KRAFTWERK : “TECHNO-POP” : 12345678 THE CATALOGUE : Tate Modern London 12 Feb 2013
In short : Kraftwerk are a fucking amazing live experience. They're a crap live band – four old men fiddling with iPads and wearing neon Tron Suits who barely look at each other and occasionally move their legs. But as an event, they are the best live experience in the world. Two hours of precise, perfect sound, in 31 channels and 3D visuals. Oh, and some perfect songs.
To surmise, this is the best Kraftwerk show I have seen, barring possibly the night I lost my Kraftwerk virginity in Leicester in 1992. Previous shows – the legendary Luton rebirth of 1997, the 2004 London shows, Manchester Velodrome in 2009 – have been exceptional. This, tonight, this redefines a live experience, and makes Kraftwerk an experience : an art installation presented as a two hour musical journey through humanity, an interpretation of the big concepts, presented with a clinical, clean eye that joins the ideas prsented through a forty year career together in a cohesive whole. In a Turbine Hall of a Power Station that is now repurposed as an Art Museum designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of Battersea Power Station and the classic Red Phone Box, Kraftwerk are almost willingly, establishing themselves as a museum piece of their own.
Where to start? Where it ends? And if this isn't the end, well, it feels like the end for Kraftwerk, and also, somehow, they feel timeless. It feels so utterly final, as live shows become ever further spaced out, and ever more specialised. This could be the last set of appearances the band make in London.
In their first retrospective activity, Kraftwerk presented fully remastered versions of their 'official' catalogue in 2009 (pointlessly omitting “1”, “2”, and “Ralf And Florian”). Now, as first debuted nine months ago in New York, and currently occasionally appearing at art venues in key cities of New York, Dusseldorf, London and Tokyo, the eight show residencies are hampered by being presented in unusual venues (such as art galleries, Museums, and converted power stations), and amateurish ticket sales policies : sadly these overshadow the enormous and beautiful experience that is Kraftwerk 3D live in concert. The taste in the mouth for many is bitter. For those not here, a clear and justified anger at the venue. For those here, a sense of unneeded relief that it better be worth it after all the hassle. ( For a full rundown of how appallingly bollock-stupid the Tate has been, click here. )
Beyond this, and having found myself ticketless after spending two hours queuing in the Turbine Hall in December, I had an option : either I don't even try to get in on the night from the 'returns' queue, or I regret not trying for the rest of my days. In the end, I queue. Arriving outside the Tate at 4pm, I am 16th in the queue in sub zero temperatures.
Queuing is so very very British, isn't it? Unless, of course, you're the Idiot Dad who seems to think its OK to have your three kids and wife join you at 6.30pm and butt in front of people who have been queuing three hours already. And of course, unless you're also the Dullard Security Guard who excuses this, and refuses to do anything, on the grounds that a woman who queue jumps at 7pm has probably been at work, and thus, can queuejump. Unlike the rest of the queue who left work early, or took the day off. He can be as indignant and arrogant as he likes, but the simple fact is he is wrong, and jumping the queue is shit and disrespectful. This is yet another example of The Tate's shoddy and appalling mismanagement of the whole wretched debacle that the man paid to do a job will not do it and will not intervene.
Come 7pm, and the queue is let in. By this point there are probably 200 people queuing behind me.
By the time I get in the venue, though, all is not forgiven : but it is (sort of) forgotten. We are here, because we're here. Because there is nowhere else I think I'd rather be on the planet right now. Because for me, not trying to be here wasn't an option. There are only so many more shows, so many more nights, so many more times we can experience these moments, these songs. Even for a man-machine, Kraftwerk are human, are mortal, and one day will cease. Ralf is 66. Fritz Hilpert, who has been part of the group for 25 years, is 56. Henning Schmitz, who started working with as a technician at the groups studio for 1978's "Man Machine", is 59 (thankfully he has mostly hidden his musical contribution as backroom boffin to Haddaway and Londonbeat). Promotion in the band, when a member leaves, tends to come from within : and even though Florian – Ralf's foil since 1969 - retired in 2007 after 38 years, this is still a band with a lineage and an evolution over time. His place is taken by Falk Grieffenhagen, a video technician who co-ordinates all the groups visuals. In some respects, it is The Beatles without Lennon, or The Stones without Keef, but having seen the band many times over the past two decades, this is still, undoubtedly an authentic Kraftwerk experience. The test comes in the future, when – or if – Ralfwerk release any new material. The presentation of “The Catalogue” could be seen as a cementing of the groups artistic legacy for a half-life of live performances as a legend/legacy. It has been ten years since any new studio material, and six since the last unheard music, a remix EP taken from the 2003 album.
Tonight, night 6, is “Techno Pop”. Or, more accurately, “Electric Cafe” : the last record made by the 'classic' line up, that charted at number 58 in the UK, and was supported by two singles, no interviews, and no live dates. As well as being the often forgotten runt of the litter, it is a record that had – for the 25 years after its release – only one song from it played live, and was also the shortest album they made. Therefore, if there is a chance to experience a live show nobody experienced at the time that most of this lineup had a hand in creating, this, the record they never toured, was the one. It was also the first record that saw a passing of the baton from the 'classic' line up of Hutter / Schneider / Bartos / Flur, to the core of Hutter / Schnieder / Hilpert / Schmitz, the latter two of whom have been members of Kraftwerk for the past two decades and worked as technicians and engineers on the 1986 record.
Once inside, the cold sloping floor of the former Turbine Hall is converted into a sterile, somewhat dry venue. We sit on cushions. It's more like a school assembly than the must-see Hot Ticket Of The Year. The crowd range from all ages : obvious pensioners who were there in 1975, and children who weren't even born when the last album came out in 2003. It's not as if these people look as if they are a type. When you see Slayer for example, you can generally tell who is going to Slayer. The crowd have a 'look'. Kraftwerk fans just look like people, of all shapes and sizes and ages. They are a band that transcends a type. In the queue, I chat with the manager of a soon-to-be-closed HMV Store, and his dad : both of whom flew from Romford to Dusseldorf to catch some shows last month.
At exactly 9.00pm, the lights shut off. It begins. Originally taking one side of a vinyl LP, the exhaustive suite of “Boing Boom Tschack, Techno Pop, Music Non Stop” is truncated slightly to a mere 14 minutes, but nonetheless, every second is vital. Why have they never played this live before? It is a stunning experience. A thematic statement of clever intent. Unlike most previous Kraftwerk gigs, where the band faded out one-by-one to “Music Non Stop”, here they start with this song. The last song of every other night is the first of this. The album is also resequenced. “Electric Cafe” is next.
As with all the songs, they are recreated and reproduced. To this extent, these are new recordings of the songs on new equipment : the strings and synths are sleeker and warmer, the bass louder and punchier, but still, recognisably the same, just different. The songs, as presented live, have been reforged, and are as perfect as the original studio recordings.
Now inexplicably removed from the album in its original recording, and replaced by a somewhat flimsier, faster, and poppier 1987 re-recording that is half the length, “The Telephone Call” is performed as an instrumental (possibly as a snub to the departed Karl Bartos who provided his only lead vocal on the track), which, whilst full of instrumental sweeps and flourishes, is a still a piece of music missing a song. The vocal melodies are played on huge, luxuriant synth sweeps, but still the key information is absent. I give you my number. I give you my time. Try to get a connection. On the telephone line. As if, the key element on most of the parent album is that of human communication and here, in the live context, it is removed.
On record, the work lacks a cohesive theme : when presented live it becomes an elegant and understated treatise on the relationship between humans and each other and their industrial environment, and the perils of communication, where the “Electric Cafe” is a community connected by technology, electricity, and electronics. Lyrical concepts are understated “image synthetic - form aesthetic – art politic - age atomic“, that draw together the big themes of the record, and draw them to the personal and individual that we all live within. Finally, I get the 'big theme' of the record, where communication, and the place of mankind within the triumvate of man/nature/technology becomes clear, the relationship between the personal/social/sexual/industrial is explored through the medium of “Techno Pop”.
As the “Electric Cafe” segment comes to a close (at a mere half hour : remember that this is from the days when an album was primarily two sides of a vinyl disc), the band present highlights. Over the 8 shows, the band have performed – in full – their entire official discography from 1973-2003 : and, with this, the rest of the night is, in itself, a glorious 90 minute chronological overview. From the 13 minute “Autobahn”, to the final bonkers gonzo rendition of the “Expo 2000” single and many attendant remixes mashed together into one collision of sound and vision.
Particuarly chilling is the refreshed and updated “Geiger Counter / Radioactivity”. Rearranged to meld from the 1975 version to the 1991 remix, this version is also fresh. The first two verses, sung in Japanese, detail the Fukishima nuclear disaster following the earthquake – and are chilling, even eerie. I wonder how this will be interpreted in May, when the band perform “The Catalogue” in Tokyo for eight nights. I don't understand so, but, for having lived through the news coverage of Fukishima, having read avidly with terror the events of those times, and knowing that pensioners have sacrificed themselves to fatal radiation and certain death rather than let the younger generation suffer, it is poignant and transcends language.
And never did I think I'd experience Kraftwerk performing all of “Electric Cafe”, and 83.3% of “Man Machine” (five of six), and 85.74% of “Computer World” (with 6 of 7 songs), and all of “The Mix”, largely in order, in front of my eyes. This – make no mistake about it – is not just legendary, but deservedly so. With the “Computer World” suite, the band – at one point – foretold the internet and how its transformed lives : it now no longer seems like a prediction of the future, but a commentary on the shape of the world as it is. With the chronological race through this history (performing the title track of every album, and assorted extra songs), they then move seamlessly into 2003's “Tour De France” - the first full studio record of new material to have input from Henning and Fritz – which, when seen in the context of the rest of the work seamlessly integrates the philosophy of man and machine and technology working together to achieve a goal, the fulfillment of a prize.
Often the audience stand, silent and in awe. Not unappreciative, but for this kind of show, not so much a concert as a presentation, a living musical art installation in front of your eyes, an the audience just drink it in. The nearest experience I can describe is the end of “2001”, experienced in person. Around me, at occasionally random moments – for example, when the reprogrammed, and immense descending bass sequence pans around the room's 31 speakers for “Spacelab”, and later, “Computer Love” and “Home Computer” where the isolated key melodies bounce around the room - the hall is made of random gasps, exclamations of “Wow!” and “Fuck Me!”, whoops of joy before the audience as one dance and sing or stand there stunned into silence. 3D visuals leap out of the screen, as 100 foot Volkswagens, numbers, and huge, art-deco images devour the screen. The biggest cheer/gasp comes during “Spacelab” where a huge satellite antenna approaches the audience in a case of 3D 1,677 times more tasteful than “Jaws 3-D!”. What is, on record, a precise musical experiment, becomes on stage, an immersive, immense, and mindblowing experience. The best single live experience on the planet. U2, with their Giant Spaceclaw, are the only thing that even comes close to this. Here though, there are not often screams between songs, but a reverent, expectant, stunned silence.
As the clock ticks over the 11pm curfew, the band end the set for only the third occasion in twenty years with “Expo 2000” where the band perform both the original song, the reworked “Planet Of Visions”, and two alternate remixes of the song as an epic exploration, before ending on a thematically correct vision of the band operating in concert with “Man. Nature. Technology”. At the end, each member of the band takes a bow individually then the quartet together. To signal the end of the night, Ralf points playfully and theatrically at his watch – for once, the 126 minute set has taken them six minutes over curfew. Within an instant, the sly humour that infects all the bands work is made flesh : lights come up, and we all file out somewhat stunned.
This is what the future has always sounded like, and even now that one vision of the future has arrived, it still sounds – not exactly futuristic – but relevant. The world Kraftwerk predicted is here.
boing boom tschak, techno pop, music non stop, electric cafe, the telephone call (instrumental), housephone, sex object, autobahn, geiger counter, radioactivity (japanese), trans europe express, abzug, metal on metal, robots / robotronik, spacelab, model, neon lights, man machine, numbers, computerworld, computer love, home computer / its more fun to compute, tour de france, tdf2003, etape 1+2+3, aerodynamik, expo 2000, planet of visions, expo 2000 (detroit / underground resistance / kling klang mix).