In Praise of … Equinoxe

Le Trac (Granger): detail. Source Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC Atrribution v4.0

Ok, so I talked about Zoolook, and because I’ve done that, I feel that I really have to talk about Equinoxe now. Equinoxe is a problematic album in the Jarre canon, because it’s the one immediately after THAT one, the one everyone knows, or at the very least knows one bit of. It wasn’t even the difficult second album (Oxygène was album number three). Oxygène Part IV is probably one of the most famous pieces of electronic music of the last fifty years in this country. Don’t get me wrong, Oxygène is an astounding album, a masterpiece of impressionism. A thing of breathy, ethereal beauty, with no “proper” percussion at all¹. But here’s the thing: Equinoxe is better.

There. I said it. And it’s probably heretical, but I mean it. Like Oxygène, the first thing you notice is the cover. The blank gazes of a serried, anonymous audience, staring back at you. Its original title is Le Trac (Stagefright), but it was appropriate then for a world of the growing soft power of mass media, and it perhaps seems even more powerful today. And as I’ll mention later it proved to be prescient for the artist too.

Oxygène had been a monster, a world wide smash that was ubiquitous. Any TV programme maker who wanted to imprint their work with a suggestion of the bright gleaming 21st century future² to come just planted Part IV into proceedings and the job was done for them. It was the sound of the future, and it needed a follow-up.

Now, at this point it’s probably good to mention that Jarre was nearing thirty, and wasn’t a deer in the headlights. He’d come from experimental, arthouse music, and then graduated to harnessing his skills in electronic music for a variety of purposes, from jingles and bits of pop fluff (Zig Zag Dance, and a cover of Popcorn), to ad work, and working as a producer and arranger for other artists, including Partick Juvet, and Christophe. He’d also managed to release an experimental electronic album, Deserted Palace, in 1973, a ballet score (Aor), and an electronic score for the film Les Granges Brûlées. But even with all this, the culture shock of worldwide fame was a jolt, so he sat down to work out what came next.

The answer was elemental. Oxygène had been an album about the air. Equinoxe was going to be different. Nominally, the parts map the arc of a day, from dawn to dusk, but as he went on there was another theme developing in parallel: water. Another thing that was happening was the explosion of disco, and the use of synthesisers in dance music. While Oxygène was selling bucketloads in the summer of 1977, so too was Giogio Moroder and Donna Summer’s spellbinding I Feel Love. The UK singles chart saw another French record, Space’s Magic Fly, chart, and then there was the RAH Band’s The Crunch. They weren’t the only ones. Clearly there had to be a lifting of the tempo, and the nascent skill of sequencing would play a part. While Moroder was working with Moog’s engineers, Jarre would collaborate with the musician and engineer Michel Geiss, who came up with the Matrisequencer. The ability to sequence reliably was a huge step forward for Jarre, who had painstakingly put Oxygène together in a home studio that was converted from a kitchen. Now he could assemble much more complex rhythms, sustain basslines and rhythm, and do it all quicker.

In parts, like Oxygène, Equinoxe is a woozy, dreamy album. Take Part 3 which is constructed around a delicate original piano figure that has echoes of early 20th century French composers like Satie or Debussy. It feels almost like a summer meadow, with the bees buzzing around in amongst the tinkling drip, drip, drip of the raindrops in a summer shower, though of course it’s a prelude of sorts, to something bigger to come.

Jarre of course was always fairly straightforward about all of this. Electronic music for him had little in common with the American roots of rock & roll. This was a very European kind of music, with its own very specific character and tone, where the traditional guitar, bass, and drum combo didn’t really get a look in. His early works do have a very classical feel, and Equinoxe especially feels almost baroque in some places. Perhaps it’s the almost mathematical precision of some of those dancier, sequenced passages that have the faintest of echoes of the European classicism of Bach.

Like the dawn and the morning, the early parts emerge, slowly blinking and stretching. almost stately at times. But at the end of part 3, the mood shifts, and becomes more urgent. As good as the rest of the album is, it’s this passage of parts 4–7 that make it hard to resist for me. Suddenly there’s a drive to everything: part 4 suggests there’s something bigger coming. There’s the briefest lull as part 4 fades, and then Part 5 arrives. This is the soundtrack to a summer storm, with the sound of tumbling rain, and the rivers of water running through the gutters, down storm drains³. As the storm abates a perhaps just little, the rain continues, and we’re into the sequencing of part 6. This is prototypical EDM, and it’s a magical, pulsing angular interlude, before we move into Part 7, which is another perennial live favourite, all soaring chords and tumbling basslines. But the evening wears on, and now we reach the end of part 7, with narrow streets and the late night rain that makes the cobbles, and the reflections of the street lights above, sparkle underfoot. In live shows⁴, Jarre has played Band in the Rain with an actual street barrel organ, standing on stage turning the crank to the sound of the clouds pouring down on him. It’s a sweet, rather melancholic moment, possibly even carrying the faintest hint of a distant childhood memory. And so night falls, and the album is bookended by part 8, and the end of the day.

Of course, the music press were not impressed. This was as unpunk an album as it was possible to be, and arriving in the post-punk winter of discontent, it wasn’t likely to get an easy rife. But it didn’t matter. It only just missed the top 10 album chart in early 1979⁵, and has sold over 4 million copies worldwide. And, like its forebear, it has had an influence. Along with the froideur of our German chums, Kraftwerk, this album, and the technology that powered it, has helped to shape modern dance music. It’s a keystone in the wall. The album did go platinum in his native France, so he found himself something of a national celebrity, and was asked to play a show for the Parisian crowd on Le Quatorze Juillet 1979. No one really knew how many would show up. In the end, his show in the Place de la Concorde was watched by a million people, and later he’d confess that the sea of anonymous watching faces made him understand that album cover all too well. It took him some time to make the readjustment to the new status he suddenly had. There wouldn’t be another album until 1981’s Magnetic Fields, and then his historic tour of China, the first western artist to play there since the Cultural Revolution⁶. If you’re gonna go, at least go big.

But, more personally, as a bit of a fan, I have favourite albums. Equinoxe and Zoolook are the two I can’t quite choose between. They are both very, very different, and yet are only separated by only six years. That’s actually five if you consider that parts of Zoolook were written in early 1983. It’s a concept album. An impressionistic, 70s French concept album. Of course the critics sneered, but balls to ‘em. It’s beautiful, and that’s all there is to it really.

¹ And I’ve heard it live, in its entirety, exactly as it was meant to be played, with the original analogue synthesisers, back in 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall, 30 years after charting in the UK. It was a brilliant experience.

² Yes, I know. Poor deluded optimistic fools.

³ It really is. More than once, I’ve watched the rain lashing against the windows on a stormy day, and played this exact passage of music. It’s just perfect. It truly is, to purloin the words of Jeff Lynne, a Concerto for a Rainy Day.

⁴ Most notably during the 1993 Europe in Concert Tour, which came of the back of the release of Chronologie. I saw that show at Maine Road, Manchester.

⁵ The album chart in early 1979 was full of big hitters, like the Grease OST, Boney M’s Nightflight to Venus, Neil Diamond, The Carpenters, Rod Stewart, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Kate Bush, and Queen. Equinoxe got as high as number 11, stayed on the chart for 6 months, and went gold. A bit of a result in the end.

⁶ And not Wham! as the British press kept saying at the time.

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