First Songs collects Kleenex’s output from 1978 to 1982. Their gleefully anarchic music still feels like liberation, reveling in the limitless freedom that comes with tossing logic aside.
Kleenex began with a crash. It transpired one night not long after they’d formed, in Zurich of 1978, while the germinal punk group was onstage. They had but four tunes then—“Beri-Beri,” “Ain’t You,” “Heidi’s Head,” “Nice”—and at early gigs they would play them over and over to small but delighted crowds who did not want the noise to stop. When Kleenex’s original male guitarist didn’t care to continue on as such, the late Marlene Marder stepped up from the audience and swiftly found her place alongside bassist Klaudia Schifferle and drummer Lislot Ha. Marder—a literal post-punk; she delivered mail—was armed with a knowledge of two chords if not an awareness of pitch. “Lislot didn’t know that you can tune a drum kit,” Marder once said. “We played like this for a year, without tuned drum kits or a tuned bass or guitar. The guys were more ambitious so they didn’t want to play with us. For us, it was OK not because we said, ‘We’re the greatest!’ We just did as we could. Not serious in the beginning.”
In all their chaos, those four songs were unusually taut. Kleenex made riotous music like a rubber band; it could tighten, or snap, or shoot in air. When some friends in the small Swiss punk scene released them as the Kleenex EP, word moved fast. The exuberant 45 made its way quickly to Britain, entering the orbit of John Peel as well as the Marxist intellectuals at the then-nascent Rough Trade label, beginning Kleenex’s affiliation with that bohemian London scene. “Ain’t You”—with its wiry riffs and chanted, pogoing hooks, its chic edge and abandon—fit well on Rough Trade’s 1980 Wanna Buy a Bridge? comp, alongside the scratchy Swell Maps and their similarly daring one-time tour mates, the Raincoats.
First Songs collects Kleenex’s output from ’78 to 1982, preceding their first album (at which point they’d been forced by the tissue company to switch their perfect name—capturing the very Pop disposability of consumer culture—to LiLiPUT). The band’s lineup was constantly in flux; these songs also feature saxophonist Angie Barrack and vocalists Regula Sing and Chrigle Freund. The reissue’s title is clever; if these 24 tracks are all indeed songs, then Kleenex was reimagining what a song could be. The shortest one, the 69-second “1978,” for example, is a queasy interstitial propelled by unsparing riffs and amusingly primordial drumming. On “Eisiger Wind” (“Icy Wind”), the clangor and “OOO AHHH”s and “LA LA LA LA”s culminate with a nails-tough 15-second coda that brings to mind Mothers of Invention. But then, in Kleenex’s gleefully anarchic world, “song structures” seemed tedious.
Their methods of composition were peculiar even for punk. One was extreme repetition, in which a song would progress by repeating a few minimal bars over and over, starting slowly and speeding up each time, as if running up a hill and then tumbling down it. The band punctuated their music with things like whistling and saxophones and kazoo sounds. Their guitar chords had a soured edge, and their lopsided call-and-response vocals alternately evoked stoic Patti Smith and a wayward school choir. Most crucial were the befuddlingly shredded human voices—grunted, exasperated, bloodcurdlingly shrieked, pitched so high as to pierce into the reddest red—which sounded more like a Yoko Ono Fluxus experiment than anything resembling pop. But the inquisitive core of Kleenex’s music stokes curiosity in a listener: From what plane of existence does that scream originate? Is that a person? Is that a recorder? What even is a nighttoad?
The lyrics, sung in English and Swiss-German, veer between ominous images or deliberate nonsense. On “Die Matrosen” (“The Sailors”), the song’s jovial whistling is undermined by a narrative of a man in a pub who “had a blackout” and “lost control.” The combination of a grave voice with sugary ones on “Beri-Beri” skewers the lyric “and each day you feel nicer!” “Madness” is one of the most affecting Kleenex songs, with its alternately slammed and melancholy chords: “Hey madness you have touched me,” it goes, “Hey madness what do you want from me?” These emphatic early songs are fervent invocations, evidence that pure conviction could summon magic and newness from the wilderness within.
The signature Kleenex songs fall together in ways that manage to approximate pop. The best one is “Hitch Hike.” “Girl was on the road to drive away/She had no money to pay the train,” goes the gummy, sing-song chorus. “Hitch hike ghost, don’t touch me/...Let me be.” Upbeat as “Hitch Hike” feels, it also touches on the necessary guardedness of being a woman in public, the adventure and risk of the female wanderer (it reminds me of Cindy Sherman’s 1979 Untitled Film Still #48). Defiant beyond its jingly form, it’s cut with the howls of a rape whistle. Not unlike their comrades in the Raincoats, Kleenex’s collective shouts were eruptions of joy as well as gestures of outsider solidarity.
At the heart of Kleenex’s music is a radical sense of resourcefulness. It’s part of what helps them transcend their moment; indeed, many of the works of artier O.G. punk bands feel more potent today than those of their instigating major-label peers. Accordingly, the decimating screams of “Ü”—“EEEEEEEEEEEE”—are the point of punk (it’s worth noting that Greil Marcus put “Ü” on his influential Lipstick Traces compilation). Kleenex collaborated with Rough Trade’s early go-to production duo of Geoff Travis and Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson on the “Ü”/“You” single, perhaps owing to its audacious and wildly electric ensemble feel. “You” explodes with democratic purpose: “This is your life/This is your day/It’s all for you.” With that, the influence of Kleenex on a punk scene like Olympia’s from the 1980s onward is palpable; Kurt Cobain included “anything by Kleenex” on his list of favorite albums, but Bikini Kill’s “Liar” or Girlpool’s “Jane” are primary sources for the legacy of Kleenex screams today.
“Split” is the perfect storm of Kleenex’s bottle-rocket inventiveness. The lyrics go, “Hotch-potch, hugger-mugger, bow-wow, hara-kiri, hoo-poo, huzza, hicc-up, hum-drum, hexa-pod, hell-cat, helter-skelter, hop-scotch.” This dizzied, scissor-cut, full-throttle collage is undercut with spirited declarations that, “Yesterday was a party! Yesterday the drinks were strong!” and a crude siren of “woo! woo! woo! woo!”s. There is nothing cerebral; there is only pure jubilance, only action. “Split” doesn’t sound “sung” as much as it sounds like it’s bolting out of someone’s chest. Play “Split” alongside anything off Never Mind the Bollocks and see which sounds more lawless; Kleenex make Sex Pistols sound like alt-rock.
“We didn't have songs like ‘Fuck the System’ like other bands had,” Marder once said. “We didn’t throw stones and smash windows. We stood there and played songs.” But an autonomous message persisted. For several months in 1980, violent youth riots turned Zurich into a “war zone,” sparked by “a paucity of funding and space for the alternative arts scene.” Kleenex responded viscerally to this unwelcoming world by creating their own.
In 2017, the rollercoaster ride of punk remains replete with adrenaline and adventure and thrills, with semblances of danger and truth. But rollercoasters have tracks and belts and guards; they are always the same. Kleenex built a rollercoaster with loose bolts, not at all predictable, bravely betraying structure, careening. At its best, punk offers up a self-immolating blueprint that says, year after year, “the blueprint is yet to be written.” Kleenex’s raw rapture still lights up this idea. First Songs is a testament to the freedom in limitation, or rather, the limitless nature of freedom when logic is tossed aside.