Synthesisers in the rain

There was one particular episode from last year’s series of Top Of The Pops reruns from 1977 that struck a chord with me. It was the 27th September edition according to a quick Google. (At least I’m honest in my searching). It had the promotional film for “Magic fly” by Space, all strange anonymous musicians in helmets and synthesised dance beats. That was odd enough, but at the end of the show over the credits “Oxygene IV” by Jean-Michel Jarre was played. Now I’d heard that piece of music over the previous few weeks on the chart rundown or the radio in general but this was the first time I’d heard it properly with title and artist. It didn’t sound like anything I’d previously heard before – but then I’d lived a sheltered musical life, as my previous posts on my parents’ record collection have shown. I wasn’t aware of such things as synthesisers or electronic music at that point. I knew “I feel love” by Donna Summer and recognised that it sounded different to everything else around at the time but didn’t really know why. But something about “Oxygene IV” was different. It was one of those eureka moments, I recognised the song as a marker in the sand, something that I could claim as my own, something which was different and exciting and mysterious and didn’t fit in the usual band configuration of guitar – bass – drums – singer. I’m not sure why “Oxygene” had this effect on me and not “Magic fly” as they were around simultaneously. I expressed my affection for “Oxygene” to my parents and they didn’t seem to take much notice.

Jump ahead a year to October 1978. The Morgan family have moved again to Penarth, where I would stay for another 15 years. I had the biggest bedroom out of the four available, at the back of the house, and had a huge table placed at one end where I set up a large track for my Aurora cars, usually in the shape of the Anderstorp track in Sweden. Well I did have a Tyrrell six wheeler and it was the only race that particular car ever won. At some point in the Autumn of ’78 my family visited the family of one of my father’s work colleagues out in Lisvane or Whitchurch, another suburb of Cardiff. I remember this visit for three distinct reasons. Firstly they had a garden that sloped downhill to a river at the bottom and I thought that was horribly dangerous and wouldn’t go out there. Secondly they had a twin keyboard home organ which I spent most of the time fiddling around with. Thirdly in their record collection they had the “Oxygene” LP by Jean Michel Jarre. I pleaded and begged everyone involved to let my father borrow it so I could tape it, and eventually they agreed. My father brought it home, taped it on our stereogram in the spare front room, then gave it back to his colleague the next day in work. He apologised to me when he handed me the cassette – an orange BASF C90 – because “there were some scratchs on side two so I missed one song out”. He’s missed “Part V” out completely but I still had most of the album. I played that tape all the time until it snapped, but it soundtracked many days of playing with my racing cars in my bedroom. I’ll get to “Oxygene” in a moment…

At some point in 1978 I was bought a small silver mono transistor radio. It was soon plastered with the stickered numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 to show where the new frequencies were for the BBC radio stations when they changed in November ’78, as were all the other radios in the house. I was messing around with this radio in my bedroom one evening in early ’79 when I chanced on “Oxygene IV” being played. I tuned to the station and listened on. It was Radio 4 and the announcer explained that the song had been a hit two years ago and that there was a new album out by Jarre called “Equinoxe” and there followed a small interview with Jarre, and an excerpt from “Equinoxe 5” to close the segment. I was amazed to land upon this information quite by chance, through a random twiddling of a radio dial. I told my parents and a week or so later my father came home with the cassette of “Equinoxe”.

This album would be my first full introduction to synthesised music. “Part 1” was unknowingly familiar already as it was used as the theme music to “Holiday ’79”, a regular BBC tv show which highlighted holidays at home and abroad, the music has replaced Gordon Giltrap’s “Heartsong” for a year. It’s a simple piece of slow burning and echoed notes building into arpeggios and chords, “Part 2” is almost ambient, long phased string synth chords with burbling VCS3s in the background, “Part 3” brings the tempo up a little with pulsing sequenced three note bass and a verse chorus structure with a highly melodic synth line over the top, and a breathy counter-melody during the verses, while more synths burble away in the middle distance, there’s a sense of dynamics at this point. On the third iteration of the verse the melody and chords change to descend and the piece breaks down to introduce “Part 4”. Here we finally get some electronic percussion, a more complex sequenced part and more delayed polysynths with crazy noises flying around the stereo spectrum. It sounds like a demonstration disc for synths in stereo and I would say this part has dated the most. Nice synthesised speech at the end though. End of side one… Side two starts with “Part 5”, the single and quite well known – more melody and noise and a Korg Minipops holding the rhythm. What is odd is that the CD and album of this have never sounded right to me, I am so well acquainted with hearing this in mono from my old tape recorder that all the stereo games were cancelled out. Maybe the original album had a slightly different mix. Still, a great popular piece of music. In another life this could be stadium house. Note the octave jumping sequenced bass running throughout the song. This continues into “Part 6” which focuses on that bass, adding new sequenced melodies over it and building tension with ascending changes. Then white noise percussion comes in too and it goes slightly oriental for thirty seconds. And all these parts coalesce for one last iteration before everything turns dubby. It was only a few years ago I realised this – all the elements start to echo away and get filtered and reverbed and I used to think it was a waste, all the momentum had been built up to fade away. Then I twigged – it’s going dubwise – and I saw it in a new light. But still the sequence octave jumping bass continues into “Part 7” with more melancholic chords, and it feels like something is ending, the atmosphere of the music is changing. It’s still got propulsion but it’s darker, more crepescular, and somehow it’s more emotional too. (He says as he wipes a tear from a moist eye – why does music DO THIS to me? How are some pieces so powerful that they can express emotions so richly, so vividly, conjure up memories so purely, oh excuse me…sorry). Around four minutes the pulsing is muted and more washes of minor chord synth skim past and it goes dubby again, synthesised wind and real rain crash in and in the distance “Part 8” starts, also called “Band in the rain”. More minor key melodies backed by what sounds like a home organ, before fading out with synthesised birds and a restatement of the melody of “Part 5” as huge slow polysynth chords. I don’t know. I hope it’s just me, but I find side two of this album devastating. It’s not to do with memories, the music hits spots in my heart and mind that trigger tears. I fucking love this album, faults and all.

“Equinoxe” was my constant companion. I took it to school though I couldn’t play it there. I took it on holiday hoping it might get played in the car. I played it constantly at home. Years later I bought it on LP, then on CD. The booklet inside was fascinating – explaining how Jarre intended the album to reflect a day from start to finish – that made sense. Also a picture of Jarre standing in front of banks of Korg polysynths of the era, the more complex cousins of the MS20 I had, was very cool indeed.

After a lot of persuasion I got the tape of “Oxygene” not long after “Equinoxe”. I remember buying it upstairs in John Menzies in Queen Street Cardiff, a shop that is now a Specsavers. The racks of cassettes on spinning reels, the assistant unlocking the rack to retrieve the cassette box. Oh and can I just say I hate the album cover? “Equinoxe” on tape was just one of those peculiar binocular ghosts on their own, but “Oxygene” – no that skull freaked me out. Still I couldn’t wait to hear it, not least as I’d not heard “Part 5” yet. I sat in my bedroom with my cassette player and played the album at last from start to finish. “Part 1” is slow and moody and drifting with a loud section in the middle with odd bass noises. “Part 2” leads in from this with sequences and Minipops again (I ended up with a VST instrument on my PC which exactly replicated that hissing and spitting drum pattern) and is fine and good, nice phased string synths and all. At this point with older ears and more knowledge of music and technology it is obvious to me that this is a limited eight track recording made more palatable by tricks of echo and reverb, spatial games and what in the Beatles era was called Artificial Double Tracking. Still, it doesn’t spoil the rolling pleasure of the music. “Part 3” is something and nothing, a wash of chords and one single melody repeated to fade into birdsong. “Part 4” was my introduction to this, more rolling synths, a traditional song structure with an almost vocal-like melody. “Part 5” I wanted more than anything at the time and it turned out that what my father believed to be scratches were the burbling synths at the start. This really is quite ambient again to start with, washes of phased chords, and a slow moving bass for melodic interest, the piece builds up slowly with more elements added gently – a tinkling synth top-line here, then that fat synth bass from “Part 1” reappears to spoil the tranquility, and at five minutes a speedy four note sequence enters, followed by what sounds like a triggered noise pattern, then more sequences and a high-lying melody over the top. Now this is fun! In stereo the main parts swap around but I didn’t know that in mono. Again at the end more reverb and echo added in a slightly dubby way, to lead into “Part 6”. Synthesised waves and bird calls and that Minipops machine set at mid-tempo, and oh here we go again, melancholy chord changes and two melodies that swoop around each other quite delicately. Now this piece does has specific memories – of the song playing while I played racing cars, and me working out words for it because I wanted to sing something to it. I’m not sure on the verses but can recall the chorus word for word. The melancholy air of this song really struck deep in me. Definitely my favourite piece on the album, and it takes me straight back to late 70s Penarth more than any other piece of music.

Two years later in ’81 we were on holiday in Aberporth, West Wales around my birthday. On the inside cover page of whatever newspaper my father had bought there was a small advert for a new album “Magnetic Fields”. Ooh I didn’t know he’d made another record! Can I have it? Can I have it? Eventually we go to Woolworths in Penarth and find it on tape. The assistant kindly writes the date on a sticker inside the cassette box – Saturday 20th June 1981. I don’t know why she did that. Before I get the chance to listen to it, my family all go off to Usk. Relatives of mine had (and still have) a farm up there so we went to visit them. I can’t say I was best pleased, I wanted to listen to my new album. We pick up my Gran on the way and drive up the A449, and I get more wary as we get nearer. Ever since I’d seen “Apaches” – a well known public information film – I hated going to the farm. It was a death trap, clearly. How many kids died in “Apaches”? It was like a horror film in a farm. Just thinking about it now makes me wince. I mean again this is another aspect of my ASD – I took it literally so I believed it all. These days I tend to watch films or TV shows repeating “It’s not real” in my head. But by the by. We got to the farm and loads of the family were there, Molly and Trevor who owned it, Kenneth – their son – and Francis his wife, and their children who were about the same age as my brother and I. I think that was the first and last time I rode on a horse actually. So we all had a good time and enjoyed ourselves. We were just getting ready to leave and my parents called to my brother and Peter and I that we were going, so we ran across a field to get to the farmhouse and I was running after Peter and my brother and suddenly the ground fell away from me, I was submerged in water of some kind and was under for a few seconds before someone dragged me out, coughing and spluttering for breath. There had been a hole in the ground which the others had jumped over but I hadn’t seen it and went straight in – my bad eyes I’d imagine. I never did find out what was in the hole but it smelt absolutely disgusting. I was hurried into the farmhouse where a hot bath was run for me and I stripped out of my dirty stinking clothes. I can remember sitting in this bath with everyone around me, and I mean everyone. I was – what – twelve? Slightly self-conscious about myself, and I was naked in front of my whole family. Some spare clothes of Peter’s were found for me and my family drove back to Penarth as dusk settled across South Wales. I still stank to high heavens so had another bath at home. On my own this time. And I insisted on playing my new tape in the bathroom.

Now this is where things get tricky. I love “Magnetic Fields” and there are sections which are among my favourite pieces of Jarre’s, but it’s obvious with hindsight that the seeds of his downfall (if you can call it that) lie within this album. By 1981 Jarre was popular, famous, rich and able (or encouraged) to use whatever new technology was thrown towards him. The newest musical technology for ’81 was the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, an 8-bit computer with a piano keyboard and superlative sequencing and sampling capabilities for the time. I remember seeing it demonstrated by Peter Gabriel on “The South Bank Show” and thinking it looked fantastic. In the hands of producers and musicians like Gabriel, Kate Bush, OMD, Trevor Horn, Art of Noise and Pet Shop Boys the Fairlight would transform 80s pop. But in Jarre’s hands… But I just wanted a bloody bath to get the stink of farm off me, so I pressed play and sank into the water.

“Part One” is spread over 18 minutes and in three movements. It starts promisingly with frantic sequences and wide pads of polysynths leading the melody and there are hints of samples to come during quiet sections. The second movement of the piece is slower and more sample based, and the character of the Fairlight becomes clear – the ‘grain’ of the 8 bit sampling technology is apparant, the sounds aren’t purely synthetic now but the samples aren’t that pure either – they sound filtered through the primitive technology being used. In places it sounds like musique concrete, in other places it sounds like the tape loops from “Tomorrow never knows”, but it works well. There is a cello sample or two, some vocal snippets put through effects and a giant wooshing aeroplane noise, for want of a better term. The third movement is more fast paced sequencing and quite pleasant but doesn’t really go anywhere, even if it is going there fast. “Part Two” was the single, repeated ‘handclaps’ as a rhythm, and rolling like a train, more propulsion. The piece fades to the sound of a train passing slowly which sets the scene for “Part Three”, more sample based, an off kilter rhythm produced by what sounds like oars of a boat drifting on a river, with the boat’s occupant playing a thumb piano as accompaniment. Initially I hated this part – what’s the point? where’s the melody? – but once I’d heard it properly on headphones it became an immersive experience. “Part Four” is one of Jarre’s most melodic pieces and another of my favourites, and another I wrote lyrics for. At the three minute point the atmosphere changes to a pulsing bass line, similar to the later stages of “Equinoxe” and more samples are thrown in – industrial sounds, before a speeding express train closes the piece, leaving the way clear for “Part five (the last rumba)”. Again it seems like Jarre has gone back to a home organ to record this trite Hawaiian styled melody and judging by the reviews on Amazon (“It’s a cheesy Casio” et cetera) it seems to divide listeners. However cheesy Casios didn’t sound like this in 1981, and the best part is the end where it goes all minor key and the reverb gets turned up. Did I mention how little reverb there is on this album? It’s very dry indeed. By the end of the album I was cleaner and happier and ready to sleep and forget about it all.

The first three Jarre albums became my “go to” records for revision for exams. Someone had said that instrumental music was a good background to revision so most Junes and Decembers I could be found close to my father’s stereo with his headphones on, a pile of exercise books on the table in front of me and these three cassettes by my side – my parents approved of them because they were instrumental so I wouldn’t be distracted by lyrics. I somehow ended up with the double “Concerts in China” album as an extra Christmas present in 1982 – my main present was my Sanyo music centre – which had been passed to me alongside a vinyl copy of “Tubular bells” by my next door neighbours. I don’t know why they didn’t want it, I thought it was a great record. “Over 40 minutes of new music” said the sticker on the front – that’ll do for me. Some of the tracks are live recordings of older material – “The overture” is the first movement of “Magnetic Fields 1” slowed down, but there is nothing from “Oxygene” – and “Equinoxe 7” works well live, but the track listed as “Magnetic Fields 1” is no such thing, instead being the sound of table tennis being played.
The new material was great though, “Arpeggiator” was a thrilling piece of uptempo melody, again using what new technology was available to make the music, lots of delays and echoes, “Orient express” is a typical ‘pop number’, the obvious single, “Souvenir of China” utilises more samples throughout to create its atmosphere. However the highlight for me then and now was “Fishing junks at sunset” – a very old traditional Chinese piece of music which Jarre adapted for his synthesisers and the Peking Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra, and mixes the humanity of their playing with the ‘machine music’ to quite spectacular effect.

One last memory associated with “Magnetic Fields”. Now I’ve probably mentioned how I had poor eyesight and this meant I couldn’t do any sports in school – contact sports or anything gymnastic anyway, I did do a bit of athletics in the summer. One school day in summer 83 my class were split up for their PE lesson – the boys in the New Gym doing leaps over horses and stuff like that and the girls were sent to the hall to play badminton. I was sat on the bench of the New Gym watching the boys and being bored out of my skull, so I sang my way through “Magnetic Fields” in my head through the whole lesson. Just as I was getting to “The Last Rumba” the PE teacher looked at his watch then shouted to me “Rob – go to the hall and tell the girls to finish and get back here”. I was elated, this was when I was madly crushing on one girl in my class and I finally had a legitimate reason to speak to her. I walked over to the hall as if I was walking on air, and I spoke to her as she was closest to me, and I walked her back to the changing rooms (but obviously no further). In fact it was probably the longest conversation I had with her.

The next Jarre album wasn’t really within my reach – there was one copy of “Music for supermarkets” and it was sold at auction in the spring of ’83. I remember the press about it at the time but I didn’t hear the broadcast on Radio Luxembourg. Having said that I’ve just googled it and found a recording of it on Soundcloud, and it’s on Youtube too. Hmm. And some people have even rerecorded it. It would be unfair for me to listen to this and “review” it so I shan’t. Parts of it ended up elsewhere anyway according to Wikipedia.

The next Jarre album was “Zoolook” which was issued in November ’84. Circumstances had changed for me by then, I had a growing record collection and was exploring lots of new avenues for music, or so it seemed at the time. Looking back at my diary of the period it seemed a chaotic period of my life – my friends were fighting over my diary, I was being gently threatened by the boyfriend of the girl I was crushing on, everything seemed topsy turvy and life got stranger every day. Maybe that’s just how everyone’s teenage years appear in retrospect. On Wednesday 7th November 1984 I was whisked out of class by my Computer Studies teacher Mrs M, thrown into the back of her Mini Metro alongside two other boys and driven to the offices of the central offices of the Local Education Authority in Cardiff. In March or April us three boys – myself in the 4th year, Sam Evans from the 5th year and another from the 6th form – had been put together in a room, asked a number of quiz questions about computers and then forgotten about it. A week before Mrs M kidnapped us she had informed me that we’d come second in all the schools of South Wales and had been awarded prizes. So we turned up at the LEA, had a presentation from someone at IBM (who had sponsored the quiz) and had our pictures taken, which ended up in the Penarth Times a few weeks later. I’ve actually got the original print of the picture somewhere. What is peculiar is that in the photograph Mrs M looked exactly like Moe Tucker in one of the later Velvet Underground pictures (if you’ve got the book “Uptight”, it’s the one towards the end of the book where they’re standing around a tree looking quite happy and relaxed). And what’s all this got to do with anything? Well our prizes were £5 Boots tokens, ie we could buy whatever we wanted as long as it was in Boots the Chemists. Luckily Boots in Cardiff had a record department so I pushed off there on Saturday 10th to buy “Zoolook”.

By now I was regularly reading Melody Maker and had noticed in their “Also released” section that Jarre had a new album out. It didn’t get a review in MM but a month or so later it did get reviewed by Electronics and Music Maker, a monthly magazine I also devoured. I was still excited by a new JMJ album and couldn’t wait to play it. The inner sleeve was odd – lots of languages and credits for other musicians too, some of whom I knew. Adrian Belew on guitar? Laurie Anderson on vocals? Vocals on a Jarre record? One last thing to mention – I bought the vinyl and instantly regretted it, the disc was the thinnest most pliable album I owned at that point, and probably still is. A horrible pressing quality. When I read all these audiophiles going on about “the original pressings” I think of this album and wonder if they know what they are talking about half the time.

“Ethnicolor I” stretches out for twelve minutes and instantly establishes the album’s modus operandi – the use of vocal samples and snippets as melodic and rhythmic elements. There are twenty seven languages listed on the sleeve, and some snippets are clearly English as there’s a “Love me” at the start, and the initial ‘vocal’ melody is using the word “tit”. Ah yes, “tit”. How many sniggers did that cause at the time. The opening section is slow and measured with some typical Jarre elements among the samples – the twinkling high sequences in the background refer back to “Equinoxe”. At seven minutes vocal samples are sequenced up as a rhythmic base, and chords set up the melody and then huge gated drums and a funky bass guitar kick in and you wonder what the hell you’re listening to – is this really Jean Michel Jarre? But it sounds good, especially when the drums go to double speed and great waves of ascending and descending synths swing in towards the end. It’s strange hearing real instruments on a record so full of synths and samples. “Diva” again starts slowly with dripping water and chimes and more samples and backwards sounds – the mood of being in an exotic humid rainforest is immediately established. Then Laurie Anderson sings. But not words. Just vocal sounds – not unlike Bowie on side two of “Low” to be honest. And it totally works. At three minutes the sequenced snippets return alongside bass and drums and a lovely lilting semi-oriental melody, then Anderson sings again, more vocal sounds with a melody this time. It’s oddly gorgeous and it’s possible to say this prepared me for Liz Fraser’s vocal style on “Treasure” which I would shortly discover at this point. Then some steel drums come in to join the party. Yes I’d forgotten how much pleasure I got from “Diva”. Very nice. “Zoolook” sets the rule – side two track one is the single – and is heavily sequenced samples and a typical Fairlight vocal sound melody, very pleasant. “Wooloomooloo” is the equivalent of “Magnetic Fields Part 3”, slower and using what sounds like a mechanical sample as a rhythm – the sort of thing Depeche Mode were doing at the time in fact. “Zoolookologie” is faster and spritely, full of electronic handclaps and sequenced bass with the return of the vocal “tit” sample. Oh how we laughed. In fact it sounds like a reworking of “Equinoxe 5”, all the extraneous sounds circling the stereo field. Still good though. “Blah blah cafe” is apparantly an extract from “Music for supermarkets” but was my favourite piece on the album. I don’t really know how to describe it. Everything sounds wrong, there’s big drums, bendy bass, guitar that seems to be falling apart or fighting itself, and this kind of vocoder rhythm. Bloody marvellous anyway. “Ethnicolor II” closes the album with a return to environmental sounds, only perhaps this is a shopping centre or a busy train station, and there’s sampled orchestral instruments not doing anything – I always felt this was a damp squib of an ending to the album. I always thought of this as a New York album – it’s a very contempory sounding album and not one that the fanbase really understood at the time. But I loved it and gave it lots of airtime in my bedroom.

In the Spring of 1986 there was a flexidisc given away with Keyboard magazine. On one side was a demonstration of a Kurzweil keyboard, on the other side was a new Jean Michel Jarre track called “Moon machine”. I bought it and loved it – this was more sample heavy funk. Little did I know that it was just a set of preset samples off an Emulator II keyboard. There was a new album due in April and if it all sounded like that it would be great. Sadly when “Rendezvous” was issued it was a crushing disappointment to me. Even listening to it now I still feel the same about it – it seems to be synth presets and obvious melodies and the same old ideas. It was a retreat from the forward looking “Zoolook” into safer territory. Side one aimed for symphonic power with choirs and orchestral samples but flailed around without much melody to speak of. Side two was better – “Part four” was commercial electro pop, “Part five” was sequenced joy and “Part six” was actually quite emotional, considering the sax part should have been played by Ron McNair, a member of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger team. Maybe my view on “Rendezvous” was coloured by the two albums I bought at the same time – “Piper at the gates of dawn” and “Forever changes”. I was starting to explore the music of the past, and it seemed more enticing and interesting than some of the new music around at the time.

After ’86 I slowly lost interest in Jarre’s music. If I heard it I’d give it an open-minded listen but it appeared that he had the same problem that so many Seventies electronic pioneers had in the mid Eighties – the music technology had moved on from what they knew, and artists such as Tangerine Dream. Kraftwerk and Jarre were playing catch-up, making sterile or harsh digital music. But to be honest these three artists didn’t need to create any more music by the mid-Eighties – they had pioneered popular electronic music in different ways and influenced music enough by then. Even when they did release new music it seemed based on their respective pasts – Kraftwerk turning “Tour de France” from a single into an album 20 years after the fact, Tangerine Dream rerecording their classic 70s albums like “Phaedra”, and Jarre foolishly creating “Oxygene 7 – 13”, using the same equipment as the original album but with none of that album’s charm or sense of melody. Jarre can still play spectacular concerts and do whatever he wants – playing the “Oxygene” album live with the original instruments is fine by me. His best music may be behind him but for a few years he was well ahead of the game, it’s just a shame he doesn’t have the hip quotient of Kraftwerk or Eno. I suppose that’s the price of populism.

Next time : What do you call a deer with no eyes?

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