Hum-Drum (1986)

My friend Marlene Marder died Sunday in Zurich after a three-year struggle with cancer. She had a great sense of humor. That went into her music. But when you listen to “Eisiger Wind” you hear fierceness first of all, and when you listen to “Split,” it’s the death of shame. As she said four years ago, if punk taught her anything, it was that “anything is possible.” She lived an honest life.
– GM, May 18, 2016

At least once a month, sometimes once a week, when I tune in to the local college radio station, I hear a sound that makes me stop, turn around, think twice. What’s that?

Whistles, yelps, squeaks, shouts, a rhythm that moves like a fall down a flight of stairs; every time, it’s Liliput (or Kleenex, the band’s name before the company made them change it). It’s “Ain’t You” or “Heidis Head” from their first single, made in 1978; “You (friendly side)” or “U (angry side),” a 1979 single; “Split” from 1980; the apocalyptic “Eisiger Wind” from 1981. The band is gone, and this music is five, six, almost ten years old; it sounds as if it were being made tomorrow. I know these songs, each time they come on I try to remember what comes next, what words, what noise, and I never can. The tumbling “woo woo woo woo!” in “Split” is always a shock, the “eee­eee!” in “Heidis Head” an ambush; the tear through “Eisiger Wind” is always too fast for memory. Each time, in these records, there is a surprise—and that sense of surprise always lasts as long as any of the records. It doesn’t matter what’s being played before or after, if it’s Little Richard or Frank Si­natra: the band escapes whatever context the radio might make for it.

Kleenex/Liliput was from the beginning an all-female punk group (later, a male or two briefly came and went): if the Sex Pistols could do it, guitarist Marlene Marder said, saying the same thing so many people said after 1976, so could we. Do what? Let’s find out. Listening to the records, you can hear echoes of the first London female punks: the Slits, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic of X-ray Spex, and Marder’s favorite, Siouxsie of the Banshees (Marder still has her fan club card). But while those performers opened up the free street Kleenex/Liliput would make on their own, they soon abandoned it. Sooner or later, usually sooner, those performers lost their nerve. The group Marder and bassist Klau Schiff (who is also the painter Klaudia Schifferle) founded with vocalist Regula Sing and drummer Lislot Ha (Sing would leave after “You”/”U,” Ha af­ter “Split”) was the only female punk band—maybe the only punk band of any description, save for the Sex Pistols—to grow more extreme as they continued their quest to find out what it was they wanted to play. Chrigel Freund replaced Sing, Astrid Spirit replaced Freund, drummers and saxophonists arrived and departed, but the essence of the band, the thrill it wanted to discover and communicate—its idea—never changed.The music was first of all fun: funny, with a buried edge of rage, an impulse that first shaped a song with “U” and roared to the surface with “Eisiger Wind.” Kleenex/Liliput played with the possibilities of freedom; they practiced freedom as play. From one point of view, each of their singles can sound like a manifesto; from another, like a mud fight. These people were interested in noises they had never heard on record before, interested in words without apparent meaning, phonemes, holes in the language: they sang as if they were making up language from the beginning. You can imagine that every time they went into the studio, they asked one question: if we can say anything, what do we want to say? How about “Whh­hyyyrrr”? If not that, perhaps “Wheeep”? The songs were about autonomy and pleasure, verbal nonsense and emotional facts, comradeship and isolation, resentment and pleasure, avoiding rape and getting drunk, city streets and feminist pride: fragments of everyday life thrown together with determination and abandon. There is no analogue for this music in the records of any other pop group. To find a real match for its spirit you have to go back to the Berlin dada collages of Han­nah Hoch: from 1918 through the twenties she cut women’s heads and bodies out of newspapers and magazines, cut them up again, pasted them together as grotesques, and somehow put a twinkle in the eyes of every strange face. You can hear it happen in “Heidis Head.”On their singles, Kleenex/Liliput almost always sing in English (on their albums, Liliput and Some Songs, they used French, primitive Chinese, imaginary languages, but almost never their own language, Swiss-German). Klau Schiff, who wrote many of the words, knew English, but she knew it the way the band knew how to play their instruments—she discovered how to write English as she wrote it, just as the band discovered how to play as they played. In the music, a bassist’s mistake can turn into a new theme; Schiffs uncertainty with English syntax might lead to wordplay for its own sake, trip her off the main road of her song and into an alleyway. In “Split,” the lyrics are both random and a strict game: “Hotch­potch, Hugger-mugger, Bow-wow, Hara-kiri, Huz-za, Hicc­up, Hum-drum, Hexa-pood, Hell-cat, Helter-skelter, Hop­scotch—Yesterday was a party! Yesterday the drinks were strong!”

Do you hear the party or the hangover? Sung, shouted, screeched and chirped on the record, you can barely understand the words (what is “Hexa-pood”?); the women trip over them. From song to song they work as if they’d walked into a wall and smiled, as if they’d just missed getting hit by a car and swore, as if they’d gone into a conversation with compassion (or cynicism) and come out of it with cynicism (or compassion), and then said: why not make a tune out of it? They played and sang as if they didn’t know what would happen next, and didn’t care. Something would happen; it might be interesting, and it might not be. Anything was possible: in 1980 I was absolutely convinced the words “Hara-kiri” in “Split” were actually “Hello Kitty”—referring, that is, to the Japanese toy company. I still hear it that way, and I still think the association makes sense: as revolutionaries, Kleenex and Liliput always sounded as if they wanted to storm the playground, not the palace.

Preface to Kleenex/Liliput: Das Tagebuch der Gitarristin Marlene Marder, 1986
(Also available in In the Fascist Bathroom, Writings on Punk, 1977-1992.)

2 thoughts on “Hum-Drum (1986)

  1. So sad to hear of her passing. As a guitarist she is my Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders and Chuck Berry. I first heard Kleenex about 5 years ago, via a suggested video on YouTube–thank you sweet serendipity. I still relate to the profound sense of joy I felt that first time, and can always go to their music to feel those fleeting moments of joy that seem to be the only purpose of life. I don’t really want to try to suss why this music makes me feel this way so consistently and completely, but I think this says it best: “The band is gone, and this music is five, six, almost ten years old; it sounds as if it were being made tomorrow…Each time, in these records, there is a surprise—and that sense of surprise always lasts as long as any of the records.” The music is now almost 40 years old, and it still gives me hope for the promise of tomorrow.

  2. Pingback: Songs (not songs) | A Scarlet Tracery

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