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Not Daft, Occasionally Punk: 8 Essentials of French Modern Rock’s Secret History

No More Johnny Hallyday Jokes – Vive la Différence!

Chuck Eddy // May 24, 2013

The typical American exceptionalist stance has long argued that French people have no business trying to rock or roll. And evidence in that truism’s favor might well date all the way back to the early-’60s work of Johnny Hallyday or the Singing Nun (who, to be fair, was technically Belgian, no matter what language 1963’s four-week U.S. chart-topper “Dominique” was intoned in). Truth is, plenty of French people just rock differently. Hence, the ’70s prog-weirdo likes of Etron Fou Leloublan and Magma (who sang in a language they made up!) and such ’80s inheritors as Art Zoyd and Metal Urbain, the latter of whom’s abrasive synth-punk is as prescient a Big Black blueprint as you’ll find. There was also pub punk (Télephone), art-pop punk (Les Thugs), speedy metal (Trust), more French-speaking Belgians (Plastic Bertrand, La Muerte), and lotsa disco.

Eventually, some ratatouille-like mix of immigrant influences, growing up with Serge Gainsbourg LPs on the home hi-fi, and eccentric detachment from Western tight-assedness, culminated in a singular French aesthetic: usually more “pop” or “electro” than “rock” per se, but then so was most of the rest of the world by the time that Air, Mellow, Tahiti 80, Manu Chao, Paris Combo, Cassius, and the like started ear-worming their way into the U.S. market circa the millennium’s turn. Here are eight fantastique French contributions to modern rock you may have missed — more proof the milieu goes way beyond Daft Punk and Phoenix.