Vive Le Punk

Everyone on this side of La Manche appears to have forgotten the Gallic year-zero punks - apart from Kieron Tyler, that is, who reckons that the role of Métal Urbain and their confreres in punk rock history has been unjustly neglected.

Back in 1976, as Brit-punk was beginning to seep into the media, it seemed as though France might become just as vital musically. 

The seeds were certainly there. A bull ring at Mont de Marsan in the south of France saw the first European Punk Rock Festival on 21 August 1976. Playing their fifth gig, The Damned were joined by French bands Bijou, Il Biaritz and Shakin’ Street. In early September, The Sex Pistols – a month before signing with EMI and two months prior to the release of Anarchy In The UK – played a disco in Paris’ Bois De Vincennes. When England eventually got round to holding its own Punk Rock Festival at London’s 100 Club on 21 September, Parisians Stinky Toys took the stage with Buzzcocks and The Damned.
Everyone on this side of La Manche appears to have forgotten these Gallic year-zero punks and the symbiotic relationship with their UK cousins. But over in France, it’s different. The first sign was the publication of ‘Nos Années Punk’ in 2002. Christian Eudeline’s doorstep-sized book covered the stories of Bijou, Stinky Toys, token Belgian buffoon Plastic Bertrand, Métal Urbain, and more. The CD accompanying the book was a spiffy reminder that bands like Guilty Razors and Gazoline were as good as anything thrown up by the King’s Road. Then, a revelatory double CD compiled everything recorded by Parisian noise merchants Métal Urbain.
So what happened? Despite having the right connections at the right moment, virtually none of these bands had an impact outside France. Based on his eye-witness experience, The Damned’s Rat Scabies suspects he knows why French punk couldn’t break through: “They were all into the right things, but didn’t really know how to live it. They were really into the Flamin’ Groovies, Keith Richard and every outlaw image, but had no outlaws of their own.”
Rat suggests that punk was too radical for French performers, especially those looking for mainstream impact. “When the French are entertainers it was something flippant and not very valuable or worth having. The French were always more politically astute than the English, it was unhip to play for money. The French had real anarchists, whereas in England I don’t think people knew what anarchy was. Also, there wasn’t really a breeding ground. There wasn’t a circuit, in England we were lucky. We never did clubs over there, it was old slaughterhouses that were converted – or the bull ring.”
Of all the bands thrown up by France 1976, only one managed to successfully fuse punk’s anger to an appropriately confrontational music. “Métal Urbain were a different story,” says Rat. “They actually kicked everyone’s arse.”
Métal Urbain weren’t messing around. Their harsh mixture of wall-of-scree guitar, primitive drum machine, raspy synthesiser and declamatory vocals wasn’t for the delicate. While songs like Lady Coca Cola and Pop Poubelle attacked sheep-like fashion victims, Ghetto, Panik and Ultra Violence brutally shouted Métal Urbain’s gripes: hate-filled war mongers, the aggressive and oppressive atmosphere of the city. If Métal Urbain had a delicate side it was well hidden.
Indeed, Métal Urbain’s antipathy wasn’t limited to their music. “We already had contacts in England when Stinky Toys played the 100 Club,” remembers their synth player Eric Débris. “We didn’t like them and thought they shouldn’t be there, that English people would get the wrong opinion about French punk rock. Stinky Toys were a copycat group posing as an English group, singing in English, playing basic rock, Keith Richard stuff. It wasn’t really new, but they had more connections.”
After forming in summer 1976, Métal Urbain were determined not to compromise. “We decided to write in French,” explains Eric. “There was no influence from French music. We tried to do something not resembling anyone, we started playing around with electronics and guitars in 1975. We wanted to play the music we couldn’t hear on the radio – something was missing.”
But finding an audience was difficult. After debuting at Paris’ Golf Drouot on 6 December 1976 to an audience of long-hairs intent on beating them up, Métal Urbain found they could only play venues they’d hired. The Golf Drouot was the spiritual home of French rock ‘n’ roll. At the corner of Boulevard Montmartre and Rue Drouot, the night club/mini-golf venue had sprung to attention after Johnny Hallyday and his crowd began hanging out there in 1958. It was hardly the right setting for icon busters like Métal Urbain. “We had only three clubs in Paris,” recalls Eric. “We tried to tour and it was impossible. We would have three, four dates, then it would collapse. Rock wasn’t taken seriously in France at the time. We had to play England.”
While in London to play the Roxy and Vortex during November 1977, Métal Urbain wandered into Rough Trade to check out the shop that had been selling their self-issued single Panik. They were instantly offered the chance to record another single and Paris Maquis duly became the first release on the new Rough Trade label. After a Peel session and a show at the 100 Club, Métal Urbain returned to a Paris just coming to terms with punk. A March 1978 residency at Le Gibus was followed by an appearance at the legendary Olympia Theatre’s ‘La Nuit Punk’. Although everything seemed to be going well – a third single, Hystérie Connective, was released by the UK indie Radar – singer Clode Panik left and the band played its last show in December 1978. The band mutated, first into The Metal Boys and then Dr Mix and the Remix, but the spirit of French punk would always be defined by the pioneering Métal Urbain.
Eric welcomes the reappraisals. “Nos Années Punk’ helped a lot because there wasn’t anything written about that period,” he says. “Also, a lot of people who are now in charge of the music industry and advertising were around during that period. It’s the music they grew up with. Now they can say that music was good.”
© Kieron Tyler
‘Nos Années Punk’ by Christian Eudeline (Editions Denoël)
‘Nos Années Punk 1977 1980’ (Capitol Records)
‘Métal Urbain - Chef D’Oeuvre’ (Seventeen).
‘Les Plus Grands Succès Du Punk’ (Skydog)
‘Les Plus Grands Succès Du Punk II’(Skydog)
The four-CD set ‘Punk En France’ (Remedy Records), although cheap and including some vintage gems, should be treated cautiously, as it has no annotation and includes too much 80s/90s French ska and quirkily irritating new wave. See fnac.fr or amazon.fr