My first experience with French rock & roll was seeing the band Shakin’ Street open up for Black Sabbath in 1980. Led by a leather-clad madamoissele, they sounded more like a dull hard rock band than the Flamin’ Groovies, the band that inspired their name. A few years later, I happened upon their only US release and promptly traded it for a Vandals album or something just as worthless.
Sometime in the late 80s, I stumbled on the first two albums by Telephone, France’s “biggest” contribution to punk rock. Though Telephone existed until the 1990s, it is their first two full-lengths, Telephone (1977) and Crache Ton Venin (1979), that made their name. At a time when bands all over the globe were told that in order to make it in pop music, they had to do what Abba did and sing in English, Telephone were one the first major French rock and roll bands since the 1960s to not only write lyrics in their native language but also focus the words on teen frustration and protest politics. To the French, Telephone was and is a big deal. To me they sucked. Instead of raw, blown out guitars and buzz saw anger, I heard fey-rockin,’ power-poppish fop.
Based on two bands - Shakin’ Street and Telephone - I had determined that the French had nothing to contribute to rock and roll. Of course, this assessment was not only premature and made with little research, it was also dumb. Had I dug around or had some input by some French music fan, I’d have known better. But the only Francophiles I knew were into Edith Piaf and the Cocteau Twins, the former because she defined French music for so long (but is irrelevant when it comes to rock and roll), the later because, though they are English, the Cocteau Twins are named after a French actor/writer. There was no where in Sacramento where I could have found Metal Urbain records, not to mention vinyl by Strychnine, Ox, the Dogs, Guilty Razors, or the dozens of other standouts of late 70s French punk. I really was in the dark about France’s un - deux - trios - quatre.
Then sometime in the 90s, Ryan Wells turned me on to the Crash Normal 7” on Royal Records. There had been a flurry of French punk records at the time - stuff by Steve & the Jerks, the No-Talents, & the Splash 4 - but I was still operating on the theory that the French couldn’t play rock and roll so I ignored them. The Crash Normal record changed that. It is not your basic garage punk record. It is raw and primitive, yes, but the songs charge into walls and come away mangled, only to rush into another wall and open a new wound. The guitars sound like crap (or as my friend Vinz would say “pourriture”), like something is going wrong - but it all works. I bought and traded for as many copies of that 7” I could find.
Among a batch of Crash Normal 7”s, Jack at Royal Records slipped in Lili Z’s first 7”, a primitive bedroom punk classic. He also informed me that there was a Crash Normal / Splash 4 split coming out. When it was released, I gobbled that one up, too. The Crash Normal side was more of the mutant music I expected. And the Splash 4 stuff wasn’t the garage stuff I thought it would be. It was a bit better. Recently I found out that this last Splash 4 release was pretty much the beginning of Volt, a fact that explains the sound. Also in a Royal Records package was Blutt’s "Bing Bang Boum (Bam)" 7”, a perfect record in meshing 60s, 70s, and 80s punk and making it sound today.
Jump forward in the grooves and Woodhouse and I are in Seattle recording the A Frames. We are all wasted and Erin or Min tell me I should put out a compilation LP. I say sure and we start writing down band names on a napkin. Two of the names are Crash Normal and Blutt. I go back to Sacramento, tell my label partner Sakura Saunders the idea, and start to contact the bands.
Crash Normal is the first to reply and they send a CDR they called Heavy Listening. Sakura and I listen to it. It sounds like the Metro ran into a record store. Garage punk gets looped and funky and then fucked up. And the more we listen to it, the harder it is to find the one song for the Babyhead comp. So we say “fuck it” and decide to put the thing out as a full-length. Heavy Listening comes out; Babyhead comes out. We sell a few: End of story. Wrong.
Early March, on my 40th birthday, I am standing in a ratty French bar called Le Gambetta Club. The floor slopes, there is a tarp stapled to the ceiling, the power shuts on and off, and there is no toilet paper in the bathroom so I have to wipe my ass with a US dollar (which, considering its value in comparison to the euro, is not a waste of money). I meet Jerome, Vinz, Seb, and Delph of Crash Normal. They look…well…French. We exchange pleasantries. My girlfriend, Susan, and I bitch about the US.
I meet Pascal, the guy putting on the show. He looks French, too. I bitch about the US. Later I meet Jack of Royal Records and Volt and Lili Z. They both look French and I bitch about the US.
There is a connection between looking French and bitching about the US. I will try to explain. One of the first thing you notice about Paris is style. When I write style, I do not mean fashion. I am referring to how Parisians go about things, how they carry themselves. In America, style is something that is obviously obsessed over. Style is worried about. Style is something that is deadly serious and it shows. Even those who reject style, do so with so much violence that their anti-style becomes a style.
The French also concern themselves with style. I mean they are too goddamn stylish not to. But that style is something that seems to come so effortlessly that I would hasten to say it is natural, that it is internalized. Perhaps it seems so natural because it is everywhere. I do not mean that there are women on every street corner decked out in the latest fashion trends. No, the feeling is more that there is a way things are done.
Once you put on your clothes and walk out the door, there is no need to fuss or to look at yourself in a mirror or to make sure people are looking at you. French women carry themselves with beauty. Even the plainest French woman walks with the cool of beauty. They do not strut. They do not pimp themselves. Their beauty is part of their confidence and their confidence part of their beauty.
With French men - even the grubs in Le Gambetta - it is the same. Not the beauty, but the matter-of-factness. They aren’t the suits on the Metro or all the shaven head dudes trolling the Marias but they have this knowing cool, a sense of self that dictates that there is more to life than money and status. That is not to say that the French don’t hold on to notions of wealth and class, nor that there are no striving, back stabbing, greedy fucks in Paris. But some things come first: Greeting friends properly, exchanging salutations with folks you do business with, holding doors for people, etc.
This is fucking crazy. I mean I am expounding on the virtues of manners. But you experience it for a while after being in an increasingly hostile, frantic, and arrogant America and you will find that it is…uhhh….civilized. Of course, the same manners the Parisians practice are expected from you, foreign or not, so you damn well better learn “Bonjour” and “Merci,” as well as “Ou sont les toilettes?” (Where is the bathroom?) and “Je cherche des disques bizarre” (I am looking for obscure records).
This manners thing translates in ways you would never expect. When you are in a store, clerks don’t follow you around or hound you. When you sit at a café, no one bugs you or makes you feel as if it is time to go. When you are out to dinner with friends, you can take your sweet ass time eating and then sit around and bullshit for an hour without a fucking waiter pressuring you to leave.
No one gives a shit if you smoke or accuses you of killing them with second-hand smoke. You go into a record store and the losers behind the counter aren’t fighting over if Nick Drake ripped off of Gram Parsons. Even the bad food tastes good. And you can walk down a strange street at 1 am and not feel afraid.
All of these things lead you to tell your hosts how shitty it is in the United States. Actually, let me rephrase that: All of these things lead you to exaggerate the faults of the US. And that is very easy to do when the only French flag you see flies atop the Louvre while every SUV & fast food joint in the US dons an American flag, the only fat people you encounter are fellow American, and the most prominent American nowadays is George W. Bush. The boogiemen become bigger and badder and the streets meaner and sadder. America becomes this boiling cauldron of toxic waste and hate. And when you convince yourself that America is the evilest place on Earth, you have the pleasure of spending a day in Belgium.
Our reason to go to Belgium was not to discover the birthplace of the Kids or Hubble Bubble but to check out the high school haunts of my girlfriend, Susan. She spent a year of her youth in Brussels, going to school, hanging out with Belgian teens, and stalking Plastic Bertrand. So we book couple seats on the train and take the trip across the border.
We exit the Brussels train station and walk into town. The first two things that crosses my mind are “When did the troops leave?” and “Are you sure this isn’t Poland?” The streets are torn up and plenty of buildings scarred. The national greeting seems to be a scowl. We walk into a record store and four guys in their late 30s, dressed as Goths, grunt at us. One of them asks Susan if she was born in a church after the door fails to shut behind her. She goes back and closes the door. A reject from a Leather Nun video says, “You’re not in France.” No shit! Fuck them. I take a stack of records (about 50 euros worth) and leave them in a pile on the floor.
Down the street is another store that carries books and records. I find another stack of records and am about to spend about 50 euros. I ask a clerk where the bathroom is. He tells me that they don’t have one. Normally I would walk out. I am of the firm belief that you don’t deny someone use of a bathroom and have left many stacks of records or books behind when someone denies me the use of their shitter. But Belgium, being a third world country and me not knowing whether the dirt hole behind the building was filled to capacity, I decide to keep looking at records. Then the fuckers behind the counter start with the “Ho ho the American has to go to the bathroom and we won’t let him” crap. The idiots think that since I can’t speak French good, I am blind to being mocked. I leave the stack of records spread on the floor and exit. It is stupid to get in contest of rudeness with an American and these Belgians are too dim to know that.
We walk to the center of town and find a café so I can use the can. No smiling Parisian says “Bonjour.” Just a grunt from the Belgian behind the bar. Susan orders coffee and I head for the bathroom. Finished refreshing, we go back into the cold. A few flakes of snow fall. We hit the main square. The buildings are gaudy. They look like old whores with bad make-up jobs. Somewhere around here is a statue of a kid taking a piss, Brussels’s main claim to fame.
We try to find Susan’s old high school and get lost. Paris is confusing but Brussels is impossible. Though it is Saturday, we pass shop after shop that is closed. No one is on the street. We pass a building that looks like it has been bombed. The whole backside is exposed so we peek in. Half-burned books and magazines are strewn across the floor. Decrepit furniture sits against smoke stained walls. The coffee I drank earlier has come a-calling. I happily piss on Belgium.
We find Susan’s high school. The front glass door is shattered. Some windows are boarded up. The place looks abandoned. So many happy memories trashed.
We walk to the little shopping area near the school. The small stores along the way, shops Susan remembers from her childhood, are shuttered or abandoned. The main shopping area looks like some perverted Soviet version of a mall. She decides to look in some shops while I go around the corner to a record store. As if God came from the heavens and handed me a goblet of diamonds and gold, I find some good records and am able to pay for them without any lip from the peons behind the counter.
We meet up at a café. Though they have a menu, they do not have food. Perhaps the winter harvest failed. Perhaps the mule at the farming collective died. We get coffee. Susan goes to the bathroom and reports that there is no toilet seat or toilet paper. There must be a janitor’s strike. She remarks that women in Belgium are a bit on the homely side. I tell her to check out the lady sitting behind her. The woman’s face is covered with band-aids.
In Paris, you do not notice children or, when you do, you notice them for what they look like not how they act. In Brussels, you can’t help but notice kids. In the café, the spawn scream, they yell, they fight, they climb over and under everything. Live in America and you are used to obnoxious youngsters, but the brats of Belgium are Americans squared. And like their parents, they are fat.
Though our tickets are for a later train, we decide to try to catch an earlier ride. We walk to the Metro stop to take a hop back to the station. On the way we pass about a dozen sex shops in a row. Susan says, “This was a florist. This was a cheese shop. This was a….”
It cost us an extra hundred euros to leave Brussels early but fuck it. When God decided the world needed an asshole, he looked at Brussels and deemed it too shitty. One-hundred, fifty years into independence and Belgium’s proud claim is it makes 85% of the world’s billiard balls. Brussels is a hole, but not a good hole.
A good hole is Le Gambetta. Crash Normal takes the stage. The only picture I’ve seen of the band live is one with one guy on guitar and another sitting at a laptop, so I am surprised when I see Jerome’s brother, Seb (also of the Cheeraks), take the drums. The club is full and the air so thick with smoke that my eyes water. After a bit of fuddling, the band rips into Big Joke and people start shaking their bodies, bounce up and down, and screaming. The band is excited, the crowd is psyched, everything is as crappy as a great rock and roll show should be. Style without pretension. Attitude with out arrogance. Viva la francais rock and roll!
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