WE ASKED ELECTRONIC SOUND READERS WHO ARE GOING TO SEE KRAFTWERK ON THEIR UK & IRELAND TOUR TO TELL US WHAT THEY THOUGHT. MARK ROLAND WENT TO SEE THEM IN LONDON…
On a sweltering night in London, Kraftwerk took to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall for the first performance of a three-night stand. The venue itself, of course, named after Queen Victoria’s beloved German hubby, is an institution. Over the years it has hosted everything from the Proms, with its flag-waving loons singing along raucously to ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, to the Eurovision Song Contest, to Dead Can Dance. And tonight, meine Damen und Herren, it’s the suitably venerable German institution, Kraftwerk in the house.
As the venue struggled to get the several thousand eager electronic music buffs into the building, the stage time slipped from the “7:45 Prompt” as claimed on the ticket, to around “8:15 A Bit Late”. Men with white lab coats adorned with the artwork from various Kraftwerk album releases brushed shoulders with finely dressed men and women, alongside overheated geezers in shorts, all no doubt discussing the finer points of detail differences between the original Kraftwerk vinyl releases, the remasters, and the recent live box set. The latter was on sale on the merch “stall”, with a couple of handsome Kraftwerk art books, an ‘Autobahn’ tote bag, T-shirts and a particularly fetching ‘Tour De France’ yellow jersey. While we all wanted one, it would take a svelte frame to carry one off, to say the least. Brisk business was being done.
Once in the famous venue space itself, perched up high at the very back, with a central view of the stage, we could see the show as God intended, its symmetrical precision delivering a sumptuous experience of visuals and sound, with light filling the ceiling space and arches with complementary colours. When the curtains drew back, the four now-iconic lecterns darted with different coloured lights around their perimeters as the four Kraftwerkers manfully blew the collective mind with the sonic clarity of ‘Numbers’ and the bulging and pulsing of the 3D imagery. Several selections from ‘Computer World’ followed, with the cute computer image from the album cover floating above our heads, and Ralf sounding particularly human and vulnerable singing ‘Computer Love’, one of their prettiest and most personal songs.
A treat was the, ahem, airing for ‘Airwaves’ from the ‘Radio-Activity’ album, an often overlooked gem which does more to attach Kraftwerk’s melodic sense to the Beach Boys’ than the feted ‘Autobahn’, with its singing theremin and subverted shuffling rock ’n’ roll structure. The live nature of Kraftwerk was made clear when Ralf boshed his keyboard with both hands as the song ended producing an unusually discordant blast of noise. Whether this was an intentional full stop or an expression of frustration at some technical glitch was unclear, but it is rather the equivalent of putting the guitar headstock through the speaker grille of a Marshall amp and tipping the whole lot over. Thrilling synth rage!
As the temperature rose outside (34 degrees, the hottest day since 1976, as many of the audience will well remember) so it did inside as Kraftwerk delivered more hits. A couple of people started dancing down in the stalls until they were prodded by genteel Albert Hall ushers back into decorum, and the biggest cheer of the night erupted as they started playing their UK Number One smash hit ‘The Model’.
‘Trans-Europe Express’ was impressive, the clanking of ‘Metal On Metal’ reverberating around the surround sound system, the verse about meeting David Bowie and Iggy Pop reinstated and taking on a new, sad significance. They didn’t play ‘Europe Endless’, perhaps Ralf thought it would be rubbing our noses in it, but you can’t help sensing a melancholy around the idea that Kraftwerk’s central premise, as a German band particularly adored in Great Britain, singing in several European languages, from a city where a relatively short drive will get you to Amsterdam or Bruges or Paris, is now one which London can no longer be a part of.
Still, a thumpingly loud rendition of ‘The Robots’ by the actual robots soon puts all that right, as does an outing for ‘Planet Of Visions’, which extends the hand of friendship between Germany and Detroit, what with them both being so “electro”, as the 3D graphics reminded us. If we were frustrated at not being able to cut some rug before, the song’s technoid groove amplified it tenfold. But it was so airlessly hot by this point, that it was something of a relief to get out into what was passing for fresh air after the ‘Electric Café/Technopop’ medley climax, ending with the trad solos and bowing of each member.
Kraftwerk live in 2017 is the same as Kraftwerk live in 2013, but only if you’re not really paying attention. Under the lid, the songs and the presentation are being tweaked and played with and gradually moving towards some kind of imagined perfection. The Kraftwerk experience remains strangely powerful and moving and perhaps it could carry on forever. They are, after all, the only “heritage” band who already have robot doppelgängers in place. And they could, like the songs, mutate and develop, and eventually replace the humans entirely. And we might just like it. I for one will welcome our new robot overlords…