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
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.
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.