The Young Parisians

This appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Nude Magazine (issue 16, pp. 40-43):

The Young Parisians

Why don’t you come to Paris with me?
And see the young Parisians’
– “Young Parisians” by Adam and the Ants

‘There’s something very un-British about electronic music,’ says Daniel Miller — founder of Mute Records — in BBC Four’s excellent Synth Britannia documentary. By ‘very un-British’ he means très European — German, of course, but also French. Lest we forget, musique concrète composers like Pierre Schaeffer began their sonic experiments before Stockhausen. Most Continentals in the late 70s were first introduced to synthesizers via Jean-Michel Jarre not Kraftwerk. Métal Urbain — France’s answer to the Sex Pistols — produced their scuzzy rabble-rousing pogobeat on custom-made imitation Moogs at a time when electronic instruments were still usually associated with prog rock dinosaurs. The strong French presence on Angular Records’ recent Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics compilation was generally met with dismay by British music journalists who were blissfully unaware of the existence of a thriving post-punk scene across the Channel (Indochine, a synthpop outfit in the Depeche mode, even became France’s biggest band at one point). Whereas Gallic guitar combos have always been viewed — rightly or wrongly — as derivative vis-à-vis their Anglo-American counterparts, the synth-driven ‘French Touch’ sound was successfully exported ‘around the world’ at the turn of the century. The missing link between the early 80s and late 90s was Denis Quillard, better known as Jacno, who died in November last year at the age of 52 having cemented his country’s love affair with electronic minimalism.

There are times when the past, present and future seem to collide, and one such occasion occured on 9 February 1977 when Jacno’s band, the Stinky Toys, were invited to a music press junket aboard the eponymous Trans Europe Express coinciding with the release of Kraftwerk’s album. Having a reputation to maintain as the enfants terribles of the local punk scene, the Toys went off the rails, much to the amusement of their more sedate German hosts. Legend has it that singer Elli Medeiros was sick all over the boss of EMI France, who subsequently refused to sign the band to his label and even tried to get them blacklisted. Jacno, however, had caught a glimpse of his musical future. As fate would have it, the train was bound for the Champagne region where he was buried some thirty years later in the vicinity of his family’s impressive country pile.

With his angelic features and slicked-back hair, the young Jacno bore a striking resemblance to David Bowie circa 1976. Throughout his short life he felt like a man who had fallen to earth, often describing himself as a ‘Martian’. Significantly, one of his more recent solo efforts was entitled ‘Je viens d’ailleurs’: ‘I Come From Elsewhere’. There was something of the Byronic noble bandit about him, which — along with a deep-rooted anglophobia — was in fact very much part of his vieille France DNA. The Stinky Toys’ tipple of choice was famously one of the cheapest brands of lager on the French market (Valstar), but Jacno soon reverted to type after the band broke up, making a point of only ever getting rat-arsed on the finest of vintages. In the early days, he always sported a fleur-de-lis on the lapel of his leather jacket — a symbol of the French monarchy frequently associated with the far right. This gesture was interpreted at the time as a typically punk shock tactic, but it was really Jacno’s private homage to his eccentric royalist grandfather from whom he inherited an aristocratic disdain for work and a militant nonconformism which set him aside from the herd mentality of a movement he never really belonged to. His ancestry also included several artists whose works are exhibited in the Louvre as well as one of the four generals who organised the failed Algiers putsch of 1961 designed to overthrow President de Gaulle. When his record company refused to bring out his first solo record or release him from his contract, Jacno sent the CEO a picture of old Uncle Zeller with a caption warning him that his factory was going to be blown up. Job done.

This quintessentially Gallic mixture of rebellion and tradition explains why Jacno is so often lost in translation. He belongs to a long line of elegantly wasted rock dandies that includes the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, Yves Adrien, Alain Pacadis, Patrick Eudeline and Daniel Darc (a book of interviews, published in 2006, was aptly entitled Itinerary of a Pop Dandy). Just as Jacno himself embodied early-80s ultra-modernity while whizzing around town on a vintage scooter looking like he had just stepped out of a Nouvelle Vague movie, his post-Stinky Toys compositions managed to capture the zeitgeist while harking back, in a knowing, postmodern way, to the saccharine yéyé pop of the early 60s. The repetitive, almost dirge-like minimalism of ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ (1979) — with its haunting, bittersweet Françoise Hardy-on-Prozac quality — perfectly illustrates this attempt to have your croissant and eat it. Whether in the past or the future, Jacno, it seems, was always elsewhere.

Along with New York and London, Paris was one of the three great centres of pre-punk activity, and France played an important part in shaping the punk template. Richard Hell’s spiky-haired wasted look was modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Sex Pistols project came largely from the (chiefly French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, the late Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it ‘New Wave’ in reference to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague — a monicker which ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers. As early as 1972, dandy rock critic Yves ‘Sweet Punk’ Adrien (as he already called himself) penned a proto-punk manifesto which was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s seminal Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop where Jacno and all the future Parisian punks used to hang out. Zermati would go on to launch the very first punk label (Skydog Records) and festival (Mont-de-Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his then partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (who would also play a pivotal role in New York’s No Wave scene) launched a rival emporium (Harry Cover) within gobbing distance of L’Open Market, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Parisian punk activity. It was there that Malcolm McLaren bumped into the Stinky Toys, was impressed by Elli’s creative use of safety pins, and invited the band to take part in the 100 Club punk festival where their presence gave an international dimension to the nascent movement.

Chain-smoking Jacno — whose soubriquet was a tribute to the designer of the Gauloises cigarettes logo — had met Uruguayan beauty Elli Medeiros during a student demonstration in 1973. With three schoolmates, they formed the Stinky Toys in early 76. The name was a reference to the Dinky Toys Jacno collected (he holds a model car on his first solo record) as well as to the New York Dolls. The 100 Club punk festival, where they played on the Clash’s equipment and were attacked by Sid Vicious, was their first real breakthrough. Elli subsequently made the cover of Melody Maker and record companies started showing interest. After signing to Polydor, they released a single in spring 1977 which received very mixed reviews. Their debut album, recorded in a mere five days in October, sold as many (or rather as few) copies as the Velvet Underground’s, as Jacno liked to point out. The band were dropped by their record company, releasing their second album — a colder, resolutely post-punk affair — on Vogue the following year. Torn between increasingly irreconcilable influences, the Toys disbanded shortly after an Altamont-style gig during which a fan was killed by rampaging Hell’s Angels.

So what had gone wrong with the local punk scene? Pretty much everything. The early bands suffered from the fact that rock’n’roll still wasn’t rooted in French culture. Rehearsal spaces were hard to come by and, apart from Le Gibus (where the Stinky Toys always refused to play), there were precious few gigging opportunities. As a result, the level of musicianship was often appalling, even by punk standards. Meanwhile, the provocative flirtation with Nazi imagery in some quarters didn’t go down well in a country which was still coming to terms with the Occupation. Punk’s anti-hippie stance also appeared a trifle superfluous given the enduring stigma attached to long hair. More crucially, the movement lacked any genuine social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of junkies, socialites and fashionistas on loan from the local gay bars was unlikely to threaten the status quo. Essentially, this was a scene in search of an audience.

France’s pre-punk promise was only really fulfilled during the post-punk years. This is when Jacno finally came into his own. He had, of course, already achieved minor cult status as a member of the Stinky Toys. He had been courted by Andy Warhol, who famously painted his portrait on a restaurant tablecloth using a make-up kit, and there were persistent rumours that the French lyrics added to Blondie’s version of ‘Denis’ (Jacno’s real name) were in fact addressed to him. In 1980, he became the figurehead of the Jeunes Gens Modernes (‘Modern Young Things’), a label invented by Actuel magazine to refer to the rather elitist, very fashion-conscious post-punk scene revolving around clubs like Le Rose Bonbon (where Joy Division played). That year, Jacno recorded several electronic instrumentals with titles like ‘Rectangle,’ ‘Triangle’ and ‘Circle’ that seemed to conjure up unfamiliar Structuralist soundscapes. All the major record companies declared that releasing the 12-inch would be commercial suicide, so it eventually came out on a tiny indie label. Contrary to all expectations, the title track (‘Rectangle’) became an overnight success all over Europe, topping the French charts and ending up on a TV commercial for Nesquick. The music provided the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas’s first short film (Copyright) in which Elli Medeiros made her debut performance as an actress. Assayas also shot a video for ‘Rectangle’ which shows Jacno playing against the suitably angular, brutalist background of the La Défense area of Paris. The only track on the record that wasn’t an instrumental — the aforementioned ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ — was sung by Elli. It marked the beginning of Elli & Jacno who provided a blueprint for countless other synth-based duos like Soft Cell and Yazoo, and sold millions of records until they split up in 1984 having written the soundtrack to Eric Rohmer’s Les Nuits de la pleine lune.

Elli would go on to have a couple of massive solo hits in 86-87 before concentrating on her acting career and family life. She made a musical comeback in 2006. Jacno, meanwhile, released six solo albums and produced work by some of France’s greatest stars like Jacques Higelin or Etienne Daho, an early fan of the Stinky Toys. He will always be remembered, however, as the New Wave Erik Satie whose elegant electronic minuets (as Rohmer once described them) seemed to capture the essence of our adolescence. ‘True life,’ as Rimbaud once put it, ‘is elsewhere.’ That is, as ever, where Jacno is to be found.

****

Ten of the best first wave punk bands from over the Channel

Métal Urbain
Think Sex Pistols crossed with Suicide or Throbbing Gristle — or both. Hardcore political lyrics. Their second single was Rough Trade’s first release. Best track: ‘Panik’.

Asphalt Jungle
Fronted by dandy rock critic-cum-novelist Patrick Eudeline. Talked the talk but seldom walked the walk except on their third single, ‘Polly Magoo,’ which sounds like a gang of inebriated football hooligans rutting with Phil Spector. In a good way.

Starshooter
They hailed from Lyon, played a mean live set, had a sense of humour and were solidly working class unlike most of their bourgeois contemporaries. Good mates with the Damned. Listen to: ‘Macho’.

Marie et les Garçons
Also from Lyon. Heavily influenced by the NYC scene at first, then experimented with a disco crossover thang. Second single produced by John Cale. They had a female drummer (the eponymous Marie) who died in the 90s. Top track: ‘Re-Bop’.

Guilty Razors
Famous for singing in pigeon English (‘Provocate,’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’!). Two of their members were of Spanish origin. They were very close to the Slits. Check out: ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’.

Gazoline
Having been a failed teenybop heartthrob in the 60s, a failed glam rock star in the early 70s and a successful gay cabaret artist, Alain Kan reinvented himself as a punk rocker. His band was named after a group of militant drag queens from the early gay liberation days. Kan disappeared in 1990; no one has seen or heard from him since. Gazoline’s second single is arguably one of the most convincing punk records to ever come out of France. Best track: ‘Radio flic’.

Les Olivensteins
Started later than most of the others and paved the way for the hardcore of the early 80s (Oberkampf, Bérurier Noir et al.). One of their most provocative lyrics described the Vichy regime as the good old days. Their name came from a psychiatrist famous for his anti-drugs crusade. Like Sham 69, they ended up attracting the wrong element and split up. Top track: ‘Fier de ne rien faire’.

1984
On paper, a kind of dystopian Clash but never fulfilled their promise. Listen to: ‘Salted City’.

Les Lou’s
All-girl band managed at one stage by Bernie Rhodes. Highlight: ‘Back on the Street’.

Electric Callas
A flamboyant Bowie/Iggy fanatic from Lyon backed by a dizzying array of line-up changes. Check out: ‘Kill Me Two Times’.