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How Switzerland learned to rock’n’roll

How Switzerland learned to rock’n’roll
The Basel band The Honolulu Girls, arguably the first Swiss girl group, released “Honolulu Rock” in 1960.
Photo: Photographer unknown, archive Sam Mumenthaler
Text by guest author Stefan Künzli
How and when did rock’n’roll reach Switzerland? What traces did the rebellious music from America leave behind? Who was the first Swiss rock’n’roll singer? What was the first Swiss rock’n’roll piece?

Rock’n’roll was more than just a musical revolution. It was a rebellion of the youth against the establishment, against their parents’ generation and their conservative moral and sexual ideas. Abstinence, restriction, deprivation and zeal for work were the order of the day in the post-war years. The family was idealised, gender roles emphasised. Young people who grew up in this Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle period, developed the needs of an adventure and leisure society, a new self-confidence and a different self-image, which culminated in a generational conflict. Rock’n’roll embodied all their wishes, hopes and dreams. It was the soundtrack for breaking the prevailing social rules of the game.

A value shift set in that affected the entire Western world. Even conservative Switzerland. For Swiss young people, too, the room for manoeuvre in the conservative post-war years was very narrow. “Acts like smoking or taking off your tie in public were almost considered rebellious; teachers had to be respected and were not to be contradicted. Leisure time of young girls in particular was strictly controlled,” it is said in Bruno Spoerri’s “Jazz in Switzerland”. Perfect breeding ground for youth rebellion. Here, too, young people wanted to be perceived and accepted as young people. Teenagers who had not experienced the deprivation of the war generation. Nevertheless, for the Swiss youth of that time it was not rock’n’roll that was in vogue, but jazz, dance music and swinging Schlager.

More important than the music to a majority of young people was actually the dance. At a time when schools still strictly segregated by gender, jazz and dance music were a way for them to get closer to the opposite sex. In jazz and dance music, Swiss youth found their outlet for gentle rebellion and protest. Most young people were comparatively conformist and well-adjusted. They tested the narrow limits of tolerance, scratched the norms of the society of the time, but the big break did not happen. In Switzerland, only a few seriously pursued the breakout from bourgeois conventions.

“Switzerland was lagging behind the trends”

Rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley remained a marginal phenomenon in Switzerland. “Nobody gave a hoot whether there just happened to be a dancing star of that very music born,” writes Krokus band leader Chris von Rohr in his autobiography. Contemporary witness Toni Vescoli also had this experience. He went on to become the singer of Les Sauterelles but had his revival experience in 1958, when he saw the Elvis movie “King Creole”. But when the then 16-year-old wanted to buy the record, he was told that it was not yet available. “That’s how it was back then, everything always came to Switzerland a bit later! It was like living in the stone age. Switzerland was forever lagging behind the most current trends.”

In Switzerland, youth protest manifested itself most strongly in the movement of the Halbstarken [beatniks], who also appeared in Swiss cities in the late 1950s. They were adolescent men from humble backgrounds who stood out just by their behaviour and dress. Blue jeans and hair quiff were considered disreputable at a time when boys still had to wear shorts. However, beatniks provoked their surroundings mainly by their behaviour. They were the horror of the church fairs, village and youth festivals, smoked in public, drank beer from the bottle and thus thumbed their nose at the bourgeoisie. Even doing nothing was an act of provocation. They were considered semi-criminal, seedy and their music was American rock’n’roll. In the eyes of a large Swiss majority, they were outsiders and the nation’s losers. Not least because of this, rock’n’roll had a hard time in Switzerland.

Rock’n’roll light takes hold

After all, from the mid-1950s onwards, the Heimatlied [home song] sung in dialect and Swiss Schlager as we know them from the Schmid siblings were no longer in vogue among the German-speaking youth of Switzerland. An important turning point in the history of Swiss pop music. Intellectual national defence had had its day in the entertainment business. Light music and dance music should no longer be an expression of Swissness, as it had been in the late 1930s and the 1940s. From now on, it was to sound like the American, French or Italian original, like the music of the international prototypes.

Cover einer Schallplattenhülle, auf dem ein schwarz-weiss Foto von Peter Hinnen zu sehen ist, der in ein Mikrofon singt; auf einem orangen Balken am oberen Rand steht der Titel der EP "For Rocking Teenagers" und ist ein grosses Logo der Plattenfirma Decca angebracht.
EP by yodeler and pop singer Peter Hinnen “For Rocking Teenagers”: The first rock’n’roll productions in the 1950s still sound tame, because they mostly come from the folk corner and the border between them is still fluid. (Photo: Archive Sam Mumenthaler / Decca)

That’s why a schlager-like version of American rock’n’roll prevailed in Switzerland. Rock’n’roll light, if you will. “Sugar Baby” was sung by Austrian Peter Kraus in 1958 and became the biggest teen idol in the German-speaking world. Swiss performers such as Hazy Osterwald (“Rockin’ The Cha-Cha”), yodel king Peterli Hinnen (“Tinga-Tänga-Rock”) and the Schmid siblings (“Mondschein Rock”) also took their cue from rock’n’roll hits. Yet these songs never had the rebellious power of the American original.

Vico Torriani was also particularly popular. In addition to home hits such as “In der Schweiz” (1955), the Graubünden native increasingly sang about vacation paradises (“Ananas aus Caracas”, 1957, “Kalkutta liegt am Ganges”, 1960) and thus served a romanticism of wanderlust that can be interpreted as a reaction to the home songs from the time of the intellectual national defence. With the so-called Hawaii bands, the wanderlust romanticism was particularly pronounced. These exotic bands have enjoyed considerable success here as well as in other European countries. The phenomenon of the Hawaii bands is almost forgotten today, but it is more than a whimsical marginal note, especially for rock’n’roll in Switzerland. Bands like the Hula Hawaiians and the Tahiti Hawaiians from Basel played music as true to the original as possible from the South Seas with Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles and performed with corresponding clothing and hula flower wreath.

First real Swiss rock’n’roller came from French-speaking Switzerland

The Hawaii bands broke stylistic boundaries and were also the first to incorporate elements of rock’n’roll into their music. In 1957, the Hula Hawaiians released the instrumental “Chimpanzee Rock”. It was the first Swiss rock’n’roll piece. They were followed in 1958 by the Tahiti Hawaiians with their vocal version of “Giddy Up A Ding Dong”. The Honolulu Girls, the first girl group in Switzerland, also originated from the periphery of the Hula Hawaiians. They were four young students of the Hula Hawaiians who formed in the late 1950s and recorded “Honolulu Rock” in 1960, a rock’n’roll instrumental featuring Hawaiian guitar, jazz guitar, ukulele and bass. While the success of these Hawaii bands remained modest, their historical value is all the greater. They were the first Swiss bands to take up the spirit of rock’n’roll in a credible and authentic way.

The main reason for the Helvetic rejection of rock’n’roll may have been socio-structural. After all, rock’n’roll, like beat and rock music later on, was considered a music of the underprivileged and the working class. The young people from the bourgeois and petty bourgeois middle classes, which were particularly strong in Switzerland at that time, could identify little with this music at that time. Rock’n’roll also remained a minority phenomenon in Switzerland because many musicians rejected the new sound. Hardly any serious jazz or light musician deigned to play the primitive new music.

Only very few musicians therefore oriented themselves to the new music from America. But they did exist. The first real Swiss rock’n’roller came from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. The singer from Lausanne was a Swiss-Colombian dual citizen and was named Gabriel Uribe. Under his stage name Gabriel Dalar, he recorded several songs in 1958, including the song “39 de fièvre”, a French adaptation of the American hit “Fever”, the lyrics of which were written by none other than Boris Vian. The cult author, chansonnier and jazz musician was also head of the record department at Philips in Paris at the time. Born in 1936, Gabriel Dalar achieved some success in France, but nevertheless quickly disappeared from the scene altogether. The first real rock’n’roller in Switzerland has remained missing.

Stefan Künzli is music editor at CH Media and author of the book: “Schweizer Rock Pioniere – Eine Spurensuche in den rebellischen Gründerjahren” (Zytglogge Verlag). [Swiss rock pioneers – following their tracks in the rebellious foundation years].

Illustrated book about 100 years of Swiss music and SUISA
SUISA celebrates its centenary in 2023. Much has changed since 1923, both in the music business and in society. On the occasion of the centenary, a coffee-table book is created. It provides a retrospective of the last 100 years of the Swiss music scene and SUISA’s development. On SUISAblog, selected topics from the book will be examined in more detail.

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