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.

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