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Sideburns in the Suburbs: The Rockabilly Gangs of 1980s Paris

Gilles Elie Cohen photographed the coolest people that ever lived.

by Gilles Elie Cohen, Words: Filo Loco
11 February 2015, 7:00am

Vikings & Panthers is a collection of photos of rockabilly gangs from the suburbs of 1980s Parisby Gilles Elie Cohen. The book was published in early 2015 by Serious Publishing. VICE France asked Filo Loco, the head of publication at Serious Publishing, to write down his memories of the coolest people who ever lived.

I discovered Gilles Elie Cohen's work in 2002, when I watched a documentarycalled Rock contre la montre [RockAgainst the Clock] that was directed by GillesElie himself. His sumptuous black and white photographs immediately mademe think of BruceDavidson's Brooklyn Gang, which followed a gang of New York rockers – the Jokers – back in 1959. At that time, I wasn't a publisher but I knew I was going to publish Gilles Elie's pictures someday.

It wasn't until the summer of 2014 that I actually tracked down Gilles Elie Cohen, who now lives in Amsterdam. I offered him a publishing deal and we agreed on the spot. Although some of these pictures had already been exhibited in 2012 in Amsterdam's WM Gallery one of the most prestigious galleries of the Netherlands this series was still new and exclusive.

In 1982, Gilles Elie randomly met the Del Vikings in a vacant lot located in the 19 th 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, who were another band evolving in the same spheres at the time – not the revolutionary nationalist organisation.

Both bands were influenced by 1950s rock'n'roll – Elvis of course, but also Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. In 1982, the revival of the 1950s was in full swing fuelled by bands like Stray Cats, who were quite successful in France. At that time, many French bands paid tribute to old-school rockabilly.

When Gilles met them, the Del Vikings and the Black Panthers were still friends. The situation changed later on and they ended up more like enemies. The Del Vikings were "cats" – a rock'n'roll subculture influenced by the 1950s that was characterised by parties, dancing, tacky costumes and a love for vintage cars. Their style and the music they listened to opposed them to other clans of the rock'n'roll scene: the Teddy Boys and the Rockabilly Rebels, who tended to be more right-wing .

The Teds, who were numerous in Paris and the suburbs, 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 conflicted with the Teds and the Rebels. Both bands organised 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 American black activist group, can be considered as the ancestors of antifa and other skinhead-hunter groups. Their practice of martial arts and their style – their 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.

More than 30 years later, these photos make some of my strongest memories resurface, as if nothing has changed.These groups lived duringan incrediblyintense period for France, one that was fullof emotion and paroxysmalparties. They reflect theclimaxof a youth thatwas burningthe candle atboth ends.

The fate of Petit Jean 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 started following the French rock band La Souris Déglinguée. Later, he travelled to England where he lived in several squats , following the band 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 – '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 also a universal reflection on time passing and cruel dreams of youth, where innocence and candour cohabit with fierce violence.