Brad Spurgeon's Blog

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Another Story of Elective Affinities, or Métal Urbain Revisited, and the Toronto Punks of 1977

August 21, 2010

I said yesterday that I would make the rounds of the bars and clubs re-opening after the summer break. I will not go into the details of where I went, in fact, but I did find a lively scene going on, and the night was hot and with clear skies and this helped make it sublime.

I will focus on the place where I ended up spending most of the evening, though, and it was not re-opening – it had not closed. And in fact, it was hosting a special evening of pop music from the year 1983 as presented by the acting DJ Caroline Harleaux, a journalist at the magazine called Voxpop, which focuses on the youth scene, particularly musical, in France.

This was at a bar called Le Motel. I arrived around 10:30 PM or so after making the rounds of the other nearby clubs, and I sat and had a beer and transcribed a song I was writing into my iPhone from the original paper on which I had begun to write it. (It is called borderline, song-in-progress written and played and sung by brad spurgeon today.)

I listened to the music, trying to figure out who was whom and had they really recorded that in 1983??? And then I got up and went to the bar for a re-fill and there I saw a guy I had met at the beginning of the year, and had never really had a good talk with. But he is friends with my ex-girlfriend and I decided it would be good to talk, finally. This was the vastly interesting Eric Débris, who was the lead singer and the guy who played the machines, as he called the synth and rhythm boxes at one of the original French punk bands, called Métal Urbain, which was founded in 1976. (“The first band ever to mix drum machines and synths with guitars back in 1976, Metal Urbain have influenced bands worldwide, generating the whole synth-punk movement in France,” it says on the band’s myspace.)

Eric and I were born in the same year, but at opposite ends of it, with him being born first. That still makes us contemporaries. And as it turns out, my talk with Eric would end up showing us both that we had far more common interests than we might have expected, but more importantly, it was a sort of snapshot of a phenomenon that I have written about here before, and that Eric pointed out frequently happens in life….

Here’s how I might define that: It turned out that there was a web of common interests and people that stretched across decades, areas of interest and into other worlds…. For instance, Eric is a huge fan of Formula One auto racing, which is, of course, my specialty as a journalist. But as we spoke, he said that he had noticed at my ex-girlfriend’s place a copy of my book about Colin Wilson, and he said that Wilson was one of his favorite writers, as he had read and loved when he was living in London in the 1980s, books like The Occult, Beyond the Occult, and the book about Carl Jung. And of course I had just been writing a chapter about The Occult over the last two weeks.

But then the conversation continued and he mentioned Norman Spinrad, the science fiction writer. I told him that I knew Spinrad too – who incidentally, has been fighting cancer recently – and then I said, “Spinrad also played in a band for a while.” To this Eric said, “Yes, I know. I am also friends with Maurice Dantec, who played in that band, and with Richard Pinhas, also in the band.”

To which I replied that I had met Dantec on several occasions and written stories about him, as certainly the first in the English language to do so extensively in the mid-1990s. I knew that Dantec had played in a punk band before he became a writer, but what I did not know was that he had modeled the band on Métal Urbain, Eric’s band, using a beat box. At one point, said Eric, they were the only two French punk bands doing that, in the late 70s.

So I will return to Métal Urbain, to mention that it was indeed one of the first and best French punk bands, but it never really broke out in France, being more accepted elsewhere than here – a typical situation in France, and one that I just read about yesterday in Rock & Folk magazine in a roundtable discussion in the summer issue of the French rock scene. Métal Urbain, in fact, was mentioned in that article.

Another tie-in here was that I mentioned to Eric that in 1977 when I was living in Toronto in the middle of the punk scene – before moving to England in the middle of the punk scene – I had seen one of the first and most famous of the concerts by a band called The Viletones. I mentioned the names of a few other bands from the time, including Teenage Head, and Eric mentioned The Diodes, and he said they continue to play around the world and that he is an old friend of one the band members.

What I did not tell Eric is that at this time, when I was 19 years old, I had begun some of my first disciplined efforts at prose writing – although I was myself trying to make it in show business, including in music – and it turns out that what I consider to be my first ever complete non-fiction or, really, piece of journalism, was a story I wrote about seeing the Viletones. It was never published, and I wrote it the very night I saw the band, upon returning to my rooming house. I never tried to publish it, in fact, as I considered it just an entry in my “Nothing Book,” a kind of diary with hard covers in which I began my first efforts at writing. I was heavily influenced by the prefaces to his plays of George Bernard Shaw, and in some ways I think I tried to imitate that. In any case, I have decided to transcribe my story of The Viletones at the Colonial Underground and put it on this blog in my stories area. For I have not found any other such photographic looks at the Viletones in Toronto in 1977, although I recently saw an old television documentary on the scene. You will see in my story that although I was only 19, and the lead singer of the group, whose name was “Nazi Dog,” was only a year more than me maximum, (IE, same age as Eric), I was far, far from being a punk myself.

Eric’s band was really in some ways the equivalent of this same movement, but in France, and musically and conceptually, Métal Urbain was more advanced than The Viletones. These days Eric has no longer been singing “Crève Salope,” (Die Whore), but he has some musical projects in mind. Instead, Débris is focusing on photography, and has recently launched a line of Eric Débris merchandize with his photos on them.

Below is a photo of an Eric Débris skateboard with a photo of the model “Poison” on it – it’s part of his merchandize line.

An Eric Débris merchandize skateboard adorned by his photo of "Poison"

But the point of this story was also really how a universe of common interests and affinities often surrounds people and they eventually link up for such reasons – as an example, Eric mentioned that one of his favorite writers turned out to be a fan of Métal Urbain – and it can be as far wide as from punk music to Formula One auto racing, or the writings of Colin Wilson or Maurice Dantec. But somehow it all fits together – I’m sure everyone reading this has their own examples of such Elective Affinities.

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