Thursday, 15 October 2015

Electronica Part 1 / -1: ...all the rest

In a countdown to Jean -Michel Jarre's long awaited and much anticipated new studio album Electronica 1 - The Time Machine, we've been looking at Jarre's early albums since his career took off with Oxygene in 1977. Sadly, time is running out so here's a quick look at some of his more significant albums after 1983, with best tracks highlighted and a 'out of ten' score..

Zoolook (1984)
Jarre goes to town with the Fairlight sampling machine on this studio album featuring - shock horror - shorter tracks with proper titles and (sampled) voices, even. US avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson also features.
Best tracks: EthnicolorZoolookologie.

Rendez-Vous (1986)
Back to the old 'title track in several parts' formula for this unspectacular album. Very much aimed at the US market and in fact the last 'Rendez-Vous' was to have been played in space by astronaut Ron McNair, tragically killed in the Challenger explosion in January.
Best tracks: Fourth Rendez-Vous, Last Rendez-Vous (Ron's Piece)

Waiting for Cousteau (1990)
Into a new decade and with electronic music taking new directions, Jarre was keen to explore the ambient side of things especially on the 47 minute long single pièce on side two, made especially for the CD age (it was edited to half that length for old-fashioned vinyl and cassette tape).
Best tracks: Waiting for Cousteau, Calypso 1

Chronologie (1993)
Again it's the 'title track divided into parts' formula although don't let that put you off this impressive return to form. Thus entitled because it started out as a sound made for Swatch adverts.
Best track: Chronologie Part 4

Hong Kong (1994)
Ten years after Concerts in China here's an even more impressive live album which gives a good idea of Jarre's live repertoire and what could be achieved on stage at this point in time.

Oxygene 7-13 (1997)
An unexpected follow-up to the majestic opera prima which did not disappoint. Such was the popularity of electronic music at this point that the album spawned several remixes by in-vogue producers and artists, many of which are gathered on the Odyssey Through O2 album.
Best tracks: all

Metamorphoses (2000)
Into the new century and not content to rest on his laurels, Jarre experiemtns with a number of new styles in an album surprisingly made up of twelve tracks each with a different title. His experimentation doesn't always succeed, although there's obviously a lot here that Jean Micehl had to get off his chest.
Best tracks: C'est la Vie, Tout Est Bleu, Je Me Souviens

AERO (2004)
If you want to get just one JMJ compilation album (of which there are many) get this one, which is both a collection and re-visitation of various past tracks with upgraded sonics and - if you're lucky - even a DVD with 5.1 sound for good measure. Three new tracks also feature.
Best tracks: Oxygène 4, Equinoxe 3/4, Aerozone


Téo & Téa (2007)
..and if there's one JMJ album you should avoid it's this one. Derided by both critics and fans alike, it's a highly techno-oriented romp through modern 'dance' sounds and rhythms, describing a day in the life of two computer-generated cartoon characters. Jarre recently said there has some albums he has released which he wishes he hasn't - one feels this may be one of them.
Best tracks: Teo & Tea (and that's saying something)

Electronica 1: The Time Machine (2015)

Electronica Part 1 / -2: The Concerts in China

Continuing our look at the music of Jean Michel Jarre in the run-up to his new album Electronica 1, we look at the artist's first live album

Disques Dreyfus, 1982

During his concerts in the Orient in 1981, Jarre achieved two remarkable things: firstly, he was one of the first Western artists to perform a live concert of modern pop/rock music since the Cultural Revolution, and secondly manage to get his particular hardware-heavy and guitar n drum-lite music onto the live stage. Despite all manner of difficulties in both senses, the concerts were a huge success and are well documented here in this double-LP.
Red Square: Jarre's first live album.
Despite having released three studio albums, Jarre's repertoire was still surprisingly limited, at least for a live audience who wanted good (Western) entertainment and whose attention had to be kept throughout. Such was his musical skill, however, that as well as re-arranging a range of pièces from Equinoxe and Magnetic Fields (amazingly there is nothing from Oxygene!) Jarre also composed and arranged four new tracks for the shows bringing in new features such as the legendary laser harp, the Simmons drum kit and, crucially, elements of Chinese music.

While the opening Overture is a variation on Magnetic Fields 1, Arpegiator is a lengthy new track, showing off some snazzy equipment, followed by a much boosted Equinoxe 4 (thanks above all to the electronic drum kit), followed by the traditional Chinese Fishing Junks at Sunset, just to keep the native crowd and the authorities happy. Band in the Rain is a variation of the organ first heard in Equinoxe 7, but this time segued into its parent track. Recorded travel sound effects (musique concrète?) lead us nicely into another "inédite" Orient Express, also released as a single. Perhaps unsurprisingly the latest studio album is featured the most here, although the listed MF1 is merely a recording of ping-pong balls ping-ponging across a ping-pong table (but much appreciated and applauded). MF III/IV are pretty much as per the studio recordings so Laser Harp and Night in Shangahai bring welcome new material to the stage. The Last Rumba (aka MF5) has a nice fin-de-concert almost unplugged feel to it but it's the rousing MF2 that seems to bring the crowd alive, literally, as the Chinese announcer at the beginning appeals to the audience to clap their hands in time to the music (* a Chinese lasy told me that). Naturally one and all oblige.

But after the applause and cheering has died down it's the closing Souvenir of China that one of the album's highlights. More musique concrete recordings set to a theme which Jean-Michel's soundtrack-composing dad would surely have been proud of. Au revoir Chine .. à la prochaine.

Where to hear it:
The Concerts in China is now available as double-disc CD (single disc editions also exist) on Sony / BMG.
The full concert can be watched here (unofficial), or streamed via Spotify.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Electronica Part 1 / -3: Magnetic Fields/Les Chants Magnétiques

In the run-up to the release of Jean Michel Jarre's new album Electronica - Part 1 we are looking back over the French electronic music maestro's major albums. Into the 80s now with the third installment.

(Disques Dreyfus, vinyl, 1981)
Spot le différence: Franco and Anglophone album covers 

In the wake of Jarre's worldwide and whirlwind success from 1977 to 1979 we're catapulted into the 80s and his first studio album of the decade, this time with a bilingual title and even a French pun. The literal translation of 'magnetic fields' is 'champs (as in Elysees) magnétiques'  although that can also sound like 'chants', so 'magnetic chants', or 'singing' it is - in French at least. Comprenez? Although Jarre sticks with the all-electronic all (or mostly)-instrumental formula for his thrid album, Magnetic Fields is a slightly less pompous affair compared with its predecessors, not least thanks to advances in technology and with it, electronic music itself. With the likes of new bands like Ultravox, Depeche Mode and a shiny new Human League now bubbling under and waiting in the wings, electronic music making was becoming  and more affordable, more accessible and generally lightening up. Kraftwerk's Computer World album had also got the electro-ball rolling in 1981, and although the world was still not quite ready for it, they had taught us that music could now be made by pocket calculators and that it was more fun to compute.

One of the major protagonists of Jarre's new sound was of course the new Fairlight sampler, a keyboard connected to a small computer and screen which could effectively electronically 'sample' a sound which could then be played back in various tones and pitches on the keyboard. Top artists of the moment like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel had already used them on their respective 1980 albums, and the Fairlight was quite a boon for an artist like Jarre who had been educated by Pierre Schaefer, exponent of musique concrète and the concept that music was made up not of notes but of sounds...
And sounds is what we do get aplenty on the new album...aircraft, trains, and even /shock! horror!) babbling voices all mixed in with the rich layers of Jarre's impressive synthesiser arsenal.

Fair enough: Jarre gets to grips with new sampling technology ca. 1980
The structure was slightly different this time, with the customary 'Part One' taking up all of Side One, but split into three different movements. Side two therefore starts with Part Two, again the traditional catchy 'single', which this time it had failed to chart, at least in the UK. Part 3 is another foray in what would become known as 'ambient' music, leading into a more traditional Part 4 coming to a screeching halt with Fairlight-sampled train rolling stock, a fitting homage to Schaeffer's 1948 Chemins de Fer recordings. But it ain't over yet. Part 5, aka The Last Rumba is a nostalgic 1950s dancefloor number, perhaps not unlike the organ playing on Equinoxe 8, and possibly harks back to some memoir in Jarre's mind.

While Magnetic/Champs kept Jarre on the (electronic) musical map, its chart success was even more modest than that of Equinoxe, at least in the UK and the rest of Europe, save perhaps for his native France where he was achieving superstar status, the likes of which had not been seen since Johnny Hallyday and Charles Aznavour. But meanwhile on the other side of the world, one country was keeping a keen eye, and ear, on Jean Michel and his music.

Where to hear it:
Magnetic Fields has recently been re-released on CD (2014) and vinyl LP (2015) by Sony Music,available from usual retailers. It can also be streamed via Spotify.

Electronica Part 1 / -4 : Equinoxe

In the run-up to the release of Jean Michel Jarre's new album Electronica - Part 1 we are looking back over the French electronic music maestro's major albums. Today it's the turn of his second studio album, the follow-up to Oxygene.

(Disques Dreyfus, vinyl, 1978)

Looking for a follow-up: the
 'Equinoxe' album front cover
In the previous post we drew comparisons between Jarre's debut Oxygene and Oldfield's Tubular Bells, two highly individual and unique opera prima which eventually met with huge success in their respective times. Likewise, both artists were left with a similar dilemma afterwards: how to follow it up? Whereas Oldfield had the backing of the fast growing Virgin records, Jarre remained faithful to the rather less huge Dreyfus Records in France, but arguably came up with a more worthy successor, compared to Oldfield's less convincing Hergest Ridge. But this was 1978 and the music world was changing fast in Europe, and crucially in the UK. Although punk had proved to be a flash in the pan, it had sparked the 'new wave' on both sides of the Atlantic bringing forward a whole range of new groups from The Police to Blondie to The Stranglers and so on. But Jarre stuck to his guns, and to his successful all-electronic, no lyrics, long instrumental tracks to produce his second album Equinoxe, which came out at the end of '78.

Expectations were high, yet reviews were less favourable and the public's reaction initially even less so. The album was released in December, possibily in an attempt to exploit the Christmas market, although ultimately Equinoxe was rather swamped by it. At least in the UK, Christmas shoppers preferred to spend their money on the Grease OST album (thirteen weeks at no. 1), compilation albums by certs such as The Carpenters and Showaddywaddy, plus new albums by big names like Rod Stewart and Queen. Yet patience was the name of the game for Equinoxe and the album did eventually reach the Top 20 end of Jan into Feb. of 1979, spurred on perhaps by the release of the Equinoxe V single which was played often enough on the radio (as I recall, usually to fill in gaps before the news bulletin), yet itself failed to go Top 30 (or even 40). The album peaked at no. 11 , but clocked up 26 weeks in the UK Top 75. Like Oxygene, it sold beaucoup.

Reaching out to the future: Jarre in the studio, ca. 1978/79

The album is structured much like Oxygene - a completely instrumental work, this time divided into eight parts. Overall there seems to be more coherence compared to its predecessor, with the repetition of musical themes and structures, something which was missing last time. For those who don't know an 'equinox' is that time of the year when the hours of light and dark (day and night) are equal - you get one in Spring and one in Autumn. Jarre's opus (apparently) represents one day from morning til night and indeed we do start with a low pitched drone (the silence of night) followed by a crescendo of synthesisers representing the dawn  - that's Part 1. We continue with a slow start to the day ( a leisurely breakfast?) in Part 2, followed by a slightly more lively Part 3 (later re-purposed as a 'waltz' for a 7" B side release). But it's in Part 4 that the day really gets going, and is one of the album's strong points - an almost danceable composition where Jarre pulls out all the synthetic stops to end the first 'side'. Perhaps unsurprisingly it was also remixed and issued as a 12" "extended" version - one of the first of its kind. Turning the record over and o-oh, the weather's turned bad. But no matter as the rain and thunderclap opening on Side Two herald the 'single' Part 5 (again the 'catchy one is strategically placed here) and we're singing and dancing in the rain. And keep it up for Part 6, personally one of my favourites. The allegro con brio electro-rhythms continue and the sound is even close to that of early synth-pop which would come to light a few years into the future.  Part 7 slows things down a little, but there's never a dull moment on Equinoxe and we are once more uplifted to dizzy, dancing heights with a tune made for the type of large open air concerts, which Jarre would later come to embrace. We slowly come to rest between Part 7 and 8 and, as the rain continues, drift into a kind of dream sequence where a fairground organ plays under the pouring rain before fading away into a final winding down ('chill out' as it would be called much later) and a final slow-mo repetition of the 'Part 5' theme as we drift back into our nocturnal slumber.

The success of Jarre's first two albums would later translate into his first live performance as a solo artist in Paris on Bastille Day in 1979, drawing his first record-breaking crowd of one million (how do they count them?). How much was actually played 'live' on equipment which was still notoriously unreliable and unsuitable for such events is debateable, yet Jarre had dome something amazing. he had brought instrumental electronic music to the masses, preparing them for a further revolution which was yet to come.

Where to hear it:
Equinoxe has recently been re-released on CD (2014) and vinyl LP (2015) by Sony Music,available from usual retailers. It can also be streamed via Spotify.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Electronica Part 1 / -5 : Oxygene

In the run-up to the release of Jean Michel Jarre's new album Electronica- Part 1 we'll be looking back over the French electronic music maestro's major albums.

OXYGENE - Jean Michel Jarre
(Disques Dreyfus, vinyl, 1976)

There are various accounts of how many copies of Jean Michel Jarre's debut album Oxygene (I'm sticking to the incorrect accent-less 'English' spelling here) have actually been sold, but the fact is that it remains his most famous and arguably his best album to date. There are also many parallels to be made with English counterpart Mike Oldfield and his Tubular Bells: young musician realises first major musical opus in the early seventies, unique album/sound/format which no record company is interested in because a) there are no lyrics b) the 'songs' are too long and on top of that, as Jarre regularly gleefully points out - Oxygene was made by a Frenchman. Thankfully however, someone did see potential and Richard Dreyfus (like Branson and Draper slightly before him) believed that this totally electronic instrumental album might just sell quite a few copies, in France at least.

As with Tubular Bells, success was far from instant and what's more Oxygene was launched in the UK in the summer of 1977 at the height of the punk 'revolution' and the Queens' Silver Jubilee with British patriotism also at a peak. No place for a French instrumental album, one may think. "..some interest will be generated but the album is not really suited to our insular and musically anti-intellectual Anglo-Saxon island", commented Music Week. Comparisons were of course made to electronic-prog giants Tangerine Dream and even to Continental classical music, which placed the album in an electronic niche few Brits would dare to enter. That said, Stan Sayer of leading UK tabloid Daily Mirror described Oxygene as "A French revolution to rock the world." (source)

German 7" pic bag. (
The breakthrough came firstly with the release of the 7" single Oxygene Pt. IV, with it's catchy riff and warm analogue synth sounds making it somehow into a 'summer' classic evocative perhaps of those Continental holidays which were fast becoming fashionable and affordable. Radio 1 DJ Simon Bates made it his 'Single of the Week' and it duly went into the charts at no. 22 in late August and soon reached no. 4 in September where it stayed for four weeks, jostling with the likes of the recently deceased Elvis Presley, disco queen Donna Summer, TV star-cum-crooner David Soul and, significantly, fellow Frenchmen Space and their electronic disco-instrumental Magic Fly - so much for the punk revolution. Likewise the parent album went Top 10 at the end of August, staying there until November (kept off the top by Diana Ross and The Supremes but topping Elvis Presley), totaling fourteen weeks in the Top 30 albums. (Jarre has also claimed in recent interviews that the album was played in its entirety on the radio 'in Britain', giving it a further boost. While this is true of Tubular Bells, I have not found any evidence of this in the case of Oxygene).

As Oxygene is such a unique aural experience, it's hard to do it justice simply by using words on a keyboard/screen. However, like it says on the packet, the pièce is a six-part electronic music-fest, divided into two only by the limitations of the old vinyl 'sides'. Part 1 starts off slowly building up layers of luscious synth-sounds but as with much of the album you're never bored and things are continuously changing and morphing even within a single 'part'. Part 2 is one of the better-known sections and is now regularly included in JMJ compilations. The aural hook may be in the twee two-fingered keyboard riff but its beauty lies in the closing minutes with a soft almost improvised synth, playing over the layers of Moog, ending up in a Kraftwerk-esque choral loop (sans vocoder). Part 3 finishes the first side off nicely with it's faux-theremin screeching away into the distance, taking us to the outer reaches of...somewhere. Side Two keeps our attention going with the catchy aforementioned Part 4 (its position hardly casual) which will have you humming/whistling/foot-tapping along, remembering those warm summer days of the Silver Jubilee. Aside from the catchy synth lead, I personally prefer to follow the 'groovy' bass-line which runs throughout - listen out for it next time! Part 5 is perhaps the least interesting of the piece although is divided into two movements (never understood why this wasn't Parts 5 & 6, followed by 7), the latter of which pays homage to Eastern-influences over a groovy Moog sound, before the electronic waves of Part 6 come crashing in . The simple melody and rhythm box (the famous Korg Mini-Pop?) mixed with the white-noise waves bring us back to (a dying?) Earth and give us a fitting finale to what is possibly one of the first 'ambient music' albums in history.

In his August 1977 review Sayer, writing from sunny San Tropez, stated "It [Oxygene] has a beat to thrill rock fans and a beauty and majesty that will appeal to lovers of classical music", to which I would add that at its heart Oxygene also contains pop, jazz and just a little bit of French impressionistic genius. Listen to it to believe it.

Where to hear it:
Oxygene has recently been re-released on CD (2014) and vinyl LP (2015) by Sony Music.,available from usual retailers. It can also be streamed via Spotify.
A re-recorded version of Oxygene, differing little from the original, was also released on CD in 2007, accompanied by a noteworthy "Live in Your Living Room" performance on DVD. Here's Part 2 from that performance: