When airwaves swing distant voices sing

14th July 1984 isn’t a day that screams history in the making. Nothing important happened that day. It was a Saturday, a hot sunny day as most July Saturdays should be. But it was an important day because it was the first day of our summer holiday. Usually our family holidays were during the Whitsun break at the end of May – which is why so many holidays coincided with my birthday. We’d already spent a week in a caravan in the Oxford area towards the end of April, and that break will appear soon in a forthcoming blog post. But this holiday was different, we were going abroad for the first time.

The whole family were packed into our metallic brown Datsun Bluebird and we headed off towards London down the M4. We negotiated through the centre of London as best we could – these were the days before the M25 was fully in use – and headed towards Dover. The excitement was building, and as we reached Dover I was half excited and half bored by the travelling. So I wrote a song. It was called “The way we were” and had a verse and chorus and melody and arrangement all worked out in my head by the time we’d left the ferry in Calais. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back seat as my father drove us through customs with the song circling around my head.

We carried on through winding French roads until we reached our destination – a two bedroom gite in Normandy. I can’t remember which town it was in, but it wasn’t very big. The gite itself was charming and rustic – lots of stone floors, a big fireplace in the living room, a huge wooden dining table with chairs around it. My brother and I shared the same bedroom with two single beds, my parents had a very soft double bedroom for themselves. It was idyllic.

Then we realised why it was so idyllic and quiet. 14th July was Bastille Day. A day when everyone bangs a big drum and goes “Hey-oo hey-oo” a lot. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that). Bastille Day is a public holiday in France so everything was shut. We struggled to find some basic provisions for the next day or so and determined to find a hypermarket as soon as we could.

I don’t think there was a TV at the gite and if there was we wouldn’t have understood it. We felt cut off from civilisation and it was quite nice to be that way. My brother and I had little silver transistor radios which could still pick up British radio and I remember hearing John Peel playing “Teenage kicks” one evening, as he was liable to do. I’d brought a copy of Melody Maker and Smash Hits to read and they were soon read from cover to cover. I’m not sure what my brother was reading, but I soon ended up reading the book my mother had brought along – “The Thorn Birds”. I’m pretty sure I read it from cover to cover that holiday. I can still see the red cover, the hefty number of pages… And it had some dirty bits which the teenage me would read over and over.

Every morning my father and I would walk into the nearby town, wander into the patisserie and I’d say “Deux baguettes and un pain, sil vous plait” and feel quite happy with myself. I’d given up French after three years in school (it hadn’t helped when I tripped over the cable of an overhead projector in my French class in ’83, pulling it onto the floor where it smashed…) and could barely remember any of it. That was about as far as I got with French. We could just about cope with restaurants and menus and my parents and I indulged ourselves on local produce and seafood, lots of bread and cheese and languistines every day. My brother on the other hand hated the food and refused to eat much at all.

On the Monday we finally located a hypermarket and spent a few hours looking around in wonder at such a place. In the mid eighties, huge supermarkets were incredibly rare in Wales. There was a hypermarket called Carrefour in Caerphilly which we had visited once around 1980, buying a black and white portable TV from there. But even supermarkets were scarce around Penarth at the time. There was Leos halfway down Penarth Road which was a standard supermarket with nothing too posh. There was another supermarket on the outskirts of Barry which we visited sometimes, and the largest supermarket to us was actually in Rogerstone near Newport. We visited there once in 1981 and I remember it well, not least because it was so enormous at the time. Twelve years later that Asda was long demolished and a new housing estate was built on it, and I bought my first house there. By my reckoning I lived on the toy aisle. But this hypermarket in France was immense. Aisle after aisle of food and drink and any other product you could want, all in a huge brightly lit warehouse, white everywhere. My brother and I gravitated to the music and hifi section, where we found cheap and cheerful little cassette players. Of course they had real Sony Walkmans, but we didn’t have the money for that. So Andrew and I each bought a cheap Walkman-a-like – mine was red and his was blue. Or was it the other way round? Little headphones with orange ear pads too. A pack of batteries each and we were ready to enter the world of the personal stereo. Would life ever be the same again?

But what to listen to? Neither of us had brought any tapes because we weren’t really expecting to need them. I continued to look around the hypermarket and found their music section, all vinyl and tapes. No point buying vinyl here, can’t play it. (That didn’t stop me buying the LP of “Tangram” by Tangerine Dream a day or so later for a few francs). Looking through the cassettes I spotted an album I wanted but didn’t have. I purchased it and from there “Radio Activity” by Kraftwerk soundtracked that holiday.

“Radio Activity” is an album that doesn’t really get mentioned much. It was unfortunate in the fact it came after the breakthrough of “Autobahn” in 1974 and the great leap forward of “Trans Europe Express” in 1977. But it is the first album by the classic Ralf Florian Karl Wolfgang line-up, the first all electronic album by the band. All traces of long hair and hippie-ness have been shed. Inside the sleeve there’s a picture of the four piece band, neat short hair, all in suits, showing off the sticks used for their electronic drum kits. It’s a vision of the future but the styling of the picture makes it look like the 1920s. Odd. (A note – I’ve found a picture of the tape I had on Discogs, as it was a French edition, so that’s at the top of this piece).

I always felt “Radio Activity” had an affinity to OMD’s “Dazzle Ships”. They have the same number of tracks, a similar format of longer songs interspersed with shorter experimental pieces, and there’s a similar worldview, an obsession with radio to communicate – hell, “Dazzle ships” has a song called “Radio waves” which would fit nicely amongst “Radio land” and “Radio stars”. Even in my dimwitted know nothing state in 1984 I believed there was a correlation between the albums as “Radio activity” and “Dazzle ships” were fourth albums following big third album breakthroughs with “Autobahn” and “Architecture and morality” (not knowing at the time that the “Kraftwerk” double LP on Vertigo I’d picked up in June was actually two separate albums put together in the UK).

“Geiger counter” is exactly what it says it is, a collection of thumps slowly increasing in speed as something radioactive approaches,, as a repeated bass note sets the tempo for the title track. (Side note – when I bought a Roland SH3a mono synth in May ’85 it was obvious this synth had been used on “Radio Activity” – I could recreate a lot of the synthesised sounds almost perfectly – set up two square wave oscillators an octave apart, use the reverse sawtooith LFO to modulate the VCA and VCF, turn down the VCF cutoff frequency, set the VCA envelope to full sustain and hold down a note – instant “Radio Activity” bass sequence. You can thank me later). “Radio Activity” has one of Kraftwerk’s most beautiful melodies and it glides gracefully over a rich arrangement full of Orchestron chords, sonar blips and squeals to signify radio noise and lots of crashing synthesised drums, again filtered white noise really. It must have sounded so weird in 1975. The vocals alternate between German and English – the first and only time this would happen, from hereon in they would release two versions of their albums – entirely in English or entirely in German. It is unclear if the radioactivity is of the nuclear kind or the radio waves kind. A later version on “The Mix” would make the song more explicitly anti-nuclear but for now the ambiguity is fine. As the song fades out, “Radio land” fades in. Built on a simple boom boom tap rhythm (sorry, I can’t describe it any better than that – although saying it’s a synthesised version of the percussion that starts “Caroline No” may be more accurate – another Beach Boys reference after “Autobahn”?)) it is slower again and strangely moving. My O level German came in handy and I could translate a lot of this song myself which I was pleased about. There’s more Orchestron lines and more synths making bleep and booster noises between verses. But most of all there is that synthetic early vocodor singing. This really scared me at the time. I’d heard enough vocodors to know they’re OK, but this was so primitive, so gutteral that it worried me. There’s one precise moment where it sounds like the vocodor’s vocal chords are tearing out, and that scared the shit out of me. One final blast of ascending oscillators (my Roland could do all these noises too) and we’re into “Airwaves”, the fastest song so far and a little gem. A simple melody is stated, Ralf and Florian sing together in unison and already in the background if you listen closely (and I did listen closely) you can hear the hissing of their primitive drum machine, then boom it all dives in. Melody, basslines, drum machine. It’s pure motorik actually. They change key and slip into English – “When airwaves swing, distant voices sing”, then back to the original key for a verse in German and then… They have a synth solo battle! A melody starts on the left side of the stereo, and starts to solo… And on the right side another synth starts soloing too. They criss cross on notes, always sympathetic to each other, sometimes hitting the same notes, swinging up and down octaves – I can see Ralf and Florian facing each other playing these solos at each other, grinning with sheer joy. Who needs duelling guitars anyway? The song returns to the verse, then swings back to another quick synth duel and at one point I swear you can hear Ralf or Florian shout “Oh, I like it” in the background. Absolute fucking joy. The song fades out as another synth plays ascending notes. That’s “Intermission”, over in less than a minute. Then beep beep beep and “News”. Multiple recordings of news broadcasts with their little synthesised jingles played over each other. Just like “Time zones” by OMD! See? See? Suddenly “Dazzle Ships” sounds less innovative. End of side one.

“The voice of energy” is a spoken word piece in German which again I could translate quite easily – that vocodor not quite breaking its vocal chords this time. Mercifully short. “Antenna” is back to pulsing motorik and is delightful, but not as special as “Airwaves”. It’s an odd song, relentless but with hints of melody throughout – after the “play the piano” line, an ascending synth melody appears to never be played again. These little things matter. And it sounds like there’s two percussionists at last – the polyrhythmic complexity of “Computer world” starts here. “Radio Stars” is a bit of a drag, all echoing voices and repeating noises and it does try my patience. Luckily it fades into “Uranium” and I’m spotting where New Order nicked the choir sound for “Blue Monday”. Another spoken word piece. Side two hasn’t had the highs of side one so far, but things can change. A small twiddle of a radio dial introduces “Transistor”, a short instrumental piece which is one of my favourite Kraftwerk songs. It slowly increases in volume, and about 20 seconds in the song blossoms into stereo and the full glory of the glistening synth lines echoing across the stereo spectrum is revealed. It’s beautiful and melodic, no percussion at all, just pure synthesised heaven and there’s one momentary second where someone play a slightly wrong note and it sets the whole song on edge. Then after two minutes it dissolves into a wall of echoes. But it’s a lovely piece and I’ve not heard much similar since – the only song I could say it influenced is “Zoetrope” by Boards of Canada, another song with a similar grace and beauty. The closing track is “Ohm sweet ohm”. A vocodored voice repeats the joke a few times slowly then a sustained note fades in and the song starts. A melody is slowly stated alongside bass and one drum track, then the song starts to increase in speed gradually as another synth plays the melody and another drum track is introduced. And as the song progresses the synths play off each other, increasing in complexity as the speed increases. And both drum tracks play off each other too, sometimes playing together and sometimes against each other. You really get a feeling of motion, of progression, of four musicians totally in sync with each other. Also there’s a real sense of melancholy in the music, in the tones used, and yet hope too. It brings a tear to my eye even now. I could happily have that song carry on for another few minutes at least.

“Radio Activity” is a strange record then. Misunderstood at the time – how dare they praise nuclear energy? – and not well received by all accounts. In a way it’s the last vestiges of their experimental beginnings, their final attempt to incorporate environmental sounds into their music. I also feel it’s their last truly German album – after the album’s release they toured America and were introduced to the disco aesthetic that would lead to “Trans Europe Express” being partly mixed at The Record Plant in Los Angeles, and their influence on black music really started from “TEE” onwards. But it’s a good album with some of Kraftwerk’s least well known music on it. Worth a relisten, if only for “Airwaves”, “Ohm sweet ohm” and “Transistor”.

So that tape became the soundtrack to the holiday in France. Every night I’d listen to it in bed, letting the music get under my skin. Nothing else special happened on the holiday – we just chilled out, nobody had any accidents or got lost (cough Guernsey cough) and ate some great food. On the last night the whole family went to a posh restaurant on the seafront and I had a “fruits de mer” which was the first (and last) time I had oysters. The rest was lovely though, and it was one of the best weeks for food I’ve ever had. (See, this is why my diary had a reputation for being about girls, music and food…)

Finally we set off for the long return journey home. My first car journey with my own choice of music – the tyranny of my father’s choice in music in the car was over. (Only kidding, I hope it’s obvious from previous posts that I loved the music my father played in the car). I think I may have been unwell on the ferry, probably due to the oysters the night before. But the main memory of the journey was returning to Wales. It was late at night and dark, and as we travelled over the Severn Bridge “Transistor” kicked in on my personal stereo. In my half awake and slightly car-sick state, the twinkling of the synthesised melodies mingled with the blurred orange sodium lights passing by on the bridge to create a magical moment for me. Whenever I hear “Transistor” I’m returned to the back seat of that Datsun Bluebird, feeling slightly car-sick but elated to have such a perfect moment of place and music together. And “Ohm sweet ohm” never sounded sweeter than when we reached Penarth. It would be our first and last family holiday abroad, but it was a lovely time.

(Oh, and happy birthday Mum!)

Next time – Wish I was sleeping…

UPDATE – 23/3/14

The unexpected advantage of seeing my parents this weekend was that they confirmed that it was St Marlot where we stayed. They also confirmed that my brother did indeed hate every minute abroad. But they argued that it was 1982 not ’84. But it wasn’t, it was ’84.

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