I played in rock bands as a teenager and would use a tape machine my grandfather gave me to get processed sounds out of my guitar. During the French student uprisings of 1968, this felt like a way of being rebellious. I loved it when people said: “What is this crap?” But by the mid-70s, I wanted to bridge the gap between experimental music and pop.
I had done production work for some rock artists, earning enough to set up a studio in my kitchen. I didn’t have much equipment, though, just a few guitar pedals and my first synthesiser, an EMS VCS3, which looked like a telephone exchange. I realised that using a Revox tape machine to delay the sound that came out of one loudspeaker created a huge sense of space.
With so little to work with, I had to be creative. My old Mellotron had only a few working keys, but I still managed to write Oxygène (Part II) on it. My primitive drum machine – a Korg Mini Pops – was the sort of thing people played in pubs, but by using Sellotape I could make it play two preset rhythms at the same time, creating cool beats. Part IV, which became iconic, was a mixture of “slow rock” and “rock” , while Part VI combined “rumba” and “bossa nova”.
Nobody knew about synthesisers back then. When I first heard Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, I thought they were a Californian band trying to imitate the Beach Boys. But I still saw Autobahn as a pop song with vocals – and I was into electronic music with no singing. Somehow, I wanted to link it all with nature and environmental issues. Then in an art gallery one day, I saw a painting of the Earth peeling away to reveal a skull and thought: “That’s the album cover!”
Oxygène was initially rejected by record company after record company. They all said: “You have no singles, no drummer, no singer, the tracks last 10 minutes and it’s French!” Even my mother said: “Why did you name your album after a gas and put a skull on the cover?”
Luckily, Francis Dreyfus – a sort of French Richard Branson – saw the potential and put out an initial 50,000 copies. At first, people took it back to the shops because they thought the white noise was a fault in the manufacturing process. But the biggest radio stations in France and Britain started playing the whole album, then the BBC used it in a documentary.
It’s now sold something like 15m copies and, no matter what I do, I am defined by Oxygène. It’s the same for Charlotte Rampling, the mother of my kids. The Night Porter is tattooed on her skin like Oxygène is on mine. But that’s OK. It’s funny. At first, the album was played in hi-fi shops as an example of “state-of-the-art sound”. I didn’t tell them I made it in my kitchen.
Michel Granger, sleeve artist
It was 1976 and I was having my first major show in Paris. On display was a 30x40cm watercolour called Oxygène and Jean-Michel bought it, telling me he’d love to use it as an album cover. Oxygène was part of a series about the damage being done to our planet. It was quite a violent image for a record sleeve.
The only change I made was to the background, making it square to fit the album shape. Jean-Michel and I chose the typography and that was that. We were both 30 and he was very passionate about music and painting. We would have long conversations in the evenings, always at the same pizzeria, then he went home to compose all night.
I first heard the record at home, after Jean-Michel sent me the finished work. Then a few days later, I was in a taxi in Morocco and Oxygène came on the radio. I knew then that it would be very successful. I was thrilled. I felt like an accomplice.
That picture is the best known of all my work. It’s my Mona Lisa. But I don’t feel like it belongs to me any more. It belongs to anyone who loves the music of Jean-Michel Jarre.
The Planet Jarre: 50 Years of Music box set is out now on Sony. Jean-Michel Jarre’s new album, Equinoxe Infinity, is released on 16 November.
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