Paris is the capital of France, with 12,000,000 people, or almost 20 percent of the French population, living in the city and its surrounding region. During antiquity it was called Lutèce, but the origins of its name lie in the third century B.C. when the Parisii, a Gallic tribe of fishermen, settled on a little island in the Seine. This island, known today as Ile de la Cité, was to become the very heart of Paris, and from there the city began to expand along the left and right banks of the Seine, and then to Ile St-Louis after the Roman conquest in 52 B.C. The first king to make Paris the capital of France was Clovis, in 508. And with the exception of a period of less than 200 years under the reigns of Charlemagne and other Carolingian kings, this situation has remained unchanged. The consequence is that, unlike other major European nations, France has always been a very centralized country.
The signs of this long-term centralization can be observed in many fields, including that of popular music. The roots of the eminently French art form known as chanson can be found in the chansons de contestation which flourished in the streets of the capital in the seventeenth century. The lyrics of these chansons reflected the thoughts and feelings of the populace in protesting against the government and in satirizing the authorities. At the beginning of the next century, these songs formed the basic repertoire of the entertainers who sang in the Café des Aveugles, launched in 1731 in the basement of the Palais Royal, and other early café-concerts. These venues were popular through most of the nineteenth century, even though they were intermittently closed down because of the threat they posed to the chronically unstable French governments before the early 1870s. At the end of this period the best-known Paris establishments were the Eldorado (founded in 1858 on the Boulevard de Strasbourg) and the Alcazar (built in 1859 on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre).
As the belle époque blossomed, Paris entered the era of the cabarets, in which the performance of chanson remained the favorite act. These venues were supposed to draw a higher quality audience than the café-concerts. They were located mainly on the right bank of the Seine in the area of Montmartre. Among the biggest local stars were Aristide Bruant (owner of the Lapin Agile) and Yvette Guilbert, who made her debut at the Divan Japonais, where she came to the attention of artist Toulouse-Lautrec. Born in the time of the café-concert and growing up in the time of the cabaret, Guilbert was one of the very few French singers to perform on both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the twentieth century.
After World War I, café-concert and cabaret eventually gave rise to the music hall, whose founder is regarded as the entrepreneur Joseph Oller. In the early days, the artists sang in the midst of the diners and were accompanied by a pianist at an upright piano. However, raised platforms and a few instrumentalists were soon added for the best performers of the time (Béranger, Nadaud, Thérésa, Paulus). Between the two World Wars, the three most outstanding music halls in Paris were the Casino de Paris, the Olympia and the Folies Bergère. It was in these places that native stars like Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf and foreign stars such as Josephine Baker achieved their success.
During World War II the German occupation brutally changed the face of the French capital. The Nazis shut down most of the cabarets and music halls that had welcomed African-American musicians since the 1920s, and German soldiers could be seen parading the whole day on the Grands Boulevards and the Champs-Elysées. However, these soldiers seemed to avoid the Left-Bank district of St-Germain-des-Prés. As a consequence, underground clubs began to flourish in the basements of this area. They were run in the fashion of the US speak-easy. Since it was difficult but also dangerous to feature real bands, they played recordings of jazz from the United States. Since the 1930s and the days of the Hot Club de France, jazz had always been very popular amongst the young people of the capital. But during this confused time, it also served as a kind of theme music for the French Resistance. This was the beginning of discothèque.
After the Liberation in 1944, these clubs were among the first venues to play a part in the national celebrations. St-Germain-des-Prés became rapidly known worldwide for its night life. It began to attract the greatest US jazz musicians (Sidney Bechet, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis), who performed in nightclubs such as the Tabou (opened in 1947 on Rue Dauphine) or the Club Saint-Germain-des-Prés (launched in 1950). With the growing fame of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the existentialists, the area developed an intellectual and literary aura, and a new generation of singers that included Juliette Gréco, Charles Aznavour, Boris Vian, Serge Gainsbourg and Léo Ferré emerged from its cellars between the late 1940s and the late 1950s.
In the second half of the 1950s, the arrival of rock ’n’ roll signaled a turning point in the history of French popular music. It marked not only the end of the domination of St-Germain-des-Prés, but also that of a certain conception of chanson française. Suddenly, a whole generation of native musicians was trying to copy the latest US sound. These newcomers used aliases such as ‘Long Chris’ or ‘Dick Rivers,’ and paid less attention than their elders to the lyrics of their songs. Whether the music that they played should be called ‘rock ’n’ roll’ is debatable, but if it should, then the Golf Drouot must be regarded as the place where French rock ’n’ roll started. During the late 1950s, parties were held at this Right-Bank club where records by Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard could be heard. Among the local teenagers who attended these parties were Annie Chancel, Claude Moine and Jean-Philippe Smet, who would enjoy huge success as singers during the 1960s, having changed their names to Sheila, Eddy Mitchell and Johnny Hallyday respectively.
Meanwhile, chanson française was going through the last stages of its golden age in another Right-Bank venue, the Olympia. Run by Bruno Coquatrix from 1952, this music hall presented personalities such as Charles Trénet, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Georges Brassens, Charles Aznavour and Gilbert Bécaud on a regular basis. By the end of the 1960s, it was known in Paris as ‘the temple of chanson française.’
During the next decade, the French were more eager to follow the musical trends set by the United States and the United Kingdom than to try to create their own. In 1976, a former 1960s club called the Gibus became one of the most famous Parisian venues by featuring punk rock. It was there that British bands like the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Sex Pistols made their first French appearances. The following year, the success of this venue inspired Marc Barrière to create the Rose Bonbon in the basement of the Olympia. During its five-year existence, it would present most of the bands of the short-lived Parisian punk rock scene (Taxi Girl, Oberkampf, Kas Product, La Souris Déglinguée, etc.).
In the early 1980s, Parisian punk rock led to rock alternatif which constituted an even more local scene. Concurrently, large venues such as the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy and the Zénith de Paris were being built to stage shows by international stars on tour. The recording facilities that the capital offered also began to attract Francophone African musicians and producers like Kanda Bongo Man and Ibrahima Sylla, while a French-speaking rap scene that would become quite successful in the early 1990s (NTM, MC Solaar, Secteur A) was beginning to blossom in the suburbs. But, to many Parisians, the name that really sums up this period is the Palace. Located on Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, this discothèque was considered to be one of the few places in Europe that had successfully recreated the atmosphere of legendary New York disco clubs such as Studio 54. It remained popular until the end of the decade.
Having originated and preserved the time-honored tradition of dancing to records, it was predictable that Paris would enthusiastically welcome house music and techno in the early 1990s. This Parisian trend received national exposure in 1998 when the capital held its first Techno Parade. However, its origins can be found in the district of Bastille, where the first local DJ-oriented record stores (Rough Trade, BPM) had been established a few years before. Clubs like the Queen (on the Champs-Elysées) and the Rex Club (on the Grands Boulevards) played an important role in discovering native DJs such as Etienne de Crécy, Dimitri from Paris, Philippe Zdar (Motorbass, Cassius), DJ Cam and George Issakidis (Micronauts), all of whom became internationally famous during the French Touch craze at the turn of the twenty-first century.
Leloup, Jean-Yves, Renoult, Jean-Philippe and Ras-toin, Pierre-Emmanuel. 1999. Global Tekno: Voyage initiatique au coeur de la musique techno [Global Techno: An Initiating Journey into the Heart of Techno]. Rosières-en-Haye: Editions du Camion Blanc.