This was a time that owed everything to the punk revolution… and betrayed it time and again. In 76 - 77, the incredible explosion of English-speaking bands focused the energies of a whole generation of Western youth - rebels ready to pick up a guitar and use it like a weapon. Yet more than punk music itself, it was the creative burst it triggered that radically shaped 80s pop and heralded an unending stream of inspired performers.
Although we often speak of the British and American golden age of post-punk from 78 to 84, with artists that included Talking Heads, Joy Division, PIL and Devo, France (together with Switzerland and Belgium) joined the movement too.
Now Nouvelle Vague pays tribute to this sumptuous "Frenchy" period clothed in the nihilism of punk, along with bitterness fuelled by the economic crisis and, paradoxically, the bewitching spirit of pop. Its title, Couleurs sur Paris (Colours on Paris) is based on both a famous postcard collection and Oberkampf's 1981 punk anthem, and reflects the period, which oscillated between elation and despair.
Written by artists sometimes known as "the modern young people" and including faux naif electropop nursery rhymes by Elli & Jacno ("Anne cherchait l'amour", 1979), Lio ("Amoureux solitaires" , 1980) and Etienne Daho ("Week-end a Rome", 1984), along with Lili Drop ("Sur ma mob",1979) and Taxi Girl ("Je suis deja parti", 1986), the songs clearly express the hopes and disappointments of the day.
The sense of melancholy suggested by the disenchanted lyrics of "Dereglee" - performed in 1977 by Marie-France, an icon of Paris nightlife - is even more noticeable on the 1981 hit by The Civils, who cynically sang, "Tonight, they're dying in Chad, but I'm buying my dream Walkman" before taking it to the chorus: "The economic crisis is fantastic, decadence is the right feel".
The punk shockwave can also be felt in the music of bands who radically shaped French culture and song. Like Rouen, with Les Dogs ("Sandy, Sandy", 1982), every provincial town and city in France began to produce bands at the end of the 70s and the start of the 80s. Wunderbach's 1983 punk pamphlet "Oublions l'Amerique" was a foretaste of what is now called alternative punk, a genre that won acclaim in 1988 with Mano Negra's "Mala Vida".
Indochine, French pop legends for the last thirty years, also encouraged the trend in the summer of 1983 with "L'aventurier", after a first single brimming with the spirit of rebellion, "Dizzidence Politik". Rita Mitsouko, the duo that emerged from the underground Parisian punk scene of the late 70s, rocketed to stardom in 1984 with "Marcia Baila". Equally baroque, TC Matic - the first band fronted by Belgian singer Arno - released an ironic, political underground hit in 1983: "Putain, putain".
Other artists fuelled a post-punk movement that explored the romanticism of machines and the darkness of new wave, including the cult, much-neglected duo from Nancy, Kas Product ("So Young but so Cold", 1982) and Switzerland's Stephan Eicher, whose "Two People In A Room" (1985) followed on from "Eisbaer", a hit in a more underground style written with Grauzone in 1981.
However, the genre's most influential practitioners were certainly Noir Desir. From their first single in 1987 ("Ou veux-tu qu'je r'garde?"), they won mainstream success with their unique fusion of 80s gloom and power rock. Beyond from the meteoric success of Bordeaux's Les Gamines ("Voila les anges", 1988) and the subversive spirit of Jad Wio ("Ophelie", 1989), French post-punk reached its climax with the success of Noir Desir, Rita Mitsouko, Stephan Eicher and Manu Chao, whose albums reigned supreme in the 90s French charts.
From the underground scene to gold records, it's the eternal story of pop.
French interpreters Nouvelle Vague have a seemingly unsustainable path. Reinterpreting Anglo songs of the post-punk and new wave eras in unlikely semi-easy-listening settings (bossa nova, reggae, country and bluegrass) would appear to bring diminishing returns. But on their last album, 2009's 3, they went gently Gallic, covering "Ca plane pour moi", originally by Belgium's Plastic Bertrand. Fourth time out, it's all Francophone.
Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux's first three Nouvelle Vague albums mainly featured lesser-known female Franco singers (notably Camille and Melanie Pain - some original-era, non-French singers appeared on 3). Higher-profile French or France-based vocalists such as Vanessa Paradis, Coeur de Pirate, Jeanne Cherhal and Olivia Ruiz are heard here. Camille and Pain (names in their own right now) crop up too, as do Brit exports Charlie Winston and Hugh Coltman. The musical templates are much as before.
Couleurs sur Paris's 16 songs are from 1977 to 1989, a broader sweep through time than previously. TC Matic's "Putain putain" or "Sandy Sandy", by new wave rockers The Dogs, aren't wildly familiar. Les Rita Mitsouko's "Marcia baila" and Mano Negra's "Mala vida" could be. Etienne Daho's "Week-end a Rome" from 1984 became the basis of St Etienne's "He's on the Phone". "Ophelie", an obscure album tack by Jad Wio, is beautifully covered here by Yelle. Its lyrics address sex with a horse. Despite Charlie Winston's hugely clunky take of Kas Product's "So Young but so Cold", Couleurs sur Paris is a mostly unified, sometimes lovely listen. Surprisingly so.
It'd be great if Couleurs sur Paris led to unfamiliar French music being recognised. But it's an edge-free reminder of musical pasts. Which is why Nouvelle Vague are such a snug fit with ads for Sinex and T-Mobile, soundbeds for TV trailers, the inevitable Gossip Girl and Grey's Anatomy, and films like Mr and Mrs Smith. The French media beckons.