So anyway they debuted a bunch of new songs, played Knocking on Heavens Door as an encore, and Ralf smashed his keyboard up. No sorry it’s a Kraftwerk 3D review. Possibly the band who have elevated quality control and process engineering to the nth degree, no-one goes to a Kraftwerk show expecting anything other than a machine-tooled performance, which is exactly we got at Symphony Hall. All delivered with their signature degree of ironic distance that leaves us guessing exactly how seriously they take themselves.
The band’s status as the most important band since The Beatles (OOAA) rests on a comparatively small back catalogue. Over two hours they played Spacelab, Neon Lights, Man Machine, The Robots and The Model off Man Machine (now clearly the ultimate Kraftwerk lp); Computer World, Computer Love and Numbers off Computer World; Boom Tschick and Musique Non Stop off Electric Cafe; Tour De France and Aerodynamique off Tour De France; Trans Europe Express, Radioactivity and Autobahn. All were subtly retooled and retouched, most noticeably on Computer Love which was a lot beefier, and a techno’d-up Musique Non Stop to finish which could have been a Leftfield track.
Stagecraft was as you’ve seen on most of their tours of the last fifteen years: 4 blokes, computer stations, Tronsuits. We got nothing in the way of between-song banter – but the insertion of the Birmingham skyline and Symphony Hall into the visuals for Spacelab were a witty touch. The robots themselves in red shirts and black ties took the stage for the first encore of The Robots, and so stunning was this that the only flat moment came next, Aerodynamique being one of their less memorable tracks.
What we were supposed to look at were the visuals – 3-d glasses supplied. The Model if memory serves me correctly was represented by its hastily-made b and w video, and Tour De France by b and w footage. Otherwise it was animated graphics.
So when people got over-excited at the Tate concerts and talked about them as being more like an art installation than concert, perhaps what they were talking about was how each song is matched with a very specific visual identity to create the performance. Autobahn is accompanied by Julian Opie-esque footage of unspooling roads, hills and VWs; Computer World is the green typography of early 80s home computing, Man Machine the Bauhaus era of blocks of colour, Musique Non Stop the wire-frame animations of eighties games designers. TEE has been given graphics based on the black train from the reissue rather than the be-suited foursome from the original album cover. Radioactivity too is updated to the new catalogue image – bringing everything into line with official Kraftwerk Brand Guidelines.
And its this sense of history that gives I think their songs and the show such an emotional impact. That and their cunning way with a melody. We’re not seeing the future. We’re seeing how techno-optimists saw the future in the seventies, or the eighties. These tracks are completely of their time, but also speak to us about the world today – in the case of Radioactivity, now reconfigured as a track about Chernobyl and Fukushima; and Computer World with its KGB, FBI refrain surely read by today’s audience as being about Wikileaks and state-sponsored election hacking. TEE – for the UK today – surely nods to Brexit. Or not. These pieces, like any work of art, exist for you to read into them what you bring to the party. Nothing is updated, but everything is contemporary. And you can’t say that about many other acts whose last significant new material was twelve years ago.
Forties to seventies the core – including at least one in the red shirt and black tie, and one in a homemade Tron suit. Some teenage children clearly dragged along by dad.
It made me think..
When did techno-optimism end? If not between Lady Chatterley and the Beatles first LP, then perhaps between Electric Cafe and Tour de France. Not my photo, they’re all too big and can’t work out how to resize them from my iphone.