Metal Urbain are one of those semi-legendary bands of sufficient obscurity that when you first hear of them you either shrug, finding it hard to believe that such a monster could have crawled from the Parisian sewer or immediately want to take to the barricades.
In 1977 the first seven inch single Rough Trade released was the split A side, Panik/Lady Coca Cola. In the context of a punk scene already dying on its feet this was the future. Like Suicide, Metal Urbain had committed the heretical act of pushing electronics to the for but unlike the American provocateurs the guitars remained, driving and contesting the beats. This was advanced and political shit. Or so it must have seemed at the time.
Naturally enough the band’s recorded output was treated with a certain amount of commercial indifference but John Lydon must have been listening as was Richard H Kirk and without a doubt, Steve Albini & Trent Reznor. In terms of their influence Metal Urbain grossly exceeded the sales of their record.
Sneering Parisian neo-situationists whose music seemed like a cry of anger direct from the Banlieue, Metal Urbain managed a perfect synthesis of the motorik with the agit-politics and nihilism every one had grown to know and loathe. Oh and they didn’t have a drummer. Just a drum machine built in to the keyboard which, back in the day was considered pretty antagonistic by those who wanted the three chord revolution to become an orthodoxy. After only two or three years they disappeared, Eric Debris re-emerging as Dr Mix, a successful dance producer and DJ.
Back after a twenty five year gap hear what remains of the band were at West Germany on Friday, up to speed again courtesy of long time fan Jello Biafra’s production on last year’s, J’Irai Chier dans Ton Vomi. Metal Urbain are on the road again.
This is a risky proposition, whilst Wire may have been able to get away with such a long hiatus there are twenty others who are better left fondly remembered. What was ground breaking in ’77 could sound dreary, old nihilists are rarely as amusing and the political agenda seems now more the province of Clichy’s hip hop kids. In the words of Clode Panik, one the band’s original members on their decision to split, “You are old institutions like Peter Gabriel. You are 35 years old, and I’m 21. There is no possible contact. You’re are our ancestors, antiquities. We don’t speak the same language, we don’t live the same life, we don’t have the same loves.”
Contrary to popular belief I am not old enough to have enlisted in the punk wars and remain agnostic about what we are about to witness but with the combined age of the band now comfortably in three figures the risk of the Who’s generational thesis being once again proved is not inconsiderable. In the interests of objectivity I have to say that I have waited ten years to see this band.
The crowd are getting restless and thunder clouds have begun to gather around Kottbusser Tor as the mercury and anticipation rises. Four men in black, all bearing little resemblance to Johnny Cash, take their positions and with little fuss jump into a blistering set of death disco. Eric Débris’ pipes are still capable of rasping out invective and critique, addressing the crowd in English and German but never singing in anything but French (the band once told interviewers that this was so that the Americans wouldn’t understand them). Hermann Schwartz, the other original member, grins from ear to ear as backed by Vott on second guitar and Jerome Solo on the keyboard, as they rip into Hysterie Connective.
None of the anger has dissipated and somehow Débris, looking a bit like Neil Young with his black frock coat, potato face and lopsided cowboy hat, managed to stay on top of the messy sound. Like Wire, it would seem that Metal Urbain had at least retained an instinct for the art of stopping.
After a while the guitars seem to win the fight with the keyboards, Hermann Schwartz’s legendary plectrum free thrashing sounding as amphetamine burned as ever. Interestingly for a band with such and aggressive ideological commitment to La Modernité rock & roll at its dirtiest clearly remains an important touchstone. The guitar sound owes more to Cochran (albeit filtered through a distinctly French sensibility and speeded up to the insistant, militant, tempos of ’77) than it does to the machine tones of Krautrock or the sonic meanderings of meta-machine era Reed (who Schwartz has cited as an influence). These are dreck riffs but dreck riffs with enough theatricality to insist upon a response.
I write. Bend sinister, here is the sound of Hawkwind being eaten by the U.K Subs. Kraftwerk on ugly drugs. Le Suicide Francais.
The small crowd erupted, sweat dripping from the ceiling as the sky blackened. The ghosts that inhabit this former smack clinic (surely the perfect venue in which to see a band whose sound had grown out of the Parisian ghetto) demonstrated their approval of the encore, Creve Salope (Die Bitch!) with a massive crack of lightning and a torrential downpour.
“In the middle of the zombie crowd, I am a god, a hero, I am the number infinite, the number zero” Clode Panik in 1978