Somnambule - Writing About Music


20th March 2004 – Brixton Academy

Last night was the third time I’ve experienced the Kraftwerk spectacle: three punctuation points at intervals of a decade or so through my life. I was at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3rd July 1981, at the tender age of 15 when the stage was filled with the group’s transplanted Dusseldorf studio. The angular metal equipment wouldn’t have looked out of place on the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. At one point mannequins (rather than the later animated robots) appeared in the Mensch Maschine uniform of red shirts and black ties and trousers. Their encore was Pocket Calculator for which the group left their consoles to play on handheld pads and mini-keyboards and dance smilingly at the front of the stage.

Ten years later in mid-July 1991, Kraftwerk returned to London’s Brixton Academy on The Mix tour, a release greeted by the horror of some fans at the group’s perceived sellout. These fans had clearly not grasped the group’s desire to produce an industrial ‘volks-musik’ for the masses. The stageset was the same KlingKlang studio with two large video screens angled behind the performers. The retooled songs were masterpieces of power, control and forward motion. I danced throughout though this was the exception rather than the rule.

And so to the 2004 world tour. This time a babysitter has to be arranged before we can depart for Brixton. On arrival the stage is hidden behind gauze curtains. The familiar grinding robot introduction “Guten abend, meine Damen und Herren” etc. greets the packed audience. Masters of the dramatic gesture, a red spotlight casts silhouettes onto the closed curtain of four figures slightly bent over their music stands. The effect is reminiscent of the appearance of Nosferatu in Murnau’s 1922 film. The commanding chords of The Man Machine ring out as the curtains part to reveal the group standing like benevolent and besuited technocrats at their laptops. Ralf and Florian flank the two newer members, Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz. Behind them stretches a three section video screen which fills the width of the stage. With the miniaturisation of technology, relocating the Dusseldorf studio around the world proves no longer necessary.

Kraftwerk deliver a brilliant audio-visual spectacle. Their blend of ultra-modern computer-generated graphics and black and white footage synchronises perfectly to the music. The archive imagery frequently evokes the heyday of particular technological eras: the TEE bullet trains, the newly-built autobahn and so on. To view Kraftwerk as futurists is to only partially understand their concerns. Their technological focus has led to criticism that the group is advocating technology and is therefore responsible somehow for its consequences. However this misses Kraftwerk’s particular relationship with the past, in particular that period of nascent Modernism which preceded the second world war. In much of the group’s work there is a subtly implied nostalgia which adds significantly to the power of their art. It’s perhaps most evident in the mourning undertones of songs such as Metropolis and Neon Lights.

The group’s engagement with technology has led them into an interesting area where at times they have had to replace nostalgia with overt condemnation. This is most evident in the case of 1975’s Radioactivity. An emphatic ‘STOP!’ is now inserted before the word ‘Radioactivity’ in the chorus as well as a listing of disasters such as Cherbonyl, Sellafield, etc. This has been the case ever since The Mix was released more than a decade ago. However, the rendition of Autobahn also betrays a disaffection much less, if at all, apparent in previous versions. Their best known song is now delivered in a muted version whose tempo verges on the deliberate – perhaps a reflection on increasing congestion. Amusingly and pointedly, the sound of the car’s ignition which originally started the track without problem, now takes three or four attempts and at one point even sounds as though it might not succeed in getting underway. The accompanying visuals balance the original edenic vision of carefree travel on almost empty roads with singularly unromantic footage of a busy, contemporary road. The final image as the music ceases is the iconic Autobahn sign now with a red bar through it.

A fair proportion of the concert is given over to tracks from last year’s Tour De France and these songs sit very comfortably alongside the older music. Having burnt their fingers twenty years ago with Electric Café, they have wisely refused to release anything they’re not entirely satisfied with. Tour De France is a condensation of their classic themes married to contemporary rhythms resulting in a brilliant if not especially innovative success. My one reservation about the concert relates to the pacing of the programme of music which refuses to build to a particular climax. The faster, more dance-oriented tracks from Tour De France are immediately succeeded by mid-paced ones which dissipate momentum. The setlist clearly isn’t designed for a clubbing experience, but instead encourages varying degrees of contemplation. Despite such (minor) criticisms, it's difficult not to experience an emotional surge at the pathos of their themes, a feeling of wonder at the sophistication of the presentation and something verging on awe at witnessing a summation of one of the great artistic statements (in any medium) of the last few decades.

The music is subtly different to recorded versions, there are numerous tweaks, alterations and additions – perhaps the most noticeable of which tonight is the version of Expo 2000 which is partially unrecognisable from the original mixes. When the curtains close for the second of three short pauses, the group depart the stage and are replaced by their near-iconic robot doubles. The almost intimidating shadows of the robots, like their human counterparts before them, are cast on the curtains as The Robots starts to play. The inevitable question as to the necessity of the flesh and blood group arises and yet their presence is like a promisary note, they act as ambassadors or mediums at the interface between humanity (the audience) and technology (the music). Although they refer to themselves humbly as ‘musik arbeiter’ (music workers), the human members of Kraftwerk may also be viewed techno-shamans whose message is as mysterious and open to interpretation as any holy man. What is certain is that transparency, clarity and conceptual unity are the guiding principles of their communication. The resulting interstices create powerful resonances and a rare degree of conceptual and emotional freedom for the audience to explore.

Will they tour again? Or will this concert be their last visit to these shores? Time will tell. Ralf and Florian are now in their 50s, but their love of cycling means that they appear healthy for their age. With a wry irony that is another signature of the group, Kraftwerk’s final song is Music Non Stop.

Colin Buttimer
Published by Absorb