By: Dave Cooper
I distinctly remember my introduction to Jean-Michel Jarre‘s music. In the dying weeks of 1987, a friend’s older brother returned from university with a capacious box full of cassettes, containing a wealth of music that he’d copied from friends whilst he was studying. On arriving back home, he surrendered this box of tapes to his younger brother, who in turn shared it with me. Digging through the tapes, we found one labelled simply “J M Jarre – Cities In Concert”. We played it, not knowing what to expect. About 12 minutes in, as the first track was drawing to a close, we stopped the tape, practically beside ourselves with excitement, jaws agape in disbelief. To this day, I have never heard anything remotely like the first ten minutes of that tape. I knew instinctively, as I had upon hearing other records that had become hugely important to me, that this was a musician whose work I would seize upon, someone whose work I would follow closely for the rest of my days. That feeling would prove to be entirely correct.
As it turned out, the tape in question contained a copy of Jarre’s then recently-released Cities In Concert: Houston/Lyon (of which more in due course). The copy I immediately made of this cassette would be quite literally played to death – it got played so relentlessly that it snapped. I would go on to make a second copy of the same cassette, which was also loved to death in its turn, before finally buying a genuine cassette copy. This too died through overuse, as did a vinyl copy (which developed a huge skip on side 2), before I bought it on CD – and then again when it was remastered by Sony in the nineties. I guess the point of mentioning this is merely to reinforce just how passionate I was – and remain – about Jarre’s music.
That passion wasn’t just directed at Jarre’s Cities In Concert album, however, though it remains one of my most beloved live releases by any artist. That same passion also sent me in search of Jarre’s other recordings. Then aged 15, my finances were limited, although I had a burgeoning record collection by this time. Realising that it would take some considerable time to save up enough to buy all of Jarre’s output from my pocket money and occasional odd jobs, I asked all of my friends if they had any of Jarre’s albums, or if their parents did. Amazingly enough, I managed to piece together about half of Jarre’s previous work on a series of tapes, somewhat erratically recorded by various of my friends. Many of them were unlabeled, or the albums had been recorded in the wrong running order, or with gaps in… but those tapes were played relentlessly, until each one in turn was ultimately replaced with purchased copies of Jarre’s albums, in any number of formats and editions. I had already fallen pretty hard for Kate Bush, Pink Floyd and a handful of other bands by this time, but my infatuation with Jarre’s back catalogue impressed everyone who knew me, friends and family alike, with its intensity.
However, this isn’t so much the story of my long-established Jarre fandom as it is Jarre’s story; and to really tell Jarre’s story, we have to rewind to post-war France.
From Lyon to Paris (1948 – 1979)
Jarre was born in Lyon, France, in August 1948, with music already in his blood. He was the son of renowned film composer Maurice Jarre – possibly best known these days for his work on the films Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage To India, among myriad others – and Francette Pejot, a heroine of the French resistance during World War II. Jarre and Pejot’s marriage was riven with disappointments and disagreements, and ended in divorce five years after Jean-Michel was born; the result, as has been observed many times, of Maurice’s self-absorption and dedication to his musical career. Maurice abandoned his family and moved to America in 1953 to further his musical career. It would be years before the young Jarre saw his father again.
Francette Pejot with a very young Jean-Michel Jarre
It wasn’t long before Jean-Michel’s own musical inclinations began to surface. He had started playing piano by the age of five, but although he loved music and appeared to take to it naturally, he grew frustrated with the strictures imposed on his playing by his first tutor, which led to him abandoning tuition for some time. His natural ability soon led to him being enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris to study classical piano under Jeanine Rueff, but again the stylistic confines of his classically-based tuition began to frustrate him. Perhaps born of these frustrations, it was during his time in Paris that Jarre’s interests in art and literature really began to develop. Paris, long a European hub for artistes of all kinds, was a cultural melting pot that opened Jarre’s eyes to a great many things that were to influence him hugely in the decades ahead. Jarre, although by all accounts an attentive and conscientious student, began to focus more of his attention on extra-curricular activities. As a teenager, he joined several bands, singing and playing guitar rather than the keyboard as might be expected in retrospect, and it was at this point that he began to develop his own songwriting.
In the late sixties, France seemed afire with the spirit of revolution, and Jarre’s musical life was about to be revolutionised too. In 1968, against the backdrop of widespread anti-capitalism protests and a series of strikes that paralysed France’s infrastructure, Jarre made what must have been a bold and difficult decision to resign from the Conservatoire de Paris, and apply to the GRM (Groupe de Recherches Musicales). The GRM, another Paris-based organisation, was one of several arts-based groups which had been set up by French composer and theoretician Pierre Schaeffer, whose lifelong interest in fusing disparate musical disciplines and forging genuinely new approaches to music was a major inspiration to Jarre. It has been said that in some ways Schaeffer was a surrogate father figure to Jarre, encouraging his interests and supporting his early work. Schaeffer was well-known for his particular interest in what he termed musique concrète, and his belief that all sound – not merely musical notes – was potentially musical; what was important was the intent of the composer or performer. Schaeffer’s own work was strikingly experimental, inheriting and building on a number of avant garde styles: sometimes abrasive or atonal, sometimes minimalist. Jarre devoured Schaeffer’s fearless approach to composition; the lack of conventional strictures that had so frustrated him in the past appealed to his sense of sonic adventure.
It was whilst he was engaged at the GRM that Jarre was to complete and release his first self-penned music. Although some of his collaborative work had appeared on record by this time, Jarre’s early experiments with electro-acoustic music were to yield what is usually regarded as his first true solo release, a 7” single comprising two pieces, ‘La Cage’ and ‘Erosmachine’, released in 1971. The former, a harsh, heavily percussive piece shot through with theremin and a repeating electronic figure, is clearly exploratory, but for all that, the friction between the avant garde and the highly melodic feel typical of Jarre’s style is already present. ‘Erosmachine’, on the other hand, takes a less abrasive tack. Comprising a tape loop of what sounds for all the world like recordings of rulers being twanged and drawn across a desk, backed with a delicate, gliding motif and the sound of sensual sighing, it builds steadily to a – quite literal – climax as the music becomes darker and more intense before a final exhausted scream from the satiated femme. The general effect is, perhaps, of a recording made by someone who had watched Barbarella a few too many times, but again, Jarre’s fascination with mixing the new with the classic was evident. This friction between old and new continues to inform Jarre’s work to this day.
In October 1971, Jarre was commissioned to write an original piece for the Paris Opera Ballet. For the young Jarre, this was further validation of his experimental electro-acoustic work: as it happened, Jarre was the youngest composer to have his work featured in this way. The result was a multi-part piece entitled ‘AOR’, a largely atonal work primarily performed using tape loops and the early VCS-3 synthesizer. History records the assembled glitterati as being rather nonplussed at Jarre’s experimentalism. This could be one reason why a full recording of ‘AOR’ has never surfaced, but use of a search engine will turn up some relatively poor quality sound clips. Very much in the same vein as ‘La Cage’, ‘AOR’ was nevertheless an important development in Jarre’s writing, not least because for the first time, he had constructed a classically-styled multi-part ‘suite’, a way of working that he would return to many times.
Perhaps the most important of all these early releases for Jarre personally, however, was his first solo album: not Oxygène, which is popularly regarded to be his first album, but the 1972 release Deserted Palace. It originated as an album of library music, from which producers could use material for soundtracking their work, and has developed some notoriety among Jarre collectors, largely because it has never been re-issued, although a few tracks have finally resurfaced on a recent compilation. Whilst making Deserted Palace might have been a means of raising his profile for soundtrack work, it’s hard not to interpret Jarre’s decision to make a library album of this nature as drawing a line under his work up to this point, for Jarre was still searching for his own voice as a musician. He had become adept at pastiche and had mastered the avant garde approach of his mentors and peers at the GRM, but there is a sense that he was still working on a way to combine his various stylistic interests.
Jarre’s work had started to attract attention by this time, and a flurry of early soundtrack work – everything from radio and television jingles to TV soundtracks and pieces for theatre – followed, culminating in his first full soundtrack commission, for the film Les Granges Brûlées (“The Burned Barns”), which was subsequently released on record as Jarre’s second album of solo recordings. Les Granges Brûlées was important for Jarre in many ways, but it too showcased further developments in Jarre’s style, as he juxtaposed the avant garde styles that had typified much of his work up to this point with the fine ear for melody that he had developed as a result of his advertising work and his collaborations with French pop musicians such as Patrick Juvet and Christophe, for both of whom he had contributed music and lyrics around this time.
Perhaps intrigued – or perhaps not entirely satisfied – by the process of making his soundtrack work, Jarre turned his thoughts to making another solo record: less episodic this time, perhaps even deliberately thematic. Continuing to be fascinated by the flexibility and unusual sounds created by the early synthesizers, Jarre found himself making another electronic record, but one that was infused with a variety of influences far greater than he had exploited thus far. His avant garde influences were represented, but so were the catchy melodies of his advertising jingles and pop collaborations, the classical influences that he had picked up during his tuition, and also the more traditional music of his homeland. Whilst Jarre revelled in the freedom of creating a record with all these diverse inspirations, recording it was a technically demanding task. Unable to afford the luxury of studio time, Jarre elected to record the album at home, in his kitchen, using a Heath Robinson array of equipment – much of it second-hand equipment he had re-conditioned or adapted himself – and a basic eight-track recorder.
Oxygène has an surrealistic atmosphere all of its own. It’s appropriately titled, as the album is essentially a symphony of the air, its swirling, changing moods an eminently suitable metaphor for the atmosphere that surrounds us, that supports all life on Earth and yet is the source of many weather-borne calamities. ‘Part 1’ is a deceptive opener, all graceful, gently drifting synth lines shot through with seemingly random oscillations; towards the end, however, it gathers a darker feel, as if it were a cloud building slowly into a thunderhead. ‘Part 2’ sees Jarre unleash the proto-techno as a steady, metronomic pulse builds to a crescendo, before dumping the listener into the stentorian booming of ‘Part 3’, a Wagnerian pay-off to the first side of the record. The second half of the album is less baleful, kicking off the now-familiar ‘Part 4’ which has been endlessly parodied and re-hashed since the album was released. Its loping rhythm gives way to the dreamy, blissful calm of ‘Part 5’, which is shattered halfway through the track by a restless, kinetic rhythm that catapults the listener into a whirling cloudscape. An utterly unexpected and dramatic change of mood, it’s a thrilling moment that really shows off Jarre’s ambition. Synth lines and the cascading rhythm are repeatedly panned across the stereo image with glee as the listener travels through a wormhole of Jarre’s manufacture, finally arriving, breathless, at the closing ‘Part 6’. Here Jarre begins a tradition which would continue for many albums to come, by closing the record with a track that mimics a more established musical style. ‘Oxygène Part 6’ is a gentle, latin flavoured track, the pattering synthesized percussion line joined with swooping washes of organ, the surge of an imagined tide and the cries of (emulated) seagulls. It serves as a melancholic but atmospheric way to ease the listener out of a deeply immersive album.
Even when the album was complete, for some time it seemed it might never reach a wider audience, as Jarre was repeatedly rebuffed by the record labels he approached about releasing it. As time passed, Jarre’s hopes waned, until finally Francis Dreyfus, head of the Disques Motors label, saw something unique in Jarre’s outlook, personally and professionally. Although Disques Motors was primarily a jazz label, Dreyfus decided to take a chance on Oxygène and undertook a low-budget, limited release of 50,000 copies of the album in December 1976. Dreyfus’ caution, albeit understandable, was soon cast to the wind as the album became an almost overnight success. The initial pressing sold out in the blink of an eye – as did the second. It was clear that – much like Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells had done a few years earlier – the record had struck an unexpected chord with music fans of all ages and preferences. The following year, Oxygène went on to top charts all over the world, and to date has sold around 15 million copies – something that remains unparalleled by any other French artist.
Reactions to Oxygène were – perhaps predictably – polarised, to say the least. The initial press reaction was largely negative, with many of the reviews critiquing Jarre’s decision to make the record with almost exclusively electronic instrumentation, as if that process itself meant that it in some way lacked heart, or that the results weren’t actually music: accusations that Jarre roundly ignored, possibly because they were accusations often levelled against Pierre Schaeffer’s music, the music that had inspired and informed Jarre’s own work. However, the public had spoken with their wallets, and many critics were tempted to re-assess Oxygène in the wake of its global success. Jarre found himself becoming a household name, especially in his native France, and as he travelled overseas to promote the record, his interviews were often more about his chosen instrumentation than about Oxygène itself. In many ways, Jarre had become an ambassador for a movement without perhaps even realising he was part of it. Electronic music had in many ways already come of age, with bands like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk reaching a wider audience; Jarre’s major contribution to the genre was to popularise it, to break down misconceptions about it. In the eyes of some, Jarre’s decision not to make an avant garde record smacked of ‘dumbing down’ the bold and frequently uncompromising electronic music that typified the genre at this time, but his detractors were either blissfully unaware of his myriad influences or simply did not value them as Jarre did: if he was guilty of any crime, it was of being true to himself and of being in the right place at the right time.
Jarre had spent months promoting Oxygène; inevitably, his thoughts returned to recording. The success of Oxygène, however, had given him new tools and the means to spend time in a real studio. Jarre’s next album, entitled Équinoxe, was to be an altogether much slicker affair. Augmenting his growing collection of analogue synthesizers with custom-built machines he had put together with his ‘artistic collaborator’ Michel Geiss – whose keen musical instincts and technological know-how would remain important to Jarre for years to come – Jarre retired to the studio to record his new album.
Équinoxe is Oxygène’s more refined sibling. Jarre’s conceptual idea was that the album reflected a day in the life of a person, beginning with their awakening from sleep, and closing with them falling asleep once more. However, the elemental nature of Oxygène worked its way into the music once again – only this time it was not air, but water that would be the feature of the record. The album most definitely has a liquid feel, reinforced by the use of suitable sound effects – Jarre’s beloved musique concrète – throughout, from the ebb and flow of the tide in ‘Part 2’, to the gurgling, bubbling water sounds in ‘Part 3’, the thunderstorm that opens ‘Part 5’ and the lingering storm that becomes an integral part of the closing ‘Part 8’. Jarre’s classical training is more in evidence here than on Oxygène, from the playful, intricate round of ‘Part 1’ to the eerie theremin-assisted synthetic strings of ‘Part 2’, and to the distinctly romantic gliding melody that dominates ‘Part 7’. Jarre’s prototypical electronic dance music remained in place as well, however, notably the repeating interlaced patterns of ‘Part 3’ and hypnotic pulsing rhythms of ‘Part 6’, whilst the anthemic ‘Part 5’ arguably sets out the stall for trance music almost a whole decade before the genre really found its momentum. Part of the reason for the flowing, liquid feel of Équinoxe is Jarre’s increased use of sequencing, allowing him to program up sequences of notes and chords with a rapidity and consistency that would have been more difficult working purely by hand – ‘Part 3′ and Part 6’ in particular really benefit from the use of sequencing in this way. Once again, though, the album closes with one of Jarre’s more traditional pieces. ‘Part 8’ opens with the sound of rain, only for a simulated Parisian street band, complete with woozy organ, to slowly fade in, as if the listener is walking towards it; then fade out again as though the listener continues walking past. The storm builds steadily in intensity, until finally, the refrain from ‘Part 5’ is played at a much slower tempo on an organ, and the album ends on a warm, nostalgic note. Rarely has Jarre’s passion for the traditional music of his home country been so vividly evident in his music. Evidently Jarre holds a special affection for the Parisian street band section, as he has performed it on its own, outside the confines of ‘Part 8’ of Équinoxe, as ‘Band In The Rain’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Équinoxe was an immediate smash hit upon its release in December 1978, both in France and throughout Europe, where Jarre’s star was very much in the ascendant. Even in in the UK, where press was almost unanimously hostile, Équinoxe managed to climb to number 11 in the album chart. Now, with two hit albums under his belt, the question inevitably began to be asked: would Jarre decide to play live shows? For a little while, Jarre resisted: after all, the analogue machines he had favoured were notoriously unreliable on stage – as other bands had learnt to their cost, the machines often losing their tuning or malfunctioning spectacularly in more humid environments. Also, of course, Jarre would not be able to play all the equipment himself, as the albums were filled with dense arrangements which Jarre had had to overdub in the studio.
However, for the adventurous Jarre, it was merely a case of finding the right kind of event to make it worthwhile. That event was finally proferred to him by Parisian authorities, who approached France’s new celebrity to play a special outdoor show to celebrate Bastille Day 1979. Jarre set up his banks of equipment on a special stage constructed at the Place de la Concorde in the centre of the city, electing to play the show alone by using tapes to replicate the parts he wasn’t able to cover himself. Jarre, a stage veteran after making numerous concert appearances with other bands, suddenly found himself the sole focus of the crowd as it began to assemble. Later admitting to becoming increasingly nervous as the crowd began to grow, Jarre busied himself with preparing his equipment in a bid to settle his nerves. By the time evening arrived, the crowd had spread out as far as he could see in every direction: ultimately, the attendance for his Bastille Day concert was to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest concert attendance, as around one million people thronged the centre of Paris to see the new wunderkind perform the entirety of both Oxygène and Équinoxe. Even at this early stage of his career, Jarre had had the forethought and ambition to co-ordinate a set of visual set pieces to accompany his show: buildings on the site had a series of specially-prepared slides displayed on them throughout the show, water fountains were lit up in different colours and synchronised to parts of the music, and several tracks saw salvos of fireworks released. In many ways, the Place de la Concorde show set a template for Jarre’s increasingly spectacular shows; shows that would become synonymous with his name over the next four decades. For Jarre was just getting started.
Next time: The arrival of a new digital synthesizer changes the face of Jarre’s work forever; Jarre’s live shows become still more ambitious, even in the face of tragedy; and Jarre battles good old British red tape (and the famously inclement British weather).