Brest, major naval seaport of western France, situated at the western end of Brittany, the Celtic part of France, was one of the hotspots of the rock’n’roll revival in France in the 1970s and 1980s and for a few years it was – rockingly speaking – a wonderful place to be !
The kernel of rocking activity in Brest developed in the working-class district of Recouvrance, just west of the famous cliffhanging bridge that connects it to the city centre on the east side of the Penfeld inlet. Brest, a city of around 150,000 inhabitants in 1980, had a town centre consisting of uniform modern buildings dating to the post-war years of reconstruction following the bombing devastation in 1944 when the Allies used saturation bombing to rid the area of Nazi fighting divisions who had decided to make a last stand there, giving the city a similar feel to Plymouth city centre across the Channel which was also devastated by a Nazi bombing campaign. Brest is also a planted town developed to build up the French navy during the later seventeenth century under king Louis the XIV and the inhabitants of Recouvrance – initially outside the city walls – were nicknamed Yannicks by the French colonists because it was a common diminutive of Yann ‘John’ in Breton. By the twentieth century the national differences had evaporated as French expanded into the suburbs as the city grew and became an almost exclusively French-speaking city inhabited as much by other French people as by those from a local Breton background. One of the main contributions to the ranks of rock’n’rollers and teddy boys were young men who had found work in the French Navy, colloquially dubbed la Royale by them (a somewhat ironic name for a navy that serves the French republic, but the name harks back to the pre-revolutionary era when the navy was indeed officially la Marine royale ‘the royal Navy’).
We said that the rocking scene took off in the Recouvrance district, but we should say that it developed more particularly in a bar in that district called Le Caboulot. Opened in 1971, the Caboulot became the hangout and HQ for Brest’s rock’n’rollers simply because the bar owner Yvon Salez was pretty fond of 50s rock’n’roll and kept a few singles on his jukebox. A few local rockers asked him to put more, which he did, and soon the bar became a known haven for rock’n’rollers although the clientele remained pretty mixed. The newly-formed local Gene Vincent fan club held an anniversary event in the bar in 1972 and the same year, after a concert in nearby Landerneau, Vince Taylor, the 50s British rocker who had almost for a short while almost dethroned top French rocker Johnny Hallyday in 1961, now on the cusp of a small-scale comeback, visited the bar and made friends with Yvon (he would return some three more times before the end of 1976). There would be a few more anniversary events for American rockers and visits by some performers, but the Caboulot remained basically the hangout of choice of Brest’s rockers and teds over the years.
Vince Taylor next to Yvon, mid 1970s
In August 1980, the Brest Rock’n’roll Appreciation Society was formed and the rock’n’roll scene established itself as part of the tradition of Brest for many years and has never disappeared. Innocently ignorant of all these developments, this young teddy boy (Iwan Wmffre) would always make sure during his annual summer holidays in Brittany in the late 1970s and early 1980s to pass by the local Brest music shop Dialogues to buy something in their well-stocked range of rock’n’roll records. Their rock’n’roll section was by 2010 the most stocked one I could still come across in either Britain or France, but the section definitely shrank progressively throughout the 2010s in concert with the general shrinkage of record-shop purchases (yet there still remained a rock’n’roll section in their shop as late as 2020, though by late 2021 that section had finally been discontinued). It’s a testament to the strength of rock’n’roll fandom of Brest that a rock’n’roll music section was retained so late in the city.
Here’s a too short extract of an interview with a ted named Sam in the Caboulot along with some decidedly hairy rock’n’roll performers named Friandise. It is from a television series entitled ‘Les Enfants du Rock’ (‘The Children of Rock’) which ran between 1982 and 1988 and included reportages charting different contemporary musical tribes in each major city in France during the 1980s. The rest of the clip – especially the beginning – may have some points of interest if you’re curious.
POSTED February 2022.