliput’s rhythms and melodies were jerky, stop-start, moving platforms for voices–floating launching pads. Riffs and themes seemed pasted together, or found, ready-mades cuts up and distorted. Certainly, that is how the lyrics evolved. Aside from the odd number in French, the bands own Swiss-German, or un-languages, the songs were in English–which Schiff and Spirit, the principal writers, barely knew. They wrote in English, Marder (who does speak English) once explained, not to reach markets in the U.S. or U.K. or even to communicate across their trilingual homeland; to them, German or Swiss-German was simply too precise, too definite, with a word for a phenomenon, for songs. There was no room in the language for play. But English was a field of chance, happenstance–as Liliput picked out words for their sounds and then tried to string them together with a semblance of logic, meanings would be lost and meanings would emerge out of the mess. Spirit wrote from the dictionary, scanning for words or phrases that stopped her eye even if she didn’t know–or never found out–what they meant.
Songs were found even within songs. In “Hedi’s Head” the singers–no leader, here–are nearly beside themselves with sarcasm and laughter. “Hedi’s head is so dread/Hedi is oh so sad,” they chant. The feeling of people breaking loose is irresistible: they sound like ten-year-olds manically cutting up their Barbie dolls. But both the song’s title and its lyrics came from the chords out of which the band constructed the basic tune, in German notation: H/E/Dis H/E/A/D. Out of all this the band made a music where anything could happen. Schiff could play her bass with a tom-tom mallet; the “Beep beep!” of the rape-alert whistle that makes up the key rhythm of “Hitch-Hike”–“I’m afraid,” runs the chorus–is gay and sweet. In “Krimi,” the singer is sitting on her TV set; a killer crawls out of the screen (because she hatched him?) and they play hide-and-seek.
Some of the music collected here was made during the years when youth riots shook Zurich. The riots were cultural: one began as a protest against the city taking money from youth services to refurbish the opera house. As Klaudia Schifferle, Liliput’s bassist received large grants to support her painting; when Marder applied for a grant for the band itself, she was ruled out of court–Liliput was “commercial,” not “fine.” But Schifferle’s painting is of a piece with the music. Her figures are like dolls come to life, then decomposing–big, clumsy, simple things with huge smiles and round eyes. They’re first of all benign–bright colors, easy lines, suitable for children. It takes a while to see the violence taking place within the pictures, and it can be fearsome: nightmare torture and murder. But you don’t have to notice that if you don’t want to.
Liner notes for LiLiPUT, (Kill Rock Stars, 1993)