Folks, I know you’ve all lost whole nights of sleep lying awake, puzzling over the oft-sought link between:
a) the original mass-market S&M soft porno 9 1/2 Weeks,
b) Lawrence of Arabia
c) Cars 2
Well, lie awake no more! The link is pioneering electronic French smoothie Jean Michel Jarre of course!*
Reputation’s a funny thing, JMJ never gets the due credit and kudos the way that other originals such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk do for his work in the 70’s and early 80’s; okay so he hasn’t pushed the envelope as far as some, but his achievements do, I feel, deserve a lot more respect. He has never, ever been cool to like, the music press have always been sneery towards him and he is never cited as an influence by any musicians, ever – even ones who undoubtedly owe him a debt, like fellow Gauls, Air and Daft Punk. Reissued works by his pioneering European contemporaries Rudiger Lorenz and Bernard Szajner caused much interest around these parts (once Mr Jhubner73 had hipped me to them) and I became ever more convinced that Jarre will rise again.
It’s one of my fave LP’s ever, so I’ll bother you about it again some day, but 1976’s Oxygene is a straight-up wonderful album** , my parents used to play it in the car at night on long journeys and it really did sound like the future to me when I was 7 – ‘Play the space music again, please!’ was the often heard refrain from the backseat.; it still sounds like the future to me, albeit a retro one. Jarre’s music is really well-constructed, atmospheric and melodic but not hugely complex, he paints his canvass in bright primary colours compared to some electronic artists – which is why he appealed to that elusive 7 year-old rural Welsh demographic, the scale and melody of his compositions are what really register for me, still. At the time as well, he was drawing on a very unfamiliar palette of sounds with the best synths he could buy, or have made for him and there really is something special about the sound of analogue synthesisers used right.
Apparently the British embassy in China, overstepping their brief slightly, gave Radio Beijing copies of Oxygene and Equinoxe and Jean Michel Jarre became the first Western artist to have his music played on air by the authorities in decades, this led to him being invited to become the first western musician to play there in 1981. Hence today’s object of desire, The Concerts In China from 1982, I’m not a big fan of the ol’ double-live-contractual-obligation LP but this is a little different – although no less enhanced in the studio à la Unleashed In The East.
Legend has it that such was the demand for extra power that the Chinese authorities had to shut off the grid to the outlying areas of Beijing such was the unprecedented demand for Jarre’s synths and lights, this was way before he was extravaganzaing his way through Houston and London Docklands. So was the appropriated juice well-used?
Well, some of it was. The big draw for JarreHeads*^ like me are the new tracks here inspired by China, or the experience of playing them. There’s a rearrangement of a traditional Chinese track called ‘Fishing Junks At Sunset’ played with, legendary bad MF’s, The Peking Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra and a new studio track called ‘Souvenir of China’. In between there are some minimal audience noises, Chinese announcements and adverts for the 5 gigs and ambient traffic noise^. There’s also some monkey business afoot too, opener ‘The Overture’ is in fact a slowed down (to great effect, it has to be said) version of ‘Magnetic Fields Part 1’, whereas the track listed as ‘Magnetic Fields Part 1’ is twenty seconds of someone playing ping-pong^^. The announcements give The Concerts In China a feel of Vangelis Blade Runner, which is no bad thing of course.
The first side of The Concerts In China is the best of the four, whatever its’ provenance ‘The Overture’ is a great, stately synth wash of a beginning and it segues perfectly into ‘Arpegiator’ the most driving, futuristic cut on the album, its great – it doesn’t really shout S&M to me, but its great nonetheless. All the Jarre tropes are there a sequenced rhythm, surrounded by fairly simple but developing melodies and an overall feel good drive; it sounds a lot like ‘Equinoxe VII’^* (also here). I rather like the Chinese traditional ‘Fishing Junks At Sunset’ in this setting too, although, on record, ‘Laser Harp’ suffers from the ventriloquism-on-the-radio syndrome.
This LP doesn’t really function as well as the big rock double lives do as a gateway to Jean Michel Jarre’s music, live versions of the LP tracks don’t add, or subtract too much from the studio cuts and the presentation is similar and I’d say novices are better served by grabbing copies of Oxygene, Equinoxe and Magnetic Fields (in that order). It is a good worthwhile addition to the catalogue though and I do like the way all the announcements and blandishments are used to establish a real, exotic atmosphere on The Concerts In China. In general though it gives no more than an outline of the charms of JMJ’s music but it is definitely worth taking the time to shade in the blanks.
Being Mr Superficial, check out the amazing JMJ posters illustrated on the inner sleeves – how much do I want one of those?
PS – I’m well aware both samurai and kimonos are Japanese, but until Lego produce some more Chinese culturally specific minifigures OR I can be arsed building the Great Wall, these will have to do.
*a) ‘Arpegiator’ from this LP was on the soundtrack b) his father wrote the soundtrack and c) ex-wife, Charlotte Rampling was a voice star in it.
**and Equinoxe is only a whisper behind it in terms of quality.
*^see what I did there? #Genius.
^love this, it’s so much better on LP than just going and standing beside a road to listen to it!
^^again something largely missing from most classic double live LPs. Just imagine how much better Live And Dangerous, Live Killers and The Song Remains The Same could have been with field recordings of ping-pong, darts and snooker being played instead of ‘Johnny The Fox’, ‘Get Down Make Love’ and ‘Moby Dick’? I know.
^*Mr J never being much good at song titles, I still think he should employ me at great expense to rename all his back catalogue for him, I’ll even promise not to call one of his LPs Space Titty Fandango, if he wants.