We all know about so-called ‘outsider music’: music made, for one reason or another, outside the normal boundaries. Some disagree with the boundaries: Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch. Others have their musical expression coloured by their mental illness: Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis. Some were powered purely by ambition and self-confidence: Florence Foster Jenkins. And others – supposedly – had simply never heard music before: The Shaggs.
What Les Blousons Noirs lack is context. We believe these two four-track EPs (reissued in 2007 by Born Bad) were released in 1961 and 1962. We think the EPs were recorded in Bordeaux. We can have a guess at the band members’ names, deduced from a sleeve autographed for a fan: Sammy on vocals, Jo on guitar, Claude on bass and Did on drums. That really is just about it. All we have is 16 bracing minutes of rock’n’roll covers played by a band named after the teen gangs that gathered in the French suburbs in the late 1950s: ‘The Black Jackets’.
Let’s not pretend otherwise: this is astonishingly incompetent stuff. But who else was playing proto-punk in 1961? The Sonics’ debut was still four years away; for the time, this is brutally raw. The band genuinely sound like they’re encountering their instruments for the first time, but things like rhythm, tuning and general coherence are mere details – what these guys have is passion and a primitive power. Madcap versions of Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’ and Don Covay’s ‘Pony Time’ are hacked out with a crudeness that could be childlike, or could be pure punk-rock, a decade and a half too early.
The questions are endless. What drove these four men to make music unlike anything they could ever have heard? And why did they do so with such little regard for rhythm or tuning? These EPs were released a year apart – why was there no musical progression across that time? Did they perform live, or make any other recordings? Who were they? And where did they go?
Born Bad’s J.B. Guillot has spent several years searching unsuccessfully for clues. The best guess of a source who worked with bands in Bordeaux is that Les Blousons Noirs were pieds-noirs: Frenchmen who lived in Algeria during the colonisation. Forced back to France in the early 1960s when Algeria became independent, many pied-noirs felt ostracised from French society and moved around the country taking on low-paid work wherever they could. The suggestion is that the mystery quartet may have worked at a clothing manufacturers in the same street as the studio where the EPs were recorded, then moved on soon afterwards. But this is just a theory. We simply don’t know.
As such, this charming racket is difficult to evaluate. It could be the very first tentative blast of garage rock. It could be the rantings of madmen. It could all be a cruel hoax. Make of it what you will.