Rob Jo Star Band
"s/t" LP (Pomme P 1003)
For a few years I have been predicting semi-ironically that French punk would become the next big thing in the United States. I suppose I’ve never really believed that prediction would come true because so many American punks tend to be hide-bound, conservative, and parochial. The common sense has long been—blame Lou Reed—that French punk/rocknroll sucks. Of course, the thing about common sense is that the last thing it needs to aid its ossification and acceptance is evidence. But let’s be clear: whether of the classic 70s punk variety (eg, Gasoline, Metal Urbain, Guilty Razors [Spanish expats living in France]), 80s streetpunk (eg, Reich Orgasm, Kidnap), protopunk/psych/hard rock (eg, Rotomagus, Soggy), or bizarre shit-fi inepto-core (eg, RAPT, Fuck Wave, Nèvrose), there remains much awesome French music to be discovered by those who have yet to dip their toes in the Seine. Yes, it is true that France in the early 80s did not have a hardcore scene comparable to, say, Finland or Italy, but while the punk scene in the U.S. was in its nadir in the early- to mid-90s, France was producing some stellar “garage” punk bands. Moreover, in recent years, a few great bands like Gasmask Terror and Lili Z. and zines like Kängnäve and Ratcharge have emerged from France. And that is just scratching the surface. Also, French archivists have done a stellar job of documenting their music scene. So it would not be impossible for my prediction to become reality.
Francophilia is far rarer in the States than Francophobia, which is more or less the default stance, and I do not want to endorse the former. But ignorance is ignorance, and the reactionary position of endorsing ignorance, however tacitly, is but a symptom of the lack of control even punks have over their lives. The choice simply isn't a choice.
The Rob Jo Star Band LP is not likely to convince any cynics or close-minded types that France has something to offer. Indeed, it is likely to do the opposite because it is so odd. But I doubt many such cynics are reading, so here goes. I have read comparisons to the Stooges and 13th Floor Elevators, but the most obvious influence is the Velvets (ironic, eh, Lou?). As we know, many bands around the globe took that influence (and at least one remarkable band, Index [and here, too], seemingly stumbled across a similar sound and vibe). But no other band, to my knowledge, added the elements that make Rob Jo Star Band stand out: a singer whose French accent is so thick it’s like your ears are filled with melted brie; a mix that is so sparse it’s like the instruments were recorded in the colonies while the singer and synth player were on the Left Bank; and—about that synth, it might give some of the most WTF-inducing Killed by Death classics a run for their money. One apt comparison might be to the Iberian ultra-obscurity Vibración, but Rob Jo Star Band is thinner, less robust, more tentative.
As Shit-Fi readers are by now aware, I just won’t let drop the question of the 1970s. What is the 1970s? Why did punk emerge in the latter half of the decade and what was its relationship to what came before it, politically and musically? I pose the question not out of antiquarian interest but because I cannot help but think that the crisis of the present, to be provisionally defined as one of the capitalist racial state in a period of world-scale financial expansion, is directly connected to the crisis and transformations that began in that decade. In some sense, we still live in the 1970s, or at least with the 1970s and the unresolved contradictions the 1960s wrought. If punk rock was music that was conditioned by the confluence of events and forces that define the crisis of the 1970s and, in turn, affected the ways multiple levels or aspects of society were opposed and imagined opposable, it strikes me as continually worthwhile to try to understand the how and why of punk. One aspect of this investigation is figuring out what the hell is up with the records that preceded punk but, in retrospect, were reacting to similar influences, broadly construed. Thus, protopunk was not something that existed until punk, but after the experience of punk its contours emerge for the historical imagination. I’m not quite sure that I would label Rob Jo Star Band protopunk, at least as eagerly as I would apply that term to, say, Vertical Slit. It is clear that these too-late-for-the-trend drug-addled hippies—with their tunes “Acid Revolution” and, more enigmatically but presumably on the same tip, “Stone Away” and at times jaunty mood (check the photos on the back of the LP), rather than the deep melancholia of Vertical Slit—were not on punk rock’s wave-length. (The LP's homemade, provisional, unprofessional aesthetic on the sleeve and in the sound, however, are clearly presaging punk.) You can tell that not all was right, and these dudes were attempting to escape their present, both sonically and, uh, medicinally, but it is impossible to imagine this record having emerged much before, or after, its release date of 1975. Characterizing that imaginative impossibility is, in essence, the task of answering the question of the 1970s.