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)

pic: cdandlp.com 
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. (Discogs.com)
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:

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