words Peter Saville talking to Chris Hall
Design legend and lifelong Kraftwerk fan Peter Saville reviews Kraftwerk'sfirst album of new material for 17 years. It was supposed to be released to coincide with the Tour de France but came out just after it had finished. And New Order thought that he was bad at deadlines...
I've been listening to Tour de France Soundtracks in my car - it's very listenable - but what's disappointing is that it has failed to develop from the earlier Tour de France track (1983) into an opus work like Autobahn (1974) or Trans Europe Express (1977).
Tour de France Soundtracks is rather like Radio-Activity (1975) which is a collection of tracks around a theme - the idea of radiation, radiowaves, etc. But the Tour de France proper is an experience, a total experience. So, is the album a series of stages, like the Tour de France, or is it that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider haven't competed in the race and consequently cannot fully interpret it for us musically? Yes, they go cycle racing, but they haven't done the tour. They have surely travelled on the Trans Europe Express, as they have driven down an autobahn. Are we hearing the parts or the sum? Is it tracks about cycling as opposed to about the Tour de France?
Interestingly, the last track, a new version of 1983's Tour de France, is the opus work, but it's a sketch. If you listen to the last track on its own, you realise that it's a template for what the whole album could have been - there's the experience of the race: the beat, the breathing, the sound of bicycle chains, and there are these little flourishes that mirror the break-outs that happen in cycling - a knot of cyclists breaks away from the peloton. I'd have liked to have heard these excursions into different sounds, and parts and rhythms throughout the album. It could have been an amazing 40-minute Tour de France with break-out sessions.
It may have been so much better than it is - though it does have some incredible moments - if tracks like Vitamin and Aéro Dynamik could have been worked as break-outs from the structure of the last track.
In the opening Tour de France Étape 1, the breathing, and the wonderful climbing scales, combined with those beautiful Kraftwerk strings, give the opening a very romantic yet physical ambience.
A key thing about this new release is that it's only with the last track, Tour de France, that you feel a sense of landscape, and the race is dominated by landscape. I only get a sense of the man-machine, the robotism of cycling through the landscape in this track. It's also very French: cute, extreme. It's frustrating because it's all here, but it's in pieces. It should have been Tour de France Soundtrack not Soundtracks.
On the press release for this album, Kraftwerk describe their work as "industrial volksmusik" - a wonderful way of defining themselves. However, I found the reliance on the vocoder on Tour de France Soundtracks irritating - are they shy about their voices? It's robotic, but cycling is also human and organic. I prefer to hear the real voice, even the treated vocal of Étape 2, the third track, is great - it's personal and has charm.
The album is of course totally Kraftwerk. Elektro Kardiogramm in particular is very Kraftwerk; in fact only Kraftwerk. I was once told by Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark that because Ralf and Florian had music academy training that they developed a lot of their own equipment and that there is a Kraftwerk string sound that you couldn't match - it was uncopyable. It is so distinctive.
As you get to Étape 3 you realise that these opening three stages are like mixed variations, rather than an extended piece. There is an incredible development of the melody which shows what a great work is potentially here. It should have a beginning, middle and an end. It should be like the race itself - in phases - but it isn't.
Other track ideas have been woven through as hypnotic dreams or passages. Vitamin is very funny. My girlfriend, who's German, said: "They're just reading the ingredients off a vitamin bottle!" which I love. (Perhaps an allusion to the drug scandals of recent tours?)
Aéro Dynamik is potentially a great dance track with its fantastic beats, hooks and melody - a dance track supreme. Too Kraftwerk to be a hit? But in the hands of the right DJ…
It certainly looks like a Kraftwerk album. I love the back cover with the Eiffel Tower, which reminds me of Radio-Activity. The art direction is a little basic, and it hasn't progressed much. It has that French poster art simplicity to it, so it's very graphic and bold, but perhaps there could have been a little more complexity. What's missing is that it's not a visual analogy of the Tour de France itself; instead it's like a cycling catalogue.
When I'm asked these days about record covers, I tend to say that I'm past my sell-by date. I'm 47 - it's inappropriate. If my contemporaries - like New Order - want me to do an album I'm happy to try to do it. However, I did say on Later with Jules Holland (BBC2), a few months back, that if there was one album I would still do, it would be Kraftwerk. I got a call from someone at EMI who said, "Hmm, it would be interesting." The publisher Lothar Schirmer in Munich, has been talking to Ralf and Florian about doing a Kraftwerk book and he asked me a couple of years ago if I'd like to design it. I would love to, but it could take another 20 years! Like my relationship with New Order, I don't want to impose on Kraftwerk's relationship with their designer Johann Zambryski.
I would have been thrilled to have done a Kraftwerk cover, and I'll admit that ever since the EMI call I have worried about what I'd do! There was a piece in my Design Museum show called Be Careful What You Wish For - I'd have to go and see them and start from scratch, to see what they felt. I'd have to go cycling with them - and it would kill me!
Tour de France Soundtracks by Kraftwerk (EMI), £11.99
Peter Saville was talking to Chris Hall