PETIT VACANT: PARIS, PROTEST
“Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.”
“It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.”
(Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)
No greater Situationist quote holds true than this one in relation to Punk. Musically and culturally Punk presented itself as a line in the sand, sticking a proletarian V-sign up at everything that had proceeded it whilst, ironically, drawing influence from a political movement that a decade before had emerged from the intelligencia of the Paris’ Left Bank and found expression in the petrol bombs and burning barricades of the Mayday riots that enveloped the French capital in 1968
Situationism was a radical political theory that was developed by the Situationist International between 1957 and its dissolution in 1972. It was influenced as much by the work of decadent writers such as De Sade, Baudelaire and Lautreamont or the Letterist and Surrealist art movements as it was more orthodox political concepts such as Marxist ‘alienation’. Put simply, the central tenet of Situationism was expounded its best-known theoretical work, The Society of The Spectacle. In this revolutionary manifesto by Guy Debord, published in 1967, he explores the idea that organic social relations have been replaced by ‘The Spectacle’ or a representation of life, mediated by the passive consuming of images of commodities. To subvert this process, The Situationists employed détournement, turning these representations of commodification on themselves as a “language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle.” For them detournement was an act of subversion, destroying the message of past and present cultural production whilst hijacking its impact to promote revolutionary aims.
Back in London two anarchist art students were taking notes and in 1976 put they them to use.
Like much of Malcolm McLaren’s life and claims there is doubt as to their veracity. McLaren claimed to have been on the frontline when the May 1968 student occupations joined forces with industrial wildcat strikes and rioting erupted into two months of rioting and civil unrest. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. Like Debord, McLaren was an unashamed plagiarist and appropriator of ideas and, more importantly, there can be no doubt he utilised much of what he had learnt through Situationism in both his fashion design and music management. What is also beyond dispute is that he had been involved with organising an occupation of Croydon Art College with his classmate and future colleague in subverting the establishment, Jamie Reid.
It is through Jamie Reid’s inspired graphic design that the link between punk and Situationism is most direct. In the early 1970s he designed Christopher Gray’s seminal Situationist text ‘Leaving The 20th Century’ (Free Fall Publications, 1974) and engaged in Situationist inspired pranks targeting ‘spectacles of consumerism’ such as covering supermarkets in stickers proclaiming ‘This Week Only – This Store Welcomes Shoplifters’ (itself echoing the May 1968 slogan ‘They buy your happiness. Steal it’) as well as founding the Situationist inspired agit-prop magazine Suburban Press where he developed his signature graphic style of cut-up images, ransom-note typography and subversive sloganeering.
(Original copy of first English Translation of Society of The Spectacle, Red & Black Press. 1970)
This is best exemplified by the iconic artwork he created for Sex Pistols record sleeves such as his detournements of the Cecil Beaton silver jubilee portrait of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose, the Belgian tourism brochure for ‘Holidays in The Sun’, the American Express card for the ‘Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ single and his recuperation of the Boredom/Nowhere buses, originally published in Suburban Press, on the reverse of the ‘Pretty Vacant’ cover. “L’ennui est contre-révolutionnaire” (Boredom is counter-revolutionary) being another Situationist slogan. Though, in time honoured Situationist ‘plagiarist’ tradition, it appears this image was ‘appropriated’ by Reid from a 1973 pamphlet by American Situationist group Point-Blank.
Someone who witnessed the Sex Pistols early on and was present from the inception of the Paris punk scene is self-styled ‘Last Chanteuse’ Anne Pigalle. Anne was one of the fortuitous few present (reputedly the audience numbered only 61!) when the Pistols played their first gig out of London in 1976, at the hip Chalet du Lac club in Bois du Vincennes: a night-time mecca for the Parisian demimonde with a Philippe Starck centre-piece mirror ball. She reflects on this night as a life-changing moment. “When punk first came to France that weekend everyone thought it was a British thing but when I spoke to Glen Matlock he said ‘No one country invented punk. It all happened at the same time’. That made me think I could be part of this too. That we all could!”
Anne is keen to elaborate on her idea of how it was inevitable punk would find popularity in Paris: “Cabaret emerged in 1881 and this original cabaret was a radical, political enterprise: anti-bourgoisie and anti-clergy. Nothing like the cheap mindless entertainment it became. And, of course, Marcel Duchamp’s last painting on canvas (Tu ‘m, 1918) had featured safety pins. We were ready and waiting for the sex Pistols and Punk! We saw it as a continuation of this radical French tradition and were supportive of punk in Paris, just as Hamburg was supportive of The Beatles”. Years later adopting Soho with its Huguenot history as her home, Anne continues to perform and provoke in London with Glen Matlock, the friend she made that weekend back in 1976 playing on her latest album, ‘Ecstase’.
Shortly after the Pistols trip and punk starting to make waves across the channel another art group emerged who enthusiastically engaged with the movement. The Bazooka Group was an anarchic, guerilla art collective who reported on the 1976 Mont de Marsan Punk Festival organised by Parisian Marc Zermati. They went on to design record covers for his seminal record label, Skydog, which released albums by punk-precursors Iggy Pop and MC5 even before ‘punk’ was acknowledged as a music scene. Their vibrant designs giving many of these acts a unique visual identity that served as a foil to the hegemony of Jamie Reid inspired cut-up ‘punk graphics’ but nevertheless led Malcolm McLaren to cite Bazooka as “influential” in a documentary on French punk years later: www.youtube.com/watch?v=64OQ6gIJhe4 .
In the UK Bazooka are remain best known for being invited by Stiff Records in-house designer Barney Bubbles to collaborate on the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces album and taking the graphic reigns for a 1979 issue of the NME music paper. From 1978 they also designed covers for Jean-Pierre Turmel’s Sordide Sentimental imprint which released beautifully packaged and now highly collectable records by Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Durutti Column, Tuxedomoon, Savage Republic, Red Krayola and provocative feminist photo montage artist Linda Sterling’s post-punk band Ludus.
Romain Slocombe is a name often associated with the Bazooka collective though, having for decades been an established artist and successful novelist in his own right, it is a connection he doesn’t care to promote, despite having been friends with the collective at art school in the early 1970s and sharing a flat with Bazooka founding member, Kiki Picasso.
Similarly, he refutes any direct or conscious link between Bazooka and Situationism: “At the time of the 1968 riots the Bazooka group were too young for any activity. Bazooka started from a group of young students at the Paris Beaux-Arts school, they wanted to do their own fanzine and called it “Bazooka”. The first issues were printed on an offset machine lent by a friend of Loulou Picasso in Rouen.”
(Original 1979 screenprinted poster by LouLou Picasso of Bazooka Group)
“Later they would parody political posters and take over leftist newspapers like Liberation but always got into confrontations with the journalists because they changed the layout and added images and texts ridiculing them. Un Regard Moderne was the name of the magazine they produced in 1978 at the request of Serge July, founder of Liberation newspaper. He did this in order to get rid of them and the nuisance they had become”.
This could of course be an example of the punk ‘DIY’ approach to the media. In an interview to mark the launch of the 2010 London Bazooka retrospective exhibition LouLou Picasso spoke of this period: “We made our début by creating fanzines, even printing them ourselves to reduce the cost. Then we found alternative publishers. But this seemed insufficient and frustrating to me. Bazooka’s turning point idea was that of annexing territory, using the existing press as a field of experimentation, depicting the news from within this news media” During this patronage by Liberation they, in true chaotic punk spirit, chose to “y foutre la merde” (wreak havoc there) leading to their ousting after only five issues.
Similarly, whilst this could arguably be regarded as quintessential detournement it also belongs to the ‘Buffo’ tradition of Situationist inspired ‘Anarchic Buffoonery’. Political pranks and subversion of advertising images championed by the American Yippie movement, contemporaries of the Situationists. As well as being redolent of the early ‘80s stencil art of Blek Le Rat (to whose work Banksy owes immense credit) and the various subversive hoaxes targeting political and cultural ‘spectacles’ such as the marriage industry and the Maldives conflict with which anarcho-punk act Crass duly duped the establishment, ‘Buffo’ also embraced the slap-stick of “pie-ing” reactionary political figures. Something we witnessed a revival of only this year as extreme right agitators figures fell victim to a craze of al fresco milkshake face-washes.
However Bazooka weren’t the only French influence on the development of punk world-wide. Claude ‘Kickboy Face’ Bessy co-edited the legendary Los Angeles monthly punk mag Slash from 1977 until it ceased publication in 1980 and sung for art-punk act Catholic Discipline. Slash documented the emerging LA Hardcore scene and is profiled in Penelope Speeris’ classic documentary ‘the Decline of Western Civilisation’ alongside a number of the early USxHC (US Hardcore) acts: The Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and the Circle Jerks. More significantly, Bessy claimed that it was him who persuaded McLaren to refer to the nascent movement the Pistols pioneered as “punk” (acknowledging the irreverent New York music mag of the same name that championed The Ramones and other CBGBs bands) rather than “new wave” as the Pistols manager initially preferred. In 1980 Bessy left California for London where he worked as a press officer for Rough Trade before becoming the Video DJ at Tony Wilson’s Hacienda Club in Manchester. Wilson himself was a University friend of Situationist International member Christopher Gray and referenced Situationism on much of his work with Factory Records.
In fact, there is a case to be made for the punk scene in France even pre-dating it’s emergence in the UK. In 1972 French music journalist Yves “Sweet Punk” Adrien published an article evangelising the high-octane energy of bands like the Stooges, MC5 and the Flamin’ Groovies. All acts who had been released on the Parisian Skydog label. In the same year Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band compiled the Nuggets compilation album which introduced the world to garage rock.
An interesting side-note to this is that Patti Smith was herself a devotee of the French decadent poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, with the B-side of her first single, ‘Hey Joe’ c/w ‘Piss Factory’ even homaging Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’. To make a further connection, it is long standing in punk mythology that Malcolm McLaren encouraged Johnny Rotten to adopt the held-together-with-safety-pins poverty chic of Voidoids frontman Richard Hell. Hell had previously played with future Television frontman and former partner of Patti Smith, Thomas Miller. Upon moving to New York and becoming involved with the proto-punk scene Miller went on to adopt the name of the reinvent himself as Tom Verlaine, continuing the love affair between New York’s mid ‘70s Lower East Side musicians, and artists and 19th century French Symbolists, decadents and writers.
Back across the Atlantic in Paris, the ‘Nuggets’ album was sold at Skydog boss Marc Zermati’s record store, L’Open Market, where it was avidly snapped up by young Parisians hungry for the back-to-basics Rock’n’Roll it’s vinyl grooves contained. Around this time an underground subculture of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed fans also emerged calling themselves Les Punks. Their distinctive dress displayed many of the characteristics that would, years later, come to be regarded as quintessential punk fashion: bleached hair, skin-tight leather trousers and jackets accessorised with studs, chains and Nazi insignia.
With the ‘mode’ already established all the Parisian Punk movement required was bands to propel its momentum. The first French punk release (and probably the first punk record sung in any language outwith English) was The Stinky Toys ‘Boozy Creed’ 7” (Polydor, 1977). No doubt following an encounter with McLaren at the Pistols’ Chalet du Lac gig, the band had already played alongside the cream of punk’s first wave: The Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Subway Sect, The Buzzcocks and The Vibrators at the legendary 100 Club Punk Festival in Sept 1976.
(Bazooka French Punk NME)
At this time the music industry was hysterically scrambling to sign up any band with the right vertically teased hair and raw, angry sound but it is significant that it was a major label, Polydor, rather than an independent, that rushed to sign and release the debut by this new and relatively jejune French act.
The song’s opening lines: “Have no religion/Need no God” are every bit as incendiary as those of the Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK: ‘I am an anti-christ/I am an anarchist’ – in fact, even more so in their heretical nihilism. These lyrics also have an antecedent in the Situationist inspired riots of 1968. One of the celebrated slogans painted on a wall of the Sorbonne that May read: “Même si Dieu existait il faudrait le supprimer” translating as: “Even if God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him” paraphrasing the Russian Revolutionary Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. This quote itself is a reversal of Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s maxim: Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
The music of ‘Boozy Creed’ also marks a departure from the ‘Punk ROCK’ template of amphetamine charged rhythm and blues most UK punk acts were still stuck in, replacing the masculine pub rock sound and Ramones inspired guitar fuzz with a more angular, atonal approach not dissimilar to The Slits, Raincoats, Essential Logic and, across the water, early Talking Heads or the No Wave acts who would emerge from New York lofts a year or two later. www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1qC3TISWJk
The other band regarded as pioneering punk in France were even more insurrectionary and iconoclastic in their sound and approach. What they introduced was Punk Rock fully divested of any Rock & Roll in the orthodox understanding of the term. Formed in 1976, reputedly as much influenced by Lou Reed’s avant garde ‘Metal Machine Music’ as The
Pistols and The Clash (with, one can be assured, Suicide added to the sonic cauldron) , Metal Urbain hold the honour of ‘Panik’, their first single, being the first ever release on the newly established Rough Trade record label. It’s use of a primitive drum machine combined with abrasive, distorted guitar (honed to further incendiary effect on their follow-up single ‘Paris Maquis’) foreshadowed the harsh marriage of ‘traditional instruments’ and electronics on releases as such as Cabaret Voltaire ‘Nag, Nag, Nag’, Throbbing Gristle ‘Zyclon B Zombie’, Come ‘Come Sunday’ and ‘Contact’ by SPK. From these records, and in turn from Metal Urbain, a bloodline can be drawn to the punishing sounds of Big Black and Godflesh a decade later and much of what passes for ‘Industrial’ – not to mention ‘Electro Punk’ – today.
Interestingly, the stark and brutal looking image of an inverted Eiffel Tower on the cover of ‘Paris Maquis’ could, of course, be viewed through the lens of Situationist ‘Psychogeography’. Defined by Guy Debord as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals” this striking visual portrays this most symbolic of French of landmarks as alien and threatening. www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B2GpPmzUCA
As French punk entered the 1980s artists continued the Situationist tradition. Lizzy Mercier Descloux, herself a protagonist in the early days of the Paris punk scene and founder of the French New wave magazine ‘Rock News’, subverted pop music by injecting it with a spiky energy and attitude through her recordings on seminal New York ‘punk funk’ label Ze Records: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEDDK0XLGfw
While, though following a more traditional ‘street-punk’ musical approach, fellow Parisians, Beurier Noir (much like CCCP in Italy) incorporated elements of Dada and absurdist theatre into their stage show to further convey their anti-establishment message: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpH0gre8AQw
Whether punk ‘started’ in Paris or London shouldn’t be what matters. What counts and what no one can deny is that for several years a subcultural undercurrent was rising under the streets in all these cities and in 1976 it started to emerge, lifting a wave of alienated, adventurous youth with it. The Situationists may have declared “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (Under the pavement there’s a beach!) But for many punk represented that beach and the hope and freedom it represented. They may not all have played in bands, produced fanzines, made their own clothes or even have heard of Situationism but whichever capital they called home there is a slogan that was painted on walls in Paris in May 1968 and later worn across the chest of an art student from London that embodied the cultural revolution punk symbolised and they embraced, consciously or not, in Paris, London or whatever city they felt its call. This slogan still provides an inspirational mantra for every disaffected kid, wherever they are in the world, who discovers the liberation and empowerment punk can fill their lives with today.
Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible (Be realistic, demand the impossible)
Many thanks to Chris Low for this article.
Chris Low, Sept 2019 Instagram @chris__low
Interviews with Anne Pigalle and Romain Slocombe conducted by Chris Low, Sept 2019. www.annepigalle.com / www.facebook.com/romain.slocombe
With thanks to Xavier of Timeless Editions who has published books by LouLou Picasso, Romain Slocombe and many more: www.timelessedition.com/publications
About the author:
Chris Low first discovered punk in the late 1970s. He soon started going to gigs and at the age of eleven embraced the emerging band and zine scene that would come to be known as ‘anarcho punk’, publishing three issues of the fanzine, Guilty of What? and taking up drumming. Since the early 1980s he has played, recorded and toured with legendary acts including Political Asylum, The Apostles, Oi Polloi, The Parkinsons, Quango and Part1. Following a career as a techno DJ and club runner in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s he continues to DJ throughout Japan, America & Europe, playing sets of dancefloor-friendly post-punk. He has written regularly for Vice magazine amongst other publications and has contributed to several books on the punk movement. In August 2016 an exhibition of his photography documenting five years immersed in the Tokyo punk scene entitled “Up Yours! Tokyo Punk” was held at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch, London followed by further exhibitions in Japan, America, Mexico, London and most recently together with Jon Savage in Liverpool. His work is featured as a guest gallery on the site of renowned photographer and street-style anthropologist, Ted Polhemus and he has recently designed record covers and graphics for Fucked Up, Rema Rema and others. Chris is currently working on an anarcho-themed compilation album for the renowned Glasgow Optimo label, a revised and expanded edition of his Tokyo punk photo-book and another book compiling youth culture and street style photos taken around London, Los Angeles and Tokyo scheduled for 2020.