Kraftwerk – Der Katalog: Two nights in Dusseldorf

* 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.

Posted in Gigs, Kraftwerk. | 11 Comments |

Two new Kraftwerk books

Two new Kraftwerk books are about to hit the shelves. The Vinyl Factory issue a collection of 45 sleeves from around the world in a limited edition book with a 7″ of an interview on Sept 12″ with a free exhibition of the sleeves at The Vinyl Factory Chelsea gallery, 91 Walton Street, London SW1 between Sept 13th and Oct 5th. You can pre-order the book for an eye-watering £80 here.

A new biography is also released this week called ‘Publikation’, written by David Buckley and published by Omnibus Press. It got a good review in the recent issue of Mojo as he seems to have interviewed as many of their close associates and ex-band members as possible. You can buy it now and it’s nice to see that it’s been designed by Malcolm Garrett.

Posted in Books, Kraftwerk, Records. | 1 Comment |

Kraftwerk Special by Mr Sushi inc. KKK 7.5

I did a mini Kraftwerk Kover Kollection (7.5) mix for Mister Sushi‘s Kraftwerk special radio show a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s some more info on the show:
In May 2012, London Fields Radio returned to multi-arts, multi-venue festival Land of Kings in Dalston to host an evening of pop-up radio with guests and hosts from across the festival line-up. We took over the Print House Gallery until midnight with a special selection of shows.

In this podcast, Nuts N’ Bolts presenter Mister Sushi hosts a one-off show in celebration of our favourite Düsseldorf quartet, Kraftwerk, a band whose influence can be clearly seen across Land of Kings festival this year. He’s joined by DJ, blog and club night Feel My Bicep to talk about how and why their legacy lives on in east London today and he premieres an exclusive mix by DJ Food filled with some of his favourite Kraftwerk covers.

Posted in Kraftwerk, Radio. | 4 Comments |

Kraftwerk month #31 Kover Kollection 7

To finish the month off here’s something that’s been in the pipeline for over a year – KKK vol.7. This took far too long to do and I completely redid the start three times before I was happy with it.
I already have over three and a half hours worth of tracks mapped out for vol.8, which will concentrate more on piano and jazz versions but I’ll let the dust settle for a bit as you can have too much of something. Thanks for all the suggestions and links to tracks or versions, some of them even made it onto this mix.

A quick word on the multitude of cover versions – the images below are just a few of the whole albums dedicated to Kraftwerk covers available, let alone all the single tracks scattered about various artists’ discographies. Every time I do a Kover Kollection, and use the web to research the tracks I’ve used, I find even more out there.

As with all covers, there are more misses than hits, although the Senor Coconut album does deserve singling out as a work of genius. Another that I recently acquired is the Mencshmachine ‘Hand Werk’ CD from Germany, an excellent album of jazz-based covers with a twist in the tail. Unlisted on the CD, and hidden after 10 minutes of silence once the last track has finished, is one of the most sublime covers I’ve yet to hear – the track ‘Spacelab’ from the ‘Man Machine’ album. It’s not on the web that I can find but the band have several tracks on their soundcloud page and I’ll be putting more of their music into the KKK8 mix, which will be better suited to their sound, more acoustic than electronic.

Before I sign off I’d like to thank everyone who’s logged on, checked out the daily content and listened to the mixes. It seems it all went a bit viral around the third week and made Metafilter, with volume 3 clocking up over 50,000 plays!

Posted in Kraftwerk. | 5 Comments |

Solid Steel – Yppah 1981 & DJ Food KKK7 preview

Mine and Yppah‘s mix from last night’s Solid Steel – without chat, you can listen to me and Jon fluff our lines over on StrongroomAlive if you want. Yppah’s mix contains tracks all released in 1981, and, coincidentally, ends with Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ before we get a taste of half of the Kraftwerk Kover Kollection vol.7 which debuts here tomorrow in full.

Kraftwerk month #29 Tommy Vance interview & more…

The month is nearly up and there’s still so much that could be posted.

In 1981, BBC Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance saw Kraftwerk play the opening night of their ‘Computer World’ tour in Manchester, England. Afterwards he interviewed Ralf Hutter for his Friday Rock Show and managed to get quite a revealing response, including some uncharacteristic humour. I’ve edited out the music as tastefully as I can and cleaned up the audio but the quality isn’t great to begin with.

Rare European 7″ sleeves for the singles ‘Kometemelodie 1′ and ‘Kometemelodie 2′.

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Kraftwerk month #27 Neon Lights 12″

The legendary 12″ of ‘Neon Lights’ issued in the UK on luminous vinyl in 1978, backed with ‘Trans Europe Express’ and ‘The Model’. This copy was given to me recently by Steve Cook who’d had it tucked away in his collection for decades, hardly played. You can see what great condition it’s in and he’s even kept the price sticker on – £1.49 from Allders of Croydon – that wouldn’t even get you two downloads these days let alone a beautiful item like this. I tried to test how luminous it was and photograph it in the dark but had no joy, I like how you can see little bits of grit in the vinyl too where it wasn’t entirely pure. Thanks Steve!

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Kraftwerk month #23 ‘The Model’ oddities

Rare sleeves for ‘The Model’ 7″: top – Japan, middle – Germany, bottom – France.

The lyrics for the song on the back of the Japanese sleeve contain some interesting turns of phrase:

“She plays hot to get smart, from time to time”,

“and she has been checking nearly all the land”

and the classic,

“She’s posing for consumer bought a town and then”.

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Kraftwerk month #22 Fonts and Icons

David Basgalla has created a set of desktop icons, based on the bands’ artwork, available for free download on the iconfactory

Bernard B has designed a font family in tribute to the band called Kling Klang, whilst not actually appearing on any Kraftwerk sleeves you can see where he got his inspiration from. Available to buy over at MyFonts.

Finally, there have been several font sets created over the years, emulating classic album sleeve typography too, as well as a couple of dingbat sets. These are archived on the now defunct technopop site which is a wealth of Kraftwerk-related media and a great source of info on the band. Also see the KEEP werking site.

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Kraftwerk month #21 Autobahn animation, 1979

Animated by Roger Mainwood (this post originally appeared on my old MySpace blog, July 2008)

I’m sure many of you will know that I am a major Kraftwerk fan and, whilst hunting out all manner of weird and quirky animation recently, I remembered the late seventies film made for the band’s 1974 hit ‘Autobahn’. If you haven’t seen this gem then see below, unfortunately of atrocious quality – heavily digitised and with washed out colours. It’s in a league of it’s own from a time sadly passed, all Pop Art imagery meeting the late seventies obsession with sci-fi, post Star Wars. It’s a real trip (in more than one sense) for ten minutes plus, and sticks out like a sore thumb in the retrospectively airbrushed history of the German four piece.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″][/youtube]

Originally commissioned by EMI for a laserdisc release that never appeared because the format didn’t take off as expected, it was then occasionally shown as filler on TV late at night or even during kid’s TV schedules in the eighties. I remember seeing it once or twice and not knowing what to make of it because it was so far removed visually from the image Kraftwerk had at the time. I filed it away in my mind until a few years ago when a random check on YouTube brought it back to my consciousness and a recent showing to my kids elicited squeals of delight at ‘the alien’, the flying lips and ‘Mr Nosey’ (check it, you’ll know what I mean).

I decided to find the animator, Roger Mainwood, primarily to find out if I could obtain a better copy but also to see if he had any of the original artwork to sell. A quick search gave me an email address and, as luck would have it, he had a tiny caché of images stored, a deal was struck and this fine image is now in my possession.

It’s actually two layers although there would have been four in the original image, a head on one, a small figure reflected in his goggles on another, but the background and flashing lights also reflected in the goggles have since been lost. I took the opportunity to ask Roger for more details about the project – his first commissioned film – and his impressions of the song:

Which studio made the film?
RM: Autobahn was made at the Halas and Batchelor studios in the late 1970s. John Halas, the producer, passed away some time ago but his daughter Vivien continues promoting the studio’s work and runs the Halas and Batchelor Collection.

Did you know the song or the band before the commission and did you actually like it once you heard it?
RM: As far as I recall Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ was an unknown to me when I was presented with the project by John Halas. I think I found it an interesting piece of music but didn’t warm to immediately, although I did think it would be a good piece to animate some images to. I didn’t research Kraftwerk at the time, (we didn’t have Google in those days!). This was probably a good thing as I think I might have then tried to produce something that I thought would find favour with them rather than just going with some ideas of my own. Maybe Kraftwerk would have wanted something more mechanical and controlled than my psychedelic fantasy world that I conjured up. I acknowledge there are many nods to other animated works – The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’ for example, and Ian Emes‘ films too, in particular his ‘French Windows’ which was animated to music by Pink Floyd. Neither of those two, I am guessing, would be on Kraftwerk’s favourites list. In case you haven’t seen it French Windows is on You Tube.

How long did it take?
RM: Always a difficult one that because I was fitting it in around other jobs that were coming into the studio. So the answer is on and off over what felt like a two year period.

What process was used to animate it
RM: It was all hand drawn on paper first and then line tested to check the movement, before being handed over to the paint and trace department. Xeroxing drawings onto cel was a technique used at the H&B studio but I thought most of Autobahn was hand inked. Maybe there was a mixture of the two techniques used. It’s a long time ago and I can’t recall exactly what we did. Looking at the monster cars cel, that definitely looks like a pen and ink tracing of a drawing onto the cel. Then the cels are turned over and painted using special animation paint. You had to wait for each colour to dry before applying the next. No wonder it took so long !

Was the film intended to be part of a collection alongside other Kraftwerk films or as just one part of a general EMI label compilation?
RM: My feeling was that it was a laserdisc of just our animated film.

Has it ever been officially available to buy?
RM: Autobahn hasn’t been available on DVD so far but Vivien was talking earlier this year about a possible release involving a French distributor. John Halas did do a deal with Polygram for a video release of Autobahn (together with another Halas and Batchelor film called ‘Dilemma’), and I managed to track down the front cover recently.
There are a few more images over in the Originals section where I posted about this last year. Also there are some pristine images from the film over at this site.

Posted in Kraftwerk. | 2 Comments |

Kraftwerk month #20 Kover Kollection 3

Here it is, the ‘rare’ one, if something digital could ever truly be such a thing. This mix was hosted at the now defunct along with four others but the link to this particular mix corrupted and I’d get people emailing me to see why they couldn’t download #3. This is one of my favourites and I really slaved over it around Xmas 2004. I spent way too long online searching for a rip of the sketches from the Little Britain comedy show with the punchline, “Computer Says ‘No”, which I was determined to get into the mix somehow. A lot of electronica and hip hop in this one and some great versions of ‘Autobahn’, although the Fink listed isn’t the same Fink from the Ninja Tune label, but another.This originally appeared 17/01/05 on Solid Steel.

Kraftwerk Kovers Kollection Vol.3 by DJ Food

Alternative artwork: For the third volume of the Kover Kollection I did some designs based on the pocket calculator and then on the theme of the ‘Meet the Beatles’ sleeve, I wasn’t too pleased with the results so I changed them, these have never been seen before.

Posted in Kraftwerk. | 4 Comments |

Kraftwerk month #18 Kompilations

‘Elektro Kinetik’ (Vertigo/Phonogram 1981) and ‘Exceller8′ (Mercury 1975) front and back covers – both mid seventies compilations drawing from various albums after ‘Autobahn’ and ‘The Model’ became hits. ‘Autobahn’(Philips 1975) was a double album using artwork from the ‘Ralf & Florian’ LP and music from several different releases. The ‘Kraftwerk’ double album (Vertigo 1973) pairs the first and second albums together with a beautiful sleeve.

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