It was probably something to do with the 3D glasses – handed out in cute litte Autobahn envelopes – that made people assume that cinema conventions would apply. In other words, there was little rushing to the front. Instead, Kraftwerk fans found a likely spot on which to place their cushions (yes, they were handed out too) and waited. But as it turns out, from the barrier, it all worked just as well. An enormous impassive robot lurched out from the screen, seemingly so close to Ralf Hütter, that it took a feat of immense communal restraint not to shout, “BEHIND YOU!” From thereon in, the cushions weren’t needed. A mostly standing audience of mostly men, mostly with no hair, mostly nodding appreciatively, must have looked, from the vast roof of the Turbine Hall, mostly like a gently vibrating plate of beans on toast. This first of eight shows – each devoted to one album in “The Catalogue” – started with Autobahn. It wasn’t the first album to appear under the Kraftwerk imprint, of course, but it was the first in which Kraftwerk marked out their conceptual territory – territory which 38 years after the release of that record – still informs everything they do. This marking out of conceptual territory also explains the switchboard-melting, website-crashing response that greeted the announcement of these shows. It’s just Hütter left from the “classic” lineup now – dressed in customary, grid-lined body-suit (a Tron-sie, if you will) – but the clamour for tickets suggests there’s some truth in his assertion that he and his colleagues are “music workers” (the word “robot” comes from the Czech word for “worker”) servicing the brand.
I say “some truth” because, well… you do rather pine for the immediately recognisable profile of Hütter’s departed foil Florian Schneider silhouetted against the graphics that constantly shift behind the group at their light-framed work pods. A couple of months ago, another mainstay of the classic lineup Karl Bartos drily pointed out that he’ll be represented at the shows by the melodies that he wrote for The Robots and Computer Love. For all of the rhetoric about anonymous “music workers” though, the thing that made this feel like a Kraftwerk show was the immediately recognisable voice of Ralf Hütter – palpably the same slightly nasal timbre that drily referenced The Beach Boys’ Fun Fun Fun when he sang “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n/Auf der autobahn.” It was the same Ralf Hütter at the Turbine Hall who sang into his mouthpiece, eyes closed with something disconcertingly close to emotion, as he played the extended arpeggiating coda of Kraftwerk’s most iconic song.
In a micro-world set out as deliberately as this one, certain details were inescapably curious. There had always been a backward-glancing element to Kraftwerk’s futurism: the affection for constructivist fonts; the white-faced, red-lipped Man-Machine look that consciously harked back to the silent movie era; the hand-tinted, overly-posed, photoshoots used on the Trans-Europe Express sleeve. And here at The Tate, some of those elements persisted. The autobahn was almost deserted; the cars were classic German emblems of post-war optimism: an old Mercedes, an original Beetles and a VW camper. A graphic of notes emerging from an old car radio was so simple that, you half-expected the Grange Hill opening credits sausage to suddenly hove into view.
But if the visuals were a quaint throwback, it was equally clear that all the technological stops had been pulled out to push the sound into the realms of perfection. And it really was that good. Bass that seemed to enter upwards through your spine from deep beneath the ground merged with Hütter’s treacly vocoderised tones. As a globe wreathed by a revolving Kling Klang imprint hanged suspended behind Hütter and his co-workers, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert and Falk Grieffenhagen, Kometenmelodie 2 completed its ascent through the octaves to a chorus of cheers. No less affecting was the modulation from night to day represented by the shift from Mitternacht to Morgenspazierengang, complete with a rising chorus of oscillations that appeared to mimic birdsong.
If you were lucky enough to get tickets for one of these shows, but not lucky enough to secure tickets for your preferred Kraftwerk album, the good news is that you might yet hear a sizeable chunk of your first choice. Best represented of all was The Man-Machine. Unlike Spacelab – a punchy and propulsive revision of its recorded counterpart – other songs from the album stuck close to their original versions. For the visuals, quaint literalism prevailed once again. For Neon Lights, luminous signs – “Hotel Cristalli”; “nachtcafe” – appeared to float serenely around the group – accentuating this most celestial of love letters to the city at night. For The Model, Hütter looked up to face the audience for the first time as footage familiar to anyone who had seen shows over the previous decade – black and white images of screen stars from a bygone age – played out once again. If the visuals seemed to be extolling a brand of futurism had long become obsolete, the effect was compounded if you turned around to face the audience. The 3D glasses sitting on everyone’s noses weren’t the plastic ones favoured in modern cinemas. These were the old-fashioned classic cardboard-framed sort. From the group’s vantage point, it must have looked like one of those old photographs depicting cinema audiences in the 1950s stereoscopic cinema boom.
These days with Hütter, it all seems to be about “Mimimum – Maximum” approach – the process of achieving the maximum response by producing the most minimal art. In a live context, sometimes you felt that worked; other times less so. In 2013, the “Minimum – Maximum” approach has no time for anything that might seem like the merest concession to showbiz. Hence this time, there was no Pocket Calculator, the Computer World song which, as recently as 1991, would see all four members of Kraftwerk emerging from their work stations to play on their hand-held pocket calculators, even handing them over for fans in the front row to “play a little melody.” With both percussionists from the “classic” line-up long gone, the only physical exertion visible from the floor was represented by monochrome footage of cyclists negotiating mountain terrain on Tour de France. No sign, either, of the robot doppelgangers to whom Kraftwerk delegated one or two songs on The Mix tour. Boo. Elsewhere though, the “Minimum-Maximum” method yielded spectacular results. Train tracks, represented merely by white lines on black, snaked hypnotically around the screen as sleek, minimally rendered trains whizzed out of the backdrop with an efficiency that – certainly compared to deregulated chaos of British railways – assumed an unattainable beauty.
At moments like these, you were reminded why – despite having innovated themselves into paralysis – the prospect of new Kraftwerk shows inspired such a feverish response. So much of the music they chose to play tonight previewed the way we live now. It’s a point, of course, that gets made almost every time someone sets about deconstructing the appeal of this music. But there’s still something incredibly powerful about watching Ralf Hütter – now 66 – hymning a world in which people can order their love lives with the help of a computer. Lest we forget when Computer Love was released, IBM had yet to even launch the PC. Back in 1976, Radio-Activity brought a similar prescience to bear upon Kraftwerk’s music: portended the supremacy of wireless communication. It’s perhaps a shame that, post-1991, that the same song has had its horizons narrowed with the section that lists nuclear power’s rollcall of infamy (“Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima”). For all of that, the 2013 live version was truly breathtaking, billowing out demonically from a tough, terrifying acceleration of a beats, into a sinister fug which more closely mirrored the song’s original arrangement and, finally, stepping up the beats to an outright funk.
If Hütter had been at all burdened by the weight of expectation, it only showed at the very end, when he let forth something like a smile of relief for Boing Boom Tschak. One by one, during Music Non Stop, his co-workers departed their stations and bowed. As they did so, Hütter could be seen doing something dangerously close to a dance. When it was his turn to take a bow, he did so with a “Goodnight. Auf Wiedersehen. See you tomorrow.” After an evening in Kraftwerk’s world, the lights went up, we left and realised that, actually, we were still in Kraftwerk’s world. That, as much as anything we saw in during the previous two hours, was the measure of their achievement.