A skinhead in Paris, 1979-83

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Paris skinhead band Swingo Porkies, early 1980s

While the original wave of skinheads remained a strictly British phenomenon – the closest the French came to mod were the minets – it didn’t take long for the late 1970s revival to cross the Channel. As the Sham Army turned concert halls into battlefields and skinheads began to proliferate across Britain again, a small gang of punks in a working class banlieue of Paris took note. Around 1978, Farid, Pierrot, Fan, Fabian and about a dozen of mates swapped their spiky hair and leather for clean-cut crops and MA-1 jackets. The effect their new appearance had on others did not escape them: “If seven or eight of us entered a metro train, everybody would go quiet”, Farid later remembered in Chasseurs de skins, “and if we showed up at a concert, 300+ strong audiences would stare at their shoes”.

In France, the violent excesses, drugs, and drama that surrounded this small original mob – also known as the Les Halles crew – are now the stuff of legend. But only months later, younger Paris kids who were unaware of their existence and didn’t have a punk background caught the skinhead virus via Two Tone or holiday trips to Britain. I had a chat with Pierre, who belonged to this early generation of French skinheads.

Disclaimer: Pierre wishes to emphasise that this is only his subjective view based on memory – not the definitive truth about Paris skinheads. Remember this was a time before internet and mobile phones. Paris is a big city, and it was impossible to know about everything that went on there, let alone across France.

When did you first become aware of skinheads?

I saw skinheads for the first time in England in 1979. I was 14, and my parents had sent me to stay with an English family for the summer. They felt indebted to the British for historical reasons and wanted me to learn the language, which wasn’t expensive then. I visited a few places in England that summer, and I think it was in Leicester where I first saw skinheads. A group of them stood outside a shopping centre, and I the way they looked made a great impression on me. In the same year, Two Tone was happening, so I was listening to a lot of ska. Then I learned that these skinheads were in some way linked to Two Tone.

Did you return to Paris as a skinhead?

No, it happened gradually. I had a friend in school, a Swiss kid who I had known since childhood. He became a skinhead before me – in fact, he was the first skin I saw in Paris. So then, I started to dress like a skinhead too. Dr Marten’s were the main item to have, of course. You couldn’t get them in France at the time, so I got a pair when I went back to England in the summer of 1980. I remember them very well: a pair of black 10-eye Air Wair, which was the trend of the time. I wore them nearly every day for five years until the sole was practically nonexistent. I also had my first real crop in 1980.

1979 august bank holiday
British skins in 1979

When did you notice other skinheads in Paris?

I started going to gigs a lot, mainly punk and reggae, and skinheads were always present. I was a big Stranglers fan then and saw them live several times, and The Clash too, as they both came to France very often. The main French band I went to see was La Souris Déglinguée.

The guys from Les Halles were the only one skinhead crew in Paris in these early days. They were ex-punks from a working class suburb of Paris called Colombes, and I believe they turned skinheads as early as 1978 when they heard Sham 69. They were at every punk and reggae gig, and they supported La Souris Déglinguée in particular. I wasn’t aware of any other crews in France; it wasn’t until later that I heard there were skinheads in other cities.

1980 poster

What was La Souris Déglinguée’s link to skinheads?

It was a bit strange because they never said they were skinheads themselves. However, they were a great band – more of a rock ‘n’ roll band than a punk or oi! group – and for some reason, Paris skinheads appointed them to be ‘their’ band. Punks came to see them too, and the atmosphere at their gigs was very energetic and violent. There were big punch-ups all the time.

When you went to see La Souris, you knew the skinhead crew from Les Halles would be there. Sometimes, they were doing their ‘service d’ordre’ (bouncers), and at the end of the show, La Souris would play ‘Salut les copains’, and they all invaded the stage and danced.

Great days, but the guys from Les Halles scared us youngsters to death. They were mean as fuck.  I was still at school and hung out with my mates – we were a mixed mob of punks, skins, and rudeboys. The guys from Les Halles where all around 18-20 years old. I knew some of them a bit, but they were unpredictable. You could have a drink with them one day, and end up in the emergency room the next.

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La Souris Déglinguée

Was there already any skinhead versus punk violence then?

Not in 1980. Most of the guys from Les Halles were former punks, after all. You can’t really say that skinheads and punks were together, but there was no systematic skin vs. punk violence. Trouble between the two cults didn’t start until 1981 or 1982.

Who were your natural enemies in the early years?

In the beginning, just anybody. Later on, there was big war against revival mods. The Swiss school friend of mine I mentioned earlier had a younger mod brother, and even these two were fighting really badly – to the point where either one would end up in the emergency room. Most famously, when The Jam played in Paris in 1981, there was a massive standoff between French skinheads and the Jam’s mod entourage from Britain.[1]

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East London mods en route to The Jam gig in Paris, Feb 1981

Was there any racism in the beginning?

No. The crew from Les Halles was very mixed. There were Jews, some Asians, guys of mixed ethnicity, and ethnic French among them. A couple of black guys were with them, too. The Halles skins were what we call voyous – thugs – but there was no real racism at the time. That said, their leader Farid was a fan of Hitler and very impressed with the Third Reich. It was funny because he was an Arab!

1979 les halles skinheads
Les Halles skinheads in 1979: Farid on the right

Did the Front National make any attempts to recruit skins?

Definitely not in the early stages – the NF skinhead thing was a very English phenomenon. The politicisation only started later, maybe around 1982 or 1983. In some circles, maybe even as early as 1981. Anyway, the first French skinhead generation was mainly just former punks who had found something new. The guys from Les Halles were simply bad boys into the latest bad boy thing. They might have been into hip-hop in the 1990s – that’s how you have to imagine them. There wasn’t really any politics, but there was a lot of violence, a lot of alcohol, and a lot of drugs.

In Britain, punks tended to come from all kinds of backgrounds, while most skinheads were working class. Was it the same in France?

I don’t have the ultimate truth on that and can only speak from my own experience, but I think in general, it was similar in France. Punks could be from working class backgrounds, middle class backgrounds, and even bourgeois backgrounds. Skinheads were definitely more working class overall, and I think they were also more desperate.

Were there proper skingirls with feathercuts in the early years?

There were maybe one or two skingirls who were hanging with the Halles boys and had skingirl hairstyles. After 1981, it became more common, but it was still rare.

1979 swingo porkies
Swingo Porkies

Did you come across a band called Swingo Porkies back then?

I only heard them on a punk compilation album called ‘Paris Mix’ that came out in 1982, where they featured alongside Guernica and others. They were the first Paris Oi! band that apparently started in 1979, but I never came across them in person. I don’t think they played many gigs, and I certainly never saw them live. They didn’t last very long either, and in the mid-1980s, one of them died of a heroin overdose.

You didn’t have Oi! bands playing in France then. I had Gary Bushell’s first three Oi! compilations, the 4-Skins and Last Resort albums, some Angelic Upstarts – that kind of stuff. My favourite two Oi! bands were Cockney Rejects and 4-Skins, but I really only discovered them at the end of my skinhead days. France was lagging behind England a little, and a lot of British underground music arrived there with some delay – there was no internet and no Eurostar, after all.

But to be honest, I wasn’t a big Oi! fan. I mostly listened to ska, reggae and a bit of punk: Madness, The Specials, The Selecter, The Clash, The Stranglers, Bad Manners. My favourite band at the time was The Beat. I went to many reggae gigs, too – there were plenty in Paris, and cheap as chips. I saw acts like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Peter Tosh, The Gladiators, and later Yellowman.

1982 swingo porkies paris 2
Swingo Porkies

Did you also go dancing in clubs?

In my case, no. I was underage, and my parents were strict, so I couldn’t get home too late. Concerts were ok as they rarely finished later than 11, but not nightclubs. The older lads went to nightclubs around midnight, though. The skins from Les Halles were known to hang out at the two famous nightclubs of the time: Le Rose Bonbon and Le Gibus.

Le Rose Bonbon was the place to be, everyone trendy would gather there – from minets to skins, from nobodies to celebs. Usually, the lads from Les Halles were just hanging outside looking for trouble, as they weren’t really welcome. Sometimes, there were small gigs at Le Rose Bonbon and Le Gibus, too.

What did early Paris skinheads look like, and where did they get their clobber from?

As I mentioned earlier, you had to go to Britain to get Dr Marten’s – in France, they only started selling DM’s around 1983 or 1984. Farid from Les Halles was known to put his foot next to yours to see if you had the same size. If you did, he kindly asked you to hand over your DM’s…

The first DM’s I saw were on the feet of my Swiss school friend. They were oxblood 8-eye boots. In addition to my black 10-eye Air Wair, I later got a pair of oxblood 8-eye DM’s with steel toe caps – we called them ‘clown boots’. Moreover, I had 3-eye Dr Marten’s shoes in different colours, which is a style I’ve continued wearing to this day.

Those who couldn’t get ahold of Dr Marten’s wore French army boots, which are called ‘rangers’ in France. The upper part with the buckle is really ugly, so some of us cut it off. This way, they became ankle boots with just the eyelets showing, a bit like 6-eye DM’s. That’s what I did with mine before I got my first pair of Martens. Furthermore, some of used to buy deadstock World War 2 military boots from the flea market: British, American, and – much sought after – German. A few skins wore Adidas trainers – any model would do, I don’t think they were specifically Sambas.

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French army rangers

The MA-1 bomber jacket was big because you could find it in any army surplus store. Levi’s jeans and Levi’s trucker jackets were also easy to find, so the ‘double denim’ combo was quite common. Harringtons were few and far between outside the UK, so you didn’t see them being worn often. We wore Crombie style coats, too. Not real Crombies, of course – old black or blue coats, more like. In my case, my dad’s old coat.

Tennis shirts were popular, although few of them were Fred Perrys, which weren’t too easy to locate. We just wore any make we could find. Naturally, Fred Perry was the most desired brand, and the ones that we found in a few  Paris shops were plain without tipping. Some lads bought Perrys with tipping in England – but personally, I always preferred them plain. The first Fred Perry I got in 1980 was a plain red one with three buttons.

It’s fair to say that we tried to look hard rather than smart. We wore lots of band t-shirts and plain t-shirts. Braces, of course. Later on, we started to wear button-down shirts. We couldn’t get Ben Sherman shirts in France, so we made do with an American brand called Arrow.

Over the years, I gradually tried to look smarter. I started wearing Sta Prest trousers, which you could find easily in France. By the end – circa 1982-83 – I had a pair of Dexter longwing brogues from the US, which were very sturdy and not too expensive.

1981 Ammour from les halles with LSD at rose bonbob
Ammour from Les Halles with La Souris Déglinguée band member at Le Rose Bonbon, 1981

Was there any clothing item or quirk that was unique to Paris skinheads?

Something really special that we all wanted to have were charcoal trousers with black stripes. They weren’t Iron Maiden type spandex trousers with stripes or anything like that. Not really mod either, but definitely Carnaby Street style: they were similar to Sta-Prest, except for the colour and stripes. I found a pair of them in Kensington Market in 1980 or 1981, and I have no idea what brand they were. When I stopped being a skinhead in late 1983, I gave them to a friend, which is something I still regret.

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Les Halles skins in 1978 or 79. Farid first bottom right

Did football play a role for Paris skins?

Not in the beginning. Once again, I can only talk about my own memories, which may not be the ultimate truth, but I can’t remember there being any football in the early years. In 1982-83, things began to change, which is part of why I stopped being a skinhead. For one, it got political – you had to be either extreme left or extreme right, there was no middle ground. That’s also when skinheads started getting involved in football hooliganism, mainly as supporters of the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club. Many of these guys were associated with the far right.

Were they organised, or did they just adopt a ‘far right image’?

In the beginning, they weren’t really organised. Later, they got involved with the Front National and such. There were many dramatic stories, including murder. Have you heard about the movie that was released last year, Un français? It was a kind of pastiche, mixing up events that really happened across France, albeit not to the same bunch of people. For instance, the incident outside a nightclub where a punk shoots the bonehead is inspired by what happened to Sniff, the vocalist of Evil Skins – but the character in the movie differs a bit. I was quite surprised by the film. It’s much better than I expected and gives quite a vivid image and atmosphere of those years.

I’d say it begins around 1982-83 and ends in 2014. You can see early fights between boneheads and redskins. In the beginning, the redskins simply turned their MA-1 jackets inside out to recognize their own in pitched battles. Then the boneheads gradually adopted a more paramilitary style. Around 1984, they wore MA-1 copies in camouflage patterns, and later they all wore black MA-1 jackets.

These battles between redskins and boneheads started around 1983, I think. It was the time when I moved on because things got too political for me.

unfrancaisbones
Shooting up in a nightclub toilet: ‘Un francais’

Did the original Paris skins become political, or was a new generation emerging?

It was a case of new people appearing on the scene who were more politicised. You have to remember, there was only a small handful of skinheads in Paris until 1982 or so. Only one real crew existed – the infamous one from Les Halles – plus younger people like myself, who weren’t affiliated to a real crew and just hung out with punks and rudeboys from their schools.

The second crew was probably the Saint Michel mob. These guys hung out at a McDonald’s in Boulevard Saint Michel and weren’t political – although that, too, began to change around 1982-83. All skinheads regularly met outside New Rose, a famous punk record shop in Saint Michel – including the Saint Michel and Les Halles crews, who knew each other. It was an open scene in the beginning – people moved around a lot. Later, other crews started to emerge – for instance, there was a mob in Bonsergent and then another one in Tolbiac.

But you know what? Your perspective depended very much on the area where you hung out. In my case, it was the city centre. That’s why I mainly remember the guys from Les Halles and Saint Michel and don’t know much about the others.

1982 tolbiac's toads

The Tolbiac crew famously had an Oi! band called Tolbiac’s Toads, who I believe were nationalist?

Yes, I think the mob existed before the band. I heard about it around 1982 for the first time, though it may have existed earlier. I didn’t know them personally, but I think they were pre-boneheads. At the time, the so-called nationalist skins were far right. Don’t forget that French history during World War 2 is complicated, and that the Front National, a ‘nationalist’ political group, had strong links with ex-collaborationists.

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Paris redskins, mid-late 1980s

What happened to the original Les Halles Crew?

Well, they started dabbling in heroin very early on. Once again, they were ex-punks – and at the time, it was extremely easy to find heroin in Paris. It was everywhere, as were drug addicts: punks, hippies, straights, and even skinheads. Initially, the boys from Les Halles did a lot of speed, which was big then. Then they gradually got hooked on heroin – only a few of them in the early 1980s, but many by the mid-1980s. Some died either from a heroin overdose or from AIDS.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Sid Vicious was a big idol for some French skinheads – mainly because he was very violent and died young. Even skinheads who didn’t like punks still liked Sid Vicious. I remember wearing a Sid Vicious badge myself when I was a skinhead.

Two lads from Les Halles became famous: Pierrot became the reggae singer Pierpoljak. Nice boy, but still a nutter from what I hear. Another early French skinhead – although I can’t recall where exactly he came from – became ‘Manu le malin’, a famous techno hardcore DJ. You should look up Pierpolkak online, there’s an old documentary about him that was shot after his skinhead years, but before he became famous as a reggae singer. You can see him talking about the ‘good old days’ to Farid. Farid is HIV positive, and I’m not sure whether he’s still alive or where he is.[2]

What did you do when you stopped being a skinhead?

I just moved on. Those who stayed skinheads got into politics, but young kids like myself just moved with the times – I suppose I became trendy. Same as when you ask the originals from 1969: after a couple of years, they all moved on and got into other fashions. I was a musician and played in bands for many years. About five years ago, when I hit my mid forties, I suddenly became interested in the origins of the skinhead movement again. I think it’s what you call a midlife crisis. I met original skinheads on various web forums, and my interest came back. Of course, I don’t wear boots and braces at my age, but I still like the smarter elements of the look. I guess I’m a bit of an old suedehead now.

InterviewCrombieboy

 

[1] The Jam played in Paris on 26 February 1981. The riots were the worst violence in the history of the band, resulting in 100 arrests. Weller called the French skinheads “animals” on stage and tied a union jack to his mic stand. See Paul Weller: My Ever Changing Moods by John Reed. For a detailed, if possibly very biased account from the London mods’ perspective, click here

[2] Interviewer’s note: another original member of the Halles mob, Fabian, would go on to sing in the Paris Oi! band Bootboys from 1983-85. Their 1984 recordings were published as Enfants de la crise on the Bords de Seine label in 2013. He worked at the clobber store London Styl before opening his own shop, Chelsea, together with another Les Halles crew member nicknamed Hooligan. In the early 2000s he was training up youths for a football club in a Paris banlieue. In November 2001, he was interviewed by Une vie pour rien fanzine – the interview has been reproduced here (in French)

 

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8 thoughts on “A skinhead in Paris, 1979-83

  1. Great interview. Very interesting to see the perspective from someone who appeared to be right on the outside of the circle of the Les Halles crew. If there was a follow-up interview with a Les Halles vet, that would make a great sequel to this one.

    It’s refreshing to hear stories like this one about skinhead scenes in their very beginnings…portraits of raw, untamed and rebellious youth subculture, before the influx of political views and clashes between crews because of them. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. The ‘stand off’ before and after the jam gig, resulted in the skins getting battered and they outnumbered us 3-1.

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    • I think that unfortunately it might be difficult to interview a Halles vet for various reasons. The first one is that they would be reluctant to speak about their past – for various reasons too.

      On the ‘stand off’ subject, i never said that the skins won. I Actually wasn’t there, but from what i know if they outnumbered the English would rather be 2-1.

      Pierre

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  3. It’s really interesting to read old stories about the original skins and punks – I loved the bits about finding it hard to locate certain clothing items so having to make do with french rangers with an “ugly buckle”.

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  4. I was in Paris a few months after the Jam gig, and someone came up to us in the street because of the way we were dressed, and invited us to the premier of a film about the Jam gig. We attended the film later that night and some sort of party as well. Didn’t stop long though because we felt intimidated by the French skins present that night. Is that film available any where does anyone know?

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  5. On the picture “Les Halles skins in 1978 or 79. Farid first bottom right”, you can see “Pierrot le fou” on the left (striped shirt), later known as Reggae singer Pierpoljak.

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