Marc Zermati, who died of a heart attack on Saturday at the age of 74, was a true underground legend: a national treasure France had never heard of and probably did not deserve. Rock Is My Life – the title of a 2008 exhibition celebrating his career on the radical fringes of the music business – would serve as a fitting epitaph.
Skydog, which Zermati co-created with Pieter Meulenbrock in 1972, was the first modern indie label, directly inspiring the launch of Chiswick and Stiff in England – its most successful release was the Stooges’ Metallic KO in 1976. As a promoter Zermati organised the world’s first punk festival, at Mont-de-Marsan, and introduced bands such as the Clash to a French audience. His heroin addiction and wheeler-dealing landed him on the wrong side of the law, and in latter years his curmudgeonly rightwing views alienated many people. But as one of the earliest champions of punk his importance in rock history cannot be overstated; if cut, he would have bled vinyl.
Zermati was born into a family of Sepharadi Jews in Algiers. Growing up against the bloody background of the war of independence, he took refuge in rock’n’roll records imported from the US, which were more readily available – as he often boasted – than in metropolitan France.
Like so many other pieds-noirs (the name given to people of European origin born in Algeria under French rule) the family fled to la métropole in 1962, when the country gained independence. Zermati would always entertain a conflicted relationship with his new homeland, which he deemed backward-looking and inimical to youth culture. Lest we forget, the 1968 student uprising was sparked off by a protest against single-sex halls of residence at Nanterre – France, at the time, was not all nouvelle vague flair and post-structuralists zooming around in sleek Citröens.
It was in fact often very conservative – socially and culturally – and pop music from the US or the UK was frequently met with xenophobic contempt. In interviews, Zermati recalled how the police would constantly harass, and sometimes even arrest him on account of his long hair, and how he would escape to London, where he felt free, as often as possible. In recent years he bemoaned the “Toubon law”, introduced in 1996 to compel radio stations to play at least 40% francophone songs, singling it out as yet another instance of Gallic insularity – further proof that France and authentic rock music were incompatible.