Back in the late 1970s/1980s, the rock music scene in Bordeaux was renowned throughout France as being particularly active and dynamic. The ...

Welcome to the Bordeaux Rock 1977-1987 listening party!

Back in the late 1970s/1980s, the rock music scene in Bordeaux was renowned throughout France as being particularly active and dynamic. The city was home to countless grassroots venues, was the subject of reports on nationwide TV programmes, and all this culminated in flagship local band Noir Désir gradually establishing themselves as one of France’s top acts.


A few years on from those halcyon days, in 2005, the still-evergreen musical association Bordeaux Rock produced a double-CD collection of tracks by various bands and solo singers who were part of that scene. The impressive package, illustrated by the talented Bordeaux artist Jofo, included photos and biographical information about each of the artists featured, making for an excellent compendium of and introduction to the period. 

In the impressive package, every artist gets their own page.

These days, the compilation is actually quite desirable (certainly if the authoritative online resource Discogs is to be believed). And, guess what, my good friend Olivier, bassist with my musical project Slowrush, actually owned two precious copies and generously gave one of them to me. Hurrah!

To get the full Bordeaux Rock experience, I decided to sit down and give the compilation a thorough, neutral listen. In fact I would have to approach it with an especially open mind: the liner notes provided a word of warning that the sound quality varied according to the nature and state of the source materials (mostly transferred from studio reels and vinyl, but also sometimes cassette tapes), and the main challenge faced by the person in charge of mastering the tracks was to create a coherent whole. This sounded ominous but I was curious to hear how it all fitted and flowed together.  

Looking through the alphabetically organized track listing, none of the artists were familiar, other than Noir Désir and, possibly, the Stilettos, whose name I may have come across here and there. Yes, this would truly be a musical journey through time into the unknown. Inserting CD1 into my player, was I about to make an exciting discovery, in amongst the 41 artists (plus a bonus three whose contributions predate the period at hand)? I hit play and started taking notes.

A compact disc at the ready - older readers may remember these.

Immediate highlights are the no-nonsense guitar and harmonica-led pub rock of Art-314 and the strummy, melodic Californian pop of the aptly-named Beach Lovers, which still sounds fresh and tight. ‘X Ray’ by Bolton (er, Bolton? Why?) mix and match guitars with some nascent electronica, and they sound like just the kind of band that might be called upon to open for Indochine and The Cure (which is precisely what happened).

Hmm, next up is a band that went by the mildly amusing/slightly rude name of Les Cons, except that the moniker was a reference to The Jam’s legendary All Mod Cons album, and you could definitely hear the influence in there, with the energetic instrumentation and sharp harmony vocals. And a little further in, the Flying Badgers sound even more inspired by the British scene (their bass player was actually from Sheffield) – the arrangement is among the most creative on the compilation, and the melody is catchy, definite sing-in-the-shower material.

Gamine’s ‘Julie Julie’ is described as a mid-period track by a band that would later go on to achieve widespread commercial success with their album ‘Voilà les Anges’. They are followed by Hangar 21 featuring, yikes, fine vocals by a female singer. We’re 13 tracks in and Catherine Politoff (for it is her) is only the second female name to be listed among band personnel. Hangar 21 sound like a cross between Nena, Blondie and The Pretenders.

Philippe Jolly is a surprise package and sounds unlike anything else on the compilation, with a big arrangement complete with brass section, keys, backing vocals… it’s the kind of studio performance that leaves you itching to have heard more in a live environment (Jolly reportedly died in 2010). The same could be said of Lucky Monkeys, with their very 1980s slap bass and big choruses, and Le Mix’s acoustic guitars, jangly harmonics, and imaginative backing vocals, whose ‘Aux USA’ features some pleasing changes of direction and dynamics… and some killer key changes!                 

CD1 closes with ‘Somebody To Love’ by Nightshift, described in the liner notes as being inspired by Elton John and Squeeze. This is something that can easily be perceived in the piano arrangement, the meandering melody and the soulful backing vocals. 


The central spread in the booklet. No, I don't know who any of these glum gentlemen are either and there's no caption. Photo taken on the right bank of the Garonne in central Bordeaux and credited to Alain de la Mata.

The inevitable Noir Désir kick off CD2 with the moody, atmospheric and slightly stressful ‘Danse sur le feu Maria’, from their debut album. This segues surprisingly well into the piano-driven, Beautiful South-like ‘I Got It Bad’ by The Owls, featuring Englishman Terry Wood on vocals. The booklet blurb suggests the group showed great promise and were on the verge of being signed by the Barclay record label, until the deal fell through and the band folded.

The following succession of bands, Poupée Cassée, Réverbère, Rotten Roll, and Les Scurs, kind of sound the way you would expect bands with names like that to sound. Once again, it takes a solo artist to break things up nicely, namely Patrick Scarzello and all 1’25’’ of his chirpy, old-school ‘La Clope’. 

Spina Bifada are described as being one of the first Bordeaux bands to use samplers, resulting in a more hypnotic, experimental sound than most of their contemporaries. Their track (conveniently entitled ‘Spina Bifada’, what were the odds?) is among those on the album that have arguably aged the best over the years.  

The dynamic, post-punky Stilettos are next up, and deserve a notable mention because they featured in their ranks the influential José Ruiz, a long-time mover and shaker on stage, in the media, and behind the scenes in and around Bordeaux. He founded and remains president of the Bordeaux Rock association, which continues to conceive and produce a whole host of events, including the annual Bordeaux Rock festival, Plages Pop series of concerts, and the Musical Ecran rock documentary festival. Way to go, José.  

Just when you feel you’re about to OD on the constant flow of male testosterone and distorted guitars, the unexpected Takenoko pop up, with one Vanessa on lead vocals, providing a pleasing, airy melodic overlay to the pitter-patter of synths and a rudimentary drum machine. There’s also a very 1980s sax solo thrown in for good measure. Checking the credits, I notice that the keyboardist and co-songwriter is an online acquaintance, Bruno Aujard. [Note: I got in touch with Bruno ahead of this article going live, and he was delighted to hear that his band's legacy was still be being unearthed and explored. You can hear their output over on Soundcloud.]

The raucous Wet Furs track ‘Au lit les bébés’ closes proceedings, ahead of the surprising aforementioned inclusion of bonus tracks by 1960s and 1970s artists Tony March & Ses Blousons Noirs, Absinthe, and Salty Dog. It’s an interesting way to utilize the available CD space but does also make for a bizarre way of signing off. Were the songs drafted in because, as the booklet explains, the bands Camera Silens, Les Exemples, and Kid Pharaon declined to be part of the compilation?   

The track listing in full.

Anyway, what is the overall verdict? Well, in spite of the mastering engineer’s fears, the collection does make for a coherent listen. Aside from a few exceptions, these are self-produced heads-down recordings of bands capturing their live arrangements on tape, making for energetic recordings but perhaps generally short of unusual musical ideas or instrumentation… and given that a vast proportion of the bands were the classic vocals/guitar/bass/drums formation, a few decades on many of them sound a touch… interchangeable. The exceptions to that rule (such as Philippe Jolly, Spina Bifada, and Takenoko) come across as especially refreshing.

It also has to be said that, a-hem, there wasn’t much in terms of lyrical content to get excited about. Perhaps it’s the lo-fi recording technology used by many here, but much of the time it’s actually impossible to make out what is being said, whether in French or English. However, once again, there were a few positive surprises in the mix (Noir Désir and Les Stagiaires spring to mind). To be fair though, when you're mainly intent on belting out 99 decibels of noise every week at Le Jimmy, coming up with subtle lyrics is possibly not priority #1!

The compilation admittedly sells itself as delivering rock… so rock is pretty much what you get, and fairly punky rock at that. Listening from start to finish, there is little or no hint of what was going on elsewhere around the same time. In the UK, this period was synonymous first with the rise of new wave and synth pop bands, ahead of the melodic indie sounds of groups like The Smiths and Lloyd Cole & The Commotions taking root. Stateside, dominant sounds included the post punk movement that gave us Talking Heads, followed by the alternative college rock scene led by R.E.M.. But there’s little sign of those movements here, other than in the tracks offered, say, by Flying Badgers, Le Mix, and Gamine.  

Finally, going through the track listing one last time, Les Stagiaires, Stalag, Les Standards, Steel Angel, Les Stilettos, Stillers, STO, and Strychnine would no doubt recommend that the best starting point for a Bordeaux band is to pick a name that begins with the letters S and T! There was definitely a bit of a trend there; it reportedly harks back to the influence of the (Rolling) Stones and The Stooges!

All in all, listening to the compilation made for an unusual musical trip through time in search of a scene which may be no more, but that has certainly developed and evolved into the musical scene that can still be sensed today in venues such as Rock School Barbey and the Krakatoa. And I, for one, will certainly be further exploring the careers of artists like Spina Bifada, Philippe Jolly, Takenoko, Flying Badgers, and The Owls, whether online or in the real world.

So vive Bordeaux Rock and, a few years on from that 2006 release, congratulations to everyone involved in producing this compilation (apparently a full year in the making), which forms a very worthy and valuable musical time capsule!



> Big thanks to Olivier Rols for kindly giving me a copy of this rare musical artefact! 

> Find out what the good people of Bordeaux Rock are up to these days by checking out their website:

> Ce dossier est également disponible en français !

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