14 February 2013
What else can be said about Kraftwerk that hasn’t already been said this past fortnight? Their eight night retrospective residency at the Tate Modern has barely been out of the news, lauded with unanimous critical praise that dutifully matches the much publicised fervour that caused the Tate website to crash almost instantly when tickets went on sale. It would be churlish to wax lyrical for the duration of this piece about the influence Kraftwerk has had on contemporary music; it’s a self-evident truth that modern dance, hip-hop and pop simply wouldn’t exist as they do without their legacy. Indeed, it’s perfectly legitimate to propose that Kraftwerk have had a much wider reaching impact on modern music than The Beatles.
With this in mind let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment here… the concept of playing an album in its entirety is not exactly new, and this is the third time Kraftwerk have performed a museum residency (having already done so at New York’s MoMA last spring and in Dusseldorf earlier this year). Also isn’t the fact the gigs are all in 3D a bit of a gimmick? So what is that makes these Tate Modern shows so spell bending, so unique? The fact of the matter is that Kraftwerk are ambiguous, suggestive and moreover influential – like all the best art, modern or not. They have always been more than a mere sum of their musical, visual and stylistic parts. There is a knowingly playful synergy by staging these Tate performances because the band instantly become performance art by virtue of their context.
I’m fully aware how important context is to lone founding member Ralf Hütter. Having seen the band twice before, once in a Stalinist steel factory in Poland and at the Manchester Velodrome accompanied by the UK Olympic team doing laps during the musical ode to cycling that is ‘Tour De France’. Let’s also not forget that the Tate Modern is a decommissioned power station, and ‘Kraftwerk’ in German means, you guessed it, power station!
They kick start tonight’s proceedings by wasting no time in performing 1986’s ‘Techno Pop’ (originally called ‘Electric Café’ before a post-millennial re-branding exercise) practically in sequence, getting through it in the first half hour. An often undervalued album, what really comes through is the way they are able to reinterpret the material live. This is specifically apparent during ‘The Telephone Call’, which originally worked as the vocal led pop fulcrum of the album, whereas tonight it is an experimental instrumental. Delving into their back catalogue headfirst with ‘Autobahn’ what becomes apparent is the unprecedented weight the 3D effects add to their inimitable visual identity. The reimagining of ‘Radioactivity’ as a staunchly anti-nuclear energy song has caused something of a stir amongst critics but altering the lyrics to reference Fukushima and by singing half the verses in Japanese has kept the song vibrant, relevant & timely. Although Kraftwerk do up to a point exist in a hermetically sealed time capsule it is these subtle changes that make the largest impact.
Playing the lion’s share of both seminal albums ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Computer World’ back to back is, quite frankly, a dream come true and it is at here that the pure technically of the concerts comes to the fore. From a sound design perspective you are very unlikely to ever experience anything to rival these performances. The 360 degree rig is perfectly nuanced and crisp as exemplified through the opening beats of ‘Spacelab’ which spin round the room in perfect balance. During ‘The Man Machine’ the bass booms back, presumably using the back half of the turbine hall as a natural subwoofer. It’s like going from mono to stereo and sets a whole new bar for live sound production, especially as it could have so easily been a muddy and echoey mix lost in the height of the tall ceiling.
Kraftwerk as an entity has always been equally about concept as execution and six nights in to the residency there’s one thing that all parties can be agreed upon – Kraftwerk are quite simply peerless. If only they were a permanent installation…
Images by Peter Boettcher
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