Jean Michel Jarre — Oxygene. Brief story behind artwork and album
It happens that the anniversary reissue of Oxygene came out last December. Quite beautiful: the first disc was recorded forty years ago, its second part — twenty years ago, and now, another twenty years later we have the whole triptych in our hands. Everything led to this: Oxygene 7–13 was genuinely one of Jarre’s last classic albums. Then there was the full-fledged unexpected Metamorphoses and then a chain of almost home-made albums. To those who were unhappy, the specialized forums explained: what did you expect? Oxygene 14–20 or a double record of Equinoxe 9–39?
After the concert albums, the time of contemporary remixes came and then — a bright change and return to roots — a live performance of the first and most famous album, with the same instruments and several musicians. The audience was always warned before the concert that something might go wrong — if even fashionable digital synths were slow sometimes, what could you expect from analogue ones that were almost fifty years old? But this didn’t make the audience smaller — who would refuse to listen to the album that surrounded your youth, childhood or entire life played live? The concert disc Oxygene: Live in Your Living Room was completed with quite enjoyable interludes between its parts. That was the first step towards the trilogy.
After a big conceptual project called Electronica, where Jarre made records with his peers and successors for several years, the musician naturally wanted to come back to something simple and minimal — like forty years ago when he only had a kitchen, a few keyboards and a second-hand 8-track mixer as well as the rules: not to make music more complicated and to leave some space between the elements (in order to have breathing space). Jarre set himself a goal to finish it by the end of 2016 since his first Oxygene was released in December 1976 in France and was sold everywhere in the world in 1977. Let’s pretend this text was written for the occasion of the international anniversary of its release.
One day in September 1976, Charlotte Rampling, an accomplished actress and Jarre’s future wife, pushed open the door of a gallery in Paris and went to an exhibition of young French artists. There, she bought Oxygene by Michel Granger. This was a semi-exposed skull — a powerful and clear ecological message. If you dreamed something like this, you couldn’t chase it away with a pillow. On the 15th of September Jarre already met this Granger — Charlotte had given him the painting. The 28-year-old author, impressed by the image of the delaminated Earth, had been working on an album for a long time, but only then did he get a finished conception and a name.
Together they started working on the front cover. “I had to make a square version of the painting”, recalls Granger. “By the way, an important point: many people believe that I work with an air brush. Actually, I paint with watercolours. I’ve never even touched an air brush.”
Granger was probably one of the progenitors of ecological posters. His works include a lot of anxiety-inducing as well as dreamy drawings of the Earth, his main source of inspiration.This skull already appeared in 1972 when for the first time people started talking about the control of factories and began wondering where the waste goes. Jarre himself has said that the album concept makes a clear statement but it’s not a diagnosis. “What I like about this picture is that it isn’t necessarily pessimistic. It rather poses the question: where are we going?”
No label accepted Oxygene. It was a strange piece of music with no words and Part III-IV-V instead of titles. It’s not clear what the point was if there was punk, disco, soul, and pop music of different kinds. With such a subject matter, Oxygene, gurgling and whistling, sounded like a weird game, like eccentricity. Like “Have you got nothing else to do? Where are the guitars?
Even the composer’s mother asked him: “Why do you name this music after a gas?” Only his spouse supported him: “This is so different that it will either lead nowhere or it will turn into a phenomenal success. But there is no middle option.”
The electronic scene didn’t yet exist in 70s. There was only a group of fans and some individuals. Sure, Kraftwerk were famous for their Autobahn in 1974. Sure, Virgin released Tangerine Dream and there were some notable names but it wasn’t enough to change public opinion. Electronic music was still considered avant-garde and provided a cultural shock.
Finally, Jarre’s friend from the Musical Research Group headed by Pierre Schaeffer (the father of concrete music who introduced Jarre to keyboards and taught him to think with sounds instead of notes), convinced her husband Francis Dreyfus to release Oxygene. The owner of the Dreyfus Motors label felt sceptical towards keyboard music but ordered fifty thousand copies to be printed. In less than six months he had to produce more — the records went to Germany and the UK where they got to big radio stations which helped to sell millions of discs. Now, he needed to think about a second album :)