‘Travel Yourself Interesting’ goes the tagline of a certain major Online Travel Agent and while I’m not hugely convinced that travel will necessarily make you a more interesting person, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t aim to make your own trips more interesting. I’ve always been a big fan of a themed trip with a bit of a quest element.
Earlier this year Robert Reid wrote about the value of travelling like a travel writer. He didn’t mean simply travelling for free – or getting paid to travel, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either – but rather he was talking about planning your trips around a passion project or specific interest that speaks to you.
Many years ago I went to Granada, Andalucia, after discovering the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. We went on the Lorca trail, checking out the Lorca Musuem and associated places of interest. Now Granada’s a fabulous city any old time of course, but this purposeful element definitely enriched the experience.
And this month I’m off on a similarly-themed trip. My first proper gig, (leaving aside a Christian rock band containing the brother of a schoolfriend, yes let’s leave that aside definitely) way back in 1990 was Kraftwerk at the Brixton Academy. Annoyingly, my friend was late, making us miss the start of the gig. Gut wrenchingly, we walked in midway through Tour de France.
But still the experience is fairly well etched onto my personal memory stick: the robots slowly surfacing behind the stage, the backdrop projections of vintage footage of autobahns, cycle races and wireframe visualisations, the unmitigated thrill of hearing these electronic boing boom tschaks with such astounding clarity and the band playing Pocket Calculator for an encore…on little handheld consoles no less, which back then when mobile phones were still reserved for lawyers and city types in sports cars, seemed like some impossibly futuristic brand of on-stage wizardry.
So when my train blogger friend Chris and I were mulling over a summer Euro rail trip and happened across Kraftwerk’s European tour schedule a little radioactive lightbulb suddenly pinged on.
Chris spotted that the band were playing the opening stage of the Tour de France (this year in Utrecht of all places). Ralf Hutter, the founder and only remaining member from the original line-up, is a serious cycling obsessive of course. Such is his obsession that at its height in the late 80s it ground their music production to a halt and virtually split the band up.
The band’s ever-patient fans had to wait over a quarter of a century for them to follow up 1986’s Electric Cafe with their next album, fittingly titled Tour de France Soundtracks. Half of the tracks were subtle re-toolings and extensions of the 1983 single of the same name, a track written for the event’s 100th anniversary… and eventually delivered a month late.
The Tour de France gig is therefore the final realisation of a long held dream, and it seems hard to believe that this will be the first time the band have played the tour. They’ve probably been far too busy pumping up their tires and buffing their saddles to get around to it.
Naturally we’re going to the gig, but why stop there? From Utrecht it’s a short train journey to Dusseldorf, the band’s home city. Here we have the honour of meeting Wolfgang Flur, the band’s long serving percussionist and author of the controversial and highly entertaining memoir I Was a Robot, a no holds-barred account of his time with the band. Wolfgang still lives in the city and will hopefully show us round some of his old Kraftwerk haunts. We may even get to drop in to the infamously anonymous Kling Klang Studio.
Trans Europe Express Journey
After checking out their manor, we’re embarking on a bit of a Trans Europe Express odyssey. We’ll be following the journey charted in the song of the album of the same name, recorded some 40 years ago. Our journey will take us from Dusseldorf to Vienna (via Munich) and on to Paris, before nipping home on the Eurostar. Along the way we’ll aim to swing by a few choice Kraftwerk landmarks. We might not ‘meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie’, but no doubt we’ll sit ‘in Vienna in a late night cafe’ and maybe even manage a rendezvous on the Champs D’Elysee.
The Trans Europe Express album, which is one magnificent paean to the joys of European train, travel was made in 1976 and released the following year. It manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. The band hit upon the idea while dining in Paris’ legendary Train Bleu restaurant in Gare de Lyon.
Thematically, TEE very much follows their 70s trajectory of celebrating marvels of manmade modernity, whether that’s nuclear power (1975’s Radio-Activity album), the freedom of the autobahn (1974’s Autobahn) the joys of nascent home computing, computer dating and pocket calculating (1981’s Computer World) or umm… cyber cafes (1986’s Electric Cafe).
Interestingly, they were concerned about their image (and attendant associations with German fascism, especially in the British music press who were happy to blithely lump them into the faintly xenophobic ‘krautrock’ genre, along with a host of other bands like Can, Neu and Tangerine Dream, bands with whom they had little in common musically) and were seeking to appear more European than German. Around the time the album was made Kraftwerk took to hanging out with the likes of David Bowie and Iggy pop in Paris nightclubs, and this era also saw them singing in French for the first time.
The Trans Europe Express was not an actual train journey, but rather a rail network. The TEE network which stretched across most of western Europe and was really flourishing in the mid 70s, some years before there was a high speed TGV train or an organisation like Rail Europe (or Voyages SNCF as they’re now known.) It effectively wound up in the early 80s, when Germany’s higher speed ICE trains began in earnest.
So TEE the album effectively crystallises Europe at a certain moment of time, a time of optimism, of new horizons and freshly forged connections, and in a spirit of discovery which should appeal to any budding InterRailer today, despite the vast changes the continent has witnessed since.
I’ll be reviewing the Utrecht gig in depth for Electronic Sound magazine, a fine online organ, which proudly champions all manner of things that go bleep in the night, affording them the same reverence as Uncut and Mojo do to the classic rock canon, and quite right too.
Follow our journey on twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #TourdeKraft.
As the irresistibly bobbing opener has it, ‘parks, hotels and palaces, Europe endless…’