By 1984, Jean-Michel Jarre‘s career had already taken some pretty extraordinary turns. After a few false starts, it had exploded with Oxygène from late 1976 onwards. The follow-up Équinoxe (1978), while great, had offered few surprises, and while 1981’s Magnetic Fields took three years to appear and saw Jarre explore digital synthesis for the first time, it still has a lot in common with its predecessors.
Then things had gone a bit crazy – he became the first western musician to tour China, to huge acclaim, and released an excellent album to chronicle the tour (The Concerts in China, 1982). The following year, he did both the most and least commercial things possible, releasing just one copy of Music for Supermarkets and immediately destroying the master tapes, and then reemerging with a somewhat premature compilation, The Essential Jean-Michel Jarre.
By 1984, Jarre’s exploration of sampling was probably somewhat overdue, but the things he was doing with his samplers were quite unprecedented. Zoolook opens with the disturbing deep choral sounds of the twelve-minute epic Ethnicolor. All the way through this album, the sounds that he throws our way are warped, bizarre, and often somewhat disarming. He has taken vocal snippets, tweaked and retuned them, and layered them frankly all over the place. If anyone else had done this, it would have been a total mess, but Jarre seems in control here. It’s not the most exciting or uplifting piece of music ever written, and it hasn’t necessarily dated well all the way through, but it’s definitely always interesting, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
One of the most interesting things about Jean-Michel Jarre is the way he uses his music to explore humanity, and Zoolook is probably the earliest tangible example of this, portraying 25 languages from the human zoo in the form of weird, layered sound. Prior to this, it had been much more subtle, with layer upon layer of synthesiser. Now, many of those voices were human, but sometimes barely recognisably so.
Diva had appeared the previous year on Music for Supermarkets, but unless you were the lucky buyer, who I imagine has never actually listened to it, or heard it on its radio broadcast, or bought one of the bootlegs that inevitably immediately appeared, you’ll never have heard it. Laurie Anderson appears at this point, chattering inanely over a slightly cheesy arpeggio. On an album of odd tracks, this is definitely one of the oddest.
What comes next depends entirely on which version of the album you have. Originally, and on most versions, it’s a version of the title track Zoolook. The track on mine is bizarrely exclusive, Zoolookologie (Remix), a reworked version of the second single from the album. It’s a delightfully chirpy track that was clearly never going to do much on the charts – in spite of being packaged as a double 7″ in the UK with Oxygène (Part IV) on the other disc, it still didn’t go far.
All versions put the delightful Aboriginal-inspired Wooloomooloo next, probably the best track on here so far, if quirky samples aren’t entirely your thing. Which is probably true for most listeners picking this album up for the first time now – you were no doubt thrown off your stride somewhat by the first track, and you might have enjoyed its atmospherics too, but this steady piece provides a welcome distraction.
Then comes the jazzy title track, apparently also in remixed form, although I can’t imagine many could describe what’s different. Once you get beyond the great construction of vocal samples, it isn’t a particularly inspired track – thirty-five years later, it just sounds like the theme tune from a sports programme on television. At the time, though, it must have sounded quite unusual.
Blah Blah Café is next, still using samples to heavy effect, and still with a slightly odd, awkward feel, but this time the melody holds things together well. It’s pleasant, although towards the end, you might find yourself wishing it was a little shorter.
The album closes with Ethnicolor II, a similarly atmospheric piece to the opener, but lacking the need to punch you in the face with samples, this track doesn’t build into anything as huge.
Even now, thirty-five years on, Zoolook is a fascinating album. It’s not necessarily always a good album, though – the sample work is intriguing, and sometimes beautiful, and there are plenty of classic Jarre elements, but sometimes it’s also unpleasantly cheesy, and occasionally it’s actually pretty awful.
For all of that, though, Zoolook has its place in history, as one of the first sample-based albums, and it remains one of the most interesting. It’s well worth a listen, even if the words above don’t capture your imagination. Listen to the voices, and make your own mind up.
As with all of Jarre’s back catalogue, various reissues of Zoolook are available, with varying changes, errors and problems. Start your research here, and see where it takes you.