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Small songs
Rediscovering Liliput


Between 1978 and 1983, a small band of women from Zurich released five singles and two albums, then disappeared again. Originally called Kleenex, they quickly changed their name to Liliput to avoid legal problems. They reasoned that “it should be a name understood in every language,” according to guitarist Marlene Marder, “and also we thought [it’d be] the opposite to all-male groups who give themselves names like ‘Giants’ or ‘We Are the Heroes’ or ‘We Are the Best of All’ — well, you know what I mean.”

Ten years after the band broke up, the Swiss label Off Course reissued Kleenex/Liliput’s entire discography and more on a two-CD set called simply LiLiPUT. It went out of print quickly, but its legend spread all over the international rock underground. (I’ve probably taped more copies of it than any other record I own.) A few years later, the Scottish art-punk band the Yummy Fur recorded a song whose lyrics, in their entirety, go “Why don’t you listen to Liliput, where punk rock starts and ends?/Maybe if you listened to Liliput, your songs would find more friends.” The curious need no longer pay triple-digit sums on eBay: LiLiPUT has finally been re-released by Kill Rock Stars.

True to their name, Liliput stayed low to the ground for their entire career. At the time of their first single, they’d played instruments for only a few months, and their set consisted of four brief songs. (If the audience wanted more, they’d play them again. And then again.) Their technical abilities took a while to get past “rudimentary,” and even on the smoother later records, Astrid Spirit’s violin solos amount to improvisational sawing. These days, Marder works for a nature fund, and bassist Klaudia Schiff, the only other member of every incarnation of the band, is better known as the visual artist Klaudia Schifferle. The others’ whereabouts are unknown.

Even from the beginning, though, Liliput were incredibly inventive musicians and songwriters — there are no bands before them that sound at all like them, and it’s impossible to mistake them for anyone else. It’s as if they’d never actually heard rock music but somebody had explained the idea of riffs and grooves and background vocals to them, then handed them instruments. Parts of their songs, like the skip-step chorus of “You,” are tricky even for trained musicians to follow, but Marder, with whom I conducted an e-mail interview, says they “just happened” — Liliput could play them because they weren’t doing things the “right” way. (Book of Love, of all bands, covered their B-side “Die Matrosen,” and Swiss new-waver Stephan Eicher attempted “Nice”; otherwise, it’s fair to say that their songs resist reinterpretation.)

They also sound as if they were about to explode with delight. Their 1980 single “Split” is one of the happiest songs ever recorded, starting in the middle of a yelp and documenting two minutes of an unimaginably good party, everybody yowling nonsense syllables and whooping, stomping through the chorus as if they were playing hopscotch. “Ain’t you wanna get it on?/Don’t you wanna wait around?”, Regula Sing chirps on their first single, cracking herself up at her own impression of a pick-up while the others cheer, “Oh-oh-oh!” “Hitch-Hike” is a single verse hooked by somebody’s quick blasts on a police whistle; they like it so much that they play it five times in a row. The pleasures of their 1982-’83 period, after the silver-voiced Spirit joined as lead singer, are less immediate, but they’re still having a blast, and the likes of “You Did It” and “Terrified” have a giddy alien swagger unmatched by their new-wave contemporaries.

Beyond what they did, Liliput are interesting for who they were when they did it — in the late ’70s, women playing rock were still an anomaly. In a 1979 interview with the British ’zine Brass Lip, drummer Lislot Ha deadpanned: “We found it hard to get acceptance from the audience, who in the beginning approached us as little girls who were trying to get on stage with the help of some big brothers. Some shouted: get undressed or pull your trousers down. But now we rarely have these problems anymore.”

If anything, they’ve become big sisters to a new generation of listeners — they tend to get mentioned alongside “women in art punk” pioneers like Essential Logic and the Slits, and Dina Hornreich’s excellent e-mail discussion group Typical Girls ( brings them up a lot. But they don’t seem like part of any scene but their own. Listen to the torrent of contrapuntal yells and barre chords and la-la-las and handclaps in “Eisiger Wind,” with its ravishingly dissonant bridge before the riff kicks in again. The components are all familiar, but the way they fit together is totally non-intuitive. It’s not a product of being punks or women-in-rock, it’s the result of being Liliputian — small and isolated, without any support system beyond one another and their need to make a joyful sound.

Issue Date: March 29 - April 5, 2001

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