Objectively, two of the best electronic records of the nineties. Personally, a band that wants to seduce your listening experience.
On January 16, 1998, the first studio album by French electronic music duo Air was released. Formed by Nicholas Godin and Jean-Benôit Dunckel in the early nineties, the self-defined ‘French band’ became a globally recognised name after Moon Safari‘s release, with journalists citing it as “chill-out music in the truest sense” (A.V Music, 2002), and “a sublime Eurocheese omelet” (Rolling Stone, 2011). Ten years after its release, Virgin Records re-released a special edition of Moon Safari to mark its anniversary. This year we once again reminisce on one band’s dreamy vision of downtempo space electronica.
What electronic music did for Air, and what Air did for electronic music: Premiers Symptômes (1997)
Before the limelight found Godin and Dunckel, they were making music together in a band called Orange. In 1996 the duo officially became Air, and the next year their first EP Premiers Symptômes was released on Source. This EP was five tracks of smooth synth-pop and slow jazz interruptions. A place where trip-hop meets the far away, and sometimes distorted space melodies which later became part of how we experience Air’s music. This EP makes it difficult to say that Moon Safari was their greatest release – which is a common feeling of music reviews.
There are moments in Premiers Symptômes where you can hear the bands musical future, for example in the third track ‘Les Professionals’, when the intro of ‘All I Need’ (the second track of Moon Safari) can be heard in the tail end of the music. Listening to ‘Casanova 70’ we are undoubtedly surrounded by Air, with moments of uplifting space crescendos and chromatic melodies that bring you back and forth between Moon Safari and their 2001 release, 10,000 Hz Legend. None of this is to say that Air’s first EP is only significant in retrospect and in comparison to the rest. The fact is that these five tracks are an inseparable part of the history of downtempo electronic music.
French electronica, futurism, and space disco in the 1970s
During the seventies, French electronic music was experimenting with concepts of outer world space fiction and expressions of much closer to home cultural and social changes. It was youth and technological change, and seeing society differently through progressive electronica and rock music. You had artists such as Heldon, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Magma creating music within this wave of experimental composition, and in the same decade ambient composer Eliane Radigue was immersing herself in minimalist electronica. The electronic music scene was bringing out soundscapes, and producing musical concerts that would be better experienced lying down in a planetarium than standing in front of a stage at a music venue. Prog rock bands were fusing their sound with Moogs and creating a different narrative. It was all a bit futuristic.
Around the same time as the (un)ornamented ambience and underground rock revolutions, was the emergence of the space disco genre; a sub-genre of euro disco. It is as it sounds – glam, sci-fi, psychedelic, and disco. Space disco became very popular in France, and some of the most well-known names in this genre are the ultimately glam Supermax*, the French disconauts Space*, and the planetary unicorns Ganymed*.
Though space disco was as short-lived as the mainstream disco genre itself and had begun to die out by the eighties, both genres had a shared cultural significance. Those synth powered, futuristic sci-fi elements and concepts that were such a part of musical expression at the start of the decade, and the influence of disco vibes later in the seventies gave us the beginnings of French house – also referred to as French touch – in the eighties and nineties. The sounds of artists such as Daft Punk, Justice, and Cassius are often described as a product of this dynamic evolution.
(*these band descriptions are not endorsed by the artists, and unicorns do not exist on this planet)
Creating a voice within French electronica in the nineties
Dunckel and Godin have spoken about their influences, which include Pink Floyd, John Barry, and Kraftwerk. In an interview with The Guardian in 2016, the duo spoke about wanting to add something different to French pop in the nineties, and with Moon Safari they ended up coming out “with this alien, psychedelic, loungecore music you’d listen to on a Sunday morning after you’d been out clubbing the night before”.
That laid back alien sound is also there in Premiers Symptômes. During the same time and in the same country that Daft Punk, and Ètienne de Crècy (who co-produced Premiers Symptômes) were experimenting with music, Air were also crafting their own voice. Coming from that same musical heritage of synth storytelling and psychedelic space melodies, Dunckel and Godin sounded out a vision of down-beat, mecha-melodic space pop. The voice that they created was more lounge, more dreamlike, and much more sex than other voices emerging around this time – voices which were significant, in their own right. Like they said in that 2016 interview: this is music you listen to the day after the club. Perhaps in a state of ardor and floaty tranquility.
What Air’s Premiers Symptômes did for French electronic music in the nineties was a rejuvenation of the otherworldly jazz meanderings of decades before. It also expressed a sound that was in its own right, just the music that Godin and Dunckel wanted to create.
Music for sex – what reviews hardly mention about Moon Safari (1998)
There are plenty of reviews out there that praise Moon Safari, and give it at least a four star rating, or at minimum a 7/10 score. It’s described as a classic. As an album that “seemed to define the musical zeitgeist”. It went platinum in the UK, gold in Europe, and climbed the top ten in the Irish and UK charts. For all the interesting reviews, there are very few articles – and I mean very, very few – that speak about the fact that this album became the soundtrack to seduction upon its release. And who knows, as I write this the intro to ‘La Femme D’Argent’ could be filling the room of a naked, after-club wind down.
The album oozes sex. Different to the way that Massive Attack’s 1998 Mezzanine is a great album to have sex to, because it’s a different feeling and a completely different tone. The liner notes of Moon Safari should have read “when you are wrapped in another body on a cushioned floor, reach for the aromatic oils”. Mezzanine is more like “reach for the hot candle wax”.
In an interview with The Quietus, Dunckel speaks about the sexual status of the album. He says “since we came out people have been coming up to us to say, ‘Yeah, I make love on your music’. And it’s true, it is music that helps to caress”. As well as being a great work of music and composition, it’s an album that combines musical pleasure and sexual pleasure in one fluid experience. That’s certainly one giant leap for humanity.
It feels very right to end on a pleasurable note. In an interview with Pitchfork in 2009, Godin described watching a DVD about Prince and The Revolution that his friend showed him, and it was the woman in the film that got him thinking. She has such an intense experience listening to Prince for the first time, and Godin describes her sensual reaction to Prince’s music as something he would desire for his listeners.
“You see her commenting “What is this music?” and of course, at the end of the DVD, she is almost touching herself. It’s so funny. I would like, of course, the same to happen when women listen to our album”