Last night, I saw Kraftwerk live at the Theatre Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. The whole evening was surreal for me as I veered between awe, sadness and happy lost-in-popness. I went with my mate Nate and you can see us above, looking AMAZING.
As a slight background; Kraftwerk have been my favourite band since 1981. That was the year a 15-year-old me bought their then-new album Computer World and played the shit out of it. I played that fucking album a million billion times. I played it and played it and played it and then I really played it. I home taped that album (casually contributing to KILLING ALL MUSIC) and then played it on my boombox at school during playtimes and lunchtimes. I took that same tape on holiday with me on our family holiday to Denmark that year. Even now, my Mum calls Kraftwerk ‘that Danish music,’ so much did I terrorise her with their numinous de-construction of production-based meta theories. I suspected (hoped) they were actual androids and imagined their live shows as being a row of four R. Daneel Olivaws getting funky with Casios. I told everyone how Kraftwerk were the best band in the world and they were obviously idiots if they couldn’t see that.
I was to Kraftwerk as Gabriel is to the Abrahamic God.
In the thirty-six years that have passed since then, my teenage zealotry has been gradually subsumed by an adult, deep, noble love. I’m talking about the love most people have for their geographical place of birth / nurture, the love a lot of people seem to have for their sports team or perhaps the love some people have for shiny, expensive cars. I have none of those loves, possibly because the gaps they should have slotted into were already filled by a band of classically-trained German hippies who decided to cut their hair and get into telling the world that an electronic revolution was here.
Now, here’s me, sitting in a seat with Kraftwerk on stage and they start and Numbers booms out. The sparse economy of Kraftwerk is a fitting way to begin the show – this is a band that will always prefer to leave a gap, to preserve possibly ambiguities rather than laboriously block in every possible interpretation. As the massed Speak’n’Spells croak their way through a particularly bleak episode of Sesame Street, I’m fifteen again and watching cool kids pop and lock to Kraftwerk. I mean, I was never cool like that myself but, hey, I knew this cool band that the breakers all knew! And though they all loved Numbers, they absolutely lost their shit when Tour De France came out as a single a couple of years later.
Live, Kraftwerk are Kraftwerk. If you were expecting a rock band performance, if you were expecting avuncular audience interaction and sweat being flung from the furrowed brow of tortured genius, this isn’t the band for you. Kraftwerk is four old white German blokes dressed like Black Suit Spidey fans who stand mostly immobile behind Tronned lecterns holding, presumably, keyboards and other musical modifiers. I say presumably because we never get to peek. During all the amazing 3D visuals that backed the show, I was often left longing for a simple, 2D downwards view of Kraftwerk the band playing live (which Nat echoed). But my inner robot knows that atavistic desire is a wayward product of rockism, it is a desire to witness live rockn’roll authenticity and authority, to be able to issue some horrific cliche like ‘DUDE, THOSE GUYS CAN REALLY SHRED,’ which is, of course, antithetical to everything Kraftwerk are or ever have been. As if to kick us in our bits with this, Kraftwerk send out their actual robots for the first encore and we, the audience, applaud. Where else is an audience going to applaud four mannequins miming to a backing track while the band themselves have a little break and probably some kind of isotonic sports drink backstage?
But I get ahead of myself… where were we? Oh yeah – the first song! Well, shit, I’m not going to write about every song they played because you’d get bored and I’d get even fatter but, long story short, they fucked rocked the joint.
It’s peculiar that such an arty, defiantly avant-garde band can basically play a greatest hits set but that’s what Kraftwerk delivered. Numbers, Computer Love (as heard by non-fans from its Coldplay pilferage), The Model, Tour De France, Trans Europe Express, Autobahn… Surely Kraftwerk are the best-known obscure band in pop history?
When they play Computer Love, I manage not to cry, though I so want to as this song is an entire world for me. The bittersweet synth counter melodies weave around the central plaintive vocals and I have to remind myself, yet again, that this song was released eleven fucking years before the web was invented, more than three decades before Ok Cupid was invented, before Tinder or any of the other places lonely humans gather online. And yet… Kraftwerk have caught the core solitude of technology, the interpenetraion of its oppositional effects, simultaneously atomising us whilst teasing us with the possibility of connection, of sex, of love. Live… I had to close my eyes and miss a lot of the 3D graphics going on because it was a little too much for me, a little too close to home.
The feel of the gig was mostly celebratory, the audience was open and down for whatever and Kraftwerk took that energy, playing a lot of newer stuff that maybe only hardcore fans would love. But I love Revenge of the Sith and The Empire Strikes Back so I’m fine with that. The biggest change in emotion was when they played Radioactivity. It’s a huge track of theirs but the fact they’ve kept it current over the years, adding lyrics that weren’t in the original really punched me in the gut live. As a fan, you like that attention to the now, as a living human being who doesn’t want to die of cancer, you sincerely hope that nothing newer than Fukushima will ever be added to the litany of the infamous. This song live did actually make me cry so that’s a big fuck you to all the paper-thin dullards who stereotype Kraftwerk as cold or unfeeling. Kraftwerk aren’t some joke post-modern band, they are engaged in explaining and changing the world.
The Model arrived and it’s their Teen Spirit, it’s their 99 Problems. It’s a short, sharp, stab of a pop song aimed at so many social constructs that to dissect it would be a dissertation in itself. It’s so heavy live and so utterly MELODIC. Kraftwerk know a good fucking riff when they hear one and they’re not afraid to let it strut as long as everyone knows that they know what’s going on. The version I heard last night is still in my ears as it was so heavy, so powerful and so glitteringly acidic. The live swagger of it all was real and funny and impressive and “WHAT?” all at once; pure Kraftwerk.
Then they finish and we all want more and so the cheeky scamps send on their metal doppelgängers, as seen above and we all love it because we get it. This gig is as much a commentary on gigs, on rock, on showbiz as it is a gig itself. Look at us – we’re applauding insensate simulacra of human beings. But, if you’ve seen as many gigs as I have, you quickly realise that you’ve been doing that a lot. The robots on stage are more animated than many bands I’ve seen mid-tour, glass-eyed and with the name of whatever city they’re playing written down so they don’t get it wrong. Kraftwerk at least have the élan to be open about what rock touring is. What was that Baudrillard said about Disneyland and America?
When the actual, real end of the show comes, Kraftwerk file off stage one by one, each taking a bow and we clap and whoop because these workers produced an excellent product: one gig, funny, sad, huge, tiny and meeting all relevant ISO standards. We love Hilpert, Schmitz and Grieffenhagen but before Hütter takes his bow, we get really fucking emotional. People get up and start dancing, not wanting the end to come. I asked Nat her thoughts on the gig today and she said she wished she could have danced. For a band who practically invented all modern electronic dance music, it was a crime that we were confined to our seats!
When Ralf takes his bow, I’m crying again. Because, yeah, he’s the last original member of Kraftwerk but also because Kraftwerk are still going, still relevant and still playing shows where they connect to an audience on a multiplicity of levels.
Kraftwerk remain the perfect pop art, pop/art and Pop Art band. They use the everyday things of life, the apparently mundane, to show that meaning is extrinsic but beauty is immanent. In Kraftwerk’s hands, a bald list of nuclear spills becomes a wrenching condemnation of human hubris. In Kraftwerk’s hands, the minutiae of competitive cycling become as sacred as prayers. Their recorded work is the most important and influential output of 20th century music. To see them live is to feel that work breathe and move, to have a personal connection to something of unreadable depth.
Go see them, while you can. And please, for fuck’s sake, yell and shout and dance.