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Toni Vescoli: A year full of vitality and anniversaries

Toni Vescoli was born on 18th July, 75 years ago. 55 years ago, on 19th September, the musician from Zurich founded the legendary beat music band Les Sauterelles. It is celebrating its anniversary with a tour that starts during the “Beatles week” in Liverpool. At the same time, Toni Vescoli continues to perform with his dialect projects “MacheWasiWill” (dowhatilike), “imDUO” and “Toni VESCOLI&Co”. Text by guest author Markus Ganz

Toni Vescoli: A year full of vitality and anniversaries

Toni Vescoli, SUISA member since 1967 has not only influenced Swiss beat music, but has also been pioneering dialect performances, playing Dylan songs and narrating Pingu radio plays (Photo: Kessler)

Five years ago, during the TV programme “Stars extra”, Toni Vescoli said – with an embarrassed grin on his face – that he did not succumb to the DOG, the delusions of grandeur. The show’s presenter Sandra Studer had asked him what it had been like to have led the Swiss charts in 1968 with Les Sauterelles (“Heavenly Club”), topping even the Beatles (“Hey Jude”). With his statement, the singer, guitarist and songwriter from Zurich has described his own character pretty well. While it is obvious that he is still enjoying to perform at concerts to this day, it is because of the music, and not the limelight.

Toni Vescoli was already “extremely” upset, back in 1964, that their impresario had invented an additional name for Les Sauterelles and even printed it bigger than the original band name on the placards: “The Swiss Beatles”. He did not wish to compare himself to other stars but be a creator in his own right. No later than in during the 1970s did he choose to follow his own path, irrespective of trends and hip places.

The path to beat music

His passion for music had, however, not been triggered by the English beat music artists but by American stars such as Johnny Cash and especially Elvis Presley. Toni Vescoli told the author of this article in a former interview that he had already played such kind of music at the end of the fifties. He did so standing on a table in a hip café in Zurich’s Niederdorf quarter, and on a larger scale, sometimes accompanied by a Dixie band. The changeover to beat music was initiated by the Shadows with their unique sound using electric guitars.

He needed a band to do this which is why he founded Les Sauterelles in 1962 whose entire history has been influenced by many changes in terms of the band members. The single “Heavenly Club” brought about the commercial peak in 1968. It was released in the majority of European countries as well as in the US and in Japan. Sometimes they played up to seven hours, performing in up to 350 concerts per year. Nevertheless the band was facing financial problems which is why Toni Vescoli placed an obituary in 1970 announcing: “Les Sauterelles are dead”.

The legendary Swiss beat music band Les Sauterelles was founded 55 years ago. In 2017, the band is celebrating its anniversary with a tour that starts in Liverpool. (Photo: Gerhard Born)

American influences

It was folk music and especially Bob Dylan which lured Toni Vescoli back to American songwriting and music and influenced his solo career; his album “Bob Dylan Songs” (1993) is a tribute to this, featuring adaptations in the Zurich dialect of Swiss German. Folk music, together with the West Coast music of the 1970s was his entry point to his later mix of Americana music, Toni Vescoli explained in an interview. But his classic hits “Susanne” and “N1” had actually already been country music songs, bordering on bluegrass music.

In the early 1980s, Toni Vescoli returned to rock music, while influenced by Ry Cooder he became a fan of the accordionist Flaco Jimenez who then turned out to play on his album “Tegsass” (1999). Said Tex-Mex reminded him of his youth in Peru (between the age of four and nine), when they listened to Mexican folk songs on the radio. Together with Cajun music, this definitely rubbed off on the Americana album “66” (2008), in particular the lively single track “El Parasito”.

Dialect pioneer

More important than the change in style was Toni Vescoli’s pioneering change to dialect in 1970. He had been instructed by the magazine “Pop” to write a song for the unveiling ceremony of a Wilhelm Tell monument. Instead of writing the lyrics in High German, he felt that Swiss dialect was more apt – and the song hit the right note with the public. He wrote more songs in dialect but his producer felt in 1971 that the time wasn’t right for that yet.

As a consequence, his first album in dialect was not released until 1974 – and Reinhard Mey’s cover version of the song “Susanne” got released before Vescoli’s original. His song “N1” with which he broached the issue of the ambivalent character of the N1 motorway (today’s A1) connecting Switzerland, is also rather striking. “N1 Du bisch e Schtraass wo-n i hass, aber irgendwie han-i Di gern” (N1 you’re a road that I hate but somehow I like you, too); he had already written a popular hit about traffic: “Scho Root” (Red lights again) (1975).

Modest and down-to-earth to this day: Toni Vescoli. (Photo: Plain)

New combinations

What was unusual at the time was that Toni Vescoli combined his dialect lyrics with American music and thus broke open songwriter traditions. He did realise at the time that he was able to reach people much more directly by singing his songs in dialect. As a consequence, he developed his music into a style where the lyrics can be followed better. This led him to folk music which he could also perform on his own.

When he was consequently hired by a small theatre once, he realised that he no longer needed amplifiers and that an acoustic guitar was enough. He thus landed in a music environment which he had not been looking for but where he felt at ease: He continued to play without an amplifying system for nearly 18 years. At some point, however, he felt that this environment where people were “hanging on to his every word”, became too imposing for his liking. He wanted to play electric guitar again, and that’s what the song “Wäge Dir” (because of you) is about.

Words for a love song

The changeover to dialect had not been easy. If you sing in dialect, you have to be very careful about what you wish to sing, Toni Vescoli mentioned in an interview. It was not that easy to sing “ich liebe Dich” (I love you) – even if nowadays these words are not as embarrassing anymore, as the current world of dialect music shows.

Toni Vescoli broached the issue of the difficulty to find words for a love song with the title “Lady Lo” where he sings himself to the conclusion that: “öisi Schprach isch unbruchbar” (our language is useless). It was meant to be a love song for his wife, Toni Vescoli explained, but turned into a confession of failing with regards to finding the right lyrics. It all sounded kitschy and plump – and that is why he turned it into the theme of the song. Where words become useless for the purpose of expressing feelings, the question could be asked whether playing pure instrumental music might be the solution. Toni Vescoli replies to this and laughs that he simply wasn’t good enough as a solo guitarist to do just that.

Indeed, Toni Vescoli has not succumbed to any delusion of grandeur to this day. And he has continued to show that he does not have any fear of being in touch with young musicians or other styles such as hip-hop. In 2012, for example, he presented his interpretation of Baba Uslender’s “Baustellsong” (construction site song) in a show of the “Cover me” series on SRF television. Toni Vescoli has remained young in terms of his music – and may that be so in future!

Information and live dates: www.vescoli.ch (e.g. Performances with Les Sauterelles in Liverpool during the “Beatles week” from 25-28 August).

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  1. Ich lernte Toni in den frühen 80er Jahren kennen, als ich der lead Gittarist der Windows war. Toni präsentierte eine TV Show, in der wir auftraten. Ich erinnere mich ganz besonders an ein Konzert im Kongresshaus für die Neubürger Feier, an der Toni präsentierte. Zuerst spielte das Hazi Osterwald Orchester, dann wir. Während wir spielten, standen plötzlich Reihen von Gästen auf und gingen zum Ausgang. Wir hatten keine Erklärung dafür. . . bis wir das Tränengas ‘witterten’, welches ein Idiot in der Mitte des Kongresshauses abgelassen hatte. Toni, mit Tränen in den Augen, steckte seinen Kopf aus dem Vorhang und rief uns zu, “Mached witer, mached witer”. Der Anlass war dann leider zu Ende, da sich niemand dem Tränengas aussetzen wollten.

    Ich war lange zuvor auch mal mit dem Sauterelles Bassisten Freddy Mangili befreundet. Auch ein sehr netter Typ.

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Toni Vescoli was born on 18th July, 75 years ago. 55 years ago, on 19th September, the musician from Zurich founded the legendary beat music band Les Sauterelles. It is celebrating its anniversary with a tour that starts during the “Beatles week” in Liverpool. At the same time, Toni Vescoli continues to perform with his dialect projects “MacheWasiWill” (dowhatilike), “imDUO” and “Toni VESCOLI&Co”. Text by guest author Markus Ganz

Toni Vescoli: A year full of vitality and anniversaries

Toni Vescoli, SUISA member since 1967 has not only influenced Swiss beat music, but has also been pioneering dialect performances, playing Dylan songs and narrating Pingu radio plays (Photo: Kessler)

Five years ago, during the TV programme “Stars extra”, Toni Vescoli said – with an embarrassed grin on his face – that he did not succumb to the DOG, the delusions of grandeur. The...read more

New Jersey, just south of Berne

Polo Hofer receives the FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017 in the category “lyrics author”. Christoph Trummer writes in his guest contribution about the factors distinguishing the works of the award winner from others.

New Jersey, just south of Berne - Polo Hofer FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017

Polo Hofer, winner of the FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017 has found his way into popular culture and has translated rock and roll as a way of life for the German-speaking part of Switzerland. (Photo: Patric Spahni)

If you wanted to be brief, you’d say: The FONDATION SUISA Prize is a recognition award for outstanding creations. In 2017, it will be awarded to a lyricist for the first time. Polo Hofer was nominated for the award. What else did you expect the jury should do?

Of course, we’ll gladly dedicate more than just these few words to this worthy award winner and his works.

Those who were born after 1970 and grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, are likely to find it hard to imagine their schooldays, youth and life in Switzerland as such without Polo Hofer and his songs and lyrics. Some of his works, ranging from “Bin i gopfriedstutz e Kiosk” (“Am I a blimmin’ kiosk”) to “Bim Sytesprung im Minimum e Gummi drum” (“For that bit on the side as a minimum a condom”) have turned into one-liners; you cannot possibly imagine everyday language being without them. Even those whose parents don’t even own a Polo Hofer CD can sing along to “Alperose”.

Song lyrics turned into popular cultural assets

These lyrics are now part of popular culture, in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, for sure. Since his early days with the band Rumpelstilz, Polo’s discography has been serving as a means to tell the story of a rather eventful Swiss history. The “Summer 68”, when (apparently) it was the done thing to travel to Kabul to smoke weed. The wild 70ies, years of upraise, with Rosmarie to Spain, free love next to the “Teddybär” (“Teddy Bear”). The dark side of dreams in the form of a “Silbernaadle töif im Arm” (“A silver needle deeply plunged into the arm”). And already then, dulled by consumerism, in full swing with the “Waarehuus Blues” (“Warehouse Blues”).

Polo’s lyrics are, sometimes, explicitly political: “Da isch nüt vo Grächtigkeit / So wie’s i dr Verfassig schteit” (“Um WAS geits?”) (“There is no justice / as it’s written in the constitution”, song: “WHAT’s this about?”). He does, however, also narrate world history as a personal story, when an old love affair finally gets a chance as the Berlin wall comes down (“Wenn in Berlin bisch”) (“When you’re in Berlin”). Plus, he criticises society with role prose, whose poetry stems from conversations at the regulars’ table in the pub, for example when the farmer’s son of the Lochmatt sums up the empty promises of a life in the bright city lights: «Lah mi vergässe bim rote Wy» (“Let me forget with a glass of red”). That’s popular in its very essence, but it also has side effects.

Sometimes the loud role of Polo National smothers the fact that he also has other qualities as a lyricist. For example, when he ponders about his own mortality in “Im letschte Tram” (“In the last tram”) or when he negotiates the literal sense of God, all the world and his brother in “I dr Gartebeiz vom Hotel Eden” (“In the garden pub of the Eden Hotel”) without getting lost in intellectual deliberations.

Rock and roll – translated for Switzerland

Some of Polo Hofer’s great songs are congenial translations: Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl” into “Meitschi vom Wyssebüehl” (“Girl from Weissenbühl” – a Berne suburb), Todd Snider’s “Alright Guy” into “Liebe Siech” (“My dear chap”), and Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill- Box Hat” into “Schlangelädergurt” (“Snake leather belt”). With that, you find out about another one of Polo’s various roles, which make him so significant (not only) for music performed in dialect in Switzerland: He is a translator. Not only a translator of song lyrics but one of the most important translators of rock and roll and popular culture into our culture, into our customs and habits.

Polo Hofer has managed to turn desires, but also the lustfulness of the young with its pubescent obscenities, the rebellion against a stale and settled system, in brief: the rock and roll way of life for the German-speaking part of Switzerland into sound. D’Stüehl ewäg, mir sy giggerig u wei schwoofe (Get the chairs out of the way, we’re in the mood and want to dance). He was inspired by, and found some of his topics in the rock and roll catalogue of legends and brought it to Switzerland: We would probably not get into a ride with Bobby McGee on the highway, but hitchhike with Rosmarie from Paris to Gibraltar. Wyssebüehl is closer than New Jersey.

Polo Hofer as a central figure of our story has opened doors through which many others could pass, even if they didn’t even know his music at all. And now he receives an award for this work. As such, the FONDATION SUISA Award 2017 is a kind of “Lifetime Achievement Award”. We congratulate you from our hearts!

www.polohofer.ch

The FONDATION SUISA Prize is a recognition award for outstanding creations. FONDATION SUISA bestows this award to authors and publishers rendering outstanding contributions to the enrichment of the cultural heritage of our country with their creations. The award, valued at CHF 25,000.00 is granted in a different category each year.

Christoph Trummer won the FONDATION SUISA Prize 2011 in the category “Singer/Songwriter”. Our guest author was born in 1978 and grew up in Frutigen (BE). Apart from his musical activities, he is President of the Association for Music Creators Switzerland.

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All comments will be moderated. This may take some time and we reserve the right not to publish comments that contradict the conditions of use.

Your email address will not be published.

Polo Hofer receives the FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017 in the category “lyrics author”. Christoph Trummer writes in his guest contribution about the factors distinguishing the works of the award winner from others.

New Jersey, just south of Berne - Polo Hofer FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017

Polo Hofer, winner of the FONDATION SUISA Prize 2017 has found his way into popular culture and has translated rock and roll as a way of life for the German-speaking part of Switzerland. (Photo: Patric Spahni)

If you wanted to be brief, you’d say: The FONDATION SUISA Prize is a recognition award for outstanding creations. In 2017, it will be awarded to a lyricist for the first time. Polo Hofer was nominated for the award. What else did you expect the jury should do?

Of course, we’ll gladly dedicate more than just these few words to this worthy award winner and his works.

Those...read more

Marco Zappa: 50 anni di musica

A story of 50 years’ success: The only sustained career in Switzerland in relation to the “canzone italiana” – in all its dimensions. An undisputed, and undoubtedly significant fact about the singer songwriter Marco Zappa from Bellinzona, who has become the focal point of music culture in the Ticino again at the beginning of the year. This comes with the release of his new album “PuntEBarrier” which contains 18 unpublished songs, and a tour across Switzerland starting on 14 March 2017 in the Teatro Sociale Bellinzona. Interview/Text by Zeno Gabaglio – La versione italiana del testo si trova sotto.

Marco Zappa: 50 anni di musica

Interview with Marco Zappa in the studio MarcoZappaMusic in Sementina. (Photos: Manu Leuenberger)

50 years of music: This is a great opportunity to meet Marco and cast a look back into the past. We asked him to tell us how it all began and how his relationship with musical creativity developed; in the Ticino – an area which had never really stood out in terms of the “canzone italiana”, i.e. songs in Italian.

Marco Zappa: At the beginning of it all, there was my mother who regarded me as a pianist in the classical music sector. We lived in Bellinzona at the time, and I was still barely a child. I played the piano for two years – more or less ‘under duress’ – and I do recall that I really didn’t enjoy it: I had to practice every day, but had completely different things on my mind at that age. While I was a boy scout, I began playing the harmonica (mouth organ), an instrument which, unlike a piano, you can take with you and also share your music with others. My mother’s sister played the guitar. She had taught me my first view chords, exactly at the time when Adriano Celentano and the first “shouting singers” were all the rage in Italy. I was hooked right from the start and could immediately relate to that type of music. I founded a small band with my colleagues from the Gymnasium (grammar school) with which we performed at school parties.

Marco Zappa (l.) and Zeno Gabaglio.

Zeno Gabaglio: What kind of opportunities did those have who wanted to make music and share it – as much as possible – with others?
The desire effectively existed to meet up to make music, but it was mainly folk and traditional music. I have also spent a few years to sing and play la Verzaschina, il Boccalino and various other songs that nowadays would be called ‘folk’. When it comes to live music in the Ticino, there was quite a good supply of ensembles that performed light music, i.e. bands (even those with just 4-5 musicians) that performed a repertoire mix between jazz, swing and ‘Schlager’ [traditional German-language pop songs]. On my way home after school, I always stopped outside the bars of Locarno where they were playing in order to listen to their music. And I was totally enchanted and learned new chords.

But the music of such dance ensembles was “old” music, wasn’t it? How come that Marco Zappa found a more modern path to rock music?
It was the electric guitar. One evening where I performed with my band in the Oratorium in Minusio, the priest who had organised the meeting, played the song Apache by The Shadows, with those wonderful tunes at the beginning, played by a distorted electric guitar. It was love at first “sound”. And then there were, of course, the songs by the Beatles! …

New album “PuntEBarrier”.

The rock career of Marco Zappa thus goes back to a modern priest?
Yes, in a way: to an enlightened priest! But as we were – so suddenly – infected with the electric guitar virus, young people like us had a problem: How could we change our instruments so that we would manage to hit exactly that tone? A friend who was an electrical engineer told me that you would get a microphone if you unscrewed the lower part of a telephone receiver (i.e. the part into which you speak). So I did exactly that and mounted that piece onto my guitar, connected both wires to an amplifier of an old radio owned by my parents and voilà, I had my first electric guitar. I do remember how I rode through the city with the old radio, tied to the moped on my way to the rehearsals …

Shortly after, you began – with the Teenager Band – to create music, even though you would not reach the gravitational centre of your musical universe until a few years later, by changing from English to Italian. Could you explain to us what led to this important development?
I had grown up listening to English rock pieces on my turntable. I played singles a thousand times in order to practice the guitar solos and to learn the lyrics by heart. Even though our English wasn’t brilliant, we still wrote our songs and performed them in that language, as we mainly listened to English rock at the time. Strangely enough, I find myself criticising musicians of today a little when they – even though Italian is their mother tongue – sing in English only, and I do believe I have the right to do so, especially as that’s exactly how I started myself! Our first two albums were recorded in English and we were proud that EMI (the record label of the Beatles!) produced it; they would have never produced the albums with us in any other language than English.

“The words you choose are just like fingers on a guitar: You need to feel that they are your own. If this is not the case, then the musical result is not really authentic.” – Marco Zappa

So when did you change to Italian?
The transition to Italian took place in 1979. Musical tastes around us had changed, and so had certain connections to the concept of the “canzone italiana”; but it was mainly a case of a new awareness that had awakened in me. The language that you use is like the instrument which you need to own. The words you choose are just like fingers on a guitar: You need to feel that they are your own. If this is not the case, then the musical result is not really authentic. Since then, this is what has been happening: When I experience a story in my dialect, then I have to write it in my dialect, and if I experience it in Italian, I have to write it in Italian. The same applies to any other languages. That’s not a decision I have to take up front, it is the story itself that I want to tell which leads me onto an unavoidably expressive path.

And now, finally, for the music. What happened is that you have come off rather quickly from the young convention of the English language, and it was the same with your musical vision which had only been influenced by rock music. You thus went to look for less predictable and undoubtedly more daring solutions. What made you choose this direction?
Due to the change to Italian lyrics, I chose an unusual musical setup: a trio with flute and cello. Maybe, at the time, my subconscious told me to do something that even my mother would like. The setup of the band seemed to be classical, but the spirit was definitely committed to rock, even if many people were of the opinion at the time that you could only create rock music with a stratocaster with a distortion switch. Since then, I have always tried to be open to new musicians, instruments and ideas when it comes to musical collaboration. The principle is the same, as it also applies to the lyrics: The story that you wish to tell suggests different technical and poetic solutions – and sometimes it also provides them. If you use the same stones every time and also stack them in the same way, you’ll end up with the same wall, every time.

www.marcozappa.ch, official website


Marco Zappa: 50 anni di musica

Cinquant’anni di carriera: l’unica duratura carriera della canzone svizzera che si sia svolta dentro (ma anche sopra, sotto e accanto) alla lingua italiana. Questo è il dato incontrovertibile – e incontrovertibilmente fondamentale – che riguarda Marco Zappa, e che ancora una volta in questo inizio di 2017 ripropone il cantautore bellinzonese al centro della cultura musicale della Terza Svizzera. Con un nuovo disco con 18 inediti – «PuntEBarrier» – e con un tour nazionale che inizierà il prossimo 14 marzo al Teatro Sociale di Bellinzona. Intervista/testo: Zeno Gabaglio

L’occasione è dunque imperdibile per incontrare Marco e fare qualche passo indietro, per farci raccontare com’è iniziato e come si è sviluppato il suo rapporto con la creatività musicale; in una regione – il Ticino – che dal punto di vista della canzone in lingua italiana non aveva mai offerto esempi illuminanti.

Marco Zappa: È iniziato tutto da mia madre, che mi vedeva come interprete-pianista in ambito classico. Abitavamo ancora a Bellinzona ed ero appena un bambino. Ho suonato due anni quasi per forza il pianoforte e mi ricordo che non mi piaceva: dovevo studiare ogni giorno ma avevo ben altre cose per la testa, a quell’età. Negli scout ho poi cominciato a suonare l’armonica a bocca, uno strumento che, a differenza del pianoforte, si poteva portare in giro e con cui si poteva condividere la musica. La sorella di mia madre suonava invece la chitarra, e fu lei a mostrarmi i primi accordi, proprio nel periodo in cui in Italia imperversavano Celentano e i primi “cantanti urlatori”. Mi sono subito appassionato e immedesimato, raccogliendo i miei compagni di ginnasio in un piccolo gruppo con cui suonavamo alle feste degli studenti.

Zeno Gabaglio: Che possibilità c’erano per chi voleva fare musica, e magari anche condividerla con gli altri?
Il bisogno di trovarsi attorno al fare musica effettivamente c’era, ma in genere si rivolgeva alla musica popolare. Anch’io ho passato diversi anni a cantare e suonare la Verzaschina, il Boccalino e le varie canzoni che oggi diremmo folk. Per la musica dal vivo in Ticino c’era però ancora una buona offerta di orchestre di musica leggera, cioè gruppi (di anche solo 4-5 elementi) che si esibivano in repertori tra il jazz, lo swing e la canzone; tornando a casa da scuola mi fermavo sempre ad ascoltarli davanti ai bar di Locarno in cui si esibivano, restando sempre affascinato dalla musica che facevano ed imparando accordi nuovi.

Ma quella delle orchestrine era comunque una musica «vecchia»! Cosa portò invece Marco Zappa sulla strada ben più moderna del rock?
La chitarra elettrica. Durante una serata in cui – con il mio gruppo – suonammo all’Oratorio di Minusio, il prete che organizzava l’incontro diffuse dall’impianto il brano Apache degli Shadows, con quei meravigliosi suoni iniziali di chitarra elettrica riverberata. Fu un colpo di fulmine, e poi, naturalmente, le canzoni dei Beatles! …

Quindi all’origine del percorso rock di Marco Zappa ci fu la modernità di un prete?
In un certo senso sì: di un prete illuminato! Ma contagiato così – all’improvviso – dal germe della chitarra elettrica, per noi giovanissimi rimaneva un problema: come trasformare i nostri strumenti per cercare di ottenere esattamente quel suono lì? Un amico elettrotecnico mi disse che dalla cornetta del telefono, svitando la parte inferiore (cioè quella in cui si parlava), si poteva ricavare un microfono. Così feci, togliendolo e incollandolo alla chitarra, collegai poi i due fili risultanti all’amplificatore della radio dei miei genitori e ottenni la mia prima chitarra elettrica. Ancora mi ricordo quando attraversavo la città con la vecchia radio legata sul motorino per andare a fare le prove …

Di lì a poco – con la band Teenagers – avresti cominciato a fare le cose decisamente sul serio, anche se il centro gravitazionale del tuo universo musicale lo avresti raggiunto qualche anno più tardi, passando dalla lingua inglese a quella italiana. Ci puoi spiegare questa tua fondamentale evoluzione?
Ero cresciuto ascoltando pezzi rock inglesi sul mio giradischi, ascoltando mille volte i 45 giri per imparare gli assoli di chitarra e memorizzare i testi. E se anche la conoscenza della lingua era per tutti approssimativa, si scriveva e si cantava in inglese proprio perché i nostri ascolti di quel periodo erano focalizzati sul rock britannico. Oggi paradossalmente critico un po’ quei musicisti che – pur essendo di lingua madre italiana – cantano solo in inglese, e credo di poterlo fare proprio perché anch’io, in fondo, ho cominciato così. I primi due LP li realizzammo in inglese, e l’orgoglio fu che a produrceli c’era la EMI (la casa discografica dei Beatles!) che senza l’inglese non ce li avrebbe mai prodotti.

«Le parole che scegli sono come le tue dita su una chitarra: devi sentirle tue, e se non è così il risultato musicale non sarà sincero.» – Marco Zappa

E l’italiano quando arrivò?
Il passaggio all’italiano è avvenuto nel 1979. Attorno a noi erano cambiati certi gusti musicali e certi rapporti con l’idea della canzone; ma soprattutto avevo maturato io una nuova consapevolezza: la lingua che usi è come uno strumento, che ti deve appartenere. Le parole che scegli sono come le tue dita su una chitarra: devi sentirle tue, e se non è così il risultato musicale non sarà sincero. Da allora se una storia la vivo in dialetto, non posso che scriverla in dialetto, e se la vivo in italiano, devo scriverla in italiano, e così per le altre lingue. Non si tratta di una scelta obbligatoria e a priori che mi impongo prima di scrivere qualcosa, ma è la stessa storia che voglio raccontare a portarmi sull’inevitabile strada linguistico-espressiva.

Infine la musica. Perché se è vero che ti sei presto allontanato dalla convenzione giovanilistica dell’inglese, altrettanto hai fatto da una visione musicale esclusivamente rock, andando a cercare soluzioni meno scontate e – indubbiamente – più ardite. Chi ti ha spinto in questa direzione?
Proprio per la svolta testuale in italiano scelsi una veste musicale inusitata: un trio con flauto e violoncello. Forse inconsciamente volevo fare qualcosa che piacesse anche a mia madre. La formazione sembrava classica, ma lo spirito era chiaramente rock, anche se per molti si poteva fare rock solo usando una Stratocaster con distorsione. Da allora ho sempre cercato di aprirmi a collaborazioni musicali con musicisti, strumenti e idee ogni volta diversi, e il principio è lo stesso che vale per il testo: è la storia da raccontare che suggerisce – a volte imponendole – soluzioni tecniche e poetiche differenti. Perché altrimenti se usi ogni volta gli stessi mattoni e ogni volta li sovrapponi allo stesso modo, il risultato sarà sempre lo stesso muro.

www.marcozappa.ch

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A story of 50 years’ success: The only sustained career in Switzerland in relation to the “canzone italiana” – in all its dimensions. An undisputed, and undoubtedly significant fact about the singer songwriter Marco Zappa from Bellinzona, who has become the focal point of music culture in the Ticino again at the beginning of the year. This comes with the release of his new album “PuntEBarrier” which contains 18 unpublished songs, and a tour across Switzerland starting on 14 March 2017 in the Teatro Sociale Bellinzona. Interview/Text by Zeno Gabaglio – La versione italiana del testo si trova sotto.

Marco Zappa: 50 anni di musica

Interview with Marco Zappa in the studio MarcoZappaMusic in Sementina. (Photos: Manu Leuenberger)

50 years of music: This is a great opportunity to meet Marco and cast a look back into the past. We asked...read more

Lyrics for a song: “Anything goes – if it has success”

The FONDATION SUISA dedicates its CHF 25,000 recognition award to lyricists of musical works this year. But what makes a song text a success? Guest author Markus Ganz in an interview with Jean-Martin Büttner

Lyrics for a song: “Anything goes - if it has success”

“Song texts usually don’t work on paper”, says journalist Jean-Martin Büttner. (Photo: Dominic Büttner)

Jean-Martin, what do you make of song lyrics including the line “A Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom”?
Jean-Martin Büttner: This is an example for coded song lyrics. “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard secretly deals with black drag queens and sexual practices, at least in its 1955 original version. To understand this, you got to know that the singer had a triple disadvantage: Richard was black, gay and from the South of the USA. The American political scientist, Greil Marcus, explained its amazing effect rather accurately in an interview. Even if they did not understand the lyrics, listeners would still be able to sense from the mere joy of Little Richard’s singing that it was about something naughty. It might sound strange but this is a central part of rock music – not because it says something but because it expresses something.

In its book “AWopBopaLooBopALopBamBoom” which had become a classic in rock literature, Nik Cohn wrote in 1971 that these words “summarised what Rock’n’Roll really was about” rather masterly. He also wrote that Rock’n’Roll lyrics were some sort of a “secret code of teenagers”. Youth culture is, however, subject to constant change. Does this mean that these lyrics are caught in their era?
I believe that this applies to each set of song lyrics and also for many poems. Only the greats such as Shakespeare, Rilke or Dylan can write lyrics which transcend their own era. These lyrics by Little Richard are clearly trapped in its time, albeit because it had to be coded into nonsense in order to escape the censorship of white radio stations. Ironically, this also holds true for explicit, vulgar and drastic hip hop lyrics which don’t omit anything. Calling women champagne bitches and writing hymns about your own sneakers wears off extremely quickly.

What significance has this song text by Little Richard retained?
“Tutti Frutti” is a historic text. But you also have to understand that Nik Cohn had an anti-intellectual attitude vis-a-vis the interpretation of Rock’n’Roll. And that his book was one of the first on rock music. I still love it today because he wrote in such a radical style. Nik Cohn, who was an Irish Jew and thus an outsider from the beginning, wrote sentences such as those according to which there were never proper lyrics in Rock’n’Roll. I believe that he meant this as a provocation but not just that. It was his way of attacking artists such as Dylan or the Beatles which, in his opinion, had ruined Rock’n’Roll with their textual cockiness.

Is the act of ennobling the song lyrics by the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan thus also a loss for the tradition of lyrics that have been pushed “ad absurdum”?
Not at all, luckily there is no institution that decides what is or isn’t a proper song text. Besides, Dylan himself has written surreal lyrics, which might well play on words and are funny but don’t really make any comprehensible sense, such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from 1965. In this song, Dylan – who never actually denied it – leans back on Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” – which is not far from Little Richard; Dylan was thus closer to Nik Cohn’s hero as the latter wanted to admit. Dylan even once said that his professional goal was to play piano with Little Richard.

“Poetry is always a vocal art, too. Poets recited their texts as early as in ancient times.”

Nevertheless: Haven’t song lyrics increasingly lost their original character?
Yes, the question for the meaning. I have always rejected the absurd notion that rock music had to remain music for the youth, something it had originally been. It has rather turned out to be a kind of culture which grows with its authors, has aged with them. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen are or have been relevant way beyond their pension age. Besides, poetry is always a vocal art, too. Poets recited their texts as early as in ancient times.

Little Richard has – not least – provoked, something that has become difficult nowadays …
This gesture has lost its impact long ago. Lady Gaga is a good example as her provocations became such a major part of her marketing. Her final provocation, to show herself without make-up, shows how desperate she has become. Nowadays, it is rather heart-warming that David Bowie triggered a scandal when he said he was homosexual – and it wasn’t even true. Such shock effects, from Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson, have worn themselves out completely. The consolation: Good music remains good.

In rock music, the lyrics depend very much on other aspects such as sound or phrasing, and only makes sense because of that. Do lyrics still have the same meaning as they used to have back then?
I don’t cease to be amazed how little attention people pay to the lyrics. It probably has always been that way. In fact, the Beatles mainly wrote trivial lyrics along the lines of “She Loves You”, even though their irony and their lyrical talent would have allowed them to do so much more at the time. It is interesting that especially within the hip hop genre lyrics play a central role, while the music is monotonous and repetitive. What also stands out is the development over the last decades where hip hop is no longer sung or rapped just in English, but, in Switzerland, for example, increasingly in German, Italian and French. In line with this development, it is only logical that the importance of lyrics has increased again. For example Peter Fox (Seeed): His solo album “Stadtaffe” [city monkey] is a hymn dedicated to his home town Berlin – and only because of the German lyrics, Berlin citizens could identify themselves with the song.

“Lyrics aren’t a school subject. It should be left to each individual what they make of the song lyrics.”

This example also shows that the background of a text is sometimes the prerequisite to understand it. But can an author really expect from his audience that it grapples with its song lyrics?
Lyrics aren’t a school subject. It should be left to each individual what they make of the song lyrics. A friend of mine has been a hip hop dance instructor for a long time. She did not realise that the pieces she used often contained misogynist lyrics, as she only played them to provide music for dancing. But that’s ok.
On the other hand, I keep noticing during concerts that due to the lack of knowledge of the lyrics misunderstandings pop up. A classic example which even US-Americans misunderstood is “Born In the USA” by Bruce Springsteen. The piece deals with the fate of Vietnam veterans but is full of ambivalence as it starts with a fanfare and Springsteen is shown on the cover of the album in front of a US flag. Left-wing message, right-wing chorus. Reagan only heard the latter and was enthused, Springsteen distanced himself in a peculiar mumbling manner. The record made him a millionaire.

But doesn’t something from the original message stay on?
Greil Marcus, whom we mentioned earlier, described in his essay why everything that Springsteen sings remains without any consequence. Irrespective of how often the artist sings about a broken family and the poverty in the USA, it was striking that nobody ever responded. This silence was proof that all of his statements remained without effect. How could it be otherwise? I have asked the comedian Eddie Izzard, whether comedy could actually change anything. He said: only politics changes things, that’s why he was standing for Parliament. If you want to change something, you have to change the law.

Writers of song lyrics often say that – by way of their texts – they are trying to trigger an association within their audience so that they can create their own stories from that…
An important role during the 1960s was the fact that black youths listened to James Brown who sang: “Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud”. That was an instruction to a black identity – telling you that you could be someone who exists, who is important in the USA, because you get a voice – even if you are part of a minority.

He gave people courage to stand tall and self-confident…
Exactly, many song lyrics played an important role for the civil rights movement. Songs have always played an influencing role, also during the movement against the Vietnam War. Why, of all things, was it “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys that became a hymn for the GIs in Vietnam, even though this cover version only contains the story of a quarrel on a ship? Because the chorus says: “Why don’t they let me go home, this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”. No wonder that this hit the right tone in Vietnam. Or: “Nowhere To Run” by Martha and the Vandellas was phrased as a love song, but became the slogan for left-wing protesters against the government.

A text can also receive a completely new meaning…
An example for this is the piece “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, which has been redefined in South Africa among white and black pupils as a hymn against Apartheid. German cultural scientist, Diedrich Diederichsen once said, pop music was an open channel. The good thing about it: You can do what you like. If the audience decides that a song means this or that, then that’s the way it is.

“One of the most famous examples of a song which didn’t have any meaningful, serious lyrics initially, is ‘Yesterday’ by Paul McCartney. The original text for this song was ‘scrambled eggs, baby I love your hairy legs’.”

Many musicians have expressed themselves against Donald Trump in the last months, but up until his inauguration there were few explicit songs…
The English journalist, Julie Burchill, once wrote that nothing would castrate a political message as efficiently as a pulsing backbeat. Bob Dylan realised this quickly and ceased to create songs pointing fingers, he was well ahead with his thinking. His explicitly political songs such as “Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears” have aged in a worse manner than his songs which simply state a general unease against the war such as “Masters of War”. I think that great artists don’t think in weeks or years, and that’s why all great political songs are not specific. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a universal song, especially as humour and irony are added to it – something that protest musicians unfortunately include very rarely.

Many songwriters confess that their lyrics don’t get written until after the music has been completed. How do you explain that?
One of the most famous examples of a song which didn’t have any meaningful, serious lyrics initially, is “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. The original text for this song was “scrambled eggs, baby I love your hairy legs”. Brian Eno mentioned during his press conference in Geneva last year that the majority of artists sing anything during their rehearsals, some sort of a scat song. From this emerges a chorus or a hook, from which the actual lyrics are developed. Many musicians use this process, for example Bono, or Mick Jagger. Writing lyrics, by the way, is also hard for authors, who are famous for their texts. Randy Newman for one said to me in a conversation that he wrote melodies with more ease than lyrics – the latter were a nightmare.

But aren’t song lyrics often secondary, and only have the purpose to carry the melody?
This can be deceptive as the example of ABBA shows. You could, of course, argue that “I do, I do, I do, I do” does not constitute song lyrics which belong into the Hall of Fame. But “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is a piece which sweetens a bitter message with an enchanting melody. The lyrics are about a divorce and is one of the favourite songs of Elvis Costello. “The Day Before You Came”, the last, desperately sad ABBA single, also combines an excellent set of lyrics with an extremely sad musical piece.

As we all know, many song texts pop up by chance, on the spur of the moment …
The most famous example for a song which practically happened by accident is “Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple. To put it simply, the band was watching across the lake, how the casino in Montreux was on fire – and wrote a gripping, but actually rather descriptive song about the event in the blink of an eye. Bob Dylan sometimes falls into such a creative rush, too: He wrote all of his lyrics for “Time Out Of Mind” within two weeks even though the verses are rather long.

This is more the modus operandi of singer songwriters who reduce the story down to the bare minimum. You do, however, sometimes also find the other extreme with them, where the lyrics are basically simply wrapped in music….
You notice that when the lyrics overwhelms the music in such a way that the music becomes a pretext. In the case of a good songwriter like Dylan that’s another matter. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, for example, formulates a cascade of words – and still works because the language becomes an instrument of rhythm. The Beatles-Song penned by John Lennon “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is the opposite of that: Despite its length of nearly eight minutes, it consists of one single sentence with variations. This shows how much freedom you have as a lyricist. There’s a great quotation by Max Frisch: “Anything goes – if it has success”.

«You must stop imagining that lyrics can be read: they don’t usually work on paper, they are dead.»

This could be used as the guideline for song lyrics about love, still the main theme in pop music. A love song can appear clichéd with respect to the choice of words, and yet work magnificently. What makes the difference?
An example how the same text can have a completely different impact depending on instrumentation and interpretation is “I Will Always Love You”. The song has not been written by Whitney Houston but Dolly Parton. And her original version dating back to 1974 is grand, even though the lyrics are incredibly trivial: The recording lives off the performance.

The same song lyrics can also have different meanings in different interpretations…
A good example for this is “You Can Leave Your Hat On” by Randy Newman. In its original version, this love song is lurking, the protagonist a stalker, you get scared of him. In Joe Cocker’s version, however, the song about a sexual offender turns into a hymn for sex and freedom – and as such, it was used for the film “9 1/2 weeks.”

The lyrics of two love songs can be nearly identical regarding the choice of words and yet one can seem corny whereas the other is captivating. Why?
You must stop imagining that lyrics can be read: they don’t usually work on paper, they are dead. One of the reasons for this is that the technique of repetition is important for song lyrics; texts by writers like Nick Cave look absurd on paper.
One of the great exceptions, however, are the song texts by Leonard Cohen. An explanation for this phenomenon is that he wrote three books and two poetry volumes before he entered a studio for the first time. He started playing the guitar because he thought he could reach a wider audience as a consequence. The magic of song lyrics usually appears when being sung, just remember Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike”. His singing imparted a kind of lascivious elegance.

By way of singing the lyrics, it is also possible to break the stereotype of a text or add an ironic note …
Lyle Lovett does exactly the opposite in his song “She’s Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To”. The text in the title is coined by its typical irony but he sang it in a grizzling, absolutely non-ironical sounding country song. What constitutes the breach here is that he performs an unconventional text which is a persiflage on the genre, in a completely conventional style.

The songwriter and producer Roman Camenzind once said that you could write an authentic song text only in your own mother tongue ...
That’s a great thesis, even if there are examples that show that the opposite is true. In the case of Rammstein, I am fascinated by the fact that concert-goers sing along to the German lyrics, even in places like Mexico City or New York. Singer Till Lindemann once told me that the majority would only sing along phonetically and not understand the phonetic implications and play on words of “Du hast” – one of their song titles. English is treacherous in this respect, anyway. It’s like when you play the guitar: You can quickly get to grips with guitar chords, and it sounds alright. But then it gets complicated rather quickly. And that’s what you find in the case of lyrics of authors whose mother tongue isn’t English.

And in Switzerland?
We do have some amazing lyricists such as the songwriters Kutti MC, Endo Anaconda (Stiller Has), Kuno Lauener (Züri West) and Carlos Leal (Sens Unik); The reality in Switzerland is, however, that the dialect is rather restrictive in terms of the audience; the conditions in Germany are completely different.

If you want to live off your music in Switzerland you have to try to find a wider audience with an international language. Is this inevitably at the expense of authenticity?
Yello are a good example that using English can be a success. Dieter Meier has written many lyrics with Dadaistic nonsense, but his English is – regarding the accent and the humour – definitely very Swiss. You also feel how the personalities of the two shine through very strongly, something which creates authenticity. In a special way, the Young Gods are successful because Franz Treichler sings his English lyrics with a French accent; but it is his voice that’s important, not the lyrics. For me, these are the two most important Swiss bands because they have maintained their identity despite their international aura. Bands that sing French lyrics such as Sens Unik have more luck as they have an international language as their mother tongue.

Jean-Martin Büttner (born 1959) grew up bilingual in Basel (German and French). He studied psychology, psychopathology and English in Zurich and wrote his dissertation on “Singers, songs and compulsive words. Rock as a narrative form.” (the book with the original title “Sänger, Songs und triebhafte Rede. Rock als Erzählweise”, published in 1997 is sold out). In the middle of the 1980s, he regularly wrote for the Swiss music magazine Music Scene which was run by the interviewer Markus Ganz at the time. Since 1987, he has been employed by the Swiss daily, Tages-Anzeiger. He works as an editor for the cultural and domestic affairs department and is the daily’s correspondent for the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and Switzerland’s Parliament (Bundeshaus) editor. Since 2010, he has been writing on various subjects, including regular articles on music.
Recognition award for lyricists
FONDATION SUISA dedicates its CHF 25,000 recognition award to lyricists of musical works this year. Works in all languages will be considered. The entire works of the nominees will be judged, not just individual lyrics. All participants must prove that there is a relationship of their works with the current Swiss music creative scene. It is also possible that third parties nominate candidates. An expert panel will judge the submitted nominations based on the Award regulations. Closing date will be 24 February 2017. Further information, including the regulations and the entry form can be downloaded from the FONDATION SUISA website.
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The FONDATION SUISA dedicates its CHF 25,000 recognition award to lyricists of musical works this year. But what makes a song text a success? Guest author Markus Ganz in an interview with Jean-Martin Büttner

Lyrics for a song: “Anything goes - if it has success”

“Song texts usually don’t work on paper”, says journalist Jean-Martin Büttner. (Photo: Dominic Büttner)

Jean-Martin, what do you make of song lyrics including the line “A Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom”?
Jean-Martin Büttner: This is an example for coded song lyrics. “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard secretly deals with black drag queens and sexual practices, at least in its 1955 original version. To understand this, you got to know that the singer had a triple disadvantage: Richard was black, gay and from the South of the USA. The American political scientist, Greil Marcus, explained its amazing...read more

Die Arbeit der Komponisten an Hits aus dem Schweizer Pop-Musikjahr 2015

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Adieu, great Jörg Schneider!

Without a doubt, Jörg Schneider was part of the most popular actors in Switzerland. He also directed films, lent his voice to the “Kasperli” character and wrote fairy tales and musicals. As a lyricist of more than 200 songs, whose music he partially composed himself, he had been a SUISA member for a long time. At the end of August 2015, Jörg Schneider passed away, aged 80. Obituary by guest author Monika Kaelin

Adieu, great Jörg Schneider!

Jörg Schneider, shown here in a picture of 2013, wrote many song lyrics and composed the music for some of them. (Photo: Christoph Kaminski)

He had to leave us all too early. He, who always stuck to a healthy nutrition, never overdid it, but had completely committed himself to the stage. Jörg Schneider was a perfectionist, translated many pieces from English and high German into Swiss German, wrote more than 200 song lyrics, played the main part in all of his own boulevard productions, had success in TV series such as “Polizischt Wäckerli”, and in “Motel” as Koni Frei, was convincing as accountant Oskar Wehrli in the long runner soap “Lüthi und Blanc”, directed films ‘on the side’, wrote fairy tales and musicals, lent his voice to the “Kasperli” character and had to face the hard truth of suffering from untreatable cancer after 55 years on stage.

Not an easy task for such a bubbly and eager to work exceptional artist who – as a trained teacher and subsequently promoted professional actor – had originally committed himself to classics. It was in light entertainment, however, where he found his great audience and continued to delight millions of Swiss viewers over the years. The popular actor was a creative actor both in front of and behind the stage curtain who wrote, produced and stage-managed. The original Zurich-born actor was a cheerful person by nature. If something annoyed him, he got rid of the event with a sarcastic saying and a laugh.

Multi-talented exceptional artist

The versatility of exceptional artist Jörg Schneider becomes particularly evident when taking a look into his intensive artistic activities. Side by side with Ruedi Walter, Jörg Schneider played the role of Wladimir in the high-profile performance of the Beckett piece “Warte uf de Godot” in the dialect adaptation by Urs Widmer. In the summer theatre Winterthur as well as the open air theatre Hohe Promenade in Zurich, he played in many more classical theatre pieces.

In 1963, he started his TV career as a young actor in “Vico, ist’s wahr?” and travelled together with Vico Torriani through Switzerland. He had his great breakthrough with the radio play, the stage production and the TV series “Polizischt Wäckerli” from 1966 onwards.

Jörg Schneider remains unforgotten as the father of 41 Kasperli stories which enthused generations of children and still are a big hit today. He contributed to the creation of innumerable childrens’ musicals and fairy tale plays for the Zurich Märchenbühne and the Opera House Zurich.

Other places of activity in Zurich were the Schauspielhaus, the Corso Theatre, the Theatre at the Hechtplatz and, above all, the Bernhard Theatre. In the Musical “Z wie Züri”, I had the honour to play alongside him for the first time as an actress in 1976. Jörg gave me many tips during this production and explained to me, for example, how I should say something to ensure I had the punchline in the bag. His advice was the best actor’s training that I ever had the pleasure to enjoy, as I could learn directly while acting on stage.

Magnificent life’s work

In the following years, there were many more new pieces each year, which Jörg Schneider successfully performed with his ensemble in the Bernhard Theatre and on tour in Switzerland. In 2014, he finally had to break off his farewell tour with the dialect tragicomedy “Häppi Änd” due to health reasons. During this hard time of suffering and pain, he still bravely starred in the cinema movie directed by Paul Riniker, “Usfahrt Oerlike” together with Matthias Gnädinger, who also recently passed away. The film was awarded the “Prix du Public” at the 50th Solothurn Film Days where the magnificent life’s work of Jörg Schneider was honoured with standing ovations. The Prix Walo had been awarded twice to Jörg Schneider. In 1995 he received it as an actor, in 2014 for his life’s work.

In March 2015, his last work was published, the autobiography “Äxgüsi”. After his suffering as a cancer patient, Jörg Schneider peacefully fell asleep in the arms of his beloved wife Romy at home in Wetzikon for the last time on 22 August 2015, free of pain and with a smile on his face. He was a good man and colleagues and friends among actors and his audience will sorely miss him. Thank you dear Jörgli for everything what you have created for us all your life, with joy, love and dedication.

In friendship your
Monika Kaelin

Monika Kaelin is a composer, lyricist, singer, entertainer and moderator as well as theatre, music and event organiser, President of the Association Show Szene Switzerland and TV producer for the Prix Walo. She was a member of the SUISA Board between 1999 and 2015.

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Without a doubt, Jörg Schneider was part of the most popular actors in Switzerland. He also directed films, lent his voice to the “Kasperli” character and wrote fairy tales and musicals. As a lyricist of more than 200 songs, whose music he partially composed himself, he had been a SUISA member for a long time. At the end of August 2015, Jörg Schneider passed away, aged 80. Obituary by guest author Monika Kaelin

Adieu, great Jörg Schneider!

Jörg Schneider, shown here in a picture of 2013, wrote many song lyrics and composed the music for some of them. (Photo: Christoph Kaminski)

He had to leave us all too early. He, who always stuck to a healthy nutrition, never overdid it, but had completely committed himself to the stage. Jörg Schneider was a perfectionist, translated many pieces from...read more