The first French incarnations of “Le Punk” (pronounced “paink” in numerous locales) were not carbon copies of their foreign exemplars.
Babbling, swarming, morphing, genuinely disorganized anarchy, bad intentions transformed into good ones: that’s how punk rock (or at least a close approximation) was initially adapted to fit our peculiar French perspective. There was not the slightest network to distribute records or organize concert tours. Older generations were hostile (or worse, compassionate or even paternalistic). There was nothing and no one to forge a connection between the handful of small, isolated groups, fundamentally motivated by a passion for what they deemed true rock ‘n’ roll (the desire to terrorize the neighborhood arrived soon afterward), each in their own little world, trying to provoke their backwater village or their lame metropolis, and meeting, of course, with total indifference.
It was not a movement of any kind, contrary to what was said later in slipshod articles and books. For a certain few, it was a sincere attempt – necessarily doomed to failure in a country such as ours (be it under Giscard or Mitterrand, it was all the same to us) – to combine wicked guitar noise, a limitless disgust with everything and temperamental boredom that simultaneously undermined and nourished the everyday world of the adolescent (or, for the slightly older ones, post-adolescent).
It happened in Marmande, Reims, Lyon, Paris and elsewhere. But even when we believed ourselves to be in the eye of one of these hurricanes (in my case, a small “cutting edge” record shop in Normandy where I was a salesclerk), we were completely – or practically – ignorant of what was going on in parallel elsewhere. We were more in touch with the latest 45s released in London by Stiff or Chiswick than ones put out in Bordeaux by Strychnine or in Lyon by Sexe à Pile.
Nevertheless, in a self-centered way, we did not particularly care, since we were already content with what we had within the eye of our private hurricane: Little Bob Story in Le Havre (the first group to bring rock ‘n’ roll to the remote areas that most needed it), Les Dogs in Rouen, followed by groups with far more assertive personal involvement, such as Les Olivensteins, Gloires Locales or Nouveaux Riches. In addition, the Clash gave their first French concert here in April 77, and that same springtime the Stranglers and Ramones played in the area. We had plenty to be content about without the need for long trips. The area had already been an important musical hub for some time. Back in the simpler era of Pub Rock, Dr. Feelgood (not yet widely known), Eddie and the Hot Rods and even the Snakes (later to become Wire) played here. People here were excited, and this naturally led to countless new groups being formed.
Discovering what went on elsewhere, all around our sadly rigid country (because, although we sang by default “inthe mother tongue,” we repudiated almost everything that could be related to it, whether Gainsbourg, Ferré or Lavilliers: all old farts, all alike…) is obviously a primary merit of this compilation of French PunkAnthems covering the years 1977 (Dogs, Gasoline) to 1982 (Coronados, Soggy). This was the only truly exhilarating period, before the bands toiling in their rehearsal spaces sought to associate themselves with a perfectly-defined trend, like alternative rock,classic punk or garage 60s revival. The early bands were just doing their own thing: free to choose, their desires specific but limitless as their imagination, clumsy (yet they would never have asked others for advice), sure of their intentions, their knowledge, their superiority over the mediocre majority, but also their appearance, which said it all. Some in their perfectos (already scraped up), some in pointy boots with elastic side gussets, and the richest ones in zippered duds from Kings Road. Common denominators: tight trousers, badges, with everything in near-obligatory black. And, like Electrochoc, a group from Marmande so symptomatic of that time (1978), a musical repertoire with no room for syrupy love songs.
To see the veritable, original Paink style, just look at the photos of the audience at the two European Punk festivals (1976/1977) in Mont-de-Marsan (where Strychnine played nearby, under the blazing sun). In the photos, we do not see Johnny Rotten’s cousins, but rather an unlikely, haphazard and disorganized bunch, with Parisians in the minority, some with long hair, some who had cut it during the trip, dropouts wearing huge badges and leather jackets, more reminiscent of Renaud than the Clash. Obviously, the music played by those in that small crowd went along with their appearance. There was a vestige of boogie, and the idea that for rock to be violent it had to have a certain hard edge (which explains the success of Sean Tyla, formerly Ducks Deluxe, at the second Mont-de-Marsan festival, absolutely not punk, but mighty greasy).
A heavy, “suburban public housing project” sound that FRENCH PUNK ANTHEMS 1977-1982 has not forgotten: Soggy, from Reims (some of its members had previously played in Antichrist and Hardfuckers, whose names already summarize the concept) is the perfect archetype of the genre: Marshall amps, covering “I Wanna be your Dog” for an encore, constant tribulations, an article in Best, which delighted the group and its friends but was otherwise pointless.
The regions outside Paris spawned tons of bands like this, local flash-in-the-pan groups that, despite their ardent desire to stand out, never went very far, yet spent the money they earned playing local youth centers on a self-produced 45, never exported, but endearing because of its fluky feel and amateur recording. Even though Punk didn’t significantly influence its era, many of them would still have existed: They had such a strong impulse to perform that they would have still tried to play every night, until the day their tour van would break down for the last time on some remote country road. But, since they had also just discovered the first Ramones album, their resentment exploded even more.
Les Dogs were one of those bands, even if they came from a relatively comfy environment, and not one of those loathsome factory towns. Sincere, elegant and strident, their influences were the Kinks and the Pretty Things, and, like almost everyone at the time, the Stooges and the New York Dolls. They were among the first to put out a self-produced record, on a label created for the occasion by their local record store in Rouen. Later, that town became a hotbed of bands. Les Olivensteins, Gloires Locales and Nouveaux Riches emerged from the same bubbling cauldron. They were all rather different, but their common point was not to be too strict in following current trends (“Je ne veux pas de catalogues, de trucs usés de trucs en vogue (Idon’t want catalogs, used stuff, trendy stuff)” as Les Gloires Locales sang). Instead, they sought to make the best of their original features (a synthesizer and sax in Les Nouveaux Riches, an excellent singer – Gilles Tandy – in the other two). Basically, they always tried to offend with irony that people, including their fans, didn’t always understand.
They had a cultural awareness developed through many hours spent at the local record store, listening to everything from old sixties garage bands to the latest Rough Trade find, recorded in a toilet. They were simply doing what they did, instinctive though rich in (sometimes bizarre) influences (from Bob Dylan to Television, the Count Five, the Fall and Louis Ferdinand Céline). Les Olivensteins, while known for their songs “Euthanasie” and “Fier de ne rien faire” (reissued in 2011 by Born Bad), had other ambitions than to be confined to rudimentary punk rock, with its sing-along choruses reminiscent of football chants that widely polluted the genre starting in the early 80s.
Back then, the Parisian scene was also agitated by several strong forces. Most bands were born, and died, not far from the Gibus Club. Despite what was most commonly conjured up in the media and at chic parties, it was no big deal. Asphalt Jungle and Metal Urbain, among others – but, finally, not too many others – were active in their respective circles. Bands that considered themselves Stooges fans (such as the Guilty Razors) actually sounded more like the Buzzcocks on SpiralScratch. Ruth Elyeri, the side project of a musician versed in experimental tinkering (Thierry Muller) became known via a track on the first French punk compilation, “125 grammes de 33t.” Les Warm Gun, in a more traditional rock vein, but still great, made an EP that deserved success; it met with injust indifference. There was also Gasoline and its hard-liner records (resembling the rage of the Sex Pistols adapted to Parisian reality), built around Alain Kan, an underground figure who had previously attempted to express himself via cabaret and glam rock. The compilation you have in your hand is a big hodge-podge, as lively as it is diverse. JB Born Bad was right to add “Déréglée” by Marie-France, another extraordinary personality in Parisian nightlife. A minimalist track with brilliant, amusing words by Jacques Duval, who was also getting his start.
Les Coronados are the latecomers (1982) on this compilation. A logical and rather emblematic choice, since with their profoundly garagey sound, their stylish looks and their wide-ranging influences (which included the Sonics, Kevin Ayers and Les Dogs as well as Captain Beefheart), they summed up, perfectly and by themselves, the intensity, turmoil and diversity of the five years that had just elapsed in that marginal universe. Of course, none of the groups on this compilation ever had any significant success.