Wolfgang Flür: one quarter of the essential Kraftwerk line-up, the Robot with the matinee idol looks, the man who first thought to pull apart a rhythm machine and trigger the sounds by hand, a drummer who, for over a decade, inhabited the holy of holies, Kling Klang, where he put in hundreds of those legendary night shifts and helped to shape the future of electronic music.
The announcement that he was coming to London – to appear at Ditto’s monthly Campfire chat session and to perform one of his ‘Musik Soldat’ shows in Hoxton – excited considerable anticipation, and both venues sold out rapidly. It’s his first visit since 2008, and his stock has risen in the meantime, in line with Ralf Hütter’s legacy management of the Kraftwerk project, which has seen his old group treated with (well-earned) hushed reverence via a series of residencies in hand-picked venues across the globe, and introducing it to new generations of kids reared on music heritage worship at large-scale music festivals.
Across these two dates in London, Flür revealed himself to be a charming and witty raconteur, holding the Campfire crowd in the palm of his hands as he recalled his Kraftwerk days with humour and self-deprecation. Earlier that day, his 30-minute interview with Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio 6 Music was radio gold, and when the pair asked him if ever sees Ralf and Florian these days, he rendered them speechless with laughter when he mentioned he’d seen Florian “just the other day, driving a little British car. He waved at me.” The image that comment placed in half a million electronic music fans’ minds at that moment – of a grinning Florian Schneider tooling around the streets of Dusseldorf in a Mini waving at his former Kling Klang colleague – will not be forgotten easily. Flür proved himself to be much more than a guy who was a once a drummer in Kraftwerk, he’s a big character in his own right whose charisma quickly communicates itself.
His ‘Musik Soldat’ show he describes as a ‘musical presentation’. “I am not a DJ,” he said at Campfire, “I play music I like, and I hope you like it too.” Sure enough, some beat matching was a little ragged, as he put together a set of pretty hard-edged techno and some closely related electronica. The set kicked off with Kraftwerk’s ‘Home Computer’, the banging fours-to-floor mix, while behind him a collage of images from Kraftwerk’s 1970s rise to fame was projected, real holiday snap stuff of the band backstage, post-gig, looking sweaty and fucked, a delight for the Kraftwerk obsessive, which accounted for pretty much everyone in the room, including the glamorous woman with the radio mast antenna tattoo on her left shoulder blade. It was clear Flür wasn’t going to shy away from his old band’s achievements, or his fellow Kraftwerk refugee’s post-Kraftwerk, erm, work, playing ‘Overdrive’, a standout track from Karl Bartos’ overlooked 1993 album ‘Esperanto’, which took on a new intensity in this context.
The hardness of the set was surprising at first, given the lightness of touch Kraftwerk brought to proceedings, until you remember that Flür is, of course, a drummer. The beat is the thing with drummers, they like hitting stuff, it’s why they got involved in the first place, they’re always going to be attracted to rhythmic domination. And when the set arrived a section that appeared to be called Industrial Beauty, with black and white film of heavy metal machinery thumping and spinning with mechanical precision, it all fell into place; the man machine at the decks (actually a MacBook Pro and some effects) mimicking the actions of the machines in a spot of calisthenic exercise that enlivened the crowd.
The projected films repeatedly showed Flür marching up and down the place, in a comically exaggerated martial manner, like a toy soldier, complete with first world war German helmet, and the biggest cheer of the night came when Flür donned said hat and did some live marching across the stage, as footage from an elderly war film about a Zeppelin crew played out behind him.
Unafraid to monkey about with every ‘don’t mention the war’ jape he can think of, it’s clear that Flür’s musical mission comes with an almost diametrically opposed aesthetic to the one which Ralf Hütter has pursued, and it’s almost as if that’s the very point. A kind of nose-tweaking, piss-taking fun hour or so of silliness with excellent beats to remind us all that, no matter how much we might want to believe in the Man Machine, the emphasis is always going to be on the man, and not the machine.