Kraftwerk may mean innumerable things to many, though in Ralf Hütter’s native tongue the term directly translates to power station and it therefore seems fairly apt that they should choose to reconstruct their mechanical back catalogue in this, the Tate Modern’s wondrously soulless Turbine Hall. There’s a sterility within; an immediate disconnect between the men and women looking to the bright, multidimensional lights onstage and the machines operating upon it, and this notion of human distance is apparent in the ample room we’re given to roam about its charred, greyscale interior. With a capacity of mere hundreds, the room feels as stark and cold as the refrigerated tip of a syringe and encircled by so much unoccupied space, it’s an element to the evening which perhaps doesn’t quite compute with the cerebral capacities of we reverential mortals. Why not fill the place ’til bloated as Berghain?
However this decommissioned oil-fired plant is of course no ordinary venue, even though the mens still smell of something fetid; something discernibly excremental and so human. Upon entrance, we’re gifted a clutch of stuff – plump jet-black cushions to alleviate an again unmistakably human discomfort in this least homestyle of expanses, and the fabled 3D glasses. To my mind, these serve as an immediate reminder of our continuing incompatibility with technological advances – manmade evolution in a state of constant progress, which chugs on at such an expeditious rate that we’re powerless to keep pace with it. We may think we preside omnipotent over our prosthetic limbs of sorts – our MacBooks, iPads, and perennially recalcitrant wireless printers – but maybe their traditionally intractable nature is but another indication of our inability to tame these rampantly obdurate things. Things we loathe to live with, though now could never live without.
Though all about us tower great feats of human accomplishment. The Tate Modern itself, with its solitary and tonight somehow Germanic chimney, is one such exemplar as its pellucid doors spew forth an unending line of unpigmented silhouettes similar both in profile and lifelessness to estranged Gormley statuettes. It’s a chilling dark in which they’re cloaked – colder than much of Kraftwerk’s esteemed output – as they quite clearly elucidate the enduring resilience of the human race; that most human of hope. Just across the water, St. Paul’s is sat magisterially – bathed in alluring luminescence. It’s a Millennium Bridge away but to those cemented in patient stasis, it must appear lightyears away – an intangible beacon of warmth. Then what is tonight undoubtedly the right side of the river, there’s The Shard peering dictatorially through a lingering fog like a portentous lighthouse overseeing our earthly displeasures. This lattermost would surely never have been possible were it not for the impact of those informational furtherances once forecast by Hütter and onetime fellow technicians, Karl Bartos and Florian Schneider back toward the turn of the ’80s.
And in a way it’s strange that all the initial furore should come to die down by the time Hütter comes to revisit Computer World – the album that is, to my mind, their most convincing, and with that cohesive in a thematic, as much as a musical respect. Having revelled in the reviews and read up on the setlists from the previous four evenings in this, The Catalogue series we’re only too aware of what to expect in that a splattered dollop of their more conventional hits is also to be served up a little later on, the internet peeling away the curtain of surprise a touch. And although Kraftwerk of course don’t deal in hits – conventional, or otherwise – you’d be hard pushed to pin down a mouth slammed shut by the time they come to play an unprecedentedly racy Das Model.
Though it’s their eighth of ten widely recognised studio recordings which tonight is quite rightly all about and as the lights dim, we don cardboard specs en masse. They’re rudimentary creations – dull plastic lenses encased in rigid white. Rudimentary as the visuals themselves, neon green integers flurry to the fore where they appear to materialise quite literally right before your very eyes. Numbers starts up, and if the catering to the eye is primary then that to the ear is devastatingly contemporary, as they serve up a beefy reconstitution replete with schizophrenic bleeps and clattering rhythms. A retrospective glory triumphing in the now, it has fulfilled the cliché and transcended time. Though again visually, the deciding impression is one of decided primitivity with Hütter and his minions (of the moment) cocooned in lattice bodysuits first seen in a Marvel comic long before Kraftwerk even came into being, a discombobulating mesh of Atari-inspired matrices disentangling to throb onscreen beyond.
Though not only does Computer World tonight prove itself to be irrefutably forward-looking even within a more contemporary musical outlook, but lyrically too there’s a great pertinence at play within: the title track, with its hierarchical motif of ‘Business. Numbers. Money. People’ carries with it a perturbing sentiment when played in such close proximity to city boy territories. Again, the effect is eerily premonitory, as you begin to wonder whether Hütter could see all of this commercialist obscenity coming all along. The mood softens to a humorous, cadmium hue with Pocket Calculator and although gone are the playable Casio’s and Sharp’s of yore, it retains its every iota of playfulness whilst never compromising on Kraftwerk’s steadfast exactitude.
Though where the visuals do succeed is in their detracting from the grudging inactivity onstage, as oversized digits punch in a series of 4′s, 5′s, 6′s and so on. Yet this is to be expected. Admired, even. What baffles is the inertia off it, for although it may be a Monday, the proto-techno compels you to jitter in that same way that Lipps Inc.’s Funkytown still can. Conversely however, it maybe has something to do with the infallible admiration so many have held for Kraftwerk for so long, and indeed it is nowhere short of an honour to witness these bits and pieces played out in realtime. Human time. And it’s of a similar joy to be able to mentally calculate those elements of their music to have been bastardised by so many of their successors: Home Computer, with its immortal refrain of “I program my home computer/ Beam myself into the future”, tonight comes to resemble the full-scale template for all house music. Its arpeggios newly upgraded and its visuals a gloopy blur of throbbing fluoro undulation, it’s more or less like two decades of Sónar condensed down into six or seven thoroughly invigorating minutes. It’s that bit muted; its bass is slightly clunky, but the audible whooping kicks up to contradict reports of a mildly sterile ambience on previous evenings.
Then, as its unstrung keys drift away in its closing moments, the four-piece erect an urban interlude – the sound of gritty concrete. Minimal as any exhibition I’ve had the privilege of witnessing in the Turbine Hall before, it signals the premature shutdown of Computer World at just shy of twenty-five. A meticulous divide it, and indeed the fleeting reinterpretation of the record to have preceded it, again plays into idiom: that this is minimalism manipulated in such a refined way so as to achieve maximum effect and, once more, its impact is savage.
Nonetheless, the lack of motion in the room signals a dislocation between the cerebral, and sometimes even self-deprecating display onstage, and the corporeal figures off of it. It therefore begins to compute as to why Hütter has often been known to employ robots in the live arena, in place of the real components of Kraftwerk across the band’s history though regardless of the seemed apathy and/ or awe, tonight the synergy they exhibit between Mensch and Maschine is one which not only appeals to the head, but also to the heart. Which makes me gaze beyond Hütter’s vapid expression and vacuous demeanour in search of revelation: this mechanistic takeover foreboded by he and his pioneering allies on the album in question – it may well have predated the release of even the first IBM PC finally readied the proceeding year, and they may well have given a precise augury of what was coming. But did they so too know how it could potentially affect every one of us? I’d contend that they perhaps did, yes. Business, and numbers, and money all tend to come before human interest now – whether we care to confess to it or not. Perhaps this has always been the case, although I doubt that very much – a cursory glance at the exponential rise in admission prices even here at the Tate Modern, or at the way in which electronic music events are now so stringently policed and violently promoted at least appears to suggest otherwise.
Though to what extent did this clairvoyant Krefeld native perceive his Kraftwerk vehicle to become something more of a transit van, than a Volkswagen camper? It’s another inquisition which careers into thought as the keys are put to the ignition of Autobahn, for Hütter is the lone remaining member of an anywhere near original imitation of an initial line up and, as such, there has been such sustained change to the complex matrices of the band’s genetics that some have taken to calling this particular representation a ‘tribute’ – one which, over the years, has damaged its identity beyond all repair to a degenerate point at which it has surrendered all significance. Needless to say, I don’t buy into this mentality for even a moment and fifteen minutes into this third gear trundle, I can’t help but speed to the conclusion that the naysayers may be those same ones that internally imploded in unabating rage the day tickets for the series went on sale, forcing the Tate website to decline likewise.
Its driving pulse revved up and over twenty-odd minutes, it is despatched with a routinely German efficiency as a colourless D-KR-70-reg VW Beetle alloys a visual simplicity to that human compulsion to move. It is AV at its most consummate and although it doesn’t quite go the distance, as it steers out of earshot and veers off toward Ausfahrt (of course) with that same unassuming self-assurance with which it entered the place, smartphones abound. And for once, loathed as I am to admit it, it feels strangely apt to see their multicoloured petrol gleam through the monofocal lenses smothering every face in attendance.
The lights blacken, and roars ensue as we plug into The Mix. We lose all sense of perspective of the figures onstage, as they disappear into unfathomable depths of multidimensional visual in that same way that we’ve by now lost all gist of who’s who in Kraftwerk. Though it’s Hütter’s always enhancing, and almost scientific dexterity in bringing the music itself both in and out of focus which reels us back in. As such, Radioactivity sounds positively enormous – the amplified fabric of microhouse thirsting for that more than rabid reaction assured of this year’s Sónar. “Contamination population” he gurgles, again seemingly alluding to the deterioration of modern-day society. A brutalist rampage through Trans Europe Express, with its monochromic accompaniment of entwined train lines, then inundates the brain with flashes of Scooter; Scissor Sisters; inane German hip hop and even breakcore – a genre I struggle to envisage Hütter ever getting down to.
Far more involving are the menacing flutters of The Robots – the epitome of man and machine perfectly attuned in absolute harmony, as gloriously elementary plasticine arms outstretch and reach for your retinas in a whirr of Gerry Anderson-esque ’60s scarlet. Never is the night more an exhibition than now, with even their four shadows assuming strange and amorphous forms against the 3D projections – adopting the faint shape of scrupulously perpendicular scaffolding. Spacelab meanwhile, again lifted from Die Mensch-Maschine, optically recalls a crude Star Wars – part prototypal George Lucas effect; part Windows 95 screensaver – if musically, it functions as an electronica cornerstone. All vocoded aberrations and dated presets, it’s not a world away from that for which Röyksopp have so unrelentingly striven though as does any screen – silver, or flimsy film – the glasses duly glamorise and tightly cling wrap the track in a resolutely cinematic sheen.
Then, at long last, we’ve Das Model at our mercy: its noirish video lacking in dimension though more than compensating in onscreen seduction, it’s another neat ploy by Hütter et al. in that they employ already glorified beauty to derail our divergent attentions from the mechanically efficient beast on show. And indeed the show itself is just so, as we’re made to stand within the parameters of punctiliously demarcated white lines. Though as Hütter sings unperturbed by processors, vocoders or any other effect so to speak, he sounds rejuvenated. It’s maybe because he’s just had Sonntag off, though with a shimmering Neon Lights similarly afforded a glimmering redux, he finally warms up and eases into the night as well might a man, or with that a machine. L’étape suivante signals the arrival of work from the Tour de France Soundtracks with the blissful, house-affected euphoria of its Étape 2 tidily snaking its way into a pulsating title track. Playing off the stark contrast between snippets of stilted heavy breathing and orchestral flutters, it’s an absolute tour de force tonight, and for once sees the pedals spun counterclockwise in that it’s Hütter sampling (Paul Hindermith’s Sonate Für Flöte Und Klavier) as opposed to being retrospectively sampled. Though even now, he is illumined only slightly more intensely than before, as the surround sound clangs of Vitamin combine with bubbling 3D effervescence for an all-encompassing omnisensorial experience.
Given the damning nature of recent doping revelations, it’s perhaps that bit more pertinent than it’d otherwise be, though it’s Planet of Visions with its reconfigured hook of “Detroit. Electro. Germany” which seems that bit more relevant still, as it’s as though a game-changing greenish blueprint for an entire genre. Heavy in places and humid in others, it may well be Hütter’s most impressive re-tweak on a night brought down on the scuffled electroclash of Musique Non Stop, which is met with a deluge of semi-quavers and treble clefs. One by one, they bow out systematically until Hütter is left manning the mainframe alone. He operates one final bar and then he’s gone, “Goodbye. Auf Wiedersehen. See you tomorrow” his now customary sign off, though even after he’s done so the music continues. Non Stop, even. And that’s the overriding impression that he has (quite purposefully, I don’t doubt) left us with – that the inspiration that is Kraftwerk, and all that unshakable influence derived from their lifework, belongs to that part of the weekend which never dies.
Meticulous and finely honed, although jubilant there’s a relieved exhalation from Hütter come eleven – that same sort to be sighed by a computer programmer once that one final filament of code has been threaded into the mesh of some trailblazing piece of software we’re as yet unable to comprehend, I should imagine. Though Hütter appears capable of comprehending all; he saw all this coming: the globalisation of informational advances, and the limitless opportunities these could provide when placed in the right hands. Though this perspective was always tempered with a keen awareness of its ability to fall off the other way; into the death and aseptic decay envisaged long before Kraftwerk even came into being by Fritz Lang in his great Meisterwerk – itself a primary influence in the construction of Die Mensch-Maschine. We’re now approaching 2026 – the year in which Metropolis was supposedly set – and we’re seemingly none too far off the grim dystopia the Austrian-American himself had feared. We’re governed by distant omnipotents; our interests presided over by remote oligarchs. The welfare of the country itself is dictated by the rich in their monolithic glasshouses, some of which glint in the Thames all about the Tate. Class divide has never been starker, and as the continuing technological revolution beside which we live our lives grows forever darker a Computer World has maybe never been so imminent. From the seems of things, it’s not one we should so blindly long to inhabit either and though the frozen few in desperate anticipation of returns – what still appears a drastically futile hope, even five nights in – would maybe beg to differ, what we’re in need of now is compassion. Human compassion.
Astonishingly, Ralf Hütter and his rejigged Kraftwerk somehow provided just that and even though the music inevitably subsides after two nonstop hours, The Robots are perpetuating their living legacy one night at a time…