Tuesday 7 July 2015

Song for Europe

Trainspotting in Germany

Bond, Bowie and Brussels

For people of a certain generation in the UK, commonly described as ‘old farts’ by a modern uncaring world, Europe was a rather exotic place. To our fathers and grandparents, it was a place of strange tasting food, odd cheeses and the tedium and horror of the battlefield. To our children it’s just another place across the road.

Perhaps, before globalization, each generation discovered its own Europe. For those who were higher up the social scale, Europe occupied a slightly Confucian niche, being the home of the Grand Tour, where young minds might be enlightened by learning and of course, it was the home to Switzerland, where generations of gals were sent to be ‘finished.’

Nobody has explained what that actually entailed and it’s probably best not to enquire.

Beyond that, there were books and films. One of the changes in movie making is that it’s all down to quick editing, establishing shots are a rarity and the ‘travelogue’ aspect of storytelling in celluloid has all but disappeared.

The earlier Bond films were superb for that, in between the action and seduction we got glimpses of European cities, the roads, the marketplaces and yes, the obvious attractions. Bond seemed to be the most sophisticated man, not because he was a spy but because he seemed so at home, wherever he was in Europe.

In those days, for those whose household budget didn’t stretch to skiing, Europe was very far away indeed. I remember the annual visit of French onion sellers, who toured on bicycles, with the regulation jacket, beret and cigarette as a child, but they were the only Europeans who made it to our northern mill town, apart from the Poles, the ones we didn’t ship back to Stalin.

Before the EEC, cheap flights and the Channel tunnel our fellow Europeans seemed to be very foreign, possibly even alien.

There was one thing that made me consider Europe, music.  Firstly, David Bowie, whose move to Berlin produced three of his finest albums, and quite possibly his next, There were other influences, in particular a quartet from Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk, who reinvented music from their mysterious lair, the impenetrable King Klang studio.

They were young Germans without a culture of their own, and first hit our shores in 1974 with Autobahn, a record that was haunting, melodic, experimental and, well, pop. After than came Radioactivity and then a masterpiece, Trans-Europe Express in 1977. As the Sex Pistols were tearing down outdated convention, the digital Dusseldorfers were offering, not only a new sound for the modern world, but also, in the words of one review, “a sonic poem to Europe”.

Kraftwerk have a reputation for being mechanical, non-human, but this record is a wonderfully warm sound, with subtle humour and an appreciation, not only for technology, but of the land the music journeys through.

Their futurism also had a touch of nostalgia, being slightly retro. It’s not a surprise that travel is one of their major themes, from the Autobahn, the trains and even a later obsession, cycling. Florian Schneider’s father designed Cologne airport, indeed it’s not hard to imagine walking around the building listening to Kraftwerk, a kind of father and son ‘Music for Airports’.

What has made me feel interested about Europe, intrigued, inquisitive and appreciative, is not the billion Euro comms budget of the European Union, but the humble artist, pursuing their creativity.

Europe Endless, in their hands, sounds like a great idea.

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