Kraftwerk Live At The Tate: Modern Music Lives In Their Shadow

Bloody weather. Bloody recession. Bloody Findus. Thank Christ for Kraftwerk...
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Bloody weather. Bloody recession. Bloody Findus. Thank Christ for Kraftwerk...


How good can a bunch of ageing Germans playing old music in an art gallery be? Surprisingly, Ralph Hutter and his trio of sidekicks have hit upon something not like any gig you have ever been to, but definitely one of the best things you have ever seen.

Back in the 1960s, the original Kraftwerk made what is now referred to as ‘Krautrock’ - funky, inventive, proggy but punk music that didn’t fit the blues template developed in the UK and America during at the same time. After three albums Kraftwerk (literally: Power Station) decided to ditch instruments and develop completely electronic music.

The first subsequent album, Autobahn, was released in 1974 and eventually prompted the group to renounce their original non-electronic records (but you should still listen to them as they are really quite good) to develop those electronic sounds. Kraftwerk wrote the book on electronic music and many have followed - Bowie’s late 1970s experiments, post-punk, hip-hop, techno, rave, dubstep, whatever - all movements that developed Kraftwerk’s sound and approach. Music today lives in their shadow. David Guetta and Diplo would be emptying our bins if it was not for Kraftwerk.

Tonight, Kraftwerk perform Autobahn in the Tate Modern - the perfect setting as it is a former power station - to a set of drooling fans of a certain age wearing 3D glasses to catch the quirky visuals the band have in store.

From the off, it’s clear that this is something special. The setting, the anticipation, the clamour for tickets that annoyed and infuriated so many create definite tension. We are the lucky ones - will it be any good? Opener ‘The Robots’ immediately dispels this tension with a slightly souped-up sound against twee and rather gentle 3D visuals. It’s not really good. It’s fucking brilliant.

Onto the set piece for the night - the whole of the Autobahn album, starting with the 20-minute ‘Autobahn’ with visuals apparently culled from an ultra-twee version of the old arcade game OutRun. This is not a criticism - the visuals are the perfect accompaniment for the romantic, whimsical and beguiling music first composed almost 40 years ago.

Instead of driving a Ferrari, we watch VW Beetles and classic Mercs pass us and can see the factories of Dusseldorf in the distance. On one level they are the worst visuals I have ever seen. On another level, the visuals match the music so perfectly that the combination produce something more delightful than eating a Mary Berry cake during the best sunrise Ibiza has to offer and put the audience immediately into their Happy Place.

When we reach the barnstorming "Kometenmelodie 2" from Autobahn, the spell is complete and a look behind me reveals the demented, satisfied grins on those in attendance. Something remarkable is happening.

Particularly through the earlier pieces, it’s suddenly clear that Kraftwerk managed to make quintessentially English music - as if Oliver Postgate had been in charge of the Radiophonic Workshop. Happy, charming, wonderful music that you wish you could have playing in your head always.


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Before ‘Autobahn’ there had been electronic albums, but they tended to be overtly odd or experimental. The single exception is the troubled Joe Meek’s 1960 masterpiece ‘I Hear A New World’ that was only partially released at the time. Meek went onto produce ‘Telstar’, for many years the biggest selling single ever and turn down the Beatles before going on to kill his landlady and then himself as he battled his demons.

A few years later in Germany, Kraftwerk took many of the same ideas - outer space, romance, whimsy - but developed a sound that evolved over a series of magnificent albums. Meek’s legacy is tied into many brilliant singles and his most unfortunate death.

Tonight, the sound moves from the whimsy and romanticism of the 1970s albums to the more clinical electronica of the 1980s. In their classic tunes, Kraftwerk could not go in for the electronic equivalent of a mad guitar solo - synthesisers were too subtle. So Hutter and co had to develop melodies, and became masters of the bassline. From Radioactivity to Trance Europe Express to The Model to Tour De France to Numbers, the elegance and power of the music comes through and completely holds up.

Some pieces have been tweaked or re-worked slightly from the originals, like a beefed-up Radioactivity. Radioactivity also referenced modern-day nuclear hotspots like Fukishima and our own Sellafield. Kraftwerk were commenting on the way we live our lives as well as co-opting the mechanics of the modern world as the beat behind the songs - automobiles, computers, geiger counters, rail travel, cycling, the heartbeat of love. All themes making it to 2013 unscathed and they remain not just relevant but compelling.

Ralf Hutter, the last man standing from the original Kraftwerk, is an enigmatic man. Cycling fanatic, inventor of electronic music, renaissance man and genius. To be cynical, you could say he’s re-peddling the glories of past decades.

Even if that’s were true, he can peddle it 24/7 and I’ll still be wanting more. Kraftwerk are incredible and it was one of the best musical nights of my life.