In Praise Of … Zoolook
1984. The year of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Madonna, Wham!, Band Aid, the LA Olympics, and that freakish clay model head in Lionel Richie’s video for Hello. Oh, there was also Threads of course, but that’s another story entirely. Don’t have nightmares, kids. But 1984 was an interesting year in other ways, including in electronic music. While cheaper synthesisers were becoming ubiquitous in pop music at that time, the technology was moving on apace, including the increasing emergence of higher power sampling equipment such as the Fairlight CMI. Artists who were more focused on electronica in terms that could be described as more artistic than explicitly commercial were getting to grips with this new technology and putting it to good use. Art of Noise, after releasing material the previous year, finally hit the chart mainstream in November with their single Close to the Edit. Yello were working on the album Stella, to be released in January 1985, which contained what was to become their signature song, Oh Yeah! Jean- Michel Jarre was an early adapter of the Fairlight¹ and had been using it for several years. This was the context into which Zoolook was dropped on 1 November 1984, at around the time that Bob Geldof was beginning to gather the great and the good of British pop to record Do They Know It’s Christmas?²
To talk about Zoolook, we first have to deal with an elephant in the room, but one that isn’t necessarily obvious if you don’t know what an elephant looks like before you’re told about it. This one has a name: Music for Supermarkets (MFS). In mid 1983, Jarre had become aware of an exhibition celebrating supermarkets, Supermarché!, and had agreed to contribute some music to accompany it. At the end of proceedings, the artists involved decided to auction the contents of the exhibition, and Jarre decided that doing the same with the music, treating it in the same ways as the rest of the art, was a nice twist. In the end, a single copy of the album was mastered, pressed, packaged, and released, before being sold on 6 July 1983. It was broadcast in its entirety just once, on Radio Luxembourg, with Jarre instructing the audience to “pirate me!” before it aired. These were to be the only recorded versions of the album to exist³ other than the one vinyl copy that was sold⁴. All of this needs to be mentioned because Zoolook owes several debts to MFS. There are three pieces that appear later again in the Jarre canon: parts, II, IV, and VI⁵. the first appears in a reworked form for a part of Fifth Rendez-vous on the 1986 Rendez-vous album. The second, and third we’ll discuss presently. A prominent feature of the album is the recurring use of ambient, background noise: the sounds of daily life. It makes perfect sense for the everyday burble of supermarkets, and sounded like a continuation of the use of Paris Métro trains in Magnetic Fields, itself a callback to earlier, deeper influences in Jarre’s work.
Anyway, with that necessary diversion out of the way, we come back to Zoolook, which Jarre began work on after completing Music For Supermarkets. Perhaps being able to play some more with the samplers had brought JMJ back to some of the early roots of his journey in composition. Some of his earliest recorded work is very much grounded in the tradition of musique concrète, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that he was mentored by Pierre Schaeffer, was part of his GRM project in Paris in the late 1960s, and that he even spent a short time as an intern in Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s studio. Early recordings like La Cage and Erosmachine are instantly recognisable for employing some of the techniques of musique concrète, such as recording ‘found’ sounds onto tape and manipulating them, in similar ways to those the Radiophonic Workshop were doing in the UK at around the same time. Zoolook revisits that idea after the impressionistic and windswept Oxygène, the sparkly baroque of Equinoxe, and Magnetic Fields, which was a rather more difficult album to pin down in merely stylistic terms. If you think about the albums as corresponding to more basically elemental themes, Oxygène was predominantly about air, Equinoxe was about water, and Magnetic Fields was more about electricity and machines: the man-made world. Zoolook feels more like a celebration of the human, even though superficially disembodying sampling and digital technologies dominated the recording process. The sleeve notes for the album contain an extensive list of all the languages sampled for the album, and there are a lot of them, often layered on top of each other. Make no mistake: the main instrument here is voice, and humanity is at the centre of it all .
The first slight surprise is the cover. Jarre had used the artwork of Michel Granger on both Oxygène and Equinoxe. Indeed, both of these covers are instantly recognisable as classics of album art. 1981’s Magnetic fields was a bit of a change of tack, using a slightly manipulated portrait photo, but Zoolook was significantly different in tone to all of them. Both front and back covers used portraits, but, in keeping with the idea of sounds being digitally manipulated to create something else, so too were the graphics, with the artist’s image being stretched and distorted, along with the colours. His face had been sampled. The cover of Jarre’s 2000 album Metamorphoses harks back to the Zoolook cover just a little, with the merest hint of facial manipulation, and suggestion of the image being smeared. It’s almost like a Zoolook for the new century.
The album opens with Ethnicolor, a sprawling, epic piece that clocks in at just under 12 minutes, and which for me is the key stone of the whole thing. It opens with a sound not dissimilar to whale song, a keening, melancholic, and ancient-feeling sound. The piece is roughly divided into three sections, with shifts of mood at around four and seven minutes in. Initially it is a collage of human voices, built up in layers, forming an ambient soundscape before things properly spark at around 7 minutes, at which point it turns into a pulsing, bass-driven monster. Listening to this on a “proper” hi-fi for the first time in my teens was a revelation, playing it so loud you could feel the waves of bass thudding into your chest. It’s where the chops of a top rhythm section, including Yogi Horton’s drumming, and Marcus Miller’s bass playing really stand out. It’s timeless, truly epic, and even now, nearly forty years on, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. There’s a point at just around 8.30 where the crashing drums and fluid bass kick on, and the tempo rises yet again, so it feels almost like a tribal dance, becoming increasingly frenzied until finally, the end comes crashing around you in waves to the fade. Then, drifting out of silence comes the dripping the dripping of water, and the first of the pieces that first appeared on MFS (part VI): Diva. The major differences here are the addition of the opening half, and the addition of a new voice to the mix: Laurie Anderson, who has a very particular and mellifluous warmth of tone. It was the beginning of a productive working relationship, as she has lent that oh so distinctive voice of hers to two more tracks over the years: Metamorpshoses’ Je Me Souviens, and Electronica 1’s Rely on Me.
Diva is the second long piece of the album clocking in at around 7 and a half minutes. On the original vinyl and cassette releases⁶, both this and Ethnicolor occupy the whole of side one. It too is partitioned, this time into two parts. Again, the first part is almost like an ambient tableau, before transforming into the MFS lilting, bouncing stroll, albeit with some simplifications to the bassline to accommodate and emphasise the presence of Anderson’s voice forward in the mix. If you had to pin these first two pieces down, you might even pull the word, “African” out of the air. The sampled languages do feel mostly African in tone and mood, and the use of rhythm very much reinforces it too.
There’s a change of the mood now, and we get a glimpse of an entirely different set of influences, which I suspect was partly down to some of the recording for the album going on in New York. The album’s title track is a spartan and stripped-down bit of urban funk. It was accompanied by an extremely strange storytelling video, with more than a dash of 30s art deco, and Fritz Lang thrown in.
The single release of Zoolook also got extended dance remixes, courtesy of François Kervorkian⁷ and later Razormaid, both of which are very much worth searching out. The Francois K mix especially makes good use of Marcus Miller’s bass. But the album version stays for just under 4 minutes before the pace drops a little again, and we’re back to an interlude of ambient texture, with Wooloomooloo, which functions mainly as a way of regrouping before the next jump. Zoolookologie begins with what sounds like a scratch, before a fuzzing wall of noise kicks into a snare drum, early hip-hop rhythms, and a chorus of polyphonic trills, all underpinned once again by a lissom and loping bassline. It’s a thing that could only have been made in mid 80s New York, really, and it’s a multi-coloured, joyous and vibrant thing at that.
Zoolookologie was also released as a single in early 1985, with an accompanying video that is as near as damn it the epitome of the mid 80s aesthetic, where someone in an edit suite has definitely been let loose with the Quantel Paintbox. But the single did get the Françcois K treatment as well, with an extended dance mix. That particular mix is one of my absolute favourite JMJ things ever. Once again, Miller’s bass, and Horton’s snare drum take centre stage, and the track appears to finish in the same style as the album version at around 5.20. But no! There’s a false fade, at which point a snare, but most especially the bass kick back in for one more beautiful final minute. It is a thing of utter, utter delight. I honestly can’t say how many times I’ve fired it up to blast through headphones or in the car, and I have never, ever tired of it. When I first got a copy on tape many years ago, I played it so much I really should have worn it out.
The last two tracks bring us back to the supermarket mood. Blah Blah Café is pretty much identical to the version that appeared as MFS Part IV the year before, and has a vague but pleasantly bouncy feel of the Cantina band in Star Wars, if we’re being honest, which is no a bad thing at all. As it fades out, the music is replaced by ambient noise again, and the clacking of supermarket checkouts that opens Ethnicolor II. Gradually, even this noise fades to be replaced by more primal percussion noises and those disembodied human voices again before they too fade, and the music of the supermarket replaces it once again. It’s a rather reflective end to a diverse, and by the standards of today, pretty short album, clocking in at around 38 minutes. For a kid who had a lot of music on cassette back then, being able to fit albums on one side of a c90 was always a tremendous bonus.
There are a few minor complications with this album too, with several different releases over the years, containing different mixes of Zoolook and Zoolookologie. And originally, there was meant to be another track there too: Moon Machine. This didn’t appear on an official release until it showed up on the B side of the Fourth Rendez-vous Special Remix 12 inch⁹ in 1986, then eventually on CD in 1991 on the Images compilation. Stylistically, however, it’s obviously more Zoolook than anything else.
The puzzling thing about this album was the reception. In Europe it was well-received, sold fairly well, and even won some awards. But in the UK, things were different. JMJ releases had generally found themselves comfortably in the top 10 of the album chart, but Zoolook barely limped into the top 50, stalling at number 47. It did manage to reach silver status in January of 1985, but in comparison to previous efforts in this country it was something of a disappointment commercially. Perhaps it had been overshadowed by other, bigger stuff going on in the charts at the time, and just perhaps, an audience who were used to him sounding a certain way weren’t entirely ready for the edgier, arthouse experimentalist Jarre. It was an innovative album. Apart from its use of the Fairlight, inter alia, and extensive sampling, it was an early album to utilise digital production processes all the way through its workflow, from recording to mastering. It was also more diverse in its musical palette, pulling in more poppy and ethnic music elements than his previous work, which might have been seen as having a more obviously European classical influence. The UK music press weren’t what you’d call hostile, but they weren’t all that enthusiastic either. That’s probably the saddest part, because this playful Jarre was lots of fun, and musically pretty adventurous, but it was pushed into the background for a little while afterwards. Rendez-vous went back to a more conventional, classically influenced structure, and was criticised for being bombastic¹⁰. That probably gave some ammunition to those who later accused him of being little more than a purveyor of musical wallpaper. But it seems that more than a few musicians liked this album, and it has certainly had a life and a reach beyond its first flush. Bits of it have turned up in unexpected places, including Röyskopp’s A Higher Place, which sampled Wooloomooloo.
It really is one of the 80s great lost albums; every time there’s an electronic music retrospective and the music hacks drone on about Kraftwerk being the touchstone for everything¹¹, they forget stuff like this. It really doesn’t sound like anything else he ever did (with those notable exceptions we mentioned), certainly like nothing else he has done since. And the thing is, it’s not like anything anyone has done either, really. It kind of sits on its own, but it’s due some more recognition and love, I think.
¹ Along with Peter Gabriel he was a very early adopter, and used the Fairlight in his 1981 album, Magnetic Fields. It even appears in the photographs in the sleeve notes for the album.
² The Band Aid Single was actually recorded on November 25, but Geldof had made TV and media appearances earlier in the month mobilising support for the venture after Michael Buerk’s initial harrowing BBC News report in late October.
³ Jarre introduced the playback by saying “Piratez moi!”. A single track from it (Part I) finally appeared on the Planet Jarre box set in 2018.
⁴ Yes, of course I have a copy of the bootleg. I didn’t manage to get hold of it until the early 90s.
⁵ Repurposing some of his earlier material is something JMJ, like many other artists, has done. Sections of both Second, and Third Rendez-vous have appeared before in embryonic forms as La Belle et la Bête, and La Morte du Cygne respectively, both recorded in the early 70s.
⁶ I first bought this on cassette probably around late 1986, or early 1987, long gone now. But I still have three versions of it on CD.
⁷ His remix of Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity is great too.
⁸ And yes, of course I have both of them on 12".
⁹ Do you need to ask? Yes, of course I have that one as well.
¹⁰ Though that was partly commissioned with NASA and the City of Houston for Rendez-vous Houston, which had particular requirements of their own. Some of that also applied to Revolutions, which formed the basis of the London Docklands concerts in 1988.
¹¹ This is ok by me mostly, because Kraftwerk are bloody great, but just a little less of the po-faced orthodoxy of sixth form common room cool would be nice sometimes.