Thank the Nazis for discos
How the Nazis gave us disco
A French wartime subculture gave rise to the modern DJ, says Frank Broughton
Exactly 100 years ago, by broadcasting Handel to some very surprised ships' radio operators, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden became the world's first DJ. To celebrate the disc jockey's centenary, Bill Brewster and I have greatly expanded our book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life - The History of the Disc Jockey (Headline). Most think of DJs as mere entertainers, players piggybacking on other people's talent. We argue that the DJ is central to the story of popular music - that as taste-maker and musical gatekeeper, he has been the main motive force in its evolution. By championing the obscure, by importing and cross-pollinating different styles, and by gleefully splintering recorded sound in ways that have horrified musicians, the DJ has been music's most ardent revolutionary.
Research for the new edition took in acid house, the births of drum and bass and UK garage, and the strange Galapagos Islands of dance music which blossomed in mainland Europe when disco dried up. But for me most pressing was the part of our story that was slipping from living memory: the birth of the modern nightclub in Paris. Exactly why does the discothèque bear a French name? Tracing the answer took us all the way back to smoky cellars in occupied Paris. It also revealed one of the most bizarre youth movements in history.
Imagine, amid the grey serge of wartime France, a tribe of youngsters with all the colourful decadence of punks or teddy boys. Wearing zoot suits cut off at the knee (the better to show off their brightly coloured socks), with hair sculpted into grand quiffs, and shoes with triple-height soles - looking like glam-rock footwear 30 years early - these were the kids who would lay the foundations of nightclubbing. Ladies and gentlemen, les Zazous.
The Zazou look was completed with high collars, impossibly tight ties and long sheepskin-lined jackets, with a curved-handled umbrella carried at all times (copied from British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, regarded as quite a style icon). Female Zazous wore short skirts, shabby furs, wooden platform shoes and dark glasses with big lenses, and chose to go hatless, to better show off the single lock of hair they had bleached or dyed. They took their name from the Cab Calloway-style scatting in a song Je Suis Swing, by their hero, French jazz singer Johnny Hess.
Like peacock versions of Hamburg's swing kids, the Zazous thrived in opposition to the Nazis' hatred of jazz. When Goebbels issued edicts banning the "rhythms of belly-dancing negroes", the remnants of Montmartre's jazz community were deported, interned, or at very least unemployed. The scene that had raised Josephine Baker to legend resorted to home-grown musicians playing US jazz standards, renamed on programmes to fool the censors.
While the adults skirted the Nazi regulations, their younger counterparts favoured far more public defiance. Raising a finger to the world, the Zazous would shout "Swing", give a little hop, then cry out, "Zazou hey, hey, hey, za Zazou!," followed by three slaps on the hip, two shrugs of the shoulder and a turn of the head. Not surprisingly, Zazous were regular targets for the boot-boys of the collaborationist Vichy government, suffering organised beatings, having their heads shaved and being cast out to sweat in the fields.
As the pogroms began, some Zazous went even further and took to wearing yellow stars of David to show solidarity with the Jews. To underline their outlaw musical taste, they wrote "swing" across them. Several found themselves in internment camps as a result. Even stranger, when liberation was imminent, female Zazous blacked up their faces to show their love for jazz and America.
Crucially, it was the Zazous who gave Paris its enduring taste for dancing in cellars to records. Unable to congregate openly, they took their precious swing 78s underground, for les bals clandestins in cafés off the Champs-Élysées or in the Latin Quarter. There, they would throw English slang at each other, swap American novels and jitterbug to all hours.
In Paris, les Zazous remain a potent symbol of resistance - against both the Nazis and the stuffiness of an older generation. They were also the first club kids. After the liberation, Eddie Barclay, wartime jazz pianist, legendary lounge lizard and founder of the French record industry, followed their example and established the first nightclub to dispense with live music. So while the precise etymology of discothèque has so far defied discovery, we know that the concept of an intimate underground record club is ours thanks to the Third Reich and the jazz-loving layabouts who defied it.