By: Dave Cooper

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By the time 1980 arrived, Jean-Michel Jarre’s notoriety in his native France and indeed throughout Europe was substantial. Copies of Oxygène and Équinoxe were still flying off the shelves, helped in no small part by his triumphant performance at the Place de la Concorde. Although Jarre was now being inundated with offers of venues for live performances, he elected not to tour with his hit records, preferring to retreat to his studio and start working on new music. Jarre was already feeling the restlessness that would typify his approach to making music: in interviews around the time, he was already talking about his next record being somewhat different in approach. He was about to discover a new instrument that would heavily inform his future work, and especially his next two albums.

The fledgling Sydney-based company Fairlight Instruments had been manufacturing microprocessor-based digital synthesisers for a few years, but in 1979 they launched the Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) – the world’s first digital sampler. Despite the substantial cost of the system – many thousand pounds – Jarre was one of the system’s early adopters, along with luminaries such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. The concept of recording and manipulating found sounds resonated with the ideas Jarre had explored at the GRM and his mentor Pierre Schaeffer’s central principle that music was comprised not merely of musical notes, but of sound, not all of which had to be musical in nature. Whilst both Oxygène and Équinoxe had featured elements of this so-called musique concrete, Jarre’s next album, Les Chants Magnétiques, would make a feature of them as never before. The title is a French pun – literally it means “The Magnetic Songs”, the joke being that the French word “chants” (songs) sounds very much like “champs” (fields). The pun makes no sense once the title is translated out of its native French, so across the rest of the world the record was known simply as Magnetic Fields.

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When Magnetic Fields arrived in 1981, it divided opinions among Jarre’s fans. Earthbound and energetic, it was quite a departure from the intricate, neo-classical stylings that typified Oxygène and Équinoxe. Inspired and loosely conceived around the concept of travel, the five pieces were all strikingly different in tone and mood. The lengthy ‘Part 1’, which filled one whole side of the album, was a tripartite epic inspired by the concept of flight; the kaleidoscopic proto-techno segments that opened and closed the piece interrupted by a spacey, drifting, ambient section shot through with the sounds of aeroplanes flying from speaker to speaker, the speech and laughter of their passengers – weirdly twisted and distorted using the Fairlight – providing a novel counterpoint. One of Jarre’s most ambitious earlier pieces, it remains stunningly effective. Elsewhere, the relentless momentum of ‘Part 2’ was inspired by trains, and the distinctly oriental vibe of ‘Part 3’ by boats, the swishing water sounds once more provided by Fairlight samples. It’s harder to pin down the inspiration of ‘Part 4’, although the sound of pneumatic doors that close the track after a blissful extended coda might yield a clue. The final ‘Part 5’ continues Jarre’s tradition of placing a stylistically incongruous, more traditional, track at the end of each album; this time, a beautifully realised but totally conventional rhumba that Jarre seems to have intended as a warm, familiar way to close out what he may have felt was a challenging record. Despite some mixed reviews, Magnetic Fields immediately repeated the success of its predecessors, reaching top ten positions in album charts across Europe – often appearing simultaneously in pop, jazz and classical charts, just to confuse those unfamiliar with Jarre’s music.

With his new album doing well, and in need of fresh inspiration before returning to the studio, Jarre started paying more attention to the offers of venues for concerts that had been pouring in. One in particular really captured his attention: an offer for Jarre to play in China, making him the first Western musician to do so since the political and cultural revolution of 1949. China, then fully in thrall to its communist regime, was notably resistant to “decadent” Western art and music. Western music was excluded totally from Chinese radio, which consisted entirely of informational programming and traditional and classical music. The neo-classical approach Jarre’s previous albums had employed had led Chinese officials to make an approach. They were keen not to be portrayed as too stuck in the past, and Jarre’s mixture of the comfortingly familiar and the forward thinking seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. Surely Jarre’s emotive but cerebral music wouldn’t give rise to the vulgar displays that Chinese leaders saw happening in the West?

Excited by the possibilities, Jarre agreed to stage five shows in China: two in Beijing, and three in Shanghai, over the course of ten days in the autumn of 1981. These were more modest in scope than his performance at the Place de la Concorde, being staged at indoor concert halls. When Jarre arrived, he soon realised that both the visitors and the natives were in for a substantial culture shock. According to Jarre’s biographer, Jean-Louis Remillieux, whilst Jarre’s band were setting up their equipment at the venue in Beijing, worried Chinese workers asked Jarre’s bemused technicians where they should install the fans that would blow the music into the audience. The nature of electronic instrumentation – among many other things – was clearly entirely foreign to the Chinese, and the Chinese tour instantly became about more than just the music to Jarre and his team.

The events of the Chinese tour were captured by a film crew that accompanied Jarre’s team on tour. An hour-long video of selected highlights – musical and otherwise – was later released to retail, and remains fascinating viewing, as Chinese cultural norms are – or rather were – so very different to what we’re used to in the West. At Jarre’s first show, the audience sits in total silence, the end of each song greeted with a smattering of polite applause – there is absolutely no cheering or shouting. By the time the tour ends in Shanghai, the audience are a noisy mob, fists held aloft, singing wordlessly along to the music. One still poignant scene shows a plainly delighted Jarre running along the barrier at the front of the audience playing a small portable keyboard, holding it into the audience for them to interact with and being practically mobbed in return. This may not have been the outcome that the Chinese leaders might have hoped for, but Jarre’s tour was plainly much loved by his Chinese audiences, and to this day Jarre remains especially fond of China, having returned to play there again in the early 2000s.

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The following year saw highlights from the five Chinese concerts released as Jarre’s first live album, The Concerts In China. The double album is notable for several reasons: for one, it contains no less than seven new tracks, including Jarre’s collaboration with a Chinese orchestra, the evocative ‘Fishing Junks At Sunset’, the tense, simmering ‘Night In Shanghai’, ‘Arpegiator’, whose driving rhythm is built around a dense sequencer loop, and the triumphant ‘Orient Express’, which is very much in the vein of the Magnetic Fields material. Also particularly noteworthy is a track entitled simply ‘Laser Harp’, which features Jarre playing the titular instrument, one which he was to become very closely identified with. The laser harp uses laser beams which, when the beams are broken, triggers samples from a synthesizer linked via MIDI. The early version of the instrument Jarre took on tour with him in China has developed through increasingly elaborate and versatile iterations and is still a feature of Jarre’s work in and out of the studio to this day. The Concerts In China closes with another new song, this time recorded in the studio after Jarre’s return from his Chinese adventure. Entitled ‘Souvenir Of China’, it’s a moving, slow-paced piece that wonderfully reflects Jarre’s fondness for the country and its people. Built around a simple synthesiser part and programmed drums, it also makes extensive use of the Fairlight CMI, as samples of human voices are sped up and bent into shape, accompanied by the clicking of cameras, reflecting the excitement and delight of the French ‘tourists’ as they wandered through China.

Jarre has never been afraid of controversy. Since the more avant-garde approach of his days at the GRM in Paris and the debut of his ‘AOR’ piece, he has never allowed his muse to be stymied. 1983 was to provide a further example of his contrariness. Contracted to produce music for a supermarket-themed art show, Jarre pieced together his next album, Musique pour supermarché (‘Music For Supermarkets’). The show ran during June that year, with each of the unique exhibits auctioned off afterwards. Inspired by the artists example, Jarre elected to essentially make his music one of the exhibits. A single vinyl copy of his album was pressed, before Jarre destroyed the plates used to press the LP and the original master tapes, ensuring that this single copy of the album would be the only copy ever produced. The album was auctioned off alongside the pieces of artwork, ultimately selling for the equivalent of €10,500, a tidy sum at the time.

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Perhaps understandably, some fans were disappointed that around 35 minutes of new music by Jarre existed that they would never own; however, in an unsurprising fit of égalité, shortly after the sale of the album, Jarre allowed the album to be played in full on Radio Luxembourg, prefacing the broadcast by encouraging fans to make bootleg recordings for their own use. Unsurprisingly given Jarre’s enduring popularity, copies – admittedly of poor quality – of that broadcast have made it onto the internet and are now just a quick visit to Google away. Jarre also recycled and re-used parts of the record over the course of his career, so in a sense Music For Supermarkets was a very public bout of research & development for his future writing.

Jarre’s fascination with manipulating the human voice would have a major impact on his next album, 1984’s Zoolook. The Fairlight would have an immense impact on the way Zoolook was conceived and recorded: in fact, virtually the entirety of the album was comprised of samples captured and manipulated by the synthesizer. Taking his fascination with the manipulation of vocal samples to its logical conclusion, Jarre used a library of vocal recordings of a number of languages to build up a huge collection of samples, which he then bent and shaped into rhythm and melody tracks. The new songs didn’t just feature vocal samples; for the most part, they were actually comprised of them. The exceptions were the instrumental performances of the guest musicians that helped Jarre build the musical framework to support the cavalcade of samples. Renowned session drummer Yogi Horton, veteran jazz bassist Marcus Miller, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew and singer/songwriter Laurie Anderson, among others, added a special lustre to the album – their performances on Zoolook are little short of spectacular, even when their parts were carefully built up by Jarre from a series of Fairlight samples of their original performances. Zoolook remains possibly the most extensive and imaginative use of samples on an album – extensively imitated and pilfered from in the years to come, Zoolook has had an enormous influence on the use of sampling in popular music ever since its release.

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Zoolook is still a dazzlingly inventive listen today. The opening track, ‘Ethnicolor’, throws everything at the listener. It opens with an atmospheric introduction over which vocal samples sweep from speaker to speaker and chatter in the listeners ears, sometimes barely even recognisable as speech, the human race recast as bizarre creatures, the voices of the world as heard by alien visitors. The song is given a grandiose, operatic feel which moves through several distinct sections before the song begins a steady, inexorable build-up that finally blasts towards the horizon in a dizzying display of virtuosity from the album’s rhythm section, Horton and Miller making a formidable double-act. Whilst it may be the album’s highpoint and one of Jarre’s finest recorded achievements, what follows is no disappointment. Anderson’s showcase, ‘Diva’ (its aquatic feel a play on the title: should it be ‘Diva’ or ‘Diver’?) follows, Anderson providing a vocalese lead vocal over several layers of interlocked rhythms and melodies built largely from vocal samples before a suitably Caribbean denouement – a stylistic feel that Jarre would return to in 1990 for his album Waiting For Cousteau. The other half of the album is comprised of shorter songs, and if they were stylistically more conventional, their construction was equally ambitious. From the baleful, almost ritualistic feel of the moonlit ‘Wooloomooloo’, all funereal drumming and a chirping chorus of human voices imitating frogs and cicadas, to the melodies of the effervescent New Wave pop of the title track and ‘Zoolookologie’, built entirely out of vocal samples, Jarre’s invention in the use of his source material is staggering. The samples also form the eccentric heart of the funk-influenced ‘Blah Blah Café’ and the call and response lead lines for the closing track, ‘Ethnicolor II’. This track re-used ambient recordings made at supermarkets for the notorious Music For Supermarkets album in a somewhat cheeky callback to Jarre’s previous record. Musically, the track followed the established pattern of being somewhat more low-key and traditional than the remainder of the album, its spooky lead melody belied with a prominent Bacharach-esque percussion line that lends it a hypnotic quality. The general impression you’re left with, upon listening to Zoolook, is the sense that you’re listening to a musician truly inspired by the new technology he is using, striving towards genuinely innovative uses of that technology, making music quite unlike anything else yet rooted in familiar pop tropes.

Alas, no matter how influential Zoolook was ultimately to prove to be, at the time it was Jarre’s lowest-selling album to date, and was regarded at the time as a disappointing follow-up to his earlier work. Perhaps in part for this reason, and given the sample-heavy nature of the material, Jarre did not play any live shows immediately following its release. Whilst Jarre’s ongoing success was not particularly affected, the Frenchman was perhaps a little disillusioned by the lukewarm reception his most ambitious and adventurous recording to date had received. He retreated to his studio, throwing himself back into his music.

It was whilst Jarre was working on his next album, Rendez-vous, that he was invited to play a huge outdoor concert to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state of Texas in the USA. Perhaps ironically, the show would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of NASA, the North American Space Administration. Long fascinated by space exploration, and excited by the possibilities offered by the striking skyline of the Texan capital, Houston, Jarre accepted the offer.

Jarre’s show – “Rendez-vous Houston” as it was to be called – was by far his most ambitious concert project up to that point. His idea was to transfigure the Houston skyline into a series of giant projection screens by attaching enormous canvas sheets to their sides, and using their roofs as bases for giant spotlights and launchpads for extravagant firework displays. Texas, with its reputation for doing everything bigger and better than anywhere else, would receive a show equal to that reputation. Predictably, organising such a huge show was not without its problems: the city’s fire chief tried his hardest to shut the show down right up to the day of the concert, citing safety concerns, and torrential rain and high winds repeatedly tore down the huge canvas screens and ruined instrumentation, which had to be replaced with only a few days before the show went ahead. The cost of staging the show was staggering.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea that Jarre had had, though, was a musical link-up with the latest NASA space mission. The Space Shuttle Challenger was due to be in orbit at the time ‘Rendez-vous Houston’ was to take place. One of the astronauts due to be on board was scientist and saxophonist Ron McNair. Jarre and McNair hatched an idea whereby, during the concert, McNair would transmit a live performance of a piece of music that Jarre and his band would be playing at the same time. Nothing like it had been attempted before. Alas, it was not to be. The entire world was watching when, on January 28th 1986, Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, killing everyone on board. Grief-stricken, Jarre immediately felt like calling off the show; quite apart from the loss of his friend and collaborator, the disaster had changed the entire nature of the planned show. What was originally intended as a celebratory event now felt more like the soundtrack to a wake. However, Jarre was persuaded that now it was more important than ever that the show went ahead: it was to be a celebration of all that Texas and NASA had achieved, and a memorial to the Challenger crew. Jarre saw the wisdom of viewing the event in this way and Jarre’s spectacular show went ahead on April 5th, 1986.

Happily “Rendez-vous Houston” was a resounding success, and an entirely suitable celebration and memorial – even if all the roads in and around the concert site were jammed for hours before and after the show. Jarre broke his own record for concert attendance, the estimated on-site audience being over the 1 million mark, and millions more watching on TV as the concert was broadcast. The 90 minute show also allowed Jarre to premiere some of the Rendez-vous material: ‘Second Rendez-vous’ was used as a centrepiece to celebrate the achievements of NASA, whilst later in the show the city watched, heartbroken, as images of the Challenger shuttle disaster were projected onto buildings as the track on which Ron McNair was to have played, the haunting ‘Last Rendez-vous’, was performed. As a tribute to the fallen Challenger mission astronauts, and as a celebration of achievements of NASA, Houston and the state of Texas, Jarre’s show truly was everything to all people. Its success was shortly to provide Jarre with another opportunity to stage a once-in-a-lifetime concert.

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Rendez-vous was released later that same month, to a much improved reception to that its predecessor received, undoubtedly helped by the global impact that “Rendez-vous Houston” had had. Other than the dedication to the crew of the Challenger on the sleeve, no mention is made of the theme of the album, but Rendez-vous is quite transparently an album about our exploration of space. Ron Grainger’s cover cleverly reprises the essential idea of that of Oxygène, although this time we are not looking inward, at the make-up of the world we live in, but are calling out to the void, as the face of the Earth is transformed into a woman, calling out to the void through cupped hands. Rendez-vous is Jarre’s most classically-influenced album: the first three tracks in particular are very much in the gothic classical tradition, albeit shot through with readily identifiable electronic components. The fourth and fifth tracks are rather more playful, although the fifth track foreshadows the starlit introspection of ‘Last Rendez-vous’ by opening with a claustrophobic but highly atmospheric recording of the breathing of astronaut Bruce McCandless, a friend of Jarre’s, as he conducts his now-infamous spacewalk. The anthemic ‘Fourth Rendez-vous’ is another helping of prototypical fist-pumping trance, whilst ‘Fifth Rendez-vous’ spirals from an elegaic opening into a spinning vortex of sequencer-powered mayhem, shot through with operatic vocals and a brief guest appearance from what feels very much like the Parisian street band that first appeared back on ‘Equinoxe’. The forlorn, meditative ‘Last Rendez-vous’ is the perfect goodbye, and remains one of Jarre’s most emotive pieces.

With the album and “Rendez-vous Houston” complete, Jarre might have found some time to relax were it not for a phone call from the Mayor’s office in his home town of Lyon. It transpired that later in the year, Lyon would be playing host to Pope Jean Paul II. Would Lyon’s prodigal son be interested in staging an event to celebrate the Pope’s visit? Mais oui, bien sur. The resulting show – perhaps predictably entitled “Rendez-vous Lyon” – was on a similar grand scale to its predecessor, the Mayor’s office smoothing over the inevitable concerns from services and citizens alike. When the Pope blessed the city of Lyon over Jarre’s enormous PA that October, he must have wondered what to expect from Jarre’s menagerie of musicians and batteries of equipment. The people of Lyon, however, celebrated the return of their prodigal son with all the exuberance you would expect of a home-town show, the sheer scale of Jarre’s performance magnifying their response.

1987 saw Jarre starting work on his next album. Whilst he was busy in the studio, Polydor released a live album compiled from the two “Rendez-vous” concerts entitled Cities In Concert: Houston – Lyon; hour long videos featuring highlights from the shows were also released, allowing audiences who hadn’t witnessed the shows to experience the grand scale of Jarre’s huge outdoor shows for themselves, and Jarre’s reputation for staging grandiose shows was sealed. Little perhaps did he realise that his biggest shows were still ahead of him.

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Whilst working on his new album, Revolutions, Jarre was offered another intriguing concert opportunity, this time in the UK. The government had injected a huge amount of money into regenerating the wastelands of London’s disused Docklands in a bid to attract investors and big business to set up offices and businesses there, and it was felt that Jarre was just the kind of artist they needed to make a grand statement about the area. Jarre himself was instantly bewitched by the possibilities of the locale, dominated by disused industrial buildings, and the broad expanse of the river Thames, and eagerly agreed. What neither Jarre nor his governmental benefactors could have known was just how contentious the proposed show was going to be. Immediately the emergency services were up in arms, saying that there was no way they could guarantee they’d be able to reach the site in a timely fashion – or at all – if there were any issues; then the local council became embroiled in a hit and run health and safety-based pitched battle that was to drag on for months, long after Jarre and his sponsors had ploughed millions into preparing the site and Jarre’s elaborate floating stage for the event. What was touted originally as a free concert was rapidly scaled back: finally an audience size was agreed, tickets were prepared and sold, and the show – or rather, shows, for two shows were planned for subsequent evenings late in September 1988 – was on. The red tape continued to tie up Jarre and his team, however, and the concerts were postponed, then cancelled altogether; it was only when Jarre, his team, and his sponsors teamed up to tackle the numerous roadblocks placed in his way by the council and went through a lengthy and costly legal battle that the concerts were finally reinstated and were permitted to go ahead.

When Revolutions was finally released the week before the Docklands concerts went ahead, it felt a little like a celebration of a hard-won victory. Unsurprisingly, given all the free press that the legal problems faced by Jarre and his team had provided them with, the album went straight to the top of the UK album charts, and the financial success of Jarre’s project was finally assured.

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Revolutions is, on the face of it, Jarre’s most mainstream record, an idea reinforced by the simple portrait of Jarre that adorns the sleeve and the first use of lead vocals on any of Jarre’s albums, albeit vocals processed heavily with a vocoder. The theme this time was one of cultural change, Jarre using notable periods and events from history to write around. Opening with the portentous and largely sombre but immensely atmospheric ‘Industrial Revolution’, Jarre tackled the sixties (the joyous, Hank Marvin-assisted ‘London Kid’), the economic resurgence of the far East (the dark, eerie ‘Tokyo Kid’), the rapid development of IT (the playful electronic patter of ‘Computer Weekend’), the activism of Dulcie September (the African-styled ‘September’) and the plight of those uprooted by regime change (the breathless, sweeping, Berlioz-inspired ‘The Emigrant’), alongside ‘Revolutions’ itself, which bound together the changes in attitudes that lead to change. The track, a sprightly Eastern-influenced dance number that blends Muezzin chant with vocoder-assisted vocals and a spiralling Arabic riff, remains one of Jarre’s most dancefloor friendly offerings.

However, the fickle British weather was to have one last chance to ruin things for everyone: the weekend of the album’s release, gale-force winds and torrential rain assaulted the UK and the Docklands site was especially badly hit. The expensive PA was partially destroyed, instruments were ruined and rehearsals were curtailed as the storm dragged on for days without showing any sign of letting up. Despite the best efforts of all concerned, it was a demoralised but nonetheless determined team that finally staged the two “Destination Docklands” shows on October 8th and 9th, 1988. The show on the 8th went ahead more or less as planned, minus some of the visual set-pieces Jarre had planned; the show on the 9th was subject to torrential rain almost throughout.

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Jarre had had to fight hard for the Docklands shows, but for all the problems, the spectacular – if damp – shows had further cemented his reputation as a showman, something emphasised by the release the following year of another live album comprised of highlights from the show, unenticingly entitled Jarre Live (it was later re-issued as Destination Docklands, as perhaps it should have been all along). So, at the end of the decade, Jarre’s stock had never been higher. It may have been some time since the early triumph of Oxygène, but his subsequent albums had been well received and his elaborate outdoor shows had kept him in the headlines and helped him maintain his notoriety. But once more, Jarre’s innately restless nature meant that it was time for a change.

Next time: Jarre finds himself becoming regarded as one of the old guard as the burgeoning electronic music scene breaks new ground; he tries his hand at touring, and stages his biggest and most ambitious shows yet; and finally his fascination with remixing and his determination to break new ground finds him at odds with long-established fans…

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