This appeared in the April-May 2008 issue of Flux magazine (issue 64, PP. 36-37)
Sexy Eiffel Towers
Don’t laugh, but France played a crucial part in shaping the punk rock template (and I’m not talking about that Belgian comedy act Plastic Bertrand). Richard Hell’s wasted look, spiky hair and blank ethos were modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Pistols camp were largely culled from the (largely French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it “new wave” in homage to the nouvelle vague — a monicker that ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers.
According to one school of thought, French punk even predated its British counterpart. In 1972, dandy rock critic Yves “Sweet Punk” Adrien penned a seminal article in which he praised the primal energy of bands like the Stooges, MC5 or Flamin’ Groovies and castigated the sonic self-abuse of so-called progressive musicians. This manifesto was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s massively influential Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop. Not content with providing a blueprint for London’s Rough Trade, Zermati was also responsible for the very first punk label (Skydog Records, 1973) and festival (Mont de Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (Chrissa in Go Now, Richard Hell’s novel) launched a rival emporium within gobbing distance, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Gallic punk activity. Like Covent Garden (home to the Roxy Club), the area was undergoing extensive refurbishment. Zola’s gutted “Belly of Paris” was about to spew up a Ballardian shopping complex and a futuristic modern art museum that would provide an ideal, dystopian backdrop to the new subculture as well as to the exhibition which, for the first time, charts its legacy.
Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes (“Modern Young Things”), hosted by fashion designer agnès b.’s Galerie du Jour, covers the post-punk period between 1978 and 1983. The title alludes to a label coined by trendy magazine Actuel in 1980 to describe a short-lived local scene — revolving around nightclub Le Rose Bonbon and bands such as Suicide Romeo or Modern Guy — that was unashamedly incestuous and elitist. Curator Jean-François Sanz is eager to explain that the reference is simply an “excuse” to gauge the far wider cultural fallout from the 1977 explosion. Like New York’s No Wave, this was indeed a fully-fledged cultural revolution involving artists, writers, filmmakers and fashionistas as well as musicians.
Dominique Fury — once described as the Parisian Edie Sedgwick — embodied the restless creative spirit of the times. After leaving all-girl combo L. U. V., she joined the Bazooka collective (arguably the most influential punk artists this side of Jamie Reid) having been attracted by the “sheer intensity of their graphic production”. By 1980, she was producing her famous line of signed, one-off “geometric cold wave” T-shirts-cum-artworks for agnès b. and experimenting with industrial fabrics. Tristam Dequatremare, the former lead singer with Guilty Razors who likewise graduated to the art fraternity, sees this exhibition as a means of putting the record straight. “The revival of figurative painting started here in France,” he says, lamenting the fact that the likes of the Musulmans Fumants (the group to which he belonged) or the Frères Ripoulin (which included several members of art-punk outfit Lucrate Milk) have been airbrushed out of international contemporary art history.
The exhibition itself is complemented by a book, a double CD compilation as well as a documentary which reflect the movement’s inherently multimedia nature and exuberant originality. The album contains the cream of the local post-punk crop (Marquis de Sade, Taxi Girl, Elli & Jacno, Etienne Daho, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Marie et les Garçons…) but also a few covers by contemporary bands who take their inspiration from this period. This is a nice touch as one is left with a distinct sense of unfulfilled promise. The early cultural maelstrom gradually gave way to a more somber mood as the Socialist government’s policies failed and AIDS started taking its toll. As Fury puts it, “Death was disco-dancing beneath the plush red velvet of Le Palace nightclub”.
Des Jeunes Gens Mödernes runs from 3 April until 17 May at the Galerie du Jour agnès b. (44 Rue Quincampoix, 75004 Paris).