How Grauzone’s chilly ‘Eisbär’ became the soundtrack of a hot summer of Swiss youth rebellion
You may think of Switzerland as the epitome of orderly calm, but that hasn’t always been the case. In the summer of 1980, for example, the country was rocked by a series of riots. And a Bern-based post-punk band found one of their tracks becoming an anthem for this uprising of angry youth.
Grauzone (meaning grey area – to sound authentically Swiss, pronounce it Graut-zone-er) grew out of Glueams, a punk band active from 1978 until November 1979, when drummer Marco Repetto visited London, and was inspired by the records he heard spun at Camden venue The Music Machine.
“They played reggae, punk and early electronic music from Cabaret Voltaire and Fad Gadget,” Repetto says. “Fad’s ‘Back To Nature’ went directly into my heart. There was something in the air. Mind expansion was everywhere. When I went back to Switzerland, I was sure I wanted to do something new.”
Glueams were terminated and Repetto and bassist GT (Christian Trüssel) formed a new outfit, joining up with brothers Martin and Stephan Eicher, and utilising synths like the Roland SH-1000 and the ARP 2600.
“We couldn’t afford them – they were much too expensive,” Repetto says. “But hiring was a cool option. We tried all kinds of synthesisers and did lots of experiments. Just the synthesiser playing alone – random sounds in sample hold mode – that was fantastic for us. It was like having a new band member.”
During their brief lifespan, Grauzone only played 11 known gigs. And they weren’t always well received…
“We wanted to provoke the scene,” he says. “It wasn’t usual for a punk band to play electronic instruments. I remember at one of the first concerts, the punks walked out when we played. It was more the spirit of punk than playing the common punk rock music.”
While some of these concerts were in conventional venues, others took place in abandoned buildings.
“We played in the tram depot in Zürich, which was occupied by squatters, then later the Reitschule in Bern, which had been a riding school. It’s still an autonomous cultural centre today and is one of the best places to see bands. It’s also a political centre with many people from the black bloc.”
In the summer of 1980, places like these became strongholds of a youth revolt dubbed the Opernhauskrawalle (opera house riots). This really exploded in Zürich on 30 May, when protests about the elitism of arts funding turned into months of pitched battles.
“In Zürich, the city paid a lot of money for the opera house, but gave nothing for the youth,” Repetto explains. “They occupied the Zürich tram depot to have as a cultural centre, then it started on the streets every weekend – fights with the police and lots of arrests. It was a heavy time, because in Germany there was the Red Army Faction, in Italy the Red Brigades. So everything left-ish was suspect to the police.”
Protests like these rumbled on for a couple of years, and not only in Zürich and Bern, where activism was centred on the Reitschule, but also in cities like Basel and Winterthur. The discontent was reflected in a Grauzone track called ‘Sommer 80’ or ‘Summer Feelings’. Never recorded in the studio, but performed live that year, it starts like The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’, before accelerating into something punkier, with lyrics about running from the cops.
But it was ‘Eisbär’, recorded that summer for compilation LP ‘Swiss Wave’, which became something of an anthem. Its lyrics struck a chord with a generation who found the Swiss culture available to them stultifyingly sterile. “Ich möchte ein eisbär sein / Im kalten polar / Dann müsste ich nicht mehr schrei’n / Alles wär so klar”: “I want to be a polar bear / In the polar cold / Then I would not cry anymore / Everything would be so clear.”
“The words were taken from a dream Martin had,” Repetto says. “He dreamed that he saw polar bears on the walls in his room. It was never political. But they fitted exactly in that zeitgeist, because all the protesters talked about these times being ‘ice time’, as the culture was kind of frozen. For the movement in Zürich, ‘Eisbär’ was the song. It was the soundtrack of the Opernhauskrawalle.”
Released as a single the following year, the track reached Number Six in the Austrian chart, and Number 12 in Germany. It doesn’t feature a drum machine, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it does, as the beat is so robotic.
“I wasn’t very tight at drumming,” Repetto admits. “So when the engineer recorded my drumming, he took a small section and made a tape loop.”
In 1981, Grauzone also recorded their self-titled album. ‘Eisbär’ wasn’t included, but you can still sense the youthful frustration of the time on tracks like ‘Wütendes Glas’, with its lyrics about shattered glass and repeated refrain of “Tanzende Körper verlieren den Verstand” (“Dancing bodies lose their minds”).
By early 1982, both Repetto and bassist GT had quit due to “creative differences” and for personal reasons, leaving the Eicher brothers to release one last 12-inch before winding up Grauzone.
“Our label was connected with EMI Germany, a big company, and we were afraid that we’d become a superficial neue Deutsche welle band,” Repetto says. “We also did some experiments with heroin, and GT became an addict. When I tried heroin I couldn’t hear music, though, and music was always my main passion. So maybe I was lucky.”
That passion continues to this day. Four-and-a-half years after major heart surgery, Repetto has just released a new album, ‘Bigeneric’, under the name Helva, which he describes as, “Electronica and ambient, with influences from the first German electronic music”.
“At first I thought, ‘Now doing music is finished with,’ Repetto says, reflecting on his health issues. “I didn’t know how long I would survive. But I’ve made a big change and life is beautiful. Music… it’s everything.”
A double LP reissue of 1981’s ‘Grauzone’ album is out now on WRWTFWW. ‘Bigeneric’ is out via marcorepetto.bandcamp.com