1987 was a long time ago so there is not a lot about it that I remember, but I do remember it was the year I joined the work force. Granted, due to timezones, it was the day after I started work that the stock market famously crashed, but that has meant I have not forgotten the date. October 19th, 1987.
The crash didn't affect me directly – it's hard to lose something you don't have – and before long I began to accumulate what I later came to know as disposable income*. I was eyeing up all manner of consumer goods on which to dispose of it, not least of which was one of those newfangled CD players. But before I plonked down my money on that, something else happened.
I was watching late night TV, probably as an excuse to consume copious amounts of ice-cream, when I stumbled across a programme that would profoundly influence my musical tastes – and my music collection. I knew very little about what I was watching other than it was utterly, mind-blowingly spectacular. Enormous drop-sheets adorned the sides of skyscrapers in the city of Houston, Texas, and on these were laser projected, moving images of epic proportions. Then there was the music.
I have trouble finding the words to describe how the music sounded, but will make do with powerful, majestic, stirring, and different. It was very different to anything I had paid attention to before but really hit me right between the eyes, along with the stunning visuals.
I had no idea at the time that Jarre's Houston concert had been staged in April 1986 to celebrate the 150th birthday of the state of Texas and the city of Houston as well as the 25th birthday of NASA, who have a strong presence in the city in the forms of the Johnson Space Center. At the time it held the record for the largest outdoor concert, attracting between 1 and 1.5 million fans.
The very next day I found time during my lunch hour to walk into a local music retailer** and ask the staff if they had seen the TV show on the night before. All I could do was describe the spectacle. Luckily for me, a senior staff member was able to point me to Jean Michel Jarre's Rendez-vous. I briefly debated in my head before purchasing the album on CD, rather than cassette, as I had the feeling this album was special. I was excited to now own my first CD – surely my next purchase would have to be a CD player so I could enjoy it!
I think it was about a week later I managed to scrape together enough money to purchase a component CD player and a pair of half decent headphones. Speakers and an amplifier were to come much later. I remember the CD player sitting on my bedside table, taking up most of the area the table offered, with a bedside lamp perched atop it. I think my radio alarm clock ended up on the floor for a time. I remember this so well I can even tell you that at that time my bed was aligned east-west in my bedroom, in the southwest corner. It is a vivid memory.
Lying in bed I could see the crisp LED display just above eye level and I remember staring at the slowly changing digits for long periods of time. After the chore of constantly winding and rewinding cassettes, and suffering tape stretch and the occasional jam, the precision of digital music that CDs brought were a constant fascination for me. I would lie in bed in the evening listening to my only CD*** and revelling in the magic of Rendez-vous. This album helped me discover that music could alter my state of mind. Rendez-vous was my drug, and it was the start of a love affair with Jarre's music.
Rendez-vous is an album I don't take lightly. It's heavy tone, I believe, demands the listener be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it because it is not light, happy music but a serious endeavour. The album opens with First Rendez-vous, which mixes a deep electronic rumble with a harmonised melody of classic 'synth' and a background of light tinkling as of tiny pieces of falling glass. Before long a bass line adds to the melody and the different elements all start working together to create a sound stage that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This technique of layering is ever present through most of the album and indeed much of Jarre's work. To this day, First Rendez-vous completely sets the tone for me for listening to the rest of the album.
The album requires physical media or gapless playback if listening to MP3s or the like, as many tracks seamlessly blend into the next. I'm sure super-fans will be able to tell you the moment of every track change, but I have to see it on a display for some. Second Rendez-vous, Parts I–IV build on the heavy theme, with Part I and Part II offering a lively mix of sounds before Part III changes the tone to what I now consider classic Jarre sounds. A series of triplets of string-like notes are backed by the inevitable layers of other sounds. Part IV turns back to the opening 'grunge' sounds but amongst the layers we now hear the choir of Radio France before the track ends. Jarre is no stranger to using human voice as an instrument. His preceding album, Zoolook, was largely based on singing and speech in 25 different languages.
At this point it's hard to think of any other word to describe the overall sound of Rendez-vous than "big." Already we've heard classic synth, pumping bass sounds, light and crisp atmospherics, and human voices – all hallmarks of much of Jarre's music. It's intriguing, I think, that merely listening to the heavier sounds of Rendez-vous make me think of the colour red, which indeed dominates the album cover. I guess that may simply be associative, but it is definitely a "red" sound to me.
Third Rendez-vous and Fourth Rendez-vous each take a bit of a detour from the heavy theme, adding a little melancholy – although nothing to what comes later – and pep, respectively. Fourth Rendez-vous is such a peppy little number it stands well on its own and I am fairly sure I have heard it used for DVD menu backing music on at least one of my Jarre DVDs.
Darth Vader-like breathing accompanies the transition into Fifth Rendez-vous Part I which takes another sonic direction sounding a bit more like fairground music, harking back to the Magnetic Fields album, but still fitting with the overall sound of Rendez-vous. Fifth Rendez-vous Part II and Part III each take a slightly different direction while still having that fairground feel. Part III starts to head back to the heavy notes and other sounds of the early tracks before becoming very ethereal and leading into the final track. These sudden, mid-track shifts of mood are another Jarre habit. It is often these transitions that fool me into thinking a track change has occurred when in fact it hasn't. A test for the true fans!
Last Rendezvous, 'Ron's piece', has a definite melancholy tone to it, which is sadly fitting of the circumstances it found itself in, if not those it was composed for. The track features a haunting saxophone which is all the more haunting when you learn that the part was written to be played by US astronaut Ron McNair, who was also a jazz musician, from the space shuttle Challenger. It was to be the first piece of music recorded in space and a video recording of McNair's performance was to be projected onto the side of a building at the Houston concert. Sadly, the shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff with no survivors. The track was subsequently dedicated to the lost crew. I cannot separate in my mind the sadness of the saxophone with the loss of the crew, even though it was composed before the tragedy.
The tone of Last Rendez-vous leaves me with a distinct feeling that the album is over as the saxophone bows out and two lone heartbeats close the track. I usually don't feel like listening to anything else after that. In the same way that my brain will automatically start playing the first bars of the next track of an album, when Last Rendez-vous ends, my brain plays silence, as I always used to experience in those early days with the CD. I would not take the headphones off for some time after it ended, still coming down from the heady ride the album had just given me. It is an annoyance that today iTunes proceeds to play the next album!
The overwhelming feeling I get from Rendez-vous is one of rich and heavy textures, which mark it out from Jarre's earlier and more famous works like Oxygene and Equinoxe and indeed most of his newer releases.
I would guess I have listened to Rendez-vous at least 50 times and almost always from start to finish. Although Third, Fourth, and Last Rendez-vous easily stand on their own, my mind knows where they belong and with the other tracks they progress like a film script or a play, in distinct acts but each belonging to the whole. It is not the type of album to put on in the background, but rather one to really listen to. If it comes up in shuffle play, I skip it.
Rendez-vous is not my favourite Jarre album, but it holds a special place in my collection, and heart, as the entry point both to my enjoyment of digital music and to my love affair with the works of Jarre. Today I have 30 Jarre albums in iTunes, most bought on CD, a handful of concert DVDs and an insatiable desire for more. I do not hesitate to name him as my favourite artist of all.
Thank goodness for my chance viewing of that television spectacle 28 years ago.
☞ There is also an album, En Concert Houston / Lyon, which has live recordings of the Rendez-vous concert as performed in Houston and Jarre's home town, Lyon, France.
☞ Early editions of the album from 1986 had the tracks for Second and Fifth Rendez-Vous split up into separate parts, and slightly different timings for Fourth and Last Rendez-Vous (Ron's Piece). The author's CD has these separate tracks and they are referred to above.
* I've just learned that disposable income is free income after tax and discretionary income is after bills are paid, so technically I am referring to the latter.
** To this day I remember exactly where the shop was, even, to some extent, it's layout. But for the life of me I cannot remember the name of it!
*** In truth, once I got the bug for CDs, more followed in quick succession although I do not remember exactly which albums.