Jean Michel Jarre
Jarre was on the radio one morning, promoting his new record and tour. I liked the sound of him and I felt moved to dig this out. It’s sitting in the corner of the CD shelf that sees least light, gathers most dust. When I play it, instantly I’m back in the summer of 1988, fresh from my year in El Paso, drawl intact, an honorary Texan.
But the CD and the intervening decades pose one question the interviewer didn’t ask: What on earth, exactly, is Jean Michel Jarre for?
In the 70s and into the 80s, it was for for filling unlikely public spaces with massive sound and light shows for one-off gigs that played to millions. How he got into that racket was never obvious to me but it seemed to point the way for one-off gigs in unlikely places by lots of other big-name bands looking for a quirky backdrop to shoot the video for their live ‘best of’ record.
The Rendezvous Houston concert film played on TV one night and I fell in love completely with the whole mythology of the event – much of it captured in the various voxpops and bulletins that are bundled in with the concert footage – as well as the sheer scale of it. I’d never seen anything like it. I don’t think anyone really had.
The show is a tribute to the space age, in many ways, when we were still innocently impressed by things like rockets and lasers – god knows the gig had enough of them, including that big Star Wars-y laser harp. Later, movingly, there’s a song dedicated to the memory of the astronauts lost in the Challenger disaster earlier that same year, and the piece that was written to be played on board the shuttle in orbit by Jarre’s friend Ron Macnair is here played with elegance and passionate intensity by Houston saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
I wanted to have been there. I’d been a massive Jarre nerd all through high school. I was a fan of all that stuff. Mike Oldfield. Vangelis. Tomita. The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. If you asked me what music I was into then, I’d have told you “instrumental music”. I remember toting my library copy of Concerts in China round all my classes one day in second year, to a mixture of curiosity from fellow nerds and the usual slights from the usual snides, because I needed to take it back after school to renew the loan. I’m pretty sure it was that album that got me into his music generally.
If Britain in the 70s was dressed in beige and smelled like coal and fag smoke, it probably sounded like analogue synth. Everything on telly was scored by BBC Radiophonic Workshop which meant that everything from children’s maths programmes to family quiz shows to gritty suburban dramas sounded like a scary Doctor Who horrorscape. Jarre, on the contrary, managed to make music in the 70s that sounded like a future where everyone was nice to you. And in 1987, and probably later, it still sounded like the future. A nice future with nice tunes and nice men in nice suits.
I loved Oxygène, in fact, I still have the LP – which might have belonged to my brother. We both listened to it a lot when we were kids. Hearing it again, it has fared better with time than the execrable Live in Houston CD with its one-finger melodies and one-dimensional pomp. Oxygène‘s Moog-y atmospherics are 3D sound, they seem to come out into the room at you, probing the space around you. There’s a comfort to his blend of easy melody and ambient electronics. Nothing’s being challenged here. It’s music for a utopia, not a dystopia. Music you can paper your dreams of tomorrow with. Music that maybe takes you on a bit of an adventure.
Listening back to the Houston album, I’m rapidly bored. I try to watch the concert footage on youtube but it’s really only the sax solo that compels me to listen – interestingly, it’s the one acoustic instrument in the whole gig. The bombast and hype and 1.3million-people-shut-the-freeway-longest-tailback-in-history schtick wears very thin very quickly and is clearly of its moment. These days, stats like that just make you think of climate change and the dreadful inconvenience of it all.
Nonetheless, undeterred and still inspired by the radio interview I go digging and I’m curious to see that, far from playing in whatever unlikely places there are left for him to play in, Jarre has downsized considerably and is playing a tour of regular venues, including one they built in my hometown a few years ago, two miles away from where I’m writing this. I contemplate going, but I ask myself who I would most want to see Jean Michel Jarre with – and it’s obviously my brother. Who I seldom see. Because he lives in Paris. Which is the last gig on the tour.
I’m still not really sure what Jean Michel Jarre is for. Lots of people make electronic music that’s more interesting to listen to. Some do ambient electronics you never tire of. A few imagine possible futures you want to live in. Jarre’s latest couple of CDs sound like a desperate attempt by an aging star to get radio play by partnering up with a few hip hitsters, a bit like Sinatra once did with Duets.
But if all Jarre does is give me a reason to go hang out with my brother and talk about our own forgotten futures as we go to our first gig together for over 20 years then that’s reason enough for me: Rendezvous Paris.