Soul Jazz’s Punk 45 series has made it its mission to chart the forgotten corners of punk rock, one seven-inch record at a time, training its magnifying glass on the obscure groups or regional scenes that familiar histories overlook. In particular, its more localized iterations suggest that how punk sounded depended very much on where its seeds fell. A Los Angeles installment turned up the decadent nihilism of the Germs and the snotty proto-hardcore of the Middle Class, while last year’s Akron, Ohio disc focused on the likes of Devo and the Rubber City Rebels, freak prophets of a curdled futurism that echoed industrial America’s decline. Now, Les Punks takes Punk 45 back across the Atlantic to chart what happened when punk landed in mainland Europe.
Punk rock was born in New York and London, but France provided much of the genre’s intellectual and aesthetic grounding. Les Punks’ sleeve notes trace punk’s currents back to a number of sources in France’s rich countercultural history: to writers like Rimbaud and Voltaire, the vanguard art movements of Dada and surrealism, the erotic provocations of Serge Gainsbourg, and the leftist sedition of chief Situationist Guy Debord, whose Society of the Spectacle provided intellectual ballast for the student riots of 1968, and from there found its way to the Sex Pistols via manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Jamie Reid. Unquestionably too, the French have always had an ear for the cool shit. Les Punks also spotlights the role of figures like Paris-based Marc Zermati, whose label Skydog fostered early links with New York and London scenes, and even released a seminal punk-before-punk document in the shape of Iggy and the Stooges’ chaotic live album Metallic KO.
But in 1976, France had no pioneering rock‘n’roll tradition of its own, and a fair bit of Les Punks veers towards the imitative. The French groups clearly adored the dandyish side of New York punk—and man, did they dig Iggy. Angel Face’s “Wolf City Blues” is pure Stooges yowl and growl, with lashings of Ron Asheton-style wah-wah, while Fantomes’ cover of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is too straight—a slavish, puppy-dog take on the original rather than a rabid leg-humper in its own right. Meanwhile, Dogs’ “Here Comes My Baby” and a couple of singles by Marie Et Les Garçons ably channel the more rocking NYC groups—the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, the Modern Lovers—with lots of enthusiasm but not much in the way of innovation.
Elsewhere, though, there’s evidence of young French groups carving out a distinctive local sound. Perhaps the quintessential French punk group is Métal Urbain, who made the bold move of swapping out live bass and drums for a synthesizer and drum machine. 1977’s “Paris Maquis” —which holds the honor of being the very first single ever to be released on Rough Trade Records—is a blast of caustic guitar and teeth-grinding rhythm box clatter that set a blueprint for future synth-punk groups (notably, Steve Albini’s Big Black). Unlike many of their peers, Métal Urbain sang in French—“So the Americans can’t understand us,” they told Search and Destroy in 1977. But even without much of a grasp of the language, you can get the gist of “Paris Maquis,” a tribute to the French Resistance fighters of World War 2: “La ville resiste terroriste… Fasciste!”
Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that French punk was post-punk at its inception—modish, intellectual, already finding ways to rewire punk’s familiar formulas. Charles De Goal, the solo project of one Patrick Blaine, contributes “Dance Le Labyrinthe,” an early example of the emergent cold wave sound powered by clip-clopping drum machines, spasms of electronic noise and vocals pitched at the brink of hysteria. “Mind,” by Nancy duo KaS Product, is turbulent electro-punk with a bravura performance from vocalist Mona Soyoc. Its take on mental instability and stifling social conformity may have been inspired by synth player Spatsz’s day job as a psychiatric nurse. And there’s a curiosity in the shape of the torrid, sexual “Sally,” by Gazoline—a band fronted by one Alain Kan, an androgynous, outwardly queer artist and addict who performed alongside Gainsbourg at the Alcazar Club before turning to punk rock. An enigma, he was last seen in 1990, taking a ride on the Paris Metro. His fate is unknown.
It’s worth giving another shout to Les Punks’ sleeve notes, a fat 50 pages of essays and interviews that supply precious context, plus extensive illustration from Bazooka—a “graphic commando” cell of radical French illustrators who, if you believe the rumors, boasted ties to the Baader-Meinhof gang. Track for track, there are compilations that cover French punk and post-punk with a better hit rate. The two volumes of Born Bad’s Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes lean further into the France’s homegrown coldwave and synthwave sound, and are better for it. But a snapshot of French punk’s first flush, Les Punks stands up. It’s the sort of time capsule that’s not quite ready to become a museum piece: loud and arrogant and ready to create a spectacle.