Vikings & Panthers is a collection of photos by Gilles Elie Cohen of the rockabilly gangs from the Paris suburbs taken during the 1980s. The book was published in early 2015 by Serious Publishing. VICE France asked Filo Loco, head of publication at Serious, to give us his memories of the coolest people who ever lived.
I discovered Gilles Elie Cohen's work in 2002 through his documentary Rock Contre la Montre [Rock Against the Clock]. His sumptuous black and white photographs immediately made me think of Bruce Davidson's Brooklyn Gang, which followed a gang of New York rockers called the Jokers back in 1959. I wasn't a publisher at the time, yet I knew I would publish Cohen's pictures someday.
It wasn't until 14 years later, in the summer of 2014, that I actually tracked him down at his home in Amsterdam. I offered him a publishing deal and we agreed on the spot.
In 1982, Gilles Elie randomly met a band called the Del Vikings in a vacant lot located in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. I'm not even sure he was a professional photographer at the time. He started hanging out with the little gang, day and night, following them around to festivals and concerts. It was during that same period that he also met the Black Panthers (not those Black Panthers), another band evolving in the same scene at the time.
Both bands were influenced by 1950s rock 'n roll. People like Elvis of course, but also Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. By 1982 the 50s revival was in full swing not only in France, but in the United States as well, where it was fueled by bands like Stray Cats who paid tribute to old-school rockabilly.
When Gilles met them, the Del Vikings and Black Panthers were still friends. That changed over time. The Del Vikings were "cats," a rockabilly subculture characterized by parties, dancing, tacky costumes, and a love for vintage cars. Their style and the music they listened to put them at odds with others in the scene like the Teddy Boys and the Rockabilly Rebels, who tended to be more right-wing .
The Teds were big in Paris and the suburbs. They claimed influences both from England (the Teddy Boy movement was born in Britain in the early 1950s) and the US (through their style of clothing inspired by Westerns). They were close to the Rebels, with whom they shared the same extravagant hairstyles—quiffs defying the laws of gravity and giant sideburns—and a passion for "southern" rockabilly.
The Del Vikings and the Panthers eventually clashed with the Teds and the Rebels. Both bands organized raids at concerts and at the Clignancourt flea market where they tended to hang out . The Rebels wore the Confederate flag, which was perceived by the Panthers as a symbol of slavery.
The Panthers , whose name is a reference to the black activist group, can be considered the ancestors of antifa and other skinhead-hunter groups. Their practice of martial arts and their style—they had a passion for US Air Force jackets in particular—were also assimilated by other gangs, such as the Ducky Boys, the Red Warriors, and the Black Dragons.
These groups lived during an incredibly intense period for France, one that was full of emotion and paroxysmal parties. They reflect the climax of a youth that was burning the candle at both ends.
Petit Jean, the young man who graces the cover of Vikings & Panthers, reflects this frenzied time pretty well. After being part of the Del Vikings, he joined the punks who used to hang next to the Fontaine des Innocents of Châtelet in 1983, and then started following the French rock band La Souris Déglinguée. Later, he traveled to England where he bounced between several squats and followed the Meteors. He came back to Paris in the late 1980s, and legend has it that he was murdered during an argument at the Stalingrad Metro Station. La Souris Déglinguée dedicated a song to him called "Little John," which appears on their latest album, Les Toits du Palace.
In their own way, these young people were defending a genuine passion for life. They represented a demanding culture with specific codes and its own music. Today, I'm pretty sure they would don sportswear and listen to rappers like Booba and Rohff. Vikings & Panthers is a universal reflection on time passing and cruel dreams of youth, where innocence and candor mingle with fierce violence.