|"Sounds like" … the keyboardist who fathered a cult, Jean
Michel Jarre, performs his mega-selling album Oxygene in full.|
RELEASED in 1976, Oxygene was a sensation: futuristic Continental machine music, not so very different from what Kraftwerk were up to in Dusseldorf at the time, but a whole lot more popular. It sounded wide-eyed and innovative - and seemed to signal a coming era where mankind and technology would synchronise.
Seemingly to be found in every household at the time, the album was a strange, otherworldly artefact. Each unnamed track was numbered: Oxygene I, Oxygene II and so on. But the one that really stood out was the fourth one. It was awash with whooshing Hawkwind-style spacey noises, yet it pulsed with ultra-modern electronic energy.
More importantly, Oxygene IV contained one of the catchiest synth motifs ever: beew ba-boo-boo beew. These five notes made Oxygene a huge, unlikely success story: an instrumental, electronic, ecological concept album that became a global monster.
"Yes," says Jarre when I catch up with him in France, "30 years ago there weren't so many people thinking about the planet. But I've always been interested in that, not necessarily in a political way but in a poetic, surrealistic way."
In 2008, Oxygene still sounds cutely retro-futuristic. Jarre is touring the album in Europe and last Sunday played it in its entirety at London's Royal Albert Hall. The accompanying CD and DVD (which EMI Australia has yet to release, but is available from online stores) incorporate the old analogue technology of the original album.
"These instruments are legends of electronic music and could easily be compared to the Fender Stratocaster for rock'n'roll," he says. "It's the dream of any violinist to play a Stradivarius, an instrument designed centuries ago, and it's the same with these instruments designed by fantastic craftsmen with poetic visions of the future."
His performances are a chance to put the gigantism of his record-breaking outdoor concerts on the backburner and remind people of his roots in the pre-digital electronic vanguard.
Jarre's enormous and famously rain-lashed gig at London's Docklands in 1988 were small fry compared with a 1986 concert in Houston, Texas, attended by 1.5 million, and a Paris gig in 1990 with 2.5 million fans.
Jarre, 59, is the son of Maurice Jarre, who composed music for the films of David Lean, and French Resistance heroine France Pejot. In the '60s, he studied at Pierre Schaeffer's Groupe de Recherche Musicale. Schaeffer was the man who invented musique concrete, the experimental form based on tapes of "found" sounds that created the concept of sampling. Schaeffer taught the young Jarre that "music isn't made of notes, it's made of sounds" and switched him on to the potential of synthesizers. Jarre was soon collecting the equipment with which he would record Oxygene.
"All those ethereal string sounds on Oxygene IV come from the VCS3," he says, "It was the first European synthesizer, made in England by a guy called Peter Zinoviev. I got one of the first ones. I had to go to London in 1967 to get it, and it's the one I still have onstage 40 years later."
Jarre, however, spent a great deal of time dabbling before the formula came together. He tried his hand in bands, recorded an unsuccessful synth album, soundtracked a feature film, composed for a ballet and produced advertising jingles (one of which, for the 1974 opening of the Paris toll-road Autoroute A4, is rumoured to contain the original incarnation of Oxygene IV).
His main source of income was as writer of French hits for artists such as Patrick Juvet and Francoise Hardy, but back in the kitchen of his flat in Rue de Tremoille, Paris, he recorded a burgeoning arsenal of analogue synthesizers on his eight-track. "I wanted to find a bridge between musique concrete, electro-acoustic music and proper rock music," he says.
A painting he bought of the earth peeling to reveal a skull inspired a loose concept for the music. It was by the ecologically motivated artist Michel Granger and the pair met, agreeing its use as cover art. In 1976, however, the idea didn't find many takers.
"No singers, no proper titles, just: I, II, III, IV, V and VI," sighs Jarre. "Even my mum was telling me, 'Why are you calling your album by the name of a gas?' It was refused by a lot of companies."
Eventually, Jarre's fellow former Schaeffer student Helene Dreyfus persuaded her husband Francis to put Oxygene out on his label Disques Motors (now Disques Dreyfus). Although initially unconvinced by synthesizers, Dreyfus took a gamble and pressed a run of 50,000.
Oxygene IV was soon plucked out as the pivotal track. In Britain, the BBC's Radio 1 began supporting it and, on the Continent, Europe 1 made it the theme to one of its regular programs.
The long-term Jarre associate Francis Rimbert, then working in a Paris music shop, recalls: "If you entered a music store with keyboards, you'd see all the young beginners trying to play Oxygene IV. A massive phenomenon was happening."
Oxygene went on to sell 15 million copies. But Jarre became tarred with an unwanted brush. In 1976, there was already a thriving prog-synth scene.
Richard Branson made his first Virgin million on the back of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (1973); names such as Tangerine Dream, Tomita and Wendy Carlos had solid student-hippy followings. Jarre says that Oxygene was "a UFO arriving during the period of disco, punk and the Sex Pistols", but it didn't gel with the zeitgeist.
Punk, when it eventually gave any time to synths, favoured the coldness of Kraftwerk, which translated into the glacial posturing of Cabaret Voltaire, Gary Numan and early Human League. Kraftwerk became the godfathers of electro and techno, two permanently cool genres.
Jarre always eschewed robotic references and, while he could reasonably claim a stake in clubland's popular trance sound, his persistent allusions to earthy elements and "the biosphere" have forever associated him with the new age movement.
Telegraph, LondonOxygene: Live In Your Living Room is available as an import.