The Human League – Tell Me When

Billy, we are told, was an inspiration, positive and kind. And while history doesn’t necessarily explain who Billy was, The Human League‘s late 1994 comeback Tell Me When is still pretty fantastic.

A little over four years after the broadly misguided and largely digitally-driven Romantic?, Tell Me When was the first single from The League’s brilliant 1995 comeback Octopus. This was the album where they regained control for the first time in over a decade – Crash (1986) had famously descended into fine, but often dull, American soul, and its 1990 follow-up had been the sound of a group who had fundamentally lost their way. It wasn’t until Octopus that they found it again.

The lead track is fantastic, and got plenty of airplay. It was not, perhaps, as big a hit as it should have been, but it was undisputedly the Sheffield group’s best hit since at least Human, if not earlier. The lyrics are typically daft, and the vocal delivery typically imperfect, but the melody is catchy, and the soft analogue sounds are refreshing and uplifting.

This was, of course, the mid-1990s, and so a slew of remixes were inevitable. First up on this single was Utah Saints, with their Mix 1. It’s a catchy dance-pop crossover remix of a kind that just wouldn’t turn up now, with heavy beats and rippling synth arpeggios. It’s dated, and here’s a particularly fun bit half way through, where Utah Saints do their normal chord change-heavy bit, which is almost hilarious, but the mix as a whole is still great for what it is.

We then get not one but two b-sides, the first of which is the 1993 collaboration with YMO, Kimi Ni Mune Kyun. With two great groups collaborating, I’d have had high hopes, but this is honestly pretty dreadful. It must be at least 20 bpm too fast, and just seems to be a bit of a mess of beats. It’s a shame, but it really isn’t great.

But then we get the delightful instrumental The Bus to Crookes, a delightfully Sheffield-oriented take on the now-traditional transport mode-based electronic music track. This was not, let’s face it, ever going to break any particular boundaries, but it’s a nice instrumental piece, nonetheless.

Disc two opens with Utah Saints‘ other contribution to this release, Mix 2. This one seems more fully developed, somehow – the sounds are all the same, but the attempt at a full vocal mix has gone, replaced instead by repeated vocal snippets and broken down sections. Both mixes are great, but this is the one that really hits its mark.

Red Jerry is next, one of the people who would record one of the less offensive remixes of Don’t You Want Me a year or so later. His take on Tell Me When isn’t great – it’s a little better than the manic happy hardcore that was floating around during this period, but not a lot. The mid-1990s seem to have been a period where it was acceptable for remixers to take other people’s songs and just put the same riff on every one of them, and Red Jerry does seem to have been a part of that crowd – it worked for other songs, but not so much for this one.

Next is the Strictly Blind Dub, a dull house mix from Development Corporation. It’s a bit faster than some house tracks, so doesn’t quite do the relentless plodding thing that a lot of unimaginative house seems to, but it isn’t particularly elevating either, and lasts at least two or three minutes longer than it should (it isn’t even six minutes long in total). The fact that one of the remix duo was in Urban Cookie Collective should probably have been a sign. The same duo were responsible for the Overworld Mix that follows, and that’s a little better, with a bass line that nods to Blue Monday and a lot of acid squelching, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere more interesting in the end.

Inexplicably, the second disc also closes with Utah SaintsMix 1, so there’s little more to say here. It started off so well, but as was often the case in the mid-1990s, this single gave us a great lead track, a couple of interesting b-sides, and then a bunch of largely lacklustre remixes. But as a comeback release, this was pretty promising, and served well to herald Octopus.

The first CD of Tell Me When is still available here.

William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings

If anything, in 1999, you would have known William Orbit for his production work on pretty much every pop hit of the year. Yes, they all had pretty much the same synth arpeggio on them – he loves synth arpeggios – but Madonna, All Saints, and plenty of others had benefitted from his work.

What you almost certainly didn’t know was that four years earlier, he had released an album of updated classical music, called Pieces in a Modern Style. Originally credited to The Electric Chamber, it had been speedily deleted following complaints from the estate of one of the composers. But now, with his new-found fame as a producer, Orbit was able to revisit the album, remove the two problem pieces, and replace them with some new ones. And, because he was now a mega-star, he also got two singles, the first of which came out twenty years ago this week.

That opening single was Barber’s Adagio for Strings, taking Samuel Barber‘s dramatic piece and bringing it to life in a modern way. The irony, of course, with Pieces in a Modern Style, was that they weren’t particularly – but with Ferry Corsten‘s intervention, the single version becomes huge. It opens with William Orbit‘s synth string work, just fattened a little, but then suddenly, after the first minute, it just ignites, with beats and a trance lead line. To describe it as anything other than explosive would be underselling it.

ATB takes much the same approach, opening with effect-laden strings, and bringing in his own trademark sounds after a minute or so. His reworkings only ended up being released in Germany, perhaps because they didn’t fit as well for the UK audience, or perhaps they just weren’t ready in time. ATB‘s sound was already well known at this time, and honestly his mix does sound very like everything else he had released. It’s nice enough, but does feel a little surplus to requirements.

Finally, it’s time to hear the original, cut down somehow from its nine-minute album form to be a four-minute radio-friendly version. I doubt this received much airplay, even on classical radio, but it’s good that the single gets the original in some form here. It’s a challenge for the listener, in a way, as many people buying this release would have done so for the first track, but you have to acknowledge that it’s a beautiful piece of music, realised perfectly here. If, perhaps, a little short.

The fourth track on the German single – and actually the lead track on the UK CD single – was Ferry Corsten‘s full 12″ mix. It’s great to hear him take his elements to a full club mix, but it’s also a little disappointing that he chose to open with a fairly dull introduction, with a bit of trance synth work, and a lot of beats. After the first couple of minutes, he just switches us straight into the radio version, which is entirely as it should be, but I could honestly have dispensed with the introduction there.

Finally, we get ATB‘s 12″ mix, and as with the previous track, it’s a little surprising that a piece of music that started off life with a duration of nine minutes seems so forced when turned into an extended dance mix. It’s a reminder, in a way, of how different the forms of classical and dance music have to be. Opening with a rhythm section just feels very dull, in this context.

Even if he didn’t create the single version himself, it was with Barber’s Adagio for Strings that William Orbit cemented his position as one of the finest producers and multi-instrumentalists of our time, and for that, we all owe it a lot.

We reviewed the German CD single, which is no longer available new, but can be found through various second-hand retailers.

Electronic – Getting Away with It

When they first appeared, three decades ago this week, Electronic must have been a bit of a revelation. True, New Order had been steadily evolving from rock to pop over the preceding decade, but a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the extraordinary guitarist from The Smiths, must have conjured up ideas of something guitar-heavy. It wasn’t – Getting Away with It was, in a way, both Sumner and Marr’s first experiment with true pop.

The single version is, as I’m sure you know by now, exceptional. It’s a pop song, with synth strings and sweet acoustic guitar work. There’s something a little quirky with it, of course, but it still holds together beautifully. On vocals, Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant – neither of them particularly accomplished vocalists, but both great in their own way – harmonise perfectly, bringing a delightfully humanist quality to the song. It’s definitely nothing like New Order or The Smiths, and although it is a lot like Pet Shop Boys, the pop lyric doesn’t feel like something that Neil Tennant would have come up with on his own.

The definitive track listing appears to be the digital reissue, pulling all the different tracks together in one place, and that takes us next to the lead track on the 12″, the Extended Mix. This is an extended version very much in the 1980s style – take the first verse and strip it back a bit, add an extra instrumental verse, and mix original elements in, one by one. It’s a worthy version, but to a modern ear, there’s surprisingly little new here until the long breakdown section in the middle, which could honestly be dispensed with.

By 1989, artists were already sending tracks off for a multitude of weird and wonderful remixes, but Electronic seem not to have been especially aware of this, so the various singles of Getting Away with It are largely peppered with alternative versions. The extended Instrumental is lovely, and unusually for an instrumental version, it stands well alone. This includes the longer orchestral ending that would appear on later versions of the single mix.

There is a b-side, though – and this is perhaps a surprise, given that it seems to have since flown completely under the radar. Maybe this was intentional, as it was omitted altogether from the CD release. Lucky Bag is a beatsy, early house instrumental that provides occasional echoes of Bobby Orlando‘s huge bass lines. It’s hard to know exactly what Electronic would have been thinking with this, to tell the truth – it’s nice, but also instantly forgettable. Maybe it’s an extended experiment, or maybe it was always intended to be a b-side. Either way, it’s a nice diversion.

There are remixes here, but there’s nothing particularly great. For whatever reason, the common trend at the time with remixes was to cut the original back, add beats, add a few cheesy synth lines, and a bit of a calypso arpeggio, and call it done. So it is with Graeme Park and Mike Pickering‘s remixes. The Nude Mix is an uninspired dub version with weird down-tempo, almost rave-inspired synth lines dropping in all over the place. The Vocal Remix is, I would assume, their attempt to add the vocal back in for a more radio-friendly version, and while there’s plenty to enjoy here, both mixes really seem to fail on most levels. They’re nice, but just not quite good enough, and while the final fade on the second mix comes a little suddenly, it really can’t come too soon.

It’s nice to get another version of Lucky Bag to close the release, but the Miami Edit is a curious version – slightly more beat-driven than the one on the 7″, but far from different enough to really be noteworthy. On the UK release, this was hidden away on the second 12″, which seems appropriate – it’s a nice treat, but nothing particularly special.

So Getting Away with It is a bit of a mixed bag – a great track, but not, perhaps, such a great single. Electronic, for the time being, showed all the signs of being a one-off experiment, but perhaps inevitably, given the success of this release, they got back together for the 1991 Electronic album, which then inexplicably went on to skip Getting Away with It from its original track listing altogether. But with Getting Away with It, they assured us that there was something special about this collaboration.

We reviewed the US CD single. The five versions of the original track from here can be found on this digital release.

Piney Gir – Peakahokahoo

Following her brief cult success as half of Vic Twenty, singer Piney Gir reappeared with the delightfully lo-fi Peakahokahoo, released fifteen years ago this week. It’s a short album – so short, in fact, that it’s difficult to review, as each track disappears before you’re really able to start writing anything.

Vic Twenty had been a wonderful act, for the short time that they lasted. A couple of years earlier, they supported Erasure, wore Russian military outfits, and released delightful short electronic pop music. Sometimes verging on chiptune, at other times just dark, grimy, simplistic synthpop, their little-known album Electrostalinist is well worth a listen, if you ever find a copy.

This, though, was Piney Gir‘s first solo album. It opens with Boston, carrying on the theme of absurdly fast synth lines and choruses that started in Vic Twenty. Good, but not entirely convincing yet.

Next is Que Cera Cera, a hilariously bouncy Casio keyboard version of the first verse of the classic, which leads us into the dark but chirpy Girl. It’s clever – atmospheric but still very lo-fi. It’s also long enough to be able to write more than a sentence while it lasts. If there were any obvious singles on here, this is probably where I would begin.

Creature is good too, though – its slow, crunchy beats and processed vocals are evocative and intriguing. There’s an element of teenage angst here, which is captured beautifully. Other things aren’t quite as clear – the semi-shouty rendition of My Generation just about works, but seems a little misguided. Same for the short and somewhat sweet La La La.

A couple of years on, Piney Gir was asked to play country versions of the songs on here, and thus the follow-up album Hold Yer Horses became an alt-country version of this album. That might have been an odd choice at the time, but it was extremely successful, at least in underground circles, and seems to have gained her a cult following and cemented her career since then.

But there were already hints of this direction on Peakahokahoo, and Greetings, Salutations, Goodbye is probably the first of these. It would open Hold Yer Horses, and several of the other key tracks from here made it on there too. It’s quirky and clever, and while the guitar work comes as a bit of a surprise after all the 8-bit hits, it’s a good song.

K-I-S-S-I-N-G is another sweet song, although the rhymes are a bit odd. The instrumentation is what makes this work, honestly, but it’s an impressive reminder of just how varied this album is – we’ve come from fast, frantic, synthpop to this somewhat haunting piece.

It is a little impenetrable at times, though – there seems to be a bit of a journey going on through this album, and so probably by this stage we’re hanging out with an angsty teenage Piney Gir, who is wondering why everyone else seems to be kissing in trees except her. In that context, Sweet maybe makes sense, but it’s difficult to be sure – it seems to be a dreamy love song for someone that the singer doesn’t really know, but you probably had to be there to be certain.

Nightsong sees Simple Kid turn up for an oddly moonlit jazz piece, again unlike anything else that we’ve heard on here so far. This is definitely an album that’s full of surprises. But Piney Gir is also not afraid of bringing elements back when they’re needed, and so Ruth is Coming to America takes us back to those catchy Vic Twenty countermelodies with a full-on Casio rhythm. It’s bizarrely great, and yet at the same time a little bit unlistenable. Intriguing, though.

Jezebel sees things turn a bit dark. Maybe this isn’t an autobiographical album, after all. This is a grimy glam rock piece in a sense, but with an absurdly laid back vocal that really shouldn’t fit, but somehow works well. I don’t think anyone has ever recorded a glam track that was this gentle.

Finally, the closing track is Janet Schmanet – it’s actually the thirteenth track on here, although barely forty minutes have passed. It’s probably the cheesiest of all the tracks on here – the vast majority of sounds on here come from a portable keyboard, but that’s intentional. The lyrics are entirely daft, but hey, why not? The “get your adverbs here” line is weird, but inspired.

For good measure, we get a theremin version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow to close. Because of course we do.

So that’s Peakahokahoo. It’s every bit as eccentric as the title would suggest, but for all its oddities, it’s definitely never boring. You can see how the simplistic synthpop of Vic Twenty must have seemed a little boring to Piney Gir – she clearly doesn’t like being pigeonholed, and probably likes being in control too. So why not let her take control of your listening for a few minutes, and hear what she has to say for herself? Just accept that she might be a little bit strange at first.

You can still find Peakahokahoo at all major retailers.

Heaven 17 – How Live Is

Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.

This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.

But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.

We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.

Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.

New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.

I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.

What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.

Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.

The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.

Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.

It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.

The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.

So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.

There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.

Sparks – Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins

Twenty-five years ago is, as you might have realised in the last few months, roughly the time when I started listening to music in earnest. I was discovering electronic artists left, right, and centre, and loving pretty much all of them. Perhaps my oddest discovery of that time, though, was Sparks.

I’ve written before about their curious fame in the UK – by this stage, they had already been having hits for over two decades, but for me, they arrived from nowhere, in late 1994 or early 1995, with an intelligent, witty, silly, and also American form of Europop, with When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”. It snuck into the lower reaches of the Top 40 twice, getting nothing like its just desserts, but the mystique that they held for me was incredible.

Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins was an easy album to miss, if you didn’t realise who Sparks were, and I did – I don’t think I heard the album until two or three years later, and even when I did, I would have been utterly confused by opening track Gratuitous Sax. It’s an acapella piece, which really serves little purpose except to bookend the album and remind you of who Sparks used to be.

After that, the hits – or what should have been hits, anyway – come thick and fast. When Do I Get to Sing “My Way” still sounds catchy and majestic, with its huge synth lines and beautifully underplayed witty lyrics. Second single When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing) brings an uncomfortably fast, entirely daft lyric. Unlike the earlier single, this probably shouldn’t have been a chart topper, but it should at least have been all over the radio – “For me it’s all just fine / Because she’s a Frank Lloyd Wright design,” must be one of the finest pop lyrics ever written.

The eighties had not been kind to Sparks – they had followed up the huge No. 1 in Heaven with the better formed Terminal Jive, but despite trying pretty much ever year after that, nothing had really lived up to their earlier material. But after a six year career break (they had gone off for their first attempt to break the Hollywood movie industry), Sparks had returned with some of their best songs yet.

Some of the best titles, too – Frankly, Scarlett, I Don’t Give a Damn is brilliant from the get go. By 1994, analogue synthesisers were making a long-awaited comeback, and the haunting warmth in the background of this song is particularly striking. Couple that with more great lyrics, and you basically have all the ingredients you need.

It doesn’t let up, either – I Thought I Told You to Wait in the Car has a sillier feel initially, as the title is chanted a few times over, but there’s a huge acid bass line (I desperately want to describe it as “burping like a bullfrog,” which was stated of another Sparks single National Crime Awareness Week when that came out, but for some reason that didn’t make it onto this album). One you realise that and start enjoying the verse, you’ll realise that this is yet another excellent track.

By Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil, which closes Side A of the ultra-rare vinyl edition, it’s starting to get a bit silly. The quality really ought to have let up a little by now, but it really hasn’t. The opening lyric “I’m the wife of Clinton / I don’t have a problem with all of this,” is, of course, timeless, and the chorus is a bit anticlimactic this time, but the verses are adorable.

Side B opens with third single Now That I Own the BBC, which I think might be my least favourite track on here apart from the bookends, but that really isn’t saying a lot. More clever, instantly quotable lyrics, more catchy melodies – just a slightly cheesy house piano part that perhaps makes Motiv8‘s single mix the better version of this (which should probably be a surprise, given how rude I’ve been about him in the past).

Sparks were, though, clearly masters of their trade by this stage. There was no sign of any of the mistakes they might have made on previous albums – they were letting themselves be gloriously silly, while also being entirely professional and slick. This was, I think, the start of their time of being seen as legendary, which would probably peak with Lil’ Beethoven a few years later.

If you weren’t familiar with Tsui Hark at this point, it won’t take you long to catch up – he’s a film director, he’s made several films, and he’s won several awards for his films. This is a typically hilarious laid back track which samples Hark, interviewed by Bill Kong, and listing his films. Perhaps because of their LA upbringing, the movie industry has always played a big role for Sparks, but this might be the album where it really comes to a fore. Tsui Hark is a silly track, yes, but it’s great fun too.

The thing is, though, Sparks‘ silliness is always carefully played, and so while The Ghost of Liberace may joke about blinding drivers with shiny suits, it’s also a tender love song at heart, with a rippling piano line. Then Let’s Go Surfing, a catchy West Coast sunseeker anthem that always felt a little confusing to the teenage me in grey middle England. Now, it just feels triumphant.

There’s just one track left, the other bookend piece, Senseless Violins. As with the opener, you probably have to have a decent understanding of Sparks to understand why it’s here, but at worse you’ll think it’s a daft way to close the album, so it doesn’t do too much harm.

So Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is Sparks‘ grand comeback, after what was then their longest career break to date. Somehow in the meantime, they had found a confidence and strength that really shines on this album. There’s really little to fault here – sixteen albums into their career, and it must, surely, be one of their best?

The remastered edition of Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins is still widely available, and while I’m not really sure about what they did with the artwork, this is probably the easiest version to track down.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Zoolook

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.