By: Dave Cooper
Prior to 1990, Jean Michel Jarre had enjoyed a decade and a half of spectacular success. Multi platinum albums and the enormous high-profile open air concerts that he had staged meant that few other electronic musicians were so closely identified with electronic music, or had enjoyed Jarre’s success. His only real peers in terms of crossover success were Germany’s Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, and whilst they had some common ground due to the instrumental aesthetic they preferred – electronica – they were increasingly disparate in terms of what their music actually sounded like.
The world of electronic music was very different in 1990 and beyond to what it had been up to that point, and Jarre and his pioneering peers were to find it increasingly difficult to prosper in a scene that they had dominated for years. Technological advances meant that the expensive synthesizers that had previously been the domain of successful professional musicians were becoming cheaper, and therefore available to a larger number of people, who then in turn picked up on the ideas and work completed by Jarre, Froese et al and gradually a new aesthetic began to emerge. By the end of the eighties electronic dance music and the various sub-genres that it gave birth to were really coming into their own, and increasingly Jarre and his contemporaries were regarded as the old guard. Jarre, whose music frequently contained the traditional romanticisms of his native France, was particularly vulnerable to accusations that his music was dated. The new breed of electronic artists were keen to move away from established musical forms – much of their music was increasingly abstract, minamalist and abrasive. As with rock music, if there’s one thing the new generation liked to do, it was to rebel against their elders.
Seemingly immune – at least temporarily – to the onrushing tide of new electronic musicians, however, Jarre opened the nineties with some style. The seeds of his 1990 album, Waiting For Cousteau, were sown when Jarre was invited to contribute music to fellow Frenchman, the infamous naturalist Jacques Cousteau’s documentary film Palawan, The Last Refuge. Cousteau’s life and work fascinated Jarre, who then began to structure work on his newest album around it.
Waiting For Cousteau is very much an album of two halves. The first half features three tracks entitled ‘Calypso’ (named for Cousteau’s research vessel) that are fairly typical Jarre fare, albeit informed by the heavy use of real and sampled steel drums, lending the material a distinctly Caribbean flavour. The rest of the album is taken up by the sprawling 46-minute title track, which had to be edited down to under half its length for the vinyl and cassette editions of the album. The track, a minimalist ambient piece comprised largely of keyboard drones, icy piano and sampled effects that manages to perfectly evoke Cousteau’s excursions to the deeps of the ocean in his submersible bathyscaphe. A record by a beloved son of France, themed around the exploits of another beloved son of France, Waiting For Cousteau immediately repeated the successes of Jarre’s previous albums when it was released in June 1990.
The following month saw Jarre stage another of his outdoor spectaculars, this time in the city where he had staged his very first show. Jarre and his team took over La Defense in the heart of the city on Bastille Day (July 14th) and performed a ninety minute set of old favourites and the ‘Calypso’ tracks from his new album. Over 1.3 million people thronged the streets of Paris to see Jarre perform, ensuring that he once again broke his own Guinness world record for the largest recorded audience at a concert, and millions more watched on TV.
Jarre had bested himself once more. He was to cement his reputation for staging concert extravanganzas in 1992, when – post-apartheid – he played three more modest but still typically spectacular shows in the Lost City at Bophuthatswana in Africa. Again, Jarre’s respect for local tradition and history, and his insistence upon involving local musicians and artists in the shows, ensured that his audiences and collaborators alike went away delighted with the experience. The question was now where he could possibly go from here. Each successive Jarre live extravaganza had been bigger and better than the previous ones, and the circus of Jarre’s live performances was such that now they threatened to overshadow his music, beloved to many though it was. For all the grandeur of Jarre’s shows, the Frenchman regretted that more people weren’t able to travel to these one-off special shows to see him perform. His answer would be to take the shows to them.
His next album, 1993’s Chronologie, was inspired by Jarre’s reading of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History Of Time. The album, an eight-part conceptual piece, told the story of life, from birth through to death; telling it in such a way that it could be applied to an individual person, the Earth, or indeed the universe. The album progresses from the spacey, drifting grandeur of its opening, through thundering EDM, a neo-classical section, and Herbie Hancock-influenced scratching electronic funk before dissolving into accordion-assisted French romanticism (the bittersweet ‘Part 6’) before the inevitable entropy of time leads to death amongst the buzzing flies of ‘Part 7’ and finally into the choir-assisted joyful rebirth of the final part. Moving, memorable, and wonderfully eccentric, Chronologie was another huge success for Jarre, especially in mainland Europe where the album was his most successful since Rendez-vous. Jarre was subsequently awarded the prestigious Victoire de la Musique award in his native France for the album, as well as being made a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) by the United Nations, “for his ongoing contribution to the Arts & Entertainment and for his energy and talent in highlighting various local cultural aspects in his performances around the globe.”
It was then that Jarre announced his first full tour, entitled ‘Europe In Concert’. In terms of shows played it was fairly modest, consisting of only 15 shows in 7 countries; however, the shows themselves were typically larger-than-life, featuring enormous stages that were essentially scaled-down versions of the cityscapes he had lit up in Houston, Lyon, London and Paris. Enormous projections, an eye-searing laser show, the ubiquitous laser harp and a fusillade of fireworks topped off one of the most expensive shows ever to tour at that time. The lavish spectacle ensured that Jarre could not have made very much financially from the shows, even by playing stadia. However, the tour was well received, and was topped off with another large show staged in Hong Kong in 1994. The Hong Kong show and the ‘Europe In Concert’ tour were immortalised both on video, with a video recording of the Barcelona show, and on CD, with highlights from Hong Kong and the European shows released as the live album Hong Kong in 1994.
It was around this time, perhaps conscious that to some his music was viewed as old-fashioned and no longer on the cutting edge of electronic music, that Jarre’s continuing interest in remixing was first expressed. Singles and an extended EP released from Chronologie had already featured remixes from an array of EDM musicians rather than additional material from Jarre himself, but in 1995 the remix album Jarremix was released. Featuring a further brace of remixes of material from Chronologie alongside remixes of music from Équinoxe, Magnetic Fields, Revolutions and Waiting For Cousteau, the album wasn’t always successful in reinterpreting the material but was a way for Jarre and Polydor to get a foot in the door of a burgeoning genre that was escaping the dominance of established pioneering artists like Jarre.
In 1995, when Jarre was awarded the French Legion of Honour, his legendary status was cemented; something emphasized further by the latest live extravaganza, as Jarre staged a huge outdoor show at the Eiffel Tower. The ‘Concert Pour la Tolerance’ was Jarre’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Again attracting an audience of over a million, the show also had a long-lasting effect on the skyline of Paris: Jarre’s team lit the Eiffel Tower so spectacularly that it inspired the French government to permanently install lighting at the site, which has been a notable feature ever since.
Jarre’s interest in remixing and in the development of EDM was to have an increasing influence on his work over the next few years. Jarre was by now being fêted by EDM fans and musicians alike as the “Godfather of Techno”, an assertion met with equal amounts of approval and disbelief. Techno, like most forms of electronic music, is hard to trace back to a single obvious ancestor, having developed chiefly through the mixing of influences, but there’s little doubt that the metronomic heartbeats of tracks like ‘Oxygene (Part 2)’ and ‘Magnetic Fields (Part 1)’, and the rapid-fire harmonics of ‘Oxygene (Part 5)’, were hugely influential on the genre, and indeed an entire generation of electronic musicians. It was more difficult to argue with tags like this, however, when Jarre clearly displayed an affinity for the genre himself.
It was around this time that Jarre signed a new deal with Sony Records, and his back catalogue was transferred to his new label after many years being distributed by Polydor. The albums were remastered and reissued by Sony in 1997; these editions are now out of print but were in many ways superior to earlier CD editions and are therefore well worth seeking out.
Jarre’s eleventh studio album, ‘Oxygène 7-13’, arrived in May 1997. As always when an established artist revisits the scene of an old triumph, reactions were mixed. The new album’s mix of the classic sound of Jarre’s breakthrough album and sleek, modern EDM was to prove polarising to audiences, who tended to either love it or regard it as misguided nostalgia given an unwelcome twist. Time has been kind to the record, though, which maintains a timeless quality by dint of mixing Jarre’s warm ambience and keen sense of melody with the frantic energy of contemporary EDM. Opening with the warm, ambling tripartite epic ‘Oxygène (Part 7)’, it’s not long before the more modern influences make themselves known. The trancey ‘Part 8’ and the breathless, atonal rush of ‘Part 11’ are worlds apart from Jarre’s established sound at the time and yet at their core they are quintessential Jarre recordings, the Gallic romanticism of their creator fused with Jarre’s restless, exploratory spirit.
Jarre mounted another tour in support of Oxygène 7-13. More modest in scope than the ‘Europe In Concert’ tour, being designed for indoor arenas, but still a spectacle, the tour consisted of 37 concerts over the course of six months and visited countries Jarre had not played in previously. The set was drawn heavily from the two Oxygène albums, giving Jarre the opportunity to play some of the original Oxygène material for the first time in quite a while, a treat for fans. The tour culminated in another huge outdoor show, staged this time in Moscow. It allowed Jarre to break the outdoor attendance record for a concert for a fourth time, with a new record of 3.5 million people crowding the streets of Moscow.
As if in answer to those who felt the Oxygene 7-13 project was an exercise in pure nostalgia, Jarre’s next release was another remix album. Odyssey Through O2 was released in May 1998, and consisted largely of remixes of the Oxygène 7-13 material, although the album also contained a remix of the evergreen ‘Fourth Rendez-vous’ by Japanese remixer TK and an interactive component that allowed users to control a basic version of Jarre’s in-concert sound-to-light software to provide a PC-based visual accompaniment to the album. As with Jarremix, the record was more of a curiosity than a great success with Jarre’s long-standing fans, although the increasing respect being given to Jarre by the EDM community went a long way towards dispelling the notion that Jarre’s music was old-fashioned.
Such was Jarre’s interest in EDM, and such was the interest in Jarre shown by EDM musicians, that collaborations were inevitable, and over the next two years Jarre would place an increasing emphasis on his interest in the genre. Mostly notably, he staged another show on Bastille day in Paris – the ‘Nuit Electronique’ as Jarre dubbed it – where he appeared alongside a battery of EDM musicians and played a decidedly EDM influenced set. France had just hosted (and won) the football World Cup, and Jarre’s show was a perfect fit for the celebratory mood.
Jarre also made an appearance at the Apple Expo later in the year with a small band to perform material from both Oxygène 7-13 and Odyssey Through O2 alongside some older favourites. These shows caused some raised eyebrows from some purist fans who felt that Jarre’s unfeigned interest in EDM was some form of mid-life crisis, and that his adventures in a field they felt was somehow beneath him were ill-advised. What these fans failed to realise was that this was an entirely logical development for Jarre, whose insatiable curiosity and fascination with new technology had led to him taking to electronic music in the first place.
It would be hard to imagine the decade ending in a more fitting way for Jarre than it did. On New Year’s Eve 1999, Jarre staged a millennium concert in Egypt, on the Gizan plateau, in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. A potential concert venue that Jarre had talked about years before, the show was the realisation of a long-held dream for the Frenchman; it also gave him a chance to showcase the majority of his upcoming twelfth studio album, Metamorphoses. It was, however, less triumphal than it could have been. In the dying hours of the last evening of 1999, temperatures on the Gizan plateau plunged and Jarre – already nursing a bad cold – and his musicians were forced to swaddle themselves in warm clothing. Dense fog descended, rendering projections Jarre had planned to display on the pyramids invisible; the projections were abandoned. Jarre was also obliged to censor some of his material to placate the Egyptian government: ‘Revolutions’ had to become ‘Evolution’, since Jarre was forbidden to use the word “revolution” in his show – somewhat ironic given the events of in Egypt some years later – and the word “sex” had to be removed from the lyric. Also, mid-way through the show, a piece had to be dropped from the performance to allow the show to hit the cue for the countdown to the New Year. All in all, not, perhaps, the dream gig that Jarre was hoping for; but it was nonetheless impressive and Jarre was finally able to cross it off his bucket list.
Next time: In the fourth and final part: ‘Metamorphoses’ proves divisive, Jarre’s succession of “secret” albums, a “mistake”, and a career renaissance…