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Organic Intelligence XI: The Swiss Underground

In this month's antitode to the algorithm, David Stubbs guides you through the heady, radical sounds of the Swiss underground.

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brother love, had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

It took generations for Switzerland to live down Harry Lyme’s Orson Welles-scripted speech in the film The Third Man. As Lurker Grand, co-author of Heute und Danach – The Swiss Music Scene of the 80s put it, “The English indie or American (alternative) music scene is part of a long cultural heritage in those two parts of the world. Switzerland did not have this at all. We were the generation that did bring this into conservative society and I believe we did it right.”

Punk was certainly the catalyst for change in a country suffocated by its own prosperity, ultra-bourgeois banality and hidebound attitude towards progress – women were only granted the vote and the right to stand in elections in 1971. In tandem with the UK and neighbouring Germany, a punk and post-punk/electro scene developed, some of which was copycat, but which also yielded truly distinctive bands and works, Zurich, after all, was the city in which the Dada movement was inaugurated at the Cabaret Voltaire. Perhaps traces of that radicalism lingered in the cultural DNA of the country.

Throughout the 1980s there was a mushrooming of activity, not just in Zurich, with its tolerant cultural spaces courtesy of the city’s administration (a green/red coalition), but also across Lausanne, Bern, St Gallen. The music went in tandem with a determinedly hedonistic lifestyle which revolted against the country’s repressive norms but also looked for political engagement. As Grand said, “We did certainly demonstrate to the Swiss society that many things have to change and right now!” At its best, the Swiss underground was a manifestation of that metamorphosis.

Today, there is an active Swiss Underground scene as documented on the 2019 compilation Interactions: A Guide To Swiss Underground Experimental Music (Buh Records). However, the 1980s were the scene’s heyday, in terms of combined innovation and impact. You can listen to your exclusive playlists of the artists featured in Organic Intelligence on Spotify, Apple music and Tidal.

Baby Jail – ‘Tubel Trophy’

Formed at the end of 1985, Baby Jail were originally known as Bébés Phoques (Baby Seals). Described in the notes to a 2013 documentary about them as “a brilliantly untalented Swiss band” and by themselves as Switzerland’s “loudest cabaret”, in sound and imagery they were a direct affront to the Swiss bourgeoisie, whom they mercilessly derided in songs such as the mock-folksy, scathing ‘Punkparadies’. Their one big hit came in 1992 – “Tubel Trophy” tells the story of a group of racist Swiss geezers who decide to enter a competition involving a jungle adventure, never to be seen again. Baby Jail themselves disappeared soon after alas, disbanding in 1994.

UnknownmiX – ‘My Cat Is Dead’

Active in Zurich between 1983 and 1992, UnknownmiX were modern inheritors of the Dada free spirit, faintly akin to Düsseldorf’s Liaisons Dangereuses in their giddy mix of whiplash electronics, industrial noise and manic vocalisation. 1984’s ‘My Cat Is Dead’ is a particularly vivid example of their work, the sort of idiosyncratic, electronic music a group distant from the ostensible centres of a given scene – in this case, 1980s electro. Their music also reflects the heady sense of the cultural and personal liberation afforded by post-punk in long-dormant Zurich.

Grauzone – ‘Eisbaer’

Only active between 1980 and 1982, formed by drummer Marco Repetto, bassist GT and Martin Eicher (guitars, vocals, synth), Grauzone came from Berne. Their brief existence was graced with this 1980 international hit single, which charted in both Germany and Austria. With its wild, lipstick applications of electronics and caustic bursts of guitar by way of solos it is among the most elegantly abrasive slabs of early 80s electropop – it’s quite extraordinary that it enjoyed any sort of chart success at all. Grauzone were later joined by Martin Eicher’s brother Stephan, who went on to enjoy solo success in an altogether different idiom, as a moodily introspective singer-songwriter.

Yello – ‘I Love You’

Initially comprising Boris Blank and Carlos Perón, Yello were formed in 1979 and quickly joined by Dieter Maier on vocals, with Perón dropping away in 1983. At various times a golfer, gambler, performance artist, the wealthy Maier is one of the oddest, most inspired characters ever to have deigned to grace pop with his presence. He and Blank combined to create a widescreen techno-pop whose picturesque vividness made UK electropop sound pale and tinny by comparison. 1983’s ‘I Love You’ is a perfect example, arcing, sleek, like a classic car sweeping along the coastline into the Riveria. From very left-field beginnings – they started life on Ralph Records, the same label as The Residents – they have achieved global reach, as much through use in film soundtracks as their hits. They remain active to this day.

The Young Gods  – ‘L’Amourir’

Formed in 1985 in Geneva by Franz Treichler, their vocalist and sole constant member, The Young Gods are sometimes described as industrial but the reach and implications of their sound stretches way beyond that tired moniker. Comprising vocals, drums and samplers, The Young Gods used the technology to recycle old rock riffs and sections of classical music to create a new, elemental incendiary music, a future constructed from a dead past, of which 1988’s towering ‘L’Amourir’ was a prime example. At a time when samplers were used as a sort of instrument of postmodernism, quoting the past (James Brown, Led Zep) as if to suggest there was nothing new under the sun, The Young Gods repurposed them to generate solar energy.

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