This looks very interesting indeed, Kraftwerk‘s classic ‘Radio- Activity’ revisited and re-imagined by Matthew Bourne (The Leaf Label) and Franck Vigroux on sound and Antoine Schmitt on vision under the name Radioland. There’s a small UK Tour lined up for March - full details here.
Can’t get enough of Dan Lish‘s ‘Egostrip’ illustrations at the moment, he’s illustrating some of his musical heroes – mainly from the world of Hip Hop – for a future book. In a mix of Moebius and Jeff Soto they inhabit a psychedelic otherworld straight out of a mushroom trip. He’s only gone and done Kraftwerk as well…
Below: Questlove, Q-Bert, Madlib, James Brown, Edan.
Back at the end of 2014 the French magazine Tsugi devoted an issue entirely to Kraftwerk. They gave me a 4 page feature where I was asked to choose my top 10 Kraftwerk cover versions and I promised to post an English language version of the text here in the new year. Seeing as the magazine should have been and gone from the shelves by now, here it is.
The questions from Tsugi magazine:
When and how did you discover Kraftwerk ?
When I was 11 in early 1982 ‘The Model’ became a no.1 hit in the UK and I was suddenly aware of this ‘new’ electronic group from Germany in the charts alongside The Human League, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan. As a result EMI reissued most of their back catalogue and I bought Man Machine, Computer World and Trans Europe Express on cassette which I loved.
What do you like in Kraftwerk ?
The melodies first and foremost but also the electronic drums and percussion, I just find the songs very pure, simple and timeless. Plus they were singing about the future, robots, spaceships, computers etc. and that appealed to me rather than love songs at that age even though they wrote those too.
Do you have a special story related to yourself and Kraftwerk ?
I actually first heard them when I was about 5 years old on a tape my dad had recorded from the radio although I didn’t realise it was them until much later. The song was ‘Autobahn’ and I always remember liking it when it came on the tape but was a bit scared of the breakdown part with the motorway sounds as it reminded me of the Cybermen in Dr Who. When I bought the reissues of their albums later on I realised that I already knew ‘Autobahn’ although it was a very edited radio version, not the long LP one.
Why are you so passionate about Krafwerk’s covers ?
Being a fan of the band was difficult because they didn’t release anything new for so long so I began to seek out cover versions as a way to fill the gap they had left. It happens with many artists who don’t release new music regularly these days – Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin are just two examples. Fans show their love of an artist by covering their songs.
Do you think that sometimes covers are better than originals ones ?
Occasionally they can be, when someone takes the song into a new style or territory and these are the ones I primarily look for. I don’t see much point in recreating a techno version of a Kraftwerk song although people have done it very well. For me the most interesting ones are those that transpose the songs into a new style but still retain the essence or ones that take the song to an extreme that becomes comedic.
How many covers have you ?
Of Kraftwerk, probably about 300 but there are many more out there, for every cover I hear and like I probably hear another two techno / electro / house versions that I discard because they are just poor copies of the originals.
What are your 10 favorites cover records and for each, could you explain me why?
Gaudi & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Dil Da Rog Muka Ja Mahi (KKK vol.7)
An Indian version of ‘The Model’ but only just, I’m not sure how I found this, possibly on a now discontinued blog of cover versions of various artists. I think the blogger listed 70 different versions of The Model alone.
Makoto Inoue – Europe Endless/Neon Lights (KKK vol. 1 & 3)
Beautiful Gamelan versions of these rarely covered songs, this cover really takes it to another genre entirely, transposing the melodies to sound like an ancient tribe is playing the songs. Nothing electronic about it at all, in fact a lot of my favourite covers are ones that take Kraftwerk’s songs into other genres of sound altogether.
Das Erste Wiener Gemueseorchester (First Viennese Vegetable Orchestra) – Radio Activity (KKK vol.2)
The whole thing is played on vegetables, I’m not kidding and it’s as mad as it sounds but you can heard the song in amongst all the weird sounds. One of the weirdest Kraftwerk covers I’ve ever heard.
Miladojka Youneed – Pocket Calculator (live) (KKK vol.2)
A rawkus almost country version with saxophone and harmony singing. you can almost see the stetsons on their heads. This sounds as if the group has learnt the song from reading the notes and lyrics in a book but never heard the original but they sound like they’re having such a great time playing it.
Satoru Wono feat. Meiwa Denki – Dentaku (KKK vol.2)
A Japanese version with very busy percussion and woodwind instruments, very odd but works perfectly. The vocals still sound robotic but there are spoken in Japanese making this even more alien, the playing is very mechanical and precise despite the organic sounds of the instruments.
Alenia – Home Computer (KKK vol.4)
Quite a straight electronic version but I brings something to the original I can’t put my finger on, maybe this is one of those covers that makes the song perfect for today’s clubs, it’s a bit heavier than the original but still quirky.
6Blocc – Digits (KKK vol.5)
A very detailed dubstep version that updates ‘Numbers’ for the dance floor, it cleverly re-edits the drums and bassline into a half time skank and just about keeps everything from falling down.
Case Managers – Autobahn (KKK vol.5)
Absolutely bonkers Australian version, sounds like it was recorded live at the BBQ after many beers had been consumed, very funny. The singers (all male) seem to get drunker and drunker as the song progresses, the absolute opposite of what Kraftwerk are on record.
Menschmaschine – Spacelab (KKK vol.8) Beautiful jazz version, just stunning, the whole build up of the intro had me from the first listen and I’d say this is probably one of my favourite Kraftwerk covers ever. In fact I recommend the whole Menschmaschine album of jazz cover versions of Kraftwerk’s music
Scala & Kolacny Brothers – Das Modell (KKK vol.8)
‘The Model’ is the most covered song in the band’s catalogue but this one is by a female choir from Belgium. Again another example of a version where there are no electronics and the song is easily carried by the melody and lyrics across to another genre.
You can find all my Kraftwerk Kover Kollection mixes so far here:
I did an interview with french magazine, Tsugi, about my favourite cover versions of Kraftwerk songs for their Nov/Dec special on the group. It’s out now, all the text is in French though (“Un top 10 des reprises de Kraftwerk”) but I will post up the English version at some point next year. By the looks of things they have some very good archive photos too.
The Vinyl Factory published this extensive article last Friday about Kraftwerk‘s influence on electronic music and I was asked to contribute. Alongside 19 other artists including Jeff Mills, Kevin Saunderson, OMD, Moire, Malcolm Catto, Goat and more we were asked to pick our favourite release and how it changed our lives. I chose ‘Autobahn’ which, by coincidence, is 40 years old next month apparently. Read the full piece here.
I went for a rather unique night out at the Science Museum on Friday, with fellow ‘music enthusiast’ Mark ‘Osymyso’ Nicholson no less. We were there to hear J. Peter Schwalm‘s reinterpretations of Kraftwerk numbers with the group Icebreaker in the IMAX theatre. Being a fan, and also a collector of cover versions of the band, it was a perfect evening out.
Kicking things off was a talk by David Toop, certainly one of my favourite authors where anything musical is concerned, his ‘Ocean of Sound’ is one of the best books I’ve ever read on electronic music. He didn’t dwell on the obvious, and pointed out that so much has already been said about the band that it was pointless to reiterate the carbon copy CV that the music press routinely trot out. Instead he attempted to recontextualise them by asserting that their roots were that of an R&B band. Citing The Isley Brothers as a parallel outfit in a clever, if somewhat unconvincing, set of examples he also made a sonic connection with the earliest incarnation of the band (and their pre-Kraftwerk ensemble, Organisation) and the electric era of Miles Davis‘ career. There were certainly similarities that I’d not considered before with this latter example but I wasn’t totally convinced with the former.
Thinking about it later I deduced that a better pairing might be Frank Zappa with Ralf & Florian – think about this for a moment:
Frank was influenced by classical composers like Boulez as much as the psychedelic rock underground but was never too keen to toe the line and be a part of a movement.
Zappa’s Mother’s of Invention were a rag bag jam band with a rotating line up of players with expert musical chops.
Zappa was a control freak who loved experimenting with the latest technology, quickly manouvering himself into a position with his label where he had full control. His early freak out experiments slowly streamlined into various concept records and, eventually, he went on to have commercial success too.
During the CD boom he went back to old master tapes and re-recorded new versions and parts of old songs with new inventions like drum machines and the Synclavier, replacing the original versions with new ones that he deemed superior (much to his fans’ dismay).
He largely left his past players behind but became a cult figurehead from a musical movement that stretched out to influence new generations after him.
All the above could be applied to Kraftwerk at one time or another – for instance, just substitute Boulez for Stockhausen in the first example and we’re off, but I digress…
In one of the main halls we filtered amongst the exhibits to hear The Balanescu Quartet play some of their versions of the band’s repertoire beneath a hanging bi-plane. As one of the first bands to release a record that heavily played on the fact that they had covered Kraftwerk it was fitting that they were on the bill, playing pitch-perfect versions of The Model, Autobahn and The Robots in a unique setting.
Then it was in to the IMAX theatre for the main event – Icebreaker – a 13 piece with two keyboard players flanking Schwalm in the center. Not as polished as Balanescu but more in keeping with the spirit of the works they were interpreting. They’d chosen an interesting set of pieces, some recognisable, some just reminiscent of – or influenced by – the Kraftwerk originals. It was a treat to hear mostly early to mid 70’s tracks, the sole 80’s inclusion being ‘Home Computer’ at the start. ‘Megahertz’, ‘Tanzmusik’, ‘Hall of Mirrors’ and a beautiful ‘Morgenspaziergang’ from the B side of ‘Autobahn’ were tackled, ending with a ‘driving’ (pun intended) version of the motorway classic which had me lulled into a semi-sleep before kicking in for a motorik finish.
We both really liked it and the performance was heightened by the split screen, black and white films of Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that accompanied them. My only criticism was that it seemed too short but, altogether, it was a satisfying night out in a different venue, hearing old favourites in new contexts. The band are on tour in the UK in February and I’d recommend checking them out if you have a chance. More info here.
Following on from the post the other day and just for the hell of it.
The now defunct weekly UK music paper, Sounds, had a reputation for championing Rock and Heavy Metal above everything else. Writers Garry Bushell and Jon Savage raved and wrote about Oi and Punk respectively but there was more to the paper. 1977: The Queen’s Jubilee and the height of Punk in the media, right? Not by late November in Sounds it wasn’t, this was also the year ‘Trans Europe Express’ was released.
A stark cover featured Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider photographed on the banks of the Rhine in their hometown of Dusseldorf by Caroline Coon, a two page interview leading the first part of a look at ‘New Musick: The Cold Wave’. Interviews or pieces on Eno, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents and Devo all appear by Savage, Jane Suck and Hal Synthetic (love these writing pseudonyms). Not very Rock or Punk.
The Kraftwerk interview is fascinating, with Florian almost adding as much as Hutter and the two finishing each other’s sentences. Hutter mentions the term ‘Electronic Body Music’ and they talk about putting together comics detailing the themes of their music, I wonder what happened to them? Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur aren’t even mentioned although they do appear in at least one of the photos in the piece. It’s interesting to note that Ralf and Florian picked the journalist up from the airport and showed him about the city before the interview was conducted inside their Kling Klang studios. That certainly wouldn’t happen today. See more photos from the shoot, including a smiling Ralf & Florian that were not featured in the article, here.
The Eno piece is typical, well… Eno, he talks and talks about his ideas, just as he always does, with his sideways looks at subjects ranging from dub reggae to Eskimos engineering US Air Force jets in Alaska. There’s no attempt at cross examination and the ‘interview’ is distilled from five hours of chat into two Eno’s: the non-musician and the theorist. Along with Throbbing Gristle refusing to issue forth any kind of manifesto but the paper giving their ‘2nd Annual Report’ a 5 star review and a fairly scathing feature on the Residents, it’s an odd collection. The rest of the paper features things like ads for The Damned’s second album, Kiss’ ‘Kiss Alive II’ and the new Rick Wakeman LP, live reviews of The Jam, Richard Hell and Blondie sit with articles on Pub Rock and The Eaters (no, me neither) and a very early Savage Pencil episode of ‘Rock & Roll Zoo’.
By now, the word is out, there are limited ‘returns’ tickets on the door of the Tate and, if you’re prepared to stand in the cold for an hour or two and queue, you have a good chance of scoring one for the shows left. That’s all well and good if you live in London or can afford a trip on the off chance that you might be lucky. But it’s a poke in the eye for all who can’t and spent the best part of their day on the phone trying to get tickets last December. With this in mind two nights have sprung up so that fans can take matters into their own hands and dictate as if they were the group themselves – ‘tonight Matthew, I’m going to be in… Kraftwerk’.
The first one takes place on March 1st in Cardiff:
“Eight different live ensembles play the songs of Kraftwerk to ease the disappointment of being unable to get tickets to see them in London.
We couldn’t get tickets either. The touts and scalpers got there first. You could buy a ticket from some disgraceful profiteer, but here’s a more appealing way to enjoy some Kraftwerk.
Bring your own robots.”
The Rules / Application form: here
Tickets: £7/£5 concessions, now on sale at Chapter.
More information: contact us by email or telephone Cardiff 2031 1904.
and here’s another that’s sprung up in Glasgow two days later after seeing the Cardiff idea and deciding to do their own version:
These brilliant charicatures of Kraftwerk were done by Nicolas Villeminot and feature, among many more, on his Deviant Art page.
The piece below was written for Clash Magazine who are running articles during the London concerts Kraftwerk are playing at the Tate Modern. I was among several other artists asked to choose my favourite album of theirs and write about it.
Kraftwerk appeared in my life at the beginning of 1982* when ‘The Model’ scored a freak No.1 in the UK during the post-Xmas lull. In the middle of your Gary Numans, Human Leagues and other assorted synth pop of the day were a new band, from Germany this time. Magazines articles featured the four piece with tales of building their own instruments, mannequins on stage and turning calculators into synths. The local record shop also suddenly confronted my 11 year old self with a variety of different back catalogue LPs from this ‘new’ group, re-released to cash in on the sudden interest.
With only limited paper round funds I had to choose which one to buy first and the fluorescent yellow of ‘Computer World’ won the day (on cassette no less, with an equally acid yellow tape inside the case). It couldn’t have been a better choice because whilst ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ give it a run for its money it’s a scientific fact that there are no duff tracks on CW. It’s an album which starts strong with the urgent intro to ‘Computer World’ and, incredibly, retains that strength and momentum to the dying notes of ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’.
‘Pocket Calculator’ is one of my favourite songs they’ve ever written with the oft-sampled bubbling arpeggios of ‘Home Computer’ coming a close second (alongside its sudden jump-cut to a faster tempo midway). Even the sudden return of ‘Computer World 2′ out of ‘Numbers’ isn’t a cop out, rather it reinforces the overall concept and softens the impact of the melody-less countathon before it. My brother and I used to listen to the eerie blizzard of whispered voices that end side 1 and try to discern what they were saying. To this day I swear there’s a little phrase in there that repeats, “don’t say it so quick”, every so often.
That the group dispensed with minimal verse/chorus/verse/choruses quickly before taking off on an extended ‘jam’, adding layers of melody in strict eight bar measures, was something that was new to me. Having only ‘got’ pop music about two years before, I was unused to songs extending much over the three minute mark – remember this is 1982, the 12″ was still a new format and the idea of extended remixes still largely an underground club thing (and I was only 11!). Here were tracks of 5, 6 and 7 minutes in length, some blending into each other, all sounding like they were played with the precision of a factory car assembly line rather than human beings.
The sounds were gentle too, aside from the stuttering crush of the beat to ‘Numbers’ and the subtle menace of the melody in ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’, the album was most definitely not Rock in any way. Depeche Mode‘s debut, ‘Speak & Spell’ – released the same year as ‘Computer World’ and named after the children’s toy that Kraftwerk utilised on the title track, was about the nearest thing I’d heard to their softly spoken style. Later in ’82 The Human League would release their largely vocal-less League Unlimited Orchestra remix album, ‘Love & Dancing’, and by then I was completely hooked on this kind of synth pop or new wave as it became known. If I had a time machine the first destination on the dial would be one of their gigs supporting this album back in ’81. The classic line up of Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang, performing their masterpiece, even coming to the front of the stage for ‘Pocket Calculator’, the closest they would ever come to their fans before withdrawing into their own computer world.
*I was actually aware of ‘Autobahn’ in the mid 70’s via a compilation tape my dad made from the Top 40 countdown each Sunday, the track scared me whenever it appeared but I wouldn’t put two and two together until later.
I found this on the web recently – a Record Mirror cover from 1978 featuring Kraftwerk by Andy Johnson. Some may know Andy by his other pen name: Andy Dog, he’s also the brother of Matt Johnson (The The).
He had this to say about it: “Blimey, what a find! Yes that is one of mine. For your information it was originally commissioned by (the now acknowledged literary expert and renowned author) Tim Lott and was completed with a certain technical difficulty (because the gouache paint kept bubbling instead of laying flat) in my tiny bedroom (shared with Matt) above the pub in Loughton where we lived at the time. I think I got paid about £95 for it. When it came out I was so pleased I walked into Hipgnosis on Denmark Street and showed it to Peter Christopherson and said “how about giving me a job?” He was v. polite but declined….”
My favourite member of the group used to be Karl with his impish good looks and funky drumbeats, but over time I’ve come to appreciate Florian Schneider because of his mysteriousness and obvious sense of humour. Both he and Ralf Hutter have come across as cold and humourless in recent years because of the minimal interviews and stilted language used, all this stuff about ‘musical workers’ and the machines operating themselves. It wasn’t always so…
Check out this performance of ‘Pocket Calculator’ from Italian show Discoring in 1981. Aside from the Italian language version of the song (I think) check the little humorous interactions between Ralf and Karl on the left at 2.24 and 4.40. Best of all are the closing seconds as the presenter says goodbye, watch Florian on the right.
Another performance of the same song in New York yields more playful antics from Schneider too. Along with letting members of the audience press buttons on the calculator he mugs to camera, miming electronic letters ‘a’ and ‘o’ and pretends to be electrified when pressing the calculator.
And who could forget the closing shot of their Tomorrows World performance of ‘Autobahn’?
Click >>>The Model – Edinburgh soundcheck ’91
Volume 8 already (with enough saved for vol. 9 too)! This hour long mix has a bit of an angle over previous ones as I saved a lot of jazz, acoustic and piano versions for this and left out most of the electronic side.
Save for some timely skits that comment on the ticketing fiascos surrounding recent gigs, most of the music here is more organic than synthetic but shows how easily adaptable the songs are across genres. A Bollywood version of ‘Man Machine’, ‘The Model’ played on church bells, sung by a choir and covered by comedian Adrian Edmondson are just some of the delights in this edition.
I probably say this every time but this is one of my favourite mixes, it was a bugger to put together but some of the versions are just incredible. ‘Neon Lights’ played on a music box, the jazz versions of ‘Spacelab’, ‘Man Machine’ and ‘The Telephone Call’ by Mensch Maschine and the insane piano version of ‘Electric Café’. Whilst adapting the cover art I did a number of designs and thought it would be fun to see what ‘retro’ and ‘updated’ versions would be like so here’s a Kover cover that conforms to ‘Der Katalog’ too.
We arrive at the Tate Modern early, around 8pm, having rushed around the Light Show exhibition at the Hayward Gallery and then up the river in case the Tate’s ineptitude with the ticketing of this event is transposed to the entry system too. We needn’t have bothered, it barely looks like anything is happening, no lines down the block (not that there is a ‘block’ as such), no touts shuffling in the cold muttering, ‘anyone want Kraftwerk tickets?, tickets for Kraftwerk?’. None of this, we just walk in, get our wristbands and follow the smell of chips down to the bar to grab a drink. As more people start to arrive the pre-gig buzz starts, we spot ‘celebrities’ in the crowd, not X-Factor or film star celebs but legends of electronica past (Daniel Miller, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys from OMD), the designer Peter Saville and journalist Paul Morley. One of the first people I recognise is my own accountant, who seems as shocked to see me there as I am him, and who then reveals that he saw them back in ’75 on the original ‘Autobahn’ tour at the Fairfield Halls (!) I knew he was the accountant for me but could never put my finger on why until now.
People are starting to file downstairs into the turbine hall so we follow, being given black cushions if we wish along the way and collecting our special Autobahn emblazoned 3D specs and info sheet on entry. The bottom end of the hall has been draped nearly to the ceiling, speakers run the length of both walls and the stage shows the four pixelated figures as a low electronic murmur emits all around us. People sit down, slightly bemused by the whole cushion thing and hall being a concert venue rather than the exhibition space they’re used to. A family sits behind us, father, mother and two sons, the youngest just ten years old, I ask him if he likes Kraftwerk and he hasn’t even heard any of their music yet but he loves art. The murmuring and the lighting dies, the robotic voice that introduced the gigs I saw in Dusseldorf three weeks back announces the band and we’re off into, errr… ‘The Robots’?
Hang on, we’re at ‘Autobahn’ aren’t we? Did anyone tell them this? Have they loaded the wrong set list? No, they haven’t, it’s fine, it serves as a perfect intro (no actual robots are on stage though) and then we’re into ‘Autobahn’ proper. It’s difficult to tell if they played it in full, time becomes elastic at a Kraftwerk gig, some songs that should be 5, 10 or 20 minutes zip by in what seems like a fraction of that time, others sometimes drag on too long (I’m thinking of the later material here). At the Man Machine show I thought they played ‘Autobahn’ for maybe seven or eight minutes, the next night at Computer World, it seemed to go over the 10 minute mark, the ‘Autobahn’ show definitely must have extended on that although I wasn’t exactly checking my watch to time any of it. The bass was phenomenal at times, vibrating through our bodies but never distorting, each sound crystal clear and all acoustic echo or reverb of the hall completely absent. One of the best 3D moments is during a short ‘interlude’ in the track where it breaks down into a short ‘radio’ section, the melody equalized as if playing through a transistor, and musical notes start to project from the car dashboard on screen. One of the staves floated, seemingly, out over our heads and drew the first gasps from the crowd as the projections did their work of distracting our attention from the four motionless figures concentrating on their ‘werk stations’.
‘Out of the Autobahn…’ and we’re on to side 2, something I never thought I’d ever hear live and was intrigued to know how they’d pull off. ‘Kometenmelodie 1′ was stompy, eerie and oppressive, visually represented by a slow moving comet moving across a star field and over in a matter of a minute or two. ‘Kometenmelodie 2′, the opposite, it’s soaring, mourning melody the nearest other point of reference to the direction the group would take on their next album, ‘Radio-Activity’. ‘Mitternacht’, a similarly slow, brooding accomplice to ‘Kometenmelodie 1′ in a lot of ways, was illustrated by a road with houses either side (?) before an artificial sunrise greeted a short but sweet ‘Morganspaziergang’. This was interesting because the absence of Florian Schneider can most be felt on this track, his flute – initially an integral part of the band sound but dispensed with forever on record after this point – is replaced by a light keyboard replication, presumably played by Ralf who seemed to be in charge of any melody lines being played throughout the gig. The artificial recreation of a morning walk in the country side, complete with electronic chirping birds and insects, mellow flute and light piano is the most out of place piece here but it’s still a joy to hear even if the image of four unsmiling, body-suited men presented in front of you is completely out of whack with the sounds you hear.
The album we’ve chosen to hear out of the way, it’s time to get to the meat of the event, the rest of the catalogue. Having seen this twice before there are no surprises although the selection is different and some visuals seem to have been improved or changed here and there. We go from ‘Radio-Activity’ to a crushing, rolling, metallic ‘Trans Europe Express’ (complete with the ‘meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie‘ line) but no ‘Showroom Dummies’ unfortunately. ‘The Man Machine’ gets a work out with only ‘Metropolis’ missing, ‘The Model’ predictably receiving the biggest cheer and the 3D in ‘Spacelab’ garnering more cheers. ‘Computer World’ is heavily plundered (but no ‘Pocket Calculator’ alas) with a great version of ‘Home Computer’ that really hasn’t aged at all in over 30 years. They ended the track quite suddenly and I was amazed to see Ralf and Henning Schmitz turn to one another, laughing, sharing a moment as if to say, ‘well you cocked that one up didn’t you?’
On to ‘Tour De France’ then, the original version sequenced into the newer one from ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ and ‘Vitamin’ providing more amazing 3D visuals as bubbles and pills cascade out of the screen. After this things take a slight dip with ‘Expo 2000/ Planet of Visions’ a low point, a track derivative of much of the less-loved ‘Electric Café’ album and the first sign that the band were falling back to old ideas, even referencing how Techno had played its part in the past with its, ‘Detroit we’re so Electro’ line. Visually as well we’re into vector graphics and 8-bit computer type here and it looks dated in a way that the other album graphics don’t, not retro enough to have come back round a second time yet for a generation largely still pining for the degraded, warm feel of an Instagram image.
The designer in me can’t let go of some of the visual anomalies on screen too, jagged anti-aliasing around pictures, lined video footage that needs de-interlacing and low resolution jpeg artifacts in certain parts. Some of these are the bare basics of video and print work and make it look like they’ve used a work experience bod to execute some of the footage. It’s a minor, personal gripe but with the sound so pristine it’s a shame some of the vision is lacking. Back to ‘Boing, Boom, Tschak’ though and things start to pick up, the vector graphics are still there but we get the animated heads, created by Rebecca Allen which, at least, have a fuzzy VHS quality to them that’s just the right side of retro to feel appealing. I’m wondering if younger generations who discovered Kraftwerk in the 90’s will find their post-80’s graphics more appealing years down the line?
They finish with ‘Musique Non Stop’ and the beats are just incredible, the groove in that track is testament to the fact that a machine can funk. Play it to any narrow-minded jerk who gives you the tired, ‘it’s not as good as a real drummer is it?’, line and see them eat their words. This last track was one of the highlights for me because, as in the previous gigs, the players, one by one, take ‘a solo’ before they leave the stage. Each has 16 bars to play with the sound and get a little bit of the spotlight briefly before striding to the side, taking a bow and disappearing behind the curtain. Ralf is, of course, the last to leave and after his keyboard solo he gives a brief, ‘goodnight, auf wiedersehen, see you tomorrow’, and is gone, leaving the words ‘music non-stop’ reverberating around the room as the lights come up.
There is no encore, nor is there any call for one, there is little else to play and people know that, we were sated in our thirst to hear the Man Machine and this is really what the band has become now. Did we see ‘Kraftwerk’? Kind of but not really, we saw four men playing the music of the band, one of whom happened to have been an original member when most of these songs were written. But we didn’t really see ‘Kraftwerk’ as in you’re not seeing ‘The Beatles’ when you go and see McCartney doing ‘Hey Jude’. We saw what Kraftwerk wanted us to see, the sleek, airbrushed, we’re-ignoring-the-first-three-albums-because-they-don’t-fit-with-the-concept-Kraftwerk and that’s the difference between this mutated form of the group or seeing a tribute band perform these songs. Talking to Andy McCluskey from OMD before the gig brought up an interesting concept, he thought that even after Ralf retires or dies, the band will continue to tour, either with other human players or as their Robot counterparts. It may be that they invest in the same technology that brought ‘hologram Tupac‘ to Coachella last year but the band and their legacy will live on, why shouldn’t they tour? I think he may be right and if any band is going to do it it’ll be Kraftwerk, the men have laid the foundations, the machines can do all the werk from now on.
Last month I was asked to write my thoughts about how Kraftwerk had influenced modern day DJ and Dance Music Culture by Jude Rogers for a piece for The Observer. I got a bit carried away and here’s an extended version of the full piece I submitted:
Everyone knows Derrick May‘s proclamation that Techno was the fusion of ‘Kraftwerk and George Clinton meeting in an elevator’ but the band had a stake in the Hip Hop community many years before. As soon as Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker took the beat from ‘Numbers’ and the melody from ‘Trans Europe Express’ to form the classic ‘Planet Rock’, Kraftwerk became part of the foundation of Hip Hop. Even before that, Grandmaster Flash would play ‘Trans Europe Express’ in it’s entirety in his infamous DJ sets, using its side-long length as one of his ‘bathroom break’ records.
No matter that the new wave and post punk groups had already claimed a stake with their synth and indie pop, the group became one of the building blocks of the Electro sounds coming out of New York, even more gleefully championed by the west coast who liked their tempos faster. That ‘Tour De France’ soundtracked the best scene in the film ‘Breakin’ shows how much their uptempo beats appealed to the crews back when breakdancing was as strong an element of the culture as the DJ and MC.
[youtube width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njs3RmdwGUE[/youtube]
After this the band would be sampled endlessly, if not as obviously as ‘Planet Rock’. The group sued Bambaataa’s label, Tommy Boy, for thousands of dollars and Techno soon arrived, claiming its stake in the band. The 80’s generation that were inspired by Hip Hop and Techno to start DJing and beat making grew up to be the producers and ‘superstar DJs’ of today.
[youtube width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DE5iDd4iHA [/youtube]
Check the intro to ‘Leave Home’ by The Chemical Brothers for their clever appropriation of ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ from the ‘Radio-Activity’ LP or Jay-Z‘s backing track on ‘Sunshine’ for his take on ‘Man Machine‘. LCD Soundsystem‘s ‘Disco Infiltrator’ owes a big debt to ‘Home Computer’ and even Coldplay got in on the act by asking for permission to interpolate the melody of ‘Computer Love’ into ‘Talk’. In more contemporary dance scenes – hear dubstep producer 6Blocc’s cheeky reinterpretation of ‘Numbers/Computer World 2′ disguised under the title, ‘Digits’.
[youtube width=”250″ height=”250″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-0WeRH-7ac[/youtube]
Across the pond Juke/Footstep producers like DJ Clent and Traxman have also been shoe-horning Kraftwerk samples into some of their songs, guess which track they sampled on ‘The Robot’?” Kraftwerk have been part of the lineage of dance music culture since the late 70’s, approaching it without them is like taking the ‘Apache’ break out of Hip Hop and the 808 drum machine out of Techno.
But it goes even further than that, the band lurk in some of the most unlikely corners outside of the music industry too, ingrained in people’s lives as much as any band like The Beatles or The Stones. Soda Jerk – a duo from Australia who make video cut ups and installations – have an on going project called ‘Astro Black’ which features the quartet amongst many heroes of black music. In their own words. “Astro Black is a multi-channel video cycle informed by cultural theories of Afrofuturism. Taking the cosmic jazz musician Sun Ra as a point of departure, this ongoing speculative history seeks to draw out the nexus of science fiction and social politics in Black Atlantic culture.” One excerpt called ‘We Are The Robots’ features Kraftwerk playing sequences from their own music in a jam session with the mothership from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ which responds with fragments of tracks that have sampled the group (!)
I’m frequently asked how I find all the various cover version in my Kover Kollection mixes (vol. 8 debuts tomorrow) but the truth is, once you start looking, they are everywhere, just not always in plain site. A quick web search for a title + ‘cover version’ is much like turning over a stone in a rock pool, teeming with life you can’t immediately see. Another example, I received a magazine by my friend Sarah Coleman just before Xmas, she had a feature on the back page about her favourite design classic – the 45 adaptor. Which record was the dink pushed into?
I’ll be posting a week of entries dedicated to Kraftwerk from today (Kraftweek? – sorry) highlighting ephemera, esoterica and oddities to do with the band. Friday the 8th will see Solid Steel premiere the Kraftwerk Kover Kollection vol. 8 – this time heavily focusing on jazz, piano and acoustic cover versions.
Tonight the group kick off eight nights at the Tate Modern in London with ‘Autobahn’, their biggest chart hit after ‘The Model’. I’ll be going alongside fellow fan Osymyso who graciously got me a ticket after the Great Tate Ticket Meltdown of last year. I, like many others, spent half a day fruitlessly trying and failing to get any joy from their phone lines.
The original album was released in 1974 but back in 1985 – after ’82’s No.1 success of ‘The Model’ and ’83’s ‘Tour De France’ single but the non-appearance of the aborted ‘Techno Pop’ album – ‘Autobahn’ was reissued and ‘digitally re-mixed’ with amended artwork. The back cover photo of the old line up in the back seat of their car (itself visually altered at the time to reflect the changing line up) was replaced entirely with a black and white live shot of the band from the mid seventies.
Aside from a new catalogue no. (Auto 1) there was virtually no other info on the sleeve, even the track titles were relegated to the labels on the disc despite a colour inner sleeve bearing the blue Autobahn logo inside on both sides. To my ears there is no difference in the audio at all, ‘digitally remixed’ probably being used for ‘remastered’ in this instance. The advert to the right was taken from a copy of Record Mirror from June 15th ’85.
Tomorrow I’ll be starting a week of posts relating to a certain German band who will begin eight nights at the Tate Modern museum in London. Each day will feature something, hopefully that most of you won’t have seen or heard before, connected to the band just for the fun of it and because they’re bringing Der Katalog to the UK. Friday’s Solid Steel will feature the eighth volume in my Kraftwerk Kover Kollection mix series alongside an excellent set from Israel’s Group Modular.
I was thrilled to find some words of mine about Kraftwerk‘s influence on modern electronic music in Jude Rogers‘ piece in today’s Observer magazine. You can read the piece online here.
* First off, a disclaimer: despite loving Kraftwerk for the past 30 years I’ve never seen them live.
There are several reasons for this. First off there was ‘The Mix’, which seemed a rather pointless exercise in ‘digitising’ all that had gone before and took a certain something from the originals for me. Then there was Tribal Gathering, I wasn’t there but I’m reliably informed that it was awesome for both the crowd and the group by people who were. I did however catch the radio broadcast of it and was dismayed to hear a 4/4 kick under everything which put me off in much the same way ‘The Mix’ had. They played Brixton Academy in 2004 with my interest at an all time low after the disappointing ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ LP and I skipped it, thinking it would be a law of diminishing returns, not wanting to be disappointed by former heroes. Again, reports filtered back from friends that it was amazing and I began to kick myself as similar reviews appeared alongside various festival appearances. Next time, I vowed, I would not hesitate.
It’s Wednesday so this must be Dusseldorf. I left London on the Eurostar as most were getting to work, travelled through France to Brussels before changing trains and ending up in Disseldorf, Germany – the home of Kraftwerk. At the hotel I met old friend and Leaf label manager Tony Morley who’d made his own way from Leeds. We’d come this far to see the legend (even if there’s only one of the buggers left) that is Kraftwerk perform our two favourite LPs, ‘The Man Machine‘ and ‘Computer World’ during their eight night residency at the Kunstsammlung NWR/ K20.
After the excitement surrounding a similar happening at MOMA in NYC last year, something few got to see, we both jumped at the chance when it was announced the same would be happening in their hometown. What could be more apt than seeing them in the city where it all started, making an adventure out of it and spending far more money than necessary in the process? Call it a mid-life crisis if you want but something about this made me throw common sense to the wind and do it anyway, it would be cheaper than a Porsche or a mistress I told my wife. The joke was on us though when, a few weeks after spending all morning online securing tickets to the German gigs, the bastards went and announced the same thing was going to happen at the Tate Modern!
No matter, the tickets were bought, we were there, in the freezing snow that would sweep across the channel and cover the UK a few days later, let’s have it Dusseldorf! Except it’s not really that kind of town, and us being nice middle class, middle-aged Brits, weren’t about to go on the rampage – more like a meal, a bit of record shopping and a failed poster theft attempt. Reich ‘n’ Roll! Jumping forward in time we found Aras Schallplatten, a shop we’d seen a film of on the web, except it was in the process of redecorating and all the stock was in the garage. We spent a freezing half hour rooting through the boxes we could get to before the cold (and his exorbitant prices) put us off. Further on we found Slowboy Records which has to have the best kept stock ever, it was like a vinyl museum in there, originals of many classic Krautrock, Punk and Avant Garde records in the kind of condition you can only dream of.
But I digress – arriving at the gig we were given our 3D glasses, in paper slipcases adorned with the date and graphics of the album we were about to attend, I bet eBay is awash with them even now as collectors try to get a full set. Once inside it was all very formal, this being an art gallery, and the merch table was stuffed with variations of Der Katalog in the form of vinyl, CDs, T-shirts and mouse mats! As you can expect the audience was largely 40-something males in various states of bespectacled receding-ness. The joke running around when the Great Tate Ticket Meltdown took place was that it was ‘a group of old men tapping away on their keyboards to buy tickets to watch a group of old men tapping away…’, yeah you get it.
The hall was long and high, the stage at one end and we immediately noticed speakers positioned around all walls, facing into the centre. 3D sounds as well as 3D vision, nice. There couldn’t have been more than 800 people by our estimation either, we’d expected far more – something I think we’ll see a repeat of at the Tate Modern in London. An electronic rumbling had everyone facing the curtain with the four bitmapped figures from the Katalog cover projected on it. After a few minutes a synthetic robot voice slowly intoned, “Meine Damen und Herren, Heute Abend, Die Mensch Maschine… Kraftwerk” and there they were, the quartet who now represent the band. Looking as if they were about to deliver speeches behind their own podiums they launched straight into ‘Man Machine’ with El Lissitzky-styled 3D projections that really popped. It should be noted that, for most, Kraftwerk will always be Ralf, Karl, Wolfgang and Florian but members Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert have actually now both been in the group longer than the departed drummers. Each was characteristically non-smiling except for new guy, Falk Grieffenhagen, on the right controlling visuals or sound (or both?), who was smirking like a loon most of the time.
Seeing ‘the band’ these days is an odd one, you’re listening to versions of the songs ‘tidied up’ in a similar way that the sleeve graphics have been slowly shorn of all human personality. Equally the sounds have been replaced and replayed to bring them up to modern production standards but the trained ear can still detect samples of their own originals in the mix, presumably where they couldn’t replicate the sound satisfyingly enough. The very idea that Kraftwerk have to be ‘up to date’ runs counter to all their initial moves and motives, they were well ahead of the pack, one of the most forward thinking groups of the 70’s and early 80’s. But time marches on and the group stalled in the mid 80’s and have virtually stood still ever since. As men trying to emulate machines they gave soul to the sound, but now, sadly, those machines can make the songs as precisely as they always wanted and they’ve sucked that soul right back out again. The resurgence in popularity of the ‘Radio-Activity’ LP in recent years, an album always in the shadow of its predecessor, ‘Autobahn’, and the classic trilogy that followed it, shows that people are keen to embrace the ‘analogue warmth’ that the band once had. Having said that, that’s a personal thing and the sound at the gig was one of the cleanest, clearest I’d ever heard by any band live.
Aside from some of ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ they’ve been mining the same songs and sounds since 1986 in either remixed, live or remastered releases. And that’s fine, we don’t expect them to catch up, the music is timeless now anyway. To hear it loud, live and played by even one of the original members – Ralf Hutter being the key member in the group’s history no less – is enough. On the second night I had a position near the front, roughly four meters away from him on stage. To see him sing, “Fahren, fahren, fahren, on the Autobahn”, was something that deeply moved me, taking me back to the six year old who heard those words on my dad’s home recorded tape back in the 70’s. That alone was worth the whole trip and that’s what we’re here for – nostalgia. A nostalgia for a band from the past who sing about the future but are now, essentially, playing the retro circuit – albeit one that they have tight control over.
They finish ‘The Man Machine’ album in record time, a truncated ‘Neon Lights’ with some lackluster floating neon lights graphics leaving me disappointed, ‘Spacelab’ a joy to hear but with visuals that were hilariously retro but included one of the best 3D moments of the gig. Immediately the sound of an engine turning over signaled the start of ‘Autobahn’ and the rest of the two hour gig is a near-chronological journey through their back catalogue. I won’t spoil the rest of it apart from to say that some of the visuals worked brilliantly and some were so laughably archaic it shows how far they have stalled visually as well. Of course they’ve had to make imagery for all their songs over the eight nights so some are going suffer more than others but you’d think by now that they’d have a visual live show that befits their legendary status.
*Tony disagrees here: “you know I disagree with you on this. The retro-futurist look they go for – and have always gone for – is a fine line to walk, and I think for the most part they pull it off. They don’t need super-modern graphics for music that’s 30 or 40 years old, and I think updating things like the Neon Lights video for this context is a nice gift for fans. Like everything they do, it seems to me to be very carefully thought through – too carefully perhaps. That’s why we love them, the same reason we love The KLF, for that attention to apparently trivial detail. Kraftwerk always yearned for something that was already in the past (postwar optimism, the beauty of rail travel, manned space flight), even when they were looking into the future, and that’s what gives the music that melancholy edge that others consistently fail to capture. Whether or not you like the stripped down vector graphics of the ‘new’ Mix artwork/video, it works in that context, and I think it’s quite deliberate. Incidentally, I’ve listened to all the albums since I got back, and it’s those melancholy songs that have really hit the spot since the gig – Neon Lights, Hall Of Mirrors, Ohm Sweet Ohm (most of Radioactivity in fact). I think Trans Europe Express is my new favourite album!”
They end with a rocking, pulsating version of ‘Musique Non Stop’ in which each member takes a turn to demonstrate some of their playing skills before taking a bow and leaving the stage. Ralf is the last to leave and, predictably, gets the biggest cheer, the vocal refrain of the song rolling around the walls before the lights go up. This was one of the highlights, each member effectively ‘taking a solo’ and, even though you couldn’t see what they were doing, it was evident they weren’t just miming to a backing track. More of this improv would have elevated the gig even further.
The next night – ‘Computer World’, or ‘Welt’ as we’re getting the German language versions of most tracks at these gigs – is notable in that there seem to be a lot more women, sporting a variety of tattoos, than the day before. The show follows a similar pattern to the previous night, ‘Numbers’ kicked things off and a combined version of ‘Home Computer/It’s More Fun To Compute’ shortened the album down to less than half an hour. During the non-album set they played the WHOLE of ‘The Man Machine’ album with an improved (to my ear) version of ‘Neon Lights’ which managed to take off this time, even though it was still trimmed down from the original length. Seemingly more on form the second night, things were smoother, little touches that they added worked better and ‘Musique Non Stop’ rocked even harder this time. They switched a few tracks around, added ‘Vitamin’ with it’s excellent 3D pill visuals and ended up playing ten minutes longer. One thing was conspicuous by it’s absence on both nights though, well, four things actually, where were the robots? I’d been expecting them at some stage in the concert but no, they didn’t make an appearance ‘in the flesh’, only on the screen, possibly because the stage wasn’t deep enough to accommodate them?
Out of the two nights, the second was definitely the most satisfying and Tony and I decided to wander the streets afterwards to try and find the band’s famous Kling Klang studio on the Mintropstrasse near the train station. Although the band no longer work there the departed Florian Schneider supposedly retained the studio for his own use and a quick look on Google Maps earlier in the afternoon had revealed the building, although all but the ground floor had been blurred out! After zig-zagging through the streets and stopping for a chinese meal nearby we finally found it – a nondescript five story building with a metal shutter taking up most of the ground floor. From the look of the buzzer there were several other businesses occupying the floors, one name plate had been removed, presumably taken as a souvenir by a fan. Someone had also wheat-pasted an image of the four robots circa ‘The Mix’ onto the wall which had been partially torn off.
I’ve never done anything like that before, it was late and dark, a solitary light was on and it looked like nobody was home, not that we would have been let in even if there was. But it was something to stand outside the building where all that great music was created. As we turned to go Tony spotted a familiar sign further down the street, a simple ‘Club’ with an arrow in blue and red neon light. We recognised it immediately as one of the graphics in the ‘Neon Lights’ part of the show, they’d obviously taken inspiration for the song from their slightly seedy surroundings and used it in the visuals. As we walked towards the building we saw that it was a strip club and the lyrics, “we go into a club, and then we start to dance”, from ‘Showroom Dummies’ took on a whole new meaning.