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Pioneers of the hard riff – How two Swiss Metallica lured to Europe – Culture


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Free & Virgin’s shows were notorious for brawls and burning clubs. The organizers brought metal and punk legends to Switzerland when the local scene was still in its infancy – and did pioneering work.

From the mid-1970s, anyone who was interested in hard-hitting concerts in Switzerland could not avoid one name: Free & Virgin. Two young men named Heinz Meier and Harry Sprenger were behind the logo with the bare-breasted mermaid.

While the top dog and competitor Goodnews brought well-known acts to the Hallenstadion, Free & Virgin organized concerts in smaller venues such as Albisgüetli, Drahtschmidli (today Dynamo) and above all in the Volkshaus.

Legend:

Proud Metalheads: Harry Sprenger and Heinz Meier († 2021) in the early days of Free & Virgin (1971 -2011).

ZVG

The heart of Free & Virgin beat for rock music, although the organizer had a nose for upcoming trends: In 1977 he brought the Ramones and The Clash to Switzerland – and two very young bands called Die Toten Hosen and Die Ärzte. In addition, in 1984, for the first time in Europe, a band appeared on stage at the Volkshaus that would go on to write music history: Metallica.

Metallica locked in the dressing room

The appearance of the Ami group should become legendary. Not just because their music was well received: As Sprenger later said on the Music Night show, Metallica “decorated” the wardrobe with food out of sheer joy at their success.

Because they didn’t have a cent in their pocket and therefore couldn’t pay for the cleaning, Sprenger quickly locked the guys from Metallica in the cloakroom and put security in front of them. The band was only released when a record company representative came by and put 200 francs on the table for cleaning.

The wild 1980s were marked by social and musical upheaval. Free & Virgin had the courage to bring the new metal and punk bands to Switzerland. They shaped the musical underground scene significantly.

Steep rise, steep fall

During the 1980s, Stefan Matthey joined Free & Virgin. In 1996 he took over the management together with Sprenger. They were already on the road a bit “scout-like” back then, he says.

Her everyday life was an “organized chaos”. With their crumpled receipts, they regularly drove the accountant to despair.

As the 1980s and 90s progressed, the shows that Free & Virgin hosted got bigger and bigger. When in 2011 only 21,000 tickets were sold for the Sonisphere Festival in Basel instead of the hoped-for 40,000, the organizer had to file for bankruptcy.

Men sit at the table at a media conference.

Legend:

Back in 2010, Stefan Matthey (centre) and Harry Sprenger (right) had to answer for a media conference. They were accused of having taken insufficient safety precautions at the Sonisphere Festival in Jonschwil.

Keystone/Regina Kuehne

This was followed by an indictment by the Zurich High Court. The accusation: mismanagement. In addition, the details of the tickets sold had been cheated and thus SUISA had been cheated. In 2018, the federal court acquitted Sprenger on all charges.

It used to be more rock ‘n’ roll

«Organizing used to be rock’n’roll. Today, every concert is an IPO,» says Matthey, who now works as CEO at Goodnews. Since there is hardly any money to be made from the sale of records and CDs, concerts have become all the more important. Accordingly, numbers are now being juggled here that a single independent tour operator such as Free & Virgin could no longer keep up with.

Practically all major festivals and open airs have an international corporation behind them. The concert business has become a globally organized industry: independent management is only possible on a small scale.

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