Music, sound and armed struggle: an interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan (3)
Third part of the interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan, a founding member of Action directe (first part here, second part here). Pink Floyd, Richi e Poveri, T. Rex and radio scanners are taking part in this blog post.
Music and armed struggle
Luis Velasco-Pufleau: At the time of Action directe, did you listen to music before your armed actions?
Jean-Marc Rouillan: No, didn’t listen to music. We were extremely focused on the action; there was also fear. Music came after, when a highly stressful moment had passed, to relax or lower our adrenaline. It was the beginning of the Walkman. So there were activists who, after armed actions, put music in their Walkmans. But it wasn’t necessarily the music we listened to the rest of the day. At that time, we listened to Pink Floyd or other things that were more “zen”. Sometimes we also listened to classical music, Mozart or Fauré, for example.
LVP: This listening was more solitary listening.
JMR: Yes, when someone needed music to wind down, they would take a drink and their Walkman, sitting in an armchair.
LVP: Did you sing after your armed actions?
JMR: Not really, but it could happen. Recently I went to Rome and an Italian comrade told me, “Remember when, after an action, we sang a ridiculous Italian pop song, ‘Sarà Perché Ti Amo’…”. Yes, I remembered that we sung it at the top of our lungs in the car, just for fun.
LVP: In the evenings, were there also moments of collective listening?
JMR: Yes, of course, but it didn’t have the same function. As the flats were often shared and the instruction for underground members was not to go out after 9 p.m., in the evening we all took turns playing our 33 vinyls. The repertoire was more varied: old records from the 1960s, punk or rock. Since we didn’t watch television, we used our time for music or writing. Music was a daily presence.
LVP: Another characteristic of your armed struggle is its internationalist dimension, which took the form of exchanges and joint actions with other armed groups in Europe (RAF [Rote Armee Fraktion], Red Brigades [Brigate Rosse]) or the Middle East (PLO, Kurds). Did you share music among activists when you were in another country or when there were foreign activists passing through your home?
JMR: Generally, we listened to the music that the activists listened to wherever we were. But even if musical exchanges were not central to our activities, they had an influence on our musical spheres. In the early 1970s in Spain, I introduced Catalan comrades to English music, not what they heard on their radios, but garage music, the first albums of T. Rex, for example. Towards the end of Action directe, German RAF activists were listening to a lot of industrial music, much more than punk. Thanks to them, I discovered new music that I started listening to regularly. We were trying to share what we loved.
LVP: What emotions do you associate with the music shared at that time with your comrades?
JMR: Those early years of the armed struggle, in the early 1970s, were very hard. Many comrades died during that period. But at the same time, those years are characterized by immense joy, immense camaraderie between people. My memories of music remind me that there was a lot of joy during those times, with the Italians, with the Germans, with all those people who had come to fight in Paris.
Sound and revolutionary tactics
LVP: In your latest book Dix ans d’Action directe, you devote several pages to your surveillance listening to police radio and tracking the frequencies of special units. You say that your “methods of cross-checking and the work of surveillance listening” have often given you “a slight step ahead repression.”1 Could you say a little more about the role that surveillance listening played in your armed struggle?
JMR: Information has always had a crucial role to play in the struggle. Monitoring the adversary was a necessity to win the battle. They were watching us and we were watching them. Action directe, as a guerrilla war, was therefore forced to create a function of countersurveillance of police actions. Thanks to radio scanners (often made in the United States but purchased in Switzerland), we were able to intercept all communications—even the most local—from the repressive state apparatus. Until they found our surveillance notebooks, after many years, they had no idea of our capabilities. Many arrests were thwarted, which they thought was because of moles in their own departments or complicity in the state security services.
LVP: In the end, you hijacked one of the most common means used by states for surveillance purposes: the interception of communications.
JMR: Totally. We even intercepted the communications of counterintelligence services, the DST2 and the special units that were responsible for intercepting our communications.
LVP: How did the sound of radio (police or pirate radio) shape your daily life?
JMR: Most of the time, surveillance devices were in use in the apartments and commando cars. The sounds of these communications were part of our daily lives, or sometimes one of us used headphones. The devices were scanning the police’s main communication radio waves. Before operations, we checked that there were no special unit members in the area.
For pirate radio stations, too, it was a question of obtaining information. We followed the movement’s debate shows. People knew we were listening and often they would speak to us directly, to criticize and make suggestions. All of this was a live and constant sound that punctuated our militant lives, like the sound of Paris, the frenetic city—our own sierra…
Featured Image: “Pirate Radio Station in Berkeley”. By Hossam el-Hamalawy, source flickr (CC BY-SA).
- Rouillan Jann Marc, Dix ans d’Action directe : Un témoignage, 1977-1987, Marseille, Agone, 2018, pp. 220-221. https://agone.org/dixansdactiondirecte/
- The Direction de surveillance du territoire (DST) was responsible for counterespionage and counterterrorism—the French equivalent of the FBI in the United States and the British MI5. Created in 1944, it was merged in 2008 with the Direction centrale des renseignements généraux (often called Renseignements Généraux, RG) into the new Direction générale de la Sécurité intérieure (DGSI).