When I was a teenager, I was fortunate enough to join a school trip to France, and — maybe predictably — it was a week of drunken debauchery, teenage awkwardness, and extraordinary moments that I will always remember. I fell in love with France that week. There is nothing quite like sitting on the steps of Sacre Couer at midnight on Easter, the sound of the choir drifting out over you and the city spread out at your feet, having one of those “life is amazing and mysterious” conversations that you can only really have when you’re a teenager. But that was later.
On my first day in Paris, I did not yet know what kind of magic the city held, but I was eager to see what I could discover. Our group’s first planned outing was a tour of the Opera Garnier, the setting that inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera (Puffin Classics). That was all well and good, but I was in the biggest city I had ever seen and full of youthful curiosity and self-confidence. While the rest of the group moved into the building, a couple of friends and I stayed back and took off down the street to see what we could find. I didn’t want to see history that day. I wanted to see the living Paris.
Unfortunately, I did not keep a journal then, and I regret it to this day. I do not remember well where I walked that afternoon, but I do remember that I ended up in a music store nearby, likely Fnac, possibly at Le Passage du Havre. There, I purchased a French Iggy and the Stooges seven inch and a CD compilation of French punk bands I had never heard of: France Profonde vol 1 et 2. I had a short conversation with the clerk about Iggy Pop, the Kentucky Derby, and my first visit to Paris. It was the best introduction I could have had to the city, and thought I would end up making a lot of great memories that week, I get to relive these moments every time I spin my iPod over to the A’s.
I did not have a CD player with me on the trip, and neither did my friends. It wasn’t until I got home that I was able to see if the comp had anything worthwhile on it. To my elation, it turned out to be a great mix of oi, melodic punk and 80s hardcore that I still listen to regularly some twelve or thirteen years later. Standing out from the crowd of faster, more traditionally “punk” songs are two tracks by Ausweis, each a gothy post-punk blend of early Killing Joke and Joy Division. The stringy bass, chorused guitars and sterile, metallic reverb on the vocals all sound like they came from the hand of some French Hannett-phile and offer a stark contrast the rest of the music on the disc.
For years, I figured that this compilation would be the extent to which I got to know any of these bands, but the internet (really, the blogosphere) changed that. Recently, I stumbled across a post at the Phoenix Hairpins blog with some information about the Ausweis discography and a link to their debut album. Sparked by this post, I started digging deeper to find other releases, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they progressed from post-punk to full-on dub reggae over the course of three years. Punk and Jamaican music have crossed paths many times over the past several decades, but it is rare to hear this dramatic of a shift in one band’s career.
Ausweis’ 1984 self-titled debut is in my opinion a forgotten masterpiece. At this early point, they retained quite a bit of straight-forward punk influence, but the overall sound of the record is more Unknown Pleasures than Never Mind the Bollocks. Each song is good on its own, but taken as a whole, the album is nearly perfect. “Eva” (listen via Youtube above) and “Berlin” provide a distinctly Bauhausian opening for the record, being very reminiscent of In the Flat Field, but with “Gangsters United” and “Ella Choice,” the tempo is amped up to more typically punk levels. “Mecaniks” and “1984” split the difference, tying the album together stylistically and setting the stage for the final two tracks on the album. Stretching out a bit, the synth-and-drum coldwave vamp “Phase Fatale” isn’t so much a song as it is a five minute stretch of rhythm and washes of sound with indistinct snatches of vocals floating out of the haze. Though there’s no hint of Jamaican riddim in this song, it more than any of the others hints at the future direction of the band. Finally, the goth post-punk of “Murnau” brings the album full circle.
Ausweis followed their debut with the Victimes maxi in 1985, which I have not yet found, and Jours de Haine in 1986. Jours de Haine retains many of the post-punk qualities of the debut, but the increased use of keyboards and atmospherics give it a much more focused cold/darkwave goth sound, stripping out much of the traditional punk influence. What is most notable on this release is the final track, “Jack (Dub)” (listen below). This Lee Perry-via-Clash-inspired dub track takes the Ausweis sound into a traditional reggae format that just plain works for me. Despite being a big departure from their earlier work, this track does not feel forced, instead seeming like a natural progression. The original sound of the band is still there, just reconfigured. I wish they had made a whole record in this style before their subsequent experiment with Puppa Leslie, but this track is the only glimpse I’ve gotten of the goth post-punk dub group that could have been.
Ausweis “Jack (Dub)”
After releasing the Pas Demain single (another one I haven’t yet found) in 1987, the group hooked up with Puppa Leslie, a toaster in the Jamaican style whom they met through a mutual friend. Together, they produced Dub Action, a dancehall and dub album that sounds considerably different from anything the band had done before. Whereas before they had worked in mostly dark, murky sounds, this new record was bright and colorful. Snatches of Ausweis’ past slip into the guitar work on the songs from time to time, but little else of their earlier sound appears on the album. This record borrows heavily from Wayne Smith’s Under Me Sleng Teng, with heavy synth and drum machine use and more rigid rhythms than one finds in more traditional reggae. Puppa Leslie’s deejay-style chanting vocals shine throughout the album, and he goes hard on songs like “Le Feu Va Les Bruler” and “Tout, Tout, Tout.” The dubs are not heavy on effects, playing more on drop-outs and altered mixing with occasional dubbed-out flourishes, evoking the Upsetter more than King Tubby. This style suits the dense arrangements, where a large dose of delay or reverb crashes would muddy the mix.
From what I can piece together from rough translations, the politics of Dub Action made it difficult to find a label that would release it, with only Danceteria willing to do so. I won’t pretend to know much about French politics in the 80s, and with only Google translations of the lyrics, I am somewhat in the dark about why this album was so inflammatory. This highlights my one big frustration with listening to foreign-language music: my inability to know what’s actually being said. I know that the song “Tout, Tout, Tout” (listen below or find the video on Myspace) calls out members of Chirac and his cabinet directly and compares them to Hitler, but as an American who grew up on punk bands calling our government fascists, it seems odd to me that the lyrics of this record were such a big deal. Perhaps a French reader could educate me on this sometime.
Ausweis + Puppa Leslie “Tout, Tout, Tout”
Unfortunately, Dub Action was the last record that Ausweis released. Guitarist Croc and bassist Luz left the group, and Puppa Leslie and the rest went on to form Gom Jabbar, along with other Leslie projects before his death in 1999. Luz did some industrial stuff in the 90s and is now part of electronic dub group Dub Wiser. None of their subsequent work has drawn my interest quite like Ausweis. Something about that blend of post-punk, goth and dub mentality just gets me on another level.