History is supposedly written by the winners, but maybe it’s time for a reappraisal of 1976-77 – often credited to punk as a year zero for music.
In hindsight, maybe the revolution wasn’t happening as the Sex Pistols snotted all over the crowd at Manchester Free Trade Hall, but in refined studios in Germany and France, with Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre tangled up in wires, mapping a new electronic landscape behind their synthesisers. Take away the sloganeering, and the sound of early punk was really just sped up rock’n’roll anyway.
Jump cut 40 years and electronic music is the dominant movement, in terms of exploration and commercial reach, while the most experimental rock bands turn to krautrock, electronica and the avant-garde for inspiration over blues-based strumming.
“Absolutely… I’ve always been convinced that when we started in electronic music it was a real revolution, for one simple reason, we were for the first time approaching music not in terms of notes but based on sound itself,” says Jarre.
“I mean, punk and rock are genres but electronic music is a different way of thinking, of composing, of producing, of approaching music through sound. Back then using synthesisers, recording with microphones the sound of the wind and the sound of the rain, of the train, of the street and making music with it.”
I’m having a coffee with Jean-Michel Jarre in the Morrison Hotel in Dublin, and he’s caught between the future and the past in his latest venture. On the one hand, he’s in the middle of his Electronica Tour, marking his double album written with 30-odd collaborators and performed with all the laser-strobed maximalism you’d expect from electronic music’s most flamboyant showman, who has played to crowds of one and two million.
He has also just locked himself in his studio for six weeks to finish a new album Oxygene III to mark the 40th anniversary of his most iconic album Oxygene – completing a cycle that began when the young Frenchman surrounded himself with synthesisers and created one of the most unlikely smash hit albums of the decade, selling 15 million copies.
In a previous interview in 2015, Jarre told me he was uncomfortable about nostalgia in electronic music, but said this time the 40-year anniversary created a deadline.
“I’m not too much into anniversaries, but while I was doing Electronica I wrote a piece of music and I said, ‘If I had to do oxygene today I probably would start with this.’
“I kept it and it grew up in my mind. I thought after this long Electronica project it could be quite fun to do what I’ve done the first time – locked in my studio for six weeks and do it, bang! A very minimalist project, the reverse of Electronica.
“I remember Hans Zimmer sending me a piece that had 80 tracks, the whole project was [whistles] massive and I said, I would like to go back to something very minimalist. I thought the 40th anniversary is a good deadline for me because otherwise I won’t do it.”
He said after years of travelling the world to meet the Electronica collaborators in their studios, Oxygene III was a time of pinpoint focus.
“Today we are in zapping mode, going to YouTube for 30 seconds of this and 30 seconds of that, or we can also spend all weekend watching three seasons of Game of Thrones, without hardly sleeping. With this 40-year anniversary in a sense I used this system to create a limitation. There would be no point finishing it in January.”
Like the original Oxygene, he says the final chapter has “sunny and dark sides”. While 1997’s Oxygene II was more trancey with generous 4/4 kick drums, Oxygene III is more nebulous, with synth swirls and warm organic bubbles a direct line back to 1976, while gently soaring forward.
“It can be quite dark but I think it’s always melodic. We French and you Irish have something in common, we love melodies… even if you take the most rock or dark techno artists in Ireland or in France, there is always a melodic background, and it’s what I wanted to explore.”
Jarre says he always had the sense that as a journey, Oxygene was never finished, explaining: “Actually the first man who said that to me was Arthur C Clarke, he told me it should have an end, not necessarily in space but somewhere.
“I always had this idea for a final act, having this harmonic progression, like a kind of long scream disintegrating into ashes, into fire.”
As well as the legacy, and Oxygene IV’s five-note motif being one of the most famous melodies in popular music, Oxygene’s artwork has become of of the most iconic images in popular culture. The human skull emerging from a peeling Earth has taken on an ecological symbolism in the last 40 years, and Jarre completes the cycle once more by revisiting the cover by Michel Granger, with the Earth even more askew.
“I was wondering what type of illustration, what type of cover we could have, to be faithful while not repeating the first one,” he says.
“I came very quickly to the idea that what I’m doing is not trying to tell the story of that skull, of that Earth, that’s not the point. But more taking Oxygene on a slightly different angle, while keeping the dogma. I went very early to the painter Michel Granger who allowed me to do it this time in 3D, not the aquarelle technique, but in the technique of today. It’s just slightly angled – the same but not quite the same.”
He adds: “Oxygene III is still faithful to our times. We are approaching environmental and ecological issues from a different perspective. We are more conscious of it so we even if we are not doing the right things, more or less everyone on the planet is aware that we should be more careful.
“And also our relationship with the planet has entirely changed. In the 70s the planet was a very wide territory. Now with a click you can go to Australia, you can go to China. Even our sense of geography has totally evolved.”
Jarre says the greatest threat to the planet may be cultural, and is inherently skeptical about our governments and “the planet under global CCTV”. He explored this further on his recent collaboration with Edward Snowden on the track Exit, with the Wikileaks whistleblower warning of the culture of privacy breaches over Jarre’s dystopian techno.
“Step by step we go into this 1984 world or Brave New World. We’ve all been in a complicit system because it’s people we are electing. We were only talking 40 years ago about the ecology and nature, but now the question for the 21st century is cultural. Not just our relationship with nature but the relationship of our society, more than ever before.”
Even considering his standing as a pioneer of electronic music, Jarre has often existed aside from dance culture. His blockbuster performances to millions at the Pyramids, in Red Square, in Houston or in Paris or China have always transcended techno clubs, outdoor raves or even the pyrotechnics of modern EDM productions.
The Electronica project bridges that gap — not only by collaborating with techno and trance producers, pop singers, composers and fellow synth pioneers, but the club presentation.
Jarre’s last Dublin gig in 2011 was a straight career retrospective and his previous show at the National Concert Hall marked the 30th anniversary of Oxygene, when he toured small theatres with all the original synths used on the LP. He seems jolted into energy by Electronica, while finding a space for his past.
“I think electronic music has now no boundaries, it’s everywhere,” he says.
“This new show has a real dynamic — some hard techno beats but also some more ethereal moments.”
At the show later on, the techno outstrips the ethereal moments as Jarre, encased in a 3D laser grid and flanked by two synth and drum machine worker bees, leans on Electronica, with crisp, metallic kicks and frazzled synths slicing through choice cuts Exit, The Architect, Conquistador and The Time Machine.
He does play classic pieces from the vaults, but Oxygene IV, Equinoxe VII and Souvenirs de Chine don’t come soon enough for a pensioner beside me, who literally covers her ears and closes her eyes before leaving after a half hour with a middle-aged son who lost his brownie points.
Backstage, Jarre is gleeful at the confounded expectations, saying: “People said it would be frosty because it was a Monday night but Dublin was very hot I tell you!” He’s also got a lifelong fan in Lord Mayor of Dublin Brendan Carr, who invited Jarre to the Mansion House a few hours before, to sign his original Oxygene LP as well as the guest book.
As the night wears on we try to twist his arm into performing an outdoor show on O’Connell Street, with the Mayor as excited as a festival promoter trying to snag a headliner, already fantasising about lasers shooting out of the Spire — so if any sponsors are reading, the Mansion House is open to suggestions.
- Published in Irish Daily Star