Kraftwerk – human after all

Regular Goldfish readers will know that I love Kraftwerk, I’ve written about them here and here and I’ve also written a Toppermost post on them. I have loved their music for over 30 years now and they are up there with The Beatles and The Durutti Column and The Kingsbury Manx in my pantheon of perfect music. New music from Kraftwerk is very rare so has always been greeted with much reverence and attention.

I can still remember that first listen to “Electric Cafe” in the Autumn of 1986, scouring the sleeve for clues, why did it sound so pared down, where were rich European melodies? There were hints – a moment in “Boing boom Tschak” where a counterpoint bass line appears two minutes into the song, and I thought “Oh this is where it gets going” only it didn’t. There was too much emphasis on rhythm tracks and not enough song craft for me back then, the balance between the two had slipped in the wrong direction.  Of course “The Telephone Call” was wonderful, and “Sex Object” had a peculiar grandeur to it, but my main memory of that first listen was the section of “Techno Pop” where Ralf or Florian play a sequence over and over while paging through presets on their DX7. Later I changed my mind, realised that the rhythm was where electronic music was heading and

When “The Mix” album was issued in 1991 it became part of the soundtrack of my finest summer, bought in June on CD, my first Kraftwerk CD, which then encouraged me to buy the rest of their catalogue in that format (it was “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine” bought a week later alongside “Cupid and Psyche 85” in a HMV three for twenty quid offer, my CDs still have the stickers on then). Even the “Tour De France” CD single all was greeted with joy, even if it didn’t contain the original 12” mix. “Expo 2000” may have been little more than a jingle but the remixes were special. By the time the “Tour De France Soundtracks” album had been issued in 2003, I was a member of an online music forum which went nuts on the album and I wrote some pertinent words which people seemed to agree with, which I found strange. People usually didn’t agree with me on music, now I was in a community which loved and cared about music as much as I did, and I still speak online with some of the people in that community thanks to Twitter, and consider them to be friends. You know who you are. But after 2003, new music was not forthcoming. They played live, the shows were spectacular, the live album “Minimum Maximum” was rather good, but there was nothing new. Even welcome remasters of the back catalogue in 2009 just brought more frustration – why the move away from the original sleeves? Why were the credits changing? After Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008, Ralf Hutter turned Kraftwerk into an artefact – playing their eight albums in consecutive concerts in art galleries and special places, such as the Museum Of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Even so, I never thought I would get the chance to see Kraftwerk live – the Tate Modern shows sold out ridiculously fast. I heard bootlegs and dreamt of the amazing 3D visuals.

I was surprised and excited then by the announcement of a proper UK tour during June 2017. Kraftwerk weren’t playing in Wales, well why should they? But Bristol is near enough for me. So when the tickets went on sale in October 2016 I was poised over the refresh button at 10am ready to purchase my dream ticket. But come the moment of reckoning, the tickets sold out within 10 seconds, the time it took me to choose where I wanted to sit in the venue and how many tickets I wanted. Those damn ticket buying robots had beaten me to it. Ten seconds and gone. I almost cried, my chance had been missed. A few days later my good friend Ray from Country Mile Records told me how he had purchased two tickets directly from the venue but again by the time I checked the Colston Hall website they were gone.

I settled for the next best thing – I ordered the “3D Catalogue” 8 CD set and waited for it to arrive two days after my birthday at the end of May. This box set was live recordings of their eight albums as they had been played during their “Catalogue” concerts, and I couldn’t wait to hear them, to hear songs from side two of “Autobahn” in the new format, or even the songs from “Electric Café” like “Sex object” and “The telephone call”. How would these songs be adapted? Would there be audience noise like on “Maximum Minimum”?

It has been tricky explaining the 3D set to people who don’t know or care about Kraftwerk. For a start, there are people who just don’t understand how important Kraftwerk are. How their visions of the future back in the seventies – totally electronic music, people communicating by computers, the robots in our lives, the man and machine in ‘perfect’ harmony – are now so commonplace that we don’t even think about them. Also how much influence they have had on music, from the electro pop of the 80s, through hip hop, techno and beyond. While Kraftwerk have not issued any new music since 2003, they have continued to reinvigorate their back catalogue, as the live shows have demonstrated, updating the songs to be played with the latest technology at their disposal.  It’s a hard analogy to explain. While some artists have recreated individual albums for live concerts, there have been few examples of an artist playing their entire catalogue live (I can only think of Sparks doing this beside Kraftwerk). Other electronic pioneers have reinterpreted some of their albums – Tangerine Dream were notorious for this, and more often than not any later version of “Phaedra” just didn’t have the same atmosphere as the original 1974 version, those charmingly out of tune Moogs and mellotrons. Surely Kraftwerk wouldn’t fall into the same trap?

The 3D box did not disappoint. OK, a little more information would have been useful – for instance where the albums or tracks were recorded other than a list of venues they have played. But once the car door slams at the start of “Autobahn” on CD1, the listener is immersed in Kraftwerk’s world. I did try and listen to all eight albums in one sitting but it didn’t seem fair – I felt I should devote myself to each album a little while to pick up nuances and differences. For a start, the music is shiny, gleaming and perfect. The quality of the sound design is faithful to the original albums in places but updated in different ways. “Autobahn” is still an emotional journey, I’ve found myself moved to tears during the final part of the song itself, while the four songs on side two merge into a lovely medley – “Kometenmelodie 1” stills sounds abstract and a link back to the three albums before it, while “Kometenmelodie 2” is as good as pop instrumental as you’ll find. “Mitternacht” merges into “Morgenspaziergang” nicely, and maybe it is the first time I noticed that the melody of the latter is slightly adapted from one of the sections in “Autobahn” – and how long have I been listening to the “Autobahn” album? “Radioactivity” is a revelation – each individual piece is brilliant anyway, but some of the new interpretations are startling and wonderful, not least “Airwaves” which now shows how much Giorgio Moroder took from Kraftwerk back in the day. I would have liked “Transistor” and “Ohm sweet ohm” to last forever, quite frankly, “Trans Europe Express” is possibly the weakest of the new interpretations to my ears, the medley of “Franz Schubert” into “Endless Endless” into “Europe Endless” works well, and Hutter’s voice cracks on some lines here, But here the new versions aren’t different enough, or maybe that’s just me. “The Man Machine” and “Computer World” though are perfect – the right combination of sounding like the originals but with new elements. These are the most played albums in the set for me, and frankly I can’t find much to say about them. They are respectful but modern, which is a hard trick to pull off successfully. “Neon lights”, “Home computer”, “The man machine”, “Computer love”…. the “It’s more fun to compute” / “Home computer” medley is absolutely spellbinding. There’s a slight hint of something not quite right about “Pocket Calculator” which I think is an extra beat in the rhythm track but what the hell, I’m splitting hairs here. “Techno Pop” is a revelation – the beats are stronger, the music richer… “The telephone call” losing its vocal (but then that was Karl Bartos who hasn’t been a member for many decades), and “Sex object” gains the original insistent bassline from the unreleased 1983 version. “The Mix” set is especially designed for headphones, being a 3D sound design exercise and is excellent, and also includes “Planet of visions” – the new version of “Expo 2000”. Finally “Tour De France Soundtracks” is the most similar to its original version, but still sounds fantastic – “Vitamin” has been given a spring in its step, “Aerodynamic” is full of propulsion and “Le Forme” is graceful and mournful. Much like the closing “Golden slumbers” medley on “Abbey Road”, this song feels like the last piece of music the band will make and has a strange emotional pull for me. All in all, the 3D boxed set is a success.

A few days after receiving the 3D set, I happened to take a look at the Colston Hall website and was amazed to see they had a few tickets available. I didnt hang around, I bought one, and then waited patiently for the ticket to arrive. Had it all been a strange fever dream? Was it a con? Had I paid money for nothing? Eventually the ticket arrived and it was true, I was going to see Kraftwerk after all. I arranged transport with Ray and counted down the days until Saturday arrived. I still couldn’t believe it – I had loved Kraftwerk since 1983, and now I was going to see them. How would I cope? There was a sense of anticipation outside and inside the Colston Hall, we were handed our 3D glasses on entry and I found my seat in the stalls and settled down, taking the obligatory shot of the glasses and putting it on Twitter. I felt quite young, looking at the audience. There were fans dressed up like the “Man Machine” cover – red shirts, black ties. The man beside me asked if I’d seen them before, I said I hadnt. He told me he saw them in Poland – “Prepare to be amazed”.

At 8pm, the lights dimmed, and the vocodor introduced the band in the dark, the curtains swung open, revealing the four workstations and the numbers started, literally. 12345678 12345678. The numbers flashed onscreen and swung over our heads, the beats kicked in and Kraftwerk strolled on and stood at their stations and we were off. While nobody was expecting much in terms of showmanship from the Germans, the 3D visuals made up for it. Admittedly I didnt get the full benefit as I only have vision in my right eye, so I had to take everyone else’s word for it about what was happening, but the audience reaction let me know that the visuals were an absolute blast. Having absorbed the 3D box, I knew how the music would sound but even still there was room to improvise, beats were louder and stronger, sections were extended, melodies changed and melded. “Home computer” was brilliant, even better than the recorded version. “Computer love” had a natural ebb and flow, “The man machine” swung, “Neon lights” was awesome – Hutter’s vocal was awestruck, as if he was seeing the lights for the first time. “Spacelab” had amazing visuals, a satellite flying over the audience’s heads (eliciting a huge “whoooo” from the crowd), then a spacecraft flying over Bristol. “Autobahn” seemed to be marred by problems, Hutter looked like he was battling his workstation, filter sweeps appearing the wrong places, were there problems with the machines? “Autobahn” was swiftly dispatched, losing its melancholy closing section which was a shame. “Airwaves” was a shock, a surprise and an absolute blast, while “Radioactivity” had sub bass to die for, and blasted away any remnants of worry. “Electric Cafe” was also a pleasant surprise. “Tour De France” merging into “Etape 1” was marvellous, the sprint of “Chrono” sounding better than ever. Finally “Trans Europe Express” and more problems – there were no vocals at all (bar a few vocodor interjections), a purely instrumental version, had Hutter’s microphone failed? He didn’t look happy at all. The curtains closed for the end of the main set.

Next came “The Robots”, and even these were slightly different to the version on the box set. Were the members of Kraftwerk playing instruments behind the scenes while we watched their robotic counterparts? Who knows. Still a startling vision of pop without human input. The curtains closed again.

As the curtains reopened, Hutter spoke to us – “Life is better with a microphone”. “Aero Dynamic” was a thrilling encore, Hutter clearly enjoying himself, the bass throbbing out. “Planet of visions” was almost unrecognisable (unless you knew the DJ Orlando mix), sounding like a new piece of music, and the members were clearly revelling in it, adjusting the sounds and the visuals to reflect their happiness – all four members were tapping their toes and shaking their legs as the song heralded the links between Germany and Detroit. Finally the “Boing Boom Tschack” / “Techno pop” / “Musique Non Stop” medley which frankly could have lasted forever for me, i never wanted this to end. The ending of the concert will stay with me forever, I won’t spoil the pleasure for those who have yet to see it. The standing ovation from the crowd was well deserved, and the band seemed touched by the response to their music. Hutter took a bow, touched his heart and sent out a kiss, the man machine was human after all

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Was it one of the best concerts I’ve seen. Absolutely. Will I remember it forever? Absolutely.

Kraftwerk deserve their place as innovators, both in music and as a visual show. They have made themselves into a work of art and should be treasured. Enjoy them while they are still here.

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4 thoughts on “Kraftwerk – human after all

  1. Like you I was lucky and privileged to get two tickets for the Bristol show. I’ve been a fan since first hearing the Model back in 1981 when I was 11. At the time I was living in Germany as my father was in the services. I saved up and bought vinyl (German editions) of Computer World, Trans Europe Express and Man Machine and played them to death. Then when Tour De France the single came out I bought the cassingle and played it endlessly. As a piece of music the intro to TDF has the ability to transport me back to the place where I first listened to the song as a young boy.
    So to get tickets for this show was a lifelong dream having also tried and failed to get tickets for their Tate Modern appearances.
    The second ticket was for my 13 year old son who I introduced to Kraftwerk when he was 11. He loves the band too and was overjoyed that I managed to get tickets.
    We travelled from Jersey on Saturday morning and spend the day wandering the streets of Bristol before arriving very early at Colston Hall. Just as we arrived they were setting up the merchandise stand and we both eagerly chose a tee each and other fantastic items like the TDF water bottle and two books.
    We were in our seats by half past seven and we spent the last half hour before the show discussing what we wanted to hear and we were most looking forward to.
    if you can believe it we were seated front row and when the curtains were moved back I found myself right under the watchful eyer of Ralf Hutter himself. We were so close that the 3D was effectively rendered useless but no matter because our view of the band was impeccable (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jerseyraindog/sets/72157683193068630/with/35397954285/) and I captured many images of them in full flow. Like you I wondered why there were no vocals in Trans Europe Express (probably my favourite album) and wasn’t quite sure what he said after the Robots finished their encore. If that is indeed what he said in your review, then it makes sense that his mic must have failed in TEE.
    His only other audience banter was his question, “So, are there any good clubs in Bristol?” before saying “Aug Weidersehn – Goodbye” and leaving the stage to the richly rewarded standing ovation.
    It was a sublime performance and a night I will never forget, and nor will my son.

  2. I enjoyed reading your review. I’m so glad you got to see them. I, too, was utterly distraught when I failed to get tckts for the shows at the Tate, & have been bitter ever since. Especially as those gigs seemed to be full of people who were there ‘cos it was the trendy gig to go to. I saw the 3D show in Liverpool, but someone I know had seen them in Belfast a few days before and wasn’t impressed at all, so I wasn’t really as excited as I should’ve been. I needn’t have worried, the show was fabulous, & I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was lucky enough to have seen the Computer World ’81 & The Mix ’91 shows in Liverpool, & I enjoyed the 3D show as much as those. I’ve not bought the 3D box set, because I decided as I’ve already got Minimum Maximum, The Catalogue, the original 80s CD releases, & the original vinyl, the 3D box was a bit overkill. I dare say I’ll probably cave in & buy it! Anyway, glad you got to see them!

  3. Hey Rob, what a great description of a live Kraftwerk show and the joys of listening to their music. Like yourself, I have been a fan for a very long time (almost 40 years now as I first heard then on CKCU-FM in the late 70’s) and still recall the first time my brother and I went to see them in Montreal in the early 1980’s (if my memory is correct it was the summer of 1981). I remember making up a story to my parents that we had friends in Montreal and a place to stay so they would let us go but actually we didn’t and it meant that after the show we had to wander around the city looking for all night café’s as we had already missed the last bus home. But it was worth it as this was like no concert I had ever been to – it was like being transported into the future & we saw what the future of music looked like & it was glorious. Even back then the sound was so precise and the synchronization of music and video was amazing as each band member had a large video screen behind them. There was no hint of any traditional music instruments and the drums were what appeared to be metal sticks hitting a strange pad of some sort. The band looked more like laboratory workers in a science experiment twiddling the knob and turning dials. It was hard to describe to anyone and left my brother & I awestruck for days. It left quite an impression on us and we started to notice more and more in the years to come just how much Kraftwerk had influenced a lot of the music we loved. It was cool to see that New Order & OMD who we were also big fans of were also heavily influenced by Kraftwerk and even cooler when years later members of those bands collaborated on various music projects. Zoom forward a few years in 2004 we heard that Kraftwerk were playing Montreal again so my brother & I were fortunate to see them again (with my brother inviting the next generation of fan in his nephew) and again the show was even more spectacular than we had hoped for with the sound taking on a new clinical precision that was as close to perfection as you could possibly get in a live show and the live video display had now gone on to whole new level of blending music and sound. It was truly amazing and I could go on forever and tell you some stories of how we managed to meet the band and even get some records signed by Ralf but Florian would have nothing to do with such thing and talk about the robots and my brother getting chased by security for videotaping some of the show bur I’ve already rambled on for way to long.

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