Gig Review by Ken Harrison

Kraftwerk

Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, both classically trained musicians, formed Kraftwerk in 1970 after meeting at a musical improvisation class in the summer of 1968. Over the last 43 years Kraftwerk have released 10 studio albums from their “Kling Klang” studio in Düsseldorf, not including compilations and live material, which is not a particularly speedy work rate. However, the quality of their output certainly makes up for the quantity. Notoriously private and never compromising, Kraftwerk rarely give interviews and work on their own terms. Now, of the original line-up, only Ralf Hütter remains.

If you’ve never heard a Kraftwerk track (and I doubt that very much) their influence can be heard on virtually every electronic track since. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (their album “Organisation” was named after an early incarnation before Kraftwerk was chosen), David Bowie (check out 1977’s “Low”) all of the late 70’s early 80’s electronic acts, and notably, the early classic techno from Afrika Bambaataa (check out “Planet Rock”) and even Coldplay’s use of “Computer Love” for their single “Let’s Talk”. Many artists and other celebs have visited the appearances, such is the draw of the band. Andy McCluskey (OMD), Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran), Boy George (Culture Club etc.) Gareth Jones (Producer) and Professor Brian Cox to name but a few.

This tour presents a Catalogue of eight albums in eight (almost consecutive) nights at The Turbine Hall at The Tate Modern (a former power station) on London’s South Bank. The venue could almost have been made for a Kraftwerk show, given one of the translations of “Kraftwerk” is Power Station. Is this life imitating art or the other way round??

Tonight, this Kraftwerk fan (since 1974) is at the Tate for the sixth show of eight, “Techno Pop”. Perhaps one of their least commercial albums, but still two singles released made no.1 in Dance charts, but not the UK Top 40. The album had a difficult birth being started in 1982, originally released in 1986 as “Electric Café” and straddled the introduction of digital technology and samplers into Kraftwerk’s music machine. The album was finally mixed by Francois Kevorkian in New York, which indicates how difficult the recording may have been. The album was remastered in 2009 and released with its original “Techno Pop” title.

I arrive in the Turbine Hall and I’m presented with a black cushion by the attendant…”bumpy seats?”, I asked the attendant as she handed it over? “No seats, you have to sit on the floor” was the reply. A hard, cold, concrete slab (ouch).

As I get in to the hall and make my way to the stage, a few fans are dotted around the hall in small groups, which reminds me very much of a hippy music fest. The stage is draped with a curtain upon which is projected a blurred graphic of the four members in 3D whilst synthesised ambient sounds (which sound like groaning pipework) play in the background. The hall gradually fills up over the next hour and a half, atmosphere building whilst fans chat, take photos of each other and make use of the bar, and take a trip to the merchandise stall for some high quality products.

At 9.00pm on the dot, the lights go down and everyone is on their feet, with 3D glasses at the ready to watch the show, the customary synthetic greeting booms out across the hall “Ladies und Gentlemen…. Der Mensch Maschine… Kraftwerk”, the curtain is raised, to cheers and whoops from the audience and four figures stand in a line at keyboard consoles wearing “Tron”-like checked body suits.

Hütter is leftmost in the line-up and noticeably the only one wearing a microphone, so it looks as if he is the “lead” and only vocalist in the line-up. First up is “Boing Boom Tschak”, each word sampled and bone-shakingly blasted around the hall illustrated in 3D with retro-cartoon jagged edge speech bubbles (remember Batman “Splatting” the Joker…. you get the idea) in bold, and bright primary colours. The effects appear outdated, but it’s the styling, not the technology. This 3D show is state of the art.

The sound in the hall is surprising good considering the Tate’s former life, Kraftwerk’s sound coming across crisp and clear, it could almost be a studio recording, apart from the occasional drop-out.
“Techno-Pop” follows in the same vein, the 3D adventure continuing with musical notes floating around the screen and appearing to float into the audience. “Musique Non-Stop” is instantly recognisable to the MTV generation as a trailer, sampled vocals of varying pitch and time and played to computer generated retro “wire frame” heads, which are then rendered but in the same style as their album artwork. The band is then projected as wire frame animations on the screen, with one section simply showing a tapping foot in time to the music, then a massive recording desk appears behind them, the sliders and controls a huge size and like Fantastic Voyage they appear to be shrunk to move over the desk. These initial three tracks formed the first side of the Long Player and are variations on the same theme.

Taking the album out of sequence “Electric Café” follows before “The Telephone Call” or perhaps more precisely “Der Telefon-Anruf” samples dialling and ring tones and operator speak, over a catchy background whilst simplistic telephone dials whirr and keypads illuminate in time, and a screen full of circuit boards is criss-crossed by lines representing telephone data. The final album track is “Sex Object” random words and phrases sampled and looped to a mass of European words floating on screen.

The album seems to be over in a very short space of time, half an hour or so, which is surprising, given the length of a lot of their material. The close of the album is greeted with rapturous applause from the audience, but typically Kraftwerk, or more particularly Hütter, makes no acknowledgement to the audience.

The album now done leaves the road clear for the hits, “Autobahn” is up first and once the ignition key fires up the Beetle we are treated to an animated drive in the VW and a Camper down the motorway with a spell sitting on the crash barrier and traffic going on both sides. At times, it looks like the Beetle is going to fall off the screen and onto the stage.

Next up, big, bold radiation hazard warnings flash through “Radioactivity”, a big stomping electro-feast on the perils of Nuclear power and followed by “Trans-Europe Express” it’s repetitive, hypnotic synthesised, rhythm of a train in motion, with black and white graphics and trains and tracks crossing the screen. A new set of Robots is on show on the screen, but the band remains motionless as “The Robots” is played.

The “hits” continue including “Space Lab”, “The Model”, “Neon Lights”, “Man Machine”, “Numbers”, “Computer World”, “Computer Love”, “Home Computer” and others. The audience is enthralled with the sound and the vision of Kraftwerk’s performance. Kraftwerk are not in themselves a dynamic set of performers, you won’t see them dancing, and the robots could now easily take their place on the stage, but the music and visuals are a joy to behold. The visuals take existing album motifs and expand them, in new immersive directions and the 3D brings the show into the audience.

The series of shows sold out almost immediately, even with a price of £60 each and restrictions on the number tickets sold and the meltdown of Tate’s ticket operating system, like some ageing reactor added to the frenzy and frustration of those trying to get in. Those that were lucky enough to get tickets and make the trip to the Capital (including some Swedish fans who had come over specially), may have been considerably lighter in the pocket, but privileged to have witnessed an all too rare appearance by the pioneers of electronic music.

The Techno Pop Album:
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non-Stop
Der Telefon-Anruf
Sex Objekt
Electric Café
Discography
Kraftwerk (1970)
Kraftwerk 2 (1972)
Ralf und Florian (1973)
Autobahn (1974)
Radioactivity (1975) Radioaktivität
Trans-Europe Express (1977)
The Man Machine (1978) Die Mensch-Maschine
Computer World (1981) Computerwelt
Technopop (1986) Originally released as Electric Café
Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

Kraftwerk on Twitter / Kraftwerk on Facebook

Leave a Reply