The French Riviera is a haven where peace, quiet and serenity bathes the sun-kissed coast – that is until The Stranglers came to town and descended the idyllic seaside town of Nice into a punk rock paradise of mayhem and misadventure. The annuls of punk history are full of so many riotous tales that aside from the music, the madness seemed like a game of manic one-upmanship, and it’s a game that The Stranglers may well have won with the infamous Nice affair, serving as just one unfortunate example.
On the 21st of June 1980, the band were placed under arrest and faced a seven-day ordeal that drummer Jet Black described as seeming like “forever”. It eventually went on to inspire a typical punk retort by the band, but for a while, it “was no laughing matter”.
The band arrived at Nice University ahead of a sold-out show, however, the Soundsystem was basically inadequate for the full-throttle sound they were hoping to achieve. Despite reassurances from the venue and extra power lines being pulled into place, the sound continued to cut on and off during their performance, as the power was continually overloaded and tripped.
Naturally, the already amped-up crowd were growing frustrated and when the band stomped off stage and informed the punk mob in attendance that if they wanted a refund, they should see the promoter, things took a turn for the worse. The crowd began enacting revenge for the failed show on anything they could get their hands on. The result was apparently £10,000 in damages. The following morning the band were arrested for inciting a riot.
The truth, however, was that a deeper conspiracy was at play. As Jet Black revealed in his novel, Seven Days in Nice, documenting the affair: “They nearly got away with ‘framing’ us for what was nothing less than a cover-up of political ineptitude and corruption.” The university and authorities had been vying against each other politically for some time and the singular flashpoint was used as a scapegoat incident for some political postulating.
Eventually, everything fell in the band’s favour but not after 36-hours in jail and the threat of many more looming over them. Their lawyers secured their release and as Jet Black notes, “We laughed all the way to the bank. Before that we were unknown in France, (afterwards) we played to packed houses.”
To mark this last laugh the band released the 1986 single ‘Nice in Nice’, complete with album artwork featuring the iconic arrest photo from the incident. While the lyrics from the song might not seem like they directly relate to the incident, the tale of the rich pampering their way power and lines like, “Don’t tell me lies you can’t support,” have more than a touch of a double-edged quality. The melody might not be a snarling punk epitome, but perhaps that’s because the harrowing memory of the fracas meant they didn’t have the stomach to tackle it head-on. As Jet Black mentioned when asked if he had ever returned, “Oh no, the minute I get anywhere near the place the memories come flooding back!”
While palm trees may have smouldered on the night of the gig and damage was certainly incurred at the venue, there is no doubting that the incident was a paradigm of the sort of zeitgeist that punk crawled out of. The politics in Nice at the time made the flashpoint an inevitability and The Stranglers inherent aggro provided the final straw. As bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel concluded, “We did have a lot of aggro back in those days, but it formed the character of the band.”