The first wave of French punk, which developed mainly in Paris and covered the period from 1976 to 1979, paved the way for a rock counterculture in France. The musical landscape at the time was dominated by two mainstream and intergenerational genres: chanson française and variété française. The music industry and media evinced little interest in ‘pure’ rock music, placing all their hopes instead on rock pastiches (Martin Circus, the Rubettes) or covers of Anglo-Saxon hits (Johnny Hallyday, Frank Alamo), re-editing both music and lyrics to fit the prevailing variété pattern.
The first French punk bands appeared in the late 1970s (1977 was a key date, as it was for the British bands with whom they had close connections) in Paris (Asphalt Jungle, Métal Urbain, Stinky Toys, Guilty Razors, Gazoline, Bijou, 1984, Oberkampf), but also in Lyon (Starshooter, Electric Callas, Marie et les Garçons) and Rouen (Dogs, Olivenstein). In the French capital, the punk community met in the area of Les Halles, around two record shops (Open Market, Harry Cover), where rare, imported UK and US rock records could be found. Punk bands used to play in small Parisian halls such as the Gibus club or the Mouffetard theater. A few opportunities also arose to play for a wider audience (sometimes sharing the stage with their UK equivalents): for example, at the first punk rock festival in Mont-de-Marsan (21 August 1976), its second edition (5 and 6 August 1977) and the Festival du Rock d’Ici at the Olympia concert hall (10 July 1978).
In broad musical terms, French punk of the 1970s can be seen as an attempt to appropriate the US and UK bands it took as role models: the Kinks, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the New York Dolls, the Clash, the Sex Pistols. The main difference was the use of French lyrics in a few cases.
In the mid-1980s, supported by the emergence of a left-wing youth culture, the second punk wave (1979–89) began to reach a national audience, progressively integrating mainstream culture. Becoming more independent of the Anglo-Saxon punk rock pattern, it appears stylistically heterogeneous but is built on common alternative ethics. Without contact with the music industry, it grew up within its own alternative network: Parisian home-ruled squats (squat des Cascades, the Pali-Kao factory or L’Usine in Montreuil), independent labels (New Rose, Melodie Massacre, Bondage Records, Boucheries Production), homemade tape copies, xerox-copied fanzines, free radio stations. The term ‘punk’ tended to be replaced by the wider expression of ‘rock alternatif français’.
The evolution of the genre and its integration into mainstream culture were dependent on a new political background: in May 1981 François Mitterrand was elected President of the French Republic, becoming the first left-wing head of state since 1957. This political turning point encouraged a boom of community, activist and cultural dynamics in France. The high level of media coverage of some of these community initiatives (SOS Racisme, Restos du Cœur), together with a new outspoken tone in the leading media, encouraged the spread of a ‘fashionable’ activist attitude in French society, especially among young people who appropriated alternative rock as their musical symbol. The second punk generation (Bérurier Noir, Garçons Bouchers, Ludwig von 88, Lucrate Milk, Parabellum), therefore, developed in a politicized setting, far from the dandyist and nihilistic state of mind of the French punk of 1977.
Stylistically, French alternative rock moved away from the patttern set by 1970s punk rock. Following Bérurier Noir’s Concerto pour détraqués (Concerto for Nutcases, 1985) album, it left the ‘no future’ motto for a resolutely more optimistic and festive musical expression, yet still ironic or sarcastic. Punk roots were blended with French popular traditions (musette, chanson à boire, ballade montmartoise) or extra-European ones (reggae, ska), often associated with social or alter-globalist connotations. Drums sometimes gave way to drum machines, saxophone or accordion entered the instrumental section, lyrics became less nihilistic but humorous or parodic (as in Ludwig von 88’s Houlala 2 album). This festive, humorous and colorful punk rock became the trademark of French alternative rock.
In the late 1980s, observing the increasing success of French alternative rock, major labels began to sign alternative rock bands such as Mano Negra (Virgin) or Les Négresses Vertes (Warner), thus promoting some of the best-selling French rock bands of the following decades. This turning point has brought division in the French alternative scene. Like Bérurier Noir, some try to stay faithful to alternative ethics, while others consider that punk rock bands have to turn toward the major labels if they want to widen their audience.
Teillet, Philippe. 2003. ‘Rock and Culture in France: Ways, Processes and Conditions of Integration.’ InPopular Music in France from Chanson to Techno / Culture, Identity and Society. London: Ashgate, 171–190.