Rock Goes To Church: Nico and Tangerine Dream in Reims

In 1974, Nico and Tangerine Dream played a gig in a cathedral in Reims. Julien Rouyer recounts the concert and the uproar it caused.

November 4, 2015

Let us set the scene. It is 1974. At just 48 years old, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has just come into power. The country, barely settled into its first presidential winter, has already seen a raft of significant reforms proposed, and even implemented, in some cases. The first has changed the voting age from 21 to 18, and the second legalizes abortion.

Still, our present concern is elsewhere: It’s about time Church and youth made up! And so it’s decided that a big event should be organised. With the archbishopric’s blessing, a location is set: Reims, at the heart of the winemaking Champagne region, a blooming bourgeois town, thanks to its world-renowned champagne heritage, but an industrial city too, whose textiles, biscuit manufacturers and department stores have all known their respective golden years.

And, of course, there is the famous cathedral as well. With eight hundred years on the clock, stain-glass windows any-which-way you want them, Marc Chagall here, Jeanne d’Arc over there, hundreds of statues of kings and saints, a smiling angel whose ambiguous smile has bewildered history just as much as the Mona Lisa’s, a rich bestiary of real and imagined creatures, and flamboyant gothic gone-wild. The seat of many a French king’s coronation. Almost all, in fact, apart from Hugues Capet, Robert II, Louis VI, Henri IV and Louis XVIII.

In support of the event, Bernard Goureau, cultural delegate of the Catholic Church, declared: “In a modern world... the cathedral should endeavour to reclaim its primary function as a meeting place between human beings via certain disciplines such as musical art. From this, new possibilities of exchange between men may be born.” Some years later, the diocese would – for a paltry sum and over some 30 years – rent spaces to the independent local radio, Radio Primitive, founded no less than by anarchist non-believers. Which is a shining testament to the open-heartedness in the highest spheres of the Rémois clergy at the time.

As is often the case in the history of the city of the Rèmes, a handful of Germans occupied the highest stations. After Clovis in the 8th century, whose baptism at the cathedral would lay the foundation of the French nation, barbarian incursions would leave lingering traces on the Marnaise toponymy and collective unconscious. Periodically recurring invasions from time immemorial, most notably in 1792, when the faltering Prussian troops at Valmy would seal the creation of the French Republic; in 1870 when Bismarck’s troops would rally to Thiers’ cause in his struggle with the Paris Commune; 1914, whose four-year long bombardment of the city won’t soon be forgotten, the cathedral’s gargoyles spitting molten lead when the roof caught fire; and in 1940 the spirited pacifist occupation.

And then, in 1974, a group of marginal yet popular artists from beyond the Rhine would descend upon Reims as well: Nico, AKA Christa Päffgen, who was to die a couple of years later in a cycling accident on Ibiza; the late Edgar Froese, one of Tangerine Dream’s founding members, at the time playing alongside Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, both barely out of their teens.

Nico, muse to Andy Warhol! An eccentric girl, surely a touch autistic, and about as deaf as the proverbial post, with an uncanny ability to trail her torments about her wherever she would go. A girl who’d rubbed shoulders with Lou Reed, Alain Delon, Federico Fellini, Brian Jones, Serge Gainsbourg, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop... the list goes on. At 36, she was an established icon of the cultural underground, having seven years earlier committed her voice in perpetuity to the Velvet Underground’s first album.

Tangerine Dream! Undoubtedly the group that pushed analogue keyboard experimentation the furthest. A group associated with that ultimately rather vague musical genre known as krautrock (known at the time as space rock, which was perhaps a little clearer…) and its foremost exponents: Klaus Schulze, Ash Ra Temple, Popol Vuh, Amon Düül and even Kraftwerk.

Reims in December is basically about as cold as it gets. But that seemed to pose no problem to the swathes of Belgians, Dutch and Germans in attendance, in addition to the numerous Parisians and of course, a preponderance of Rémois. Needless to say, a church gathering of such proportions didn’t come around too often, and with the promise of a concert, attendance felt almost obligatory. In the days when the internet was no more than a military communications tool, the organizers managed the promotion of the event with a diffusion of flyers and pamphlets, a hefty daubing of posters, and the support of the specialist underground press.

It is near 8 PM, and the security team sent from Paris are running late and the organisers are beginning to panic, particularly for Marc Chagall’s windows, which the eminent Russian-Jewish painter had only recently completed, and which nobody had been prepared to insure. And then there’s the shortage of chairs and the overturned prie-dieux: chaos is more or less rife, and with the non-existent stewardship it would fall to a mere veneer of volunteers and barriers to keep the crowds in check.

Nonetheless, as Didier Bournel de Graaf – who was present that day as part of the organising committee – recalls: “When I think back to the ‘70s, I get one of those hits of nostalgia, my friends... Carefree joie de vivre, love, friendship, a sense of the collective, contemplation, philosophy, rebellions, allegiances... We formed a society apart, aiming for the fringes of the system, away from conformism and the establishment. And we didn’t need much to feel happy.” Which is to say that there was no need to worry about the 5,000 strong crowd’s behaviour: the collective will was peaceful, meditative, blissful.

Thus thousands of affable freaks would quietly enter, having bought their ticket in advance for 15 (members) or 20 francs (full price), the equivalent today to €11.50 or €15.30. The Parisian music store Clementine even organized trips from Paris, entrance to the concert included, for 40 francs apiece. Opposite, or rather, behind them, a few dozen anarchists demanding full cultural freedom collected outside the doors. Most of the time they were allowed in for free once the concert had begun. But this time there could be no choice but to leave them out in the cold.

The success of this “high mass” would surprise the organisers just as much as those ecclesiastical representatives involved, far surpassing the expected attendance of between 1,500 and 3,000. Even Richard Branson, having launched Virgin Records just one year previous, made it discreetly over in a private jet. Another of the organisers, Gérard Drouot, a purebred Rémois, the president of local society Musique Action Reims and undoubtedly one of its most enterprising members, would go on to become one of the biggest sharks in the French music production industry, producing concerts for a dizzying rostrum of international stars (U2, Bruce Springsteen and company).

Legend also has it, supported by those eyewitnesses still with us, that film director Philippe Garrel, recently dumped by Nico (and later to recount their chaotic relationship in his film J’entends plus la guitar (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar)) and under the influence of acid, filmed one of Notre Dame’s columns for the entire duration of the concert. This account was denied wholesale by the man in question, who maintained he had given up drugs long before...

What does remain beyond question is that he botched the recording of the concert, and that none of his footage was to be recovered. It is also reported that Radio France’s recordings for France Inter disappeared from their archives, which is hardly to be expected from an institution famed for its keen sense of conservation.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the bootlegging community alongside the fans of Tangerine Dream and Nico, however, the full length of the concert has now been available for some years. Towards 9 PM, off an array of diodes and electronic instruments nestled upon the altar amidst a frenzy of wires, softly lit to contrast with the projector-illuminated cathedral vaults overhead, Tangerine Dream played their first improvised set of just over 45 minutes, entrancing the audience with their repetitive, space-age waves of synthesiser sound. The atmosphere would then be somewhat interrupted by 30 minutes or so of solo song from Nico and her Indian harmonium, bathed in a sepulchral vertical halo of light. The pleasures of which were clearly lost on many present. Finally, Tangerine Dream would retake the stage for a second monolithic improvisation of 40 minutes.

The stark coldness of Nico’s set contrasted perhaps a little too much with Tangerine Dream’s escapist spectacle. The programmes had billed her accompanied by John Cale, Brian Eno and Mike Oldfield. Ruse to generate numbers or not, she would perform alone behind her harmonium, beginning by complaining that nobody had offered her a drink (a whiskey), and that she was shivering like a leaf (as a result of the cold). Which is perhaps why she spared the audience her trusty standard, a song that has tread the passage of time without ageing one bit: the German national anthem “Das Lied der Deutschen” also known as “Deutschland Uber Alles,” performed on all her tours.

Cousin to France’s old-faithful, the “Marseillaise”, the German people’s eternal hymn was unfortunately commandeered by the Nazis during that darkest passage of European history. And so it stands that it would have been highly unfortunate had she committed the faux-pas of singing the wonderful lied from within the scarred cathedral of World War I’s martyr town. Had she done so, a riot would surely have ensued and the legendary event would certainly have achieved even greater significance in pop culture history.

Tangerine Dream for their part delivered a performance that has been ranked as one of their best despite the absence of their signature extravagant light show, which supported the spatial, to avoid the term cosmic, tone of their sets. In the hues so characteristic of the minor keys, their otherworldly sonorities would submerge the pillars and vaults as the crowd sat before them, taken by a meditative silence: it was something approaching the realm of the séance, a collective and silent hysteria.

It was all fine until afterward. The concert received heavy media coverage and, as a result, provoked a huge scandal. An incendiary Counter-Reformist catholic tract from a tiny fundamentalist cell denounced “those irresponsible souls that desecrated this historic and venerable site” and attempted to convince the Vatican to organise a resacralization of the place. (Contrary to what may be read in hastily printed sensationalist articles, the Pope never satisfied the more fervent of his flock’s desires.)

The specific gripe was the state of the cathedral the next day: a detritus-strewn pigsty, excrement included, and, whether myth or reality, a syringe found within the grounds. Admittedly, the levels of organisation usually involved in the execution of such an event were starkly lacking. There was clearly to be no bar installed inside the cathedral, but neither any kind of refreshment stall was set-up on the square outside, and there were certainly no toilets for the spectators: it must have slipped someone’s mind.

If the evening’s attendees do agree that a magnificent cloud of smoke hung halfway up the height of the cathedral, elegantly effacing its interior architecture, the majority deny witnessing any kind of massive drug presence beyond a few joints that might have been smoked here and there. For better or worse, the legend is alive. And in the words of James Stewart: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

From Le Monde to the New York Times, the international press relayed the event, making of the Reims Cathedral concert a monument in the history of avant-garde music. John Rockwell, would write rather wryly in his New York Times column “The Pop Life” dated the 10th January 1975: “Reims Cathedral is hardly the first place that conservatives have claimed to be desecrated by the rock hordes. But at least nobody in New York has yet demanded a purification ceremony for Carnegie or Avery Fisher Hall.”

Saintly man that he was, Father Bernard Goureau intoned more or less as follows: “It is true that the youth smoked marijuana in order to better enter into communication with Tangerine Dream’s sound and the spectacle at large; it is also true that others, to satisfy a natural obligation, urinated against the columns of the cathedral; and finally, it is again true that to combat the cold, couples were seen in kissing embraces. But it is equally true that some 6,000 young people, remaining sat upon the floor for three hours in the dark, had enjoyed the music and could have caused much more serious damage, with far less decorum.” Amen.

Musique Action Reims defended itself most notably by writing an open letter distributed by hand, stating that “according to the authorities, the cathedral was no dirtier than an Easter Sunday after the visit of the pilgrims.” It’s hard to imagine the good pilgrims urinating in the corner between two prayers on the wings of a long drag of a Nepalese or Afghan spliff.

Journalist Philippe Mertes, reviewing in the daily newspaper L’Union de Reims perhaps put it best, however, when he concluded his article thusly: “A warmth reigned for the duration of the concert, and will remain long in the memories and the hearts of those who can say: I was in Reims that December night of 1974 and something truly went down.”

Header image © RBMA

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