French Oi has always had a special quality, hasn’t it? I first learned this when visiting family in my birth town Warsaw many moons ago and randomly buying a bootleg tape titled Son de la rue from a street market stall outside the Palace of Culture. It was the days of a flourishing black market, and on every street corner you’d find 4-Skins and Blitz pirate tapes democratically displayed alongside Metallica and Madonna ones. Son de la rue compiled some of the best cuts from the Chaos en France series – Komintern Sect, Snix, Camera Silens, you name it – and I’ve remained a fan of frog Oi ever since.
What are its special traits? It’s hard to generalise, but for one, it’s fair to say that even the crudest combos had taste. Right off the bat, I can’t think of any French skin band that crossed over into hard rock or metal territory – a temptation that the tribes to the north, east and south of France haven’t always been able to resist. Punk rock – that is, simple rock ‘n’ roll preferably played with Stratocaster-type guitars and without any artificial distortion – has remained the backbone of French Oi. Secondly, as everyone knows, saxophones often made an unlikely appearance. Thirdly, the cream of the crop distinguished itself by a strong sense of melody (Komintern Sect) and sometimes a dark undercurrent running just beneath the thuggish surface (Camera Silens).
The latter aspect has become far more central for the new wave of French bands. How exactly it began I don’t know – but, leaving aside the rarely acknowledged groundwork laid by Paris Violence, who in the late 90s began to merge Chaos Records-era Oi with the atmosphere of 80s European ‘cold wave’ (a term then mostly unknown outside France and, strangely enough, Poland), I suspect it was largely the work of Une Vie Pour Rien (UVPR) that enabled this development. Initially an orthodox Oi zine and label, over time it broadened its tastes to embrace the rainy post-punk and anarcho sounds from its native Breton shores. Soon, the music scenes began to mix and cross-pollinate, and I’m sure the re-appraisal of Blitz’s Second Empire Justice since the mid-2010s helped too. Today we have arrived at a point where, in Paris at least, you might just hear a cold/dark wave DJ set after an Oi gig instead of a reggae one. Gloomy times…
I don’t want to overstate the case. Some of the contributions on this compilation (which is curated by said UVPR label and Wattie/Victor of Rixe and a dozen other groups) are very much in a traditionalist Oi vein – e.g. Gonna Get Yours, the most British-sounding of the Parisian skins. Bromure have developed their own sound, which is fast and violent, yet at the same time melodically driven along by a saxophone. And only the faintest echoes of anything ‘cold’ or ‘post’ are heard in the excellent Squelette, who resemble 90s compatriots such as Herberts and Toltshock more than anything. Elsewhere, though, post-punk frostiness makes itself felt. Sometimes more clearly, as in Cran’s stand-out track ‘Famine’ (which nonetheless features that classic frog-Oi mannerism, “la la la” army chants), other times more dimly, as in the guitar lines of Faction S, who otherwise lean more towards a Hard Times vibe.
It should not go unmentioned that Tchernobyl are my favourite of the bunch. In our own humble contribution to the ‘cold Oi’ phenomenon, Andrea Napoli’s Oi! Wave That Could Have Been article, the author described ‘New Age’ by Blitz as“the ultimate Oi/wave song, with a perfect balance of street-like vocals in the Oi tradition and almost darkwave-sounding music”. In my view, Tchernobyl strike the same balance, occupying a perfect middle ground between the leaden, moronic Oi of Brutal Combat and wavish bleakness. They’re the vanguard of the French scene for sure.
The fact that most of the bands recorded the album together on the same weekend, namely at the Frigos studios in Paris, gives Paris on Oi! a “unity in sound and in spirit”, as the liner notes accurately state. Certainly, the French scene has established its own identity once more – and for an Oi compilation, this one has a stylish and very European feel to it, including in its design and presentation. If Oi is the music of the housing estates, then Paris on Oi! is for the Le Corbusier tower blocks. There’s just one thing I’d like to know: what are these new French Oi bands singing about – is it anything that matters?
We were slow with reviewing this, but vinyl LPs (with poster inlay) still seem to be available from UPVR directly and from some other places. I’d secure a copy of this collectible snapshot of early 2020s skinhead Paris if I were you.