Jean-Michel Jarre: still on a quest for the perfect piece of music
Jean-Michel Jarre, maverick French pioneer of electronic music, remains indefatigable at 68.
He's in London to promote his third take on Oxygene, the album whose original instalment turned him into techno's first worldwide superstar 40 years ago.
Back then, pop was made with guitars and drums. In the early 1970s, around Europe, people like Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Jarre began experimenting with newly invented synthesizers and electronic machinery, creating previously unheard sounds and constructing their tracks in revolutionary new ways.
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The fourth track from the original Oxygene, which was released as a single in summer 1977, was this groundbreaking music's first proper hit, making Jarre its global poster boy. In the intervening four decades, those other-worldly three minutes of synth have come to seem like the very blueprint for modern music. Cast an eye over the pop charts in any given week and it could be argued that the vast majority of it owes its ubiquitous synth layering and hi-tech production to Jarre and his mid-Seventies peers. If contemporary icons ranging from Lady Gaga and Ellie Goulding to Frank Ocean and Kanye West don't float your boat, blame Jean-Michel Jarre.
"The beauty of electronic music today," he says, "is that you can create, produce and even distribute your album from the terrace of a cafe, or even from the top of a mountain. It's an absolute revolution.
"Some people say, 'Oh, but the technology is everywhere now, and everything that comes from it is mediocre', but that makes me think of the Vatican's attitude when faced with Gutenberg. Like, 'He's printing books everywhere, and we're going to lose our power of knowledge'. We should really be embracing it, and enjoying the diversity of expression it allows."
Through pop's boom years in the 80s and 90s, Jarre hauled in audiences all over the globe, staging vast free performances, which on three separate occasions broke the world record for the highest-ever concert attendance. He lived the rock-star dream, marrying not one but two movie stars along the way – Britain's Charlotte Rampling, then French beauty Anne Parillaud.
In recent years, he has received countless ambassadorial honours and lifetime achievement awards, but has never stopped making music, remaining furiously productive.
Before writing Oxygene 3, he had been working on a mammoth two-part project called Electronica, for which he jetted around the world to collaborate with 30 other artists: from Pete Townshend, Cyndi Lauper and Massive Attack, through to Gary Numan, Peaches and the whistleblower Edward Snowden, none turned down the chance to work with this techno legend.
He says he has never lost the appetite for such compulsive artistic challenges. "You have this obsession with trying to get the ideal piece of music one day, but it's like soap," he explains, with a look of comic horror as an imaginary bar slips through his fingers, "and you keep on running for it".
The son of the celebrated film composer Maurice Jarre, he initially came from a classical Conservatoire background, then dabbled in prog-rock bands before making music for ballet, theatre and TV on early synthesizers.
"I was always interested in mixing experimentation with pop music," he says, "and Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream – we were all doing it at the same time, just very isolated from each other, all in our different cellars, in different worlds, without the internet – underground in every sense."
Jarre recorded his first stand-alone album, 1976's Oxygene, at his home studio in Paris, inspired more by the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey than any contemporary pop. Initially, he couldn't get it released, until a small French label started promoting it. After Oxygene Pt. 4 was picked up by British radio the following year, the album went on to sell 18 million copies.
Sales of his follow-up, 1978's Equinoxe, were initially slow, however, until he held a free concert in Paris's Place de la Concorde on Bastille Day, attracting over a million spectators. As well as earning him a place in the record books, it established Jarre as a mastermind of spectacular mass events.
"I started getting all these requests from different countries," he recalls, "and obviously, as a bad boy, it was really difficult to refuse when people are saying, 'Would you be interested in playing China for the first time?' Yes! 'The Pyramids in Egypt?' Yes! 'Nasa in Houston?' Yes! Then it was 3.5 million in Moscow [for the city's 850th anniversary in 1997]."
Jarre became synonymous with Eighties pop's flashy, bigger-is-better ethos. Did the adulation go to his head?
"I got caught up in all the mad excess of that time," he concedes. "Bigger and bigger, more and more trucks [for stage equipment], because it was what everyone was doing. But in these big shows, I was almost hiding myself. I wasn't the one rock star playing the guitar under a single spotlight. I was the reverse of Mick Jagger saying, 'Watch me!' But I did get caught up in it, and then your private life gets exposed, and I certainly wasn't looking for that."
He's referring to his marriage to Rampling, which ended very publicly in 1995, when his affair with a young secretary hit the front pages.
Nowadays, post-millennium, Jarre prefers to perform in smaller venues but remains engaged with pushing forward the bounds of technology, developing new instruments and gadgets. One keyboard he helped devise gets so hot, he famously has to wear asbestos gloves when playing it on stage. "You could light a cigarette off it," he unrepentantly beams.
For all his enthusiasm, he has, he says, concerns about the future for young artists. At a keynote music-industry speech in 2015, he called on musicians to have more dialogue with online companies like Apple, YouTube and Spotify, to try to resolve the economic crisis in the recording business.
"When Spotify has a value of a few billion dollars," he reasons, "and then a new musician using the service gets the equivalent of a pizza without anchovies each year, it's clearly something that needs to be readjusted.
"We've all never listened to as much music, or watched as many moving images. Creative industries are more important than the car industry, luxury jewels and fashion. They make more money, and create more jobs, but the artists at their nucleus never got so little, so we have to create the new business model for the 21st Century. Otherwise, we're not going to get the next Coldplay or Harry Potter, because the young artists won't think it's worth following their dream.
"Paradoxically, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and all the tech giants are bigger fans of music than some of the executives working at major record companies. But these companies have to be careful: they all think they're the masters of the world, but it can shift like that. Just look at MySpace."
Jarre himself has managed to endure, and he's not hanging up his asbestos gloves any time soon. "My mother, who was in the Resistance in the Second World War, passed away at 96, and it was like she was 60." He smiles. "I almost have to apologise for my genes."
- The Telegraph, London