* 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.