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.