Every 20 years or so, Jean Michel Jarre makes sure we have enough oxygene. This is the newbie’s introduction to the classic synthesizer album Oxygene, an essay originally written in 1997.
In the late 1960s, the young Jean Michel Jarre started to explore various directions of the art of composition and sound design. These explorations were based on his background in traditional music education and experimental work at the GRM center in Paris. Jarre composed pop songs, an electronic opera, advertising music, soundtracks and library music, but he was not happy with how music was created according to traditional rules, both in terms of composition, sounds and instruments. He felt tied up by predefined norms and rigid expectations. In the mid 70s, with money earned from songs written for other artists and producers, Jarre started to focus on something he was not sure where would end. He realized he could not put his new music in any known category, as it didn’t sound like anything else out there. Having finished his album, Jarre tried to sell it to the record companies, but it bore no fruits, as it was not disco, not prog and not jazz. It didn’t even have pretty singers or proper song titles. Record company bosses did in fact dismiss Jarre’s album for the lack of lyrics. Jarre had to turn to Francis Dreyfus, who had employed Jarre as a song writer, musician, composer and producer for some time already. Dreyfus had experience from progressive music by being the one who published Pink Floyd and David Bowie in France in the late 60s, early 70s. Dreyfus was willing to give Jarre a chance. Then, at an art exhibition, Jarre’s wife bought him a painting that depicted a human skull breaking free from the Earth. The painting was called Oxygene.
It has been about 40 years since Oxygene practically started a revolution in modern music, and the amazing thing is that the album does not sound 40 years old today. Certainly the old analogue sounds are there, but if the album had come out today, it would not have sounded like an outdated album, like most 1970s synthesizer albums do. It’s transparency, fluidity, spaciousness and impeccable production makes it as futuristic and timeless today as it was 40 years ago. However, the album is more than timeless and more than just a great album from four decades ago; it was also one of the most important albums of electronic music, and one of a small handful of major starting points for electronic music as a genre of its own.
A 1989 promotional video for Oxygene part 4.
Actually, lots electronic music was made before Oxygene. Even some albums with a degree of success. Artists like Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, and Walter Carlos had been successful in recording and selling ambient and electronic music before Jarre’s breakthrough album, and synthesizers had existed for some 10-15-20 years. However, electronic music as a genre of its own did not really exist. Electronic music was seen as a novelty, something exotic that prog rockers dabbled with, or artists got lucky with the odd hit like Pop Corn. Those who had a special interest in electronic music were often engineers, studio musicians, art-scene experimenters, and a limited crowd of music fans. Even if well known bands such as ELP and Yes had huge walls of modular synths at their concerts, they did not do electronic music as such. Some of the genre entries were derived from rock, or from jazz, or from classical music, such as Isao Tomita’s Snowflakes are Dancing. Then came Oxygene, released in 1976 and charted all around the world in 1977 and out-sold other electronic albums many times over. For the first time, electronic music would sell as many copies as the biggest selling rock, pop and disco albums of its time; 15 million copies went over the counter – some sources claim sales approach 18 million. The album is still, 40 years after its release, the biggest selling French album of all genres and times. In comparison, Carlos’ hugely popular album Switched-On Bach (1968) sold one million copies. No wonder then, that Oxygene can be said to have brought (what later was to be known as) electronica to the people. It’s also not a surprise that Oxygene was named the most important electronic album of all times in the Future Music reader poll around the Millennium. The uniqueness of Oxygene is emphasized by the fact that the scale of Jarre’s success was not repeated by other artists or bands in the same genre. Jarre, on the other hand, continued to sell millions of his subsequent albums, even though not even he would surpass his record breaking record.
Oxygene has later reached the status as one of the most essential albums in the electronic music genre, due to its pioneering concept, its timeless quality and for being key in paving way for a new type of music. Other similar-ish artists followed (Yello, Space, Kitaro, YMO, Yanni, Art of Noise, etc.), «space disco» became commercially possible, and a torrent of more pop oriented electronic groups arrived in the 1980s (Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Human League, OMD, Erasure, Alphaville, Duran Duran, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, and many more) to prove that synthesizers were not just an exotic feature of music, but a staple of music making. While many bands would credit Kraftwerk as a big inspiration, record buyers in large quantities owed a great deal to Jarre for introducing them to electronic music, something artists like Moby has acknowledged. Jarre’s huge sales, massive concerts and high media profile made him one of the few original electronica artists to actually reach masses of music fans not necessarily into electronic music (and maybe converting them to electronic music fans on the way), which is still true today. His media interviews for Electronica 1 (2015) alone count over 300!
How Oxygene was not similar to other electronic music at the time is also worth noting; it did not ride on the robotic sounds of Kraftwerk, the proto trance of Tangerine Dream, the minimalistic ambient of Brian Eno, or the cross-over synth-rock of Pink Floyd. It didn’t even latch on to the disco beats, like Jarre’s competitor Space did with Magic Fly, another 1976 hit. Additionally, Oxygene came from a country not known for global music acts. The album went it’s own way and was on many levels Electronic Music 2.0 in the 1970s. Oxygene proved it could communicate across all borders, with no worries about language barriers, age gaps, or cultural background. A few years later, the album helped making Jarre the first popular Western artist to play in post-Mao China, thanks to its lack of words and richness of emotions. «I had all the odds against me. I was French, I made music on machines, and did not have lyrics. In a TV interview I had to explain how I made the music. I walked over to the TV studio camera, knocked on the lense, and said; this is a machine, it is not dangerous. I really had to explain electronic music», Jarre said later.
As it broke down boundaries between genres, composition and production – it was maybe the first global synthesizer success recorded in a small home studio – Oxygene offered the combination of abstract impressionism and recogniseable radio friendly melodies, shimmering futuristic sound, a perfect production and an universal appeal. Compared to other albums released around the same time, Jarre’s album took huge leaps forward in sound design, mixing and sonoric quality. Jarre also freed himself from traditional composition by working with intuition and sounds rather than notes and standardized formats. Hence Oxygene is not «technological». In fact, it is not «electronic music» at all. Says Jarre; «I do not have other motivations than other composers, wether it is a Mongol shaman thousands of years ago or a modern rock musician or a caveman banging two stones together. We communicate the same things, just with different tools. It is not the music that is electronic, just the instruments». Oxygene is for millions of record buyers the perfect example of how emotional depth can be communicated through technology; take for instance the album’s six tracks that evoke various stages of melancholy. That’s a universal, human link, much more than travels on the motorway.
Is Oxygene relevant today? Why should it still be remembered? The album’s game-changing impression, its role as a pillar of electronic music and its long-term influence makes is a lasting benchmark that to this day continues to bring new generations of listeners to electronic music. That, and the fact that great music is never out of fashion.
Jarre’s new album Oxygene 3 is out on December 2, 2016.
(This is a «40th anniversary remix» of an essay by Steinar Larsen and Glenn Folkvord, first printed in Norwegian in the IMAGES fanzine in 1997.)