Berlin: Today's day off began in a fragile state, soothed somewhat by a bizarre yet somehow perfect mug of miso soup with bits of salmon floating in it. Ally and James have some sushi, would you believe? Both great hangover cures, as it happens, though neither of them match a scalding bowl of French onion soup fortified with a splash of cognac. That's the best. Anyway, seven hours and the length of Germany later, we arrive in Berlin.
If ever a city's name can carry a certain weight, can conjure a certain frisson of apprehension at its very utterance, it is Berlin. The history here is intense; you can smell it; you can see it everywhere you turn. For now though, we are hungry, and devour offensively large steaks in an establishment just across the road from our accommodation. Stu's weighs over a pound. Back at the flat, a game of poker begins, utilising a combination of teabags and Mirrors business cards for chips, but is abandoned within minutes. Tired, we sleep.
Berlin day 2: Drizzle. Partake in yet another wurst mit kartoffelsalat. We walk to the nearby Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This vast undulating wave of uniformly grey concrete slabs of varying sizes is devoid of any obvious symbolism. Slowly walking its concrete alleys, I get the sense that the endless grey nothingness of it all is an aid to reflection upon something that is unimaginable. It is an incredible example of public sculpture.
The museum beneath is heavy going, and we emerge into the pale wet air feeling somewhat defeated, and quietly walk off in the direction of the Brandenburg gate. This gate has so much history it is hard to take it in when just looking at it. Symbolic during its time of everything from Peace and Victory (when built), to Freedom (after the defeat of Napoleon), to Naziism (adopted by Hitler as a party emblem during the Second World War), and to Segregation (during the Cold War it was stranded, inaccessible to both sides, in the "Death-Strip" between the two worlds of Communism and Capitalism), it is now seen as a symbol of unified Germany. Walk onward to the gigantic Reichstag building. By this point, it is pouring and I am sodden. Walk onward still, past amazing building after amazing building. See Checkpoint Charlie. Odd.
The Berlin Tempodrome is the venue we are all looking forward to. Sold Out. Three thousand people, tiered seating above the standing room, this is probably the most impressive venue on the tour. The nerves flow prior to the gig, Andy McClusky's now traditional presence in the wings just before we go on stage only adding (in a nice way!) to the apprehension. We play quite well, but it is an amazing experience. OMD have a brilliant night and play a blinding gig to a rapturous audience. Partake in some locally brewed vodka after the show and head out into the city. We find a bar located beneath a neon-lit squat complete with a huge Banksy copy on the back wall (The original is apparently in Hamburg). The music is iffy and the gin and tonic expensive. We move on, though by this point it is very late and we crave some sustenance. Unwisely plumping for Berlin-style currywurst while others take a safer fast food bet, we stumble back and collapse into bed. A long day is over.
The World of Mirrors.
Hamburg: According to Stu the eighth largest city in the world. Hmm. The drive in is fascinating. Slowly sliding past the window is a grey procession of cranes, trains laden with shipping crates, and, when we reach the docks, implausibly large, steaming ships, coming and going from the widest reaches of the North Sea, possibly the world... Scenes of commerce on such a scale always fill me with admiration for humanity, but also a feeling of pitiful smallness. Maybe we should just all stay at home?
The venue tonight smells unmistakably of stale booze, which actually comes as a welcome change. All bands love the smell of a black beer-encrusted carpet. It is located on the infamous Reeperbahn, opposite, bizarrely enough, a McDonald's nightclub.
Our hotel is rather busy, with a studenty, youth-hostel air to it. We have a coffee in the absurdly hot reception area, and argue over what to write in an interview conducted via email. The lovely Dave Philpot of Skint Records, who is attending tonight's gig, happens also to be residing here, which is nice. Heading to the gig, spirits are up, and we are looking forward to playing to the sold-out and by many accounts "up for it" crowd. We perform really well, and the crowd are great, which is just as well, as some very specific people we aim to please are in attendance tonight.
After a very posh skyscraper-top after-party hosted by Panasonic during which we leave without paying our tab (accidently, I'll kindly wager) and the security man threatens, apparently, to send out a posse of heavies to scour the Reeperbahn for four be-suited English boys, we find ourselves being entertained by the very specific people we aim to please in a delightfully cosy little bar with great music and an exceedingly smoky atmosphere. I'm sure that before the smoking ban all bars in England were like this. So maybe I'm just too accustomed to the now crystal-clear spotless air (never a hint of B.O, is there?) of British bars, but I have to go out for some fresh air at one point because I can't breathe. I bet the Beatles never have had to go out for fresh air.
Alas, we never make it to the McDonald's club.
Pay for extra lie-in time at the hotel. Best money ever spent.
P.S. Thanks Duncan re the tab!
Luxembourg: I've always wanted to visit Luxembourg. It is a joy to see French on the road signs for a change, and to flex some francais at some of the various establishments visited here, in this tiny and distinctly odd Duchy (which boasts the highest GNP in the world). Unfortunately we see little of it. Not that you can see a lot, I suppose! It is freezing.
The gig tonight is in a comparatively small venue, and is not sold out, though the 600 odd people who attend make for possibly the best atmosphere of the tour so far. The show is amazing, and the crowd are incredible, especially considering we are only a support band. They go crazy for OMD. Coincidentally, we have Italian again for our supper, though this time it is a kindly buy-out from the promoter. Frutti di mare again, to boot. Such immense portions of soporific dough are they, that we succumb to tiredness and slip into sweet and heavy slumber.
The catering today, seeing as we are in Belgium, is exemplary. Believe it or not the pre gig meal consisted of fillet of brill with a cockle beurre blanc, potatoes, and a mixture of courgette, french bean and petis-pois on the side. The local crew were supping a bottle of red wine which was offered over with impeccable politeness.
Another day, another great gig. We could get used to this.
End the night in a fairly tipsy manner having partaken in too many Kronenbourgs and some vodka.
Amsterdam: Amsterdam is the most beautiful place. Those tall, thin houses, leaning their delightful flat ornately edged faces over the quiet canals, crooked, as if jostling for attention, never cease to charm. In the crisp autumn air you wander aimlessly the cobbled streets, waving to the boatmen, eavesdropping on lilting dutch conversations, smelling the flowers that festoon the deck of a passing barge. Turning a corner you might come across the perfect silhouette of a bicycle perched upon a bridge in the sunset, Rembrandt's incredible self-portrait gazing from the side of the Rijksmuseum, a garishly up-lit prostitute pouting vacantly at you from behind a glass door...
We check in to the hotel and drive to the Paradiso, an incredible venue in a converted church, before Stu heads off in town, not to be seen again until much later.
The gig is good, but the audience are so low down, the stage being so high, that the feeling is like that of presiding over a pit of captives.
Walking the city with James after the gig is much fun, and eventually we meet Ally, Stu and Joe in the pouring rain outside the Bulldog. Stu appears as a spectre, floating about as if carried by an invisible breeze. He is ludicrously contented. Drenched, we visit a bar and play pool, before wandering off again now that the rain has ceased. Passing the multitude of coffee shops heaving with motionless figures slumped in smoke-wreathed armchairs, and the stag parties gawping at row upon row of prostitutes bathed in ultraviolet light as if shopping for their sunday joint at the butchers, we muse on the fact that despite its beauty and history, Amsterdam is only though of by foreigners in terms of sex and drugs. So, if you didn't know, Amsterdam is also famed for its innovations in trade during the 17th century, that a boy once put his finger in a hole in the dyke thus saving the Nethelands from being flooded, that bikes outnumber people by a proportion of one million to 700 000, that Amsterdam boasts more museums per square metre than anywhere else in the world, that the city is built entirely on stakes driven into the ground, that its pea soup is particularly delicious, that before its legalised brothels, Amsterdam's only form of entertainment was a weekly fact-based quiz held in the local community centre...
Paris: Today's drive is pure hell. We leave Amsterdam at about eleven o' clock, and do not park until at least ten hours later. The last thing poor old Stu needed after an eight hour drive was a two hour long slog looking for for a parking space in Paris' clogged streets. At one point we drive under a barrier into an underground car park, relief flooding our veins, before encountering another, lower, barrier spitefully placed deep within its spiralling bowels. That was a challenge, getting back out of there. Anyway, eventually we spot a space almost exactly the length of the van. Inching into it is a delicate task more akin to keyhole surgery, involving a couple of traditional Parisian nudges to the adjacent car's bumper. When in Rome. Dazed, we take a taxi to the hotel, only to find that Joe has left his wallet in the van. Bad day.
We go in search of a much needed meal and end up in a picture-perfect Parisian bistro, straight out of the imagination. Perched at the bar before our meal we sip delicious Normandy beer and munch thick slices of deeply flavoured salami before sitting down to eat at midnight. All memories of grim driving are banished. The menu is quintessentially French. Oysters, snails, fois gras, quenelles of pike, steak, and even a veal's head served from a lidded pot are all wolfed down with no apology. Actually, I wouldn't say the globular mass of jellied fat, snout and brain that comprised the dish of tete de veau is wolfed down as such, more gingerly picked at with a fork. But, it's always noble to try new things, I say, and despite its difficult nature, there are some gloriously tender morsels of meat to be had amongst the morass of gore, and the delicious accompanying sauce gribiche provides an essential piquancy with which to cut through the veal's underseasoned, bland fattiness. I have ice cream for pudding. Best play safe. We don't leave until gone 1am. The glories of continental restaurantation for you. Retire to bed desperate for sleep but an ill-advised espresso keeps it at bay, whilst the oppressive heat in the room is replaced thanks to an opened window with the bustling sound of the nocturnal Parisian street.
Paris day 2: Awake early in order to move the van before it gains a parking ticket and drive to the venue to load in. It's not yet ten. OMD's crew give us perplexed looks. Later, pottering towards the Louvre, the city strikes me as mightily impressive. It really is a capital city. It knows it and it is proud of it. The avenue from the Opera House down to the Louvre is formidably grand, and everywhere you look there is something huge demanding your attention, but this is nothing compared to the actually gallery. It is vast. It is difficult to know where to begin, as you walk head up, aimless about its walls feeling distinctly miniscule, the weight of history, culture and art, let alone the sheer scale of the place beating you into submission. There are four gigantic galleries comprising the Louvre to experience. We wander three of them, not scratching the surface, of course, but a small collection of stunningly beautiful Ingres works stand out for me amongst the thousands of paintings. I dread to think how many supposed masterpieces we walk nonchalantly past, but what can you do? It is overwhelming. It is difficult to focus. We go and see the Mona Lisa, which is a must, if only for the bizarre spectacle of hundreds of rabid tourists snapping their cameras at what essentially is just another painting in a gallery of masterworks. We see the Venus De Milo too, before leaving the museum, weak with hunger and feeling distinctly drained, though wishing in part to go back and see those treasures we know we have missed.
A fortifying cheese baguette and an espresso later, we head to the incredible, futuristic Pompidou Centre, which looks a bit like those ridiculous coloured tube things you used to avidly install in your poor miserable hamster's cramped cage as a kid. As with the Louvre, I am infuriatingly one month too old to qualify for free entry, and so due to the fact that we are running out of time, I vow to visit properly another time, and wander back through the city in the vague direction of the venue. As time goes on, I realise I am a long way away, and begin to walk urgently back, getting faster and faster, as sleet starts to fall, and my face begins to sting with cold. I eventually arrive as OMD are sound checking, the usual melee of opportune business-types milling about cumbersomely on stage. The heat is absolutely stultifying, like a tropical rainforest. Complaining, I retreat to the side and we begin assembling the desks in our usual professional, efficient silence, sweating. There are nerves before the show, not just from us, but from OMD too, because tonight's all-seater venue has not sold as well as hoped. But as we go on stage, the place is filling up nicely, and in the end the gig turns out to be a success for all parties.
I feel ill, which is unfortunate, especially as it's our last night. I spend such a long time sitting stock still in the dressing room surrounded by bustling friends and family that I begin to feel like I'm in one of those music videos where the singer's standing, mournfully singing alone whilst an anonymous city blurs, Koyaanisqatsi style, in high speed all around them. A couple of paracetamols later and I perk up, though not enough alas, to accompany Joe and Ally on a DJing expedition to a local club. The rest of us go with James' family for another late dinner. We first try to get into to last night's bistro, but it is too full, so search elsewhere, and, just as we are about to give up due to it being too late, we are admitted into a busy place by an absolutely frenzied waiter. He is a great man. I think he is probably filled to the eyeballs with cocaine, judging by his energy levels at this godforsaken hour, and we are gratefully seated. We were famished. Omelette and chips never tasted so good.
I am asleep. It is dark. All is calm. That is, until Ally and Joe pile into the room sometime in the early hours, proclaiming their DJ set to have been amazing, and the club to have been brilliant. Wishing I'd not been feeling so rank earlier, and that I had managed to go with them and play loads of amazing tunes, I eventually fall asleep as their drunken banter winds gradually down, before stopping abruptly, as sleep time banter is wont to do.
Instant Karma's gonna get you, and the next morning I awake bright and happy, while Ally and Joe creak out of bed feeling distinctly rank. Coffees and croissants all round, and then we leave, Stu cursing the Parisian traffic and the general poor manners on display left right and centre. Maybe it's just homesickness. I must say though, the thought of a proper brew and a nice hobnob is filling me with creeping excitement. And so we wind our way north to Calais, returning once again to that lovely service station where we met We Have Band, and roll quietly on to the train. Upon leaving the carriage, a glorious English sunset of gold greets us as we drive out on to the left hand side of the road for the first time in what seems like ages. Stu is in raptures as he cruises effortlessly down the tarmac toward Folkstone; "I promise to always appreciate English roads from now on, though I did love the autobahn" he exclaims.
The End: The tour has been a wonderful experience, and we have seen many great cities and played to the most amazing audiences we've ever played to, but as we wend our way through the East Sussex marshes, sheep munching that most green, pleasant, of grass, the Downs glowing blue in the distant mist, we can't help but feel gladdened to be home. Isn't that nice?
P.S the brew was incredible.