It's always fun reading some Oxbridge educated music journalist wildly flapping at a definition of what fuels Kraftwerk enduring appeal. Usually it's some puff like “the post industrial desensitisation of our Zeitgeist”, but for those of us in the real world it's far easier to conclude that the answer to the question is that there is no answer. Like the handful of their contemporaries (Bowie, Nick Cave, The Fall, Springsteen) who've survived into the new entertainment world with both credibility and bankability intact, they're essentially operating above the music industry, blessed with being able to largely ignore the desperate ugliness of its new commercial model.
Which is all pretty weird when you think about it. Even hard core Robotniks would be hard pushed to argue with the suggestion that the Germans haven't been anywhere near the cutting edge since 1981's Computer World and/or 1983's Tour De France, and that successive line up changes since then have rendered the idea of a “Kraftwerk” gig a figment of over forgiving imaginations.
That may be true, but the announcement of 8 concerts at the Tate Modern, under the banner of an exercise entitled the Catalogue, prompted it's very own ticketing fiasco, and if this is an event being conducted by anonymous ghosts, then no-one's told the thousand or so smug bastards in the bar tonight. The journey down from the north had been punctuated by adverse weather and multiple transport delays, leaving a sense of grinding attrition which only increased my grim sense of purpose. After waiting 30 years, I knew I was willing to do quasi Arthurian things to make this gig.
Spoiler Alert: At its simplest, this is four late middle aged bald men pissing about with laptops. In fact of the other three that aren't Ralf Hutter – as close to a frontman as Kraftwerk now get – it's difficult to fathom out what two and a half of them are actually doing. None of the quartet move from behind their suspiciously phallic looking plinths for the whole two hours, whilst live, Hutter's voice resembles an ageing feather being blown about in a breeze, tremulous and slight.
Now cynicism be off with you, because if there's one thing that sustains the German's mythos, it's an ability to make audience suspend any kind of rationality when dealing with their music. Tonight specifically focuses on The Mix, 1991's album of greatest hits reinterpreted, unanimously panned by critics and fans alike on its release. At the time with the explosion of acid house and techno filling everyone's consciousness, it seemed pedestrian, urbane, cold and de-focussed. Hindsight however has since granted it an increasingly prominent spot in their discography; the intervening years have given its flawlessness a remarkable kind of half life, one that the clunky 808 dominated world into which it was brought into can only now fantasise about.
Superlatives then? Yeah. For starters try “Perfection”, “Incredible” and “Mind Blowing” on for size. Opener “The Robots” underlines inside the first 30 seconds how they've shaped every form of electronic music since its release as part of the Man Machine in 1978 (1978, God DAMN it), relentlessly hypnotic and layered, vocoder laden and like a musical score written by C-3PO on very good ecstasy.
The circle squaring aspect of tonight is that even though the performers are inert, the 3D rendered imagery behind them is sufficiently awe inspiring to have the crowd ooh-ing like five year olds. It's the perfect ears and eyes mind fuck in fact, and as nothing's being left to chance, the sound quality is so good you can feel the audiophile bores around you melting into some kind of masturbatory Bose fug. In combination, the effect is like being dissociated from yourself, a weird form of astral projection. Then of course to bring you back to some kind of reality you realise there are the other 999 uptight middle class white people around you dancing like they're having a seizure. And so are you.
The by rote album retrospective concept is nice, if becoming dull, and as well as The Mix in its entirety the supplementary tracks conclusively wrap up almost everything (There's no Showroom Dummies) from the band's golden age. Eventually, everyone gets what they want, most notably for me anyway, a wibble inducing triptych of Spacelab, Metropolis and Neon Lights from The Man Machine, a record I covered my wall with homemade posters of on discovery in the early 80s. A 12 minute version of Autobahn manages to feel too short, if you know what I mean, whilst Radioactivity tellingly has a reference to Fukushima added to its previously archive lists of global nuclear screw ups.
The set list also includes what might be considered the obscurer fringes of the Kraftwerk canon: Numbers, two versions of Expo and the proto break core of Boing Boom Tschack. It's a minor risk sure but it's one they didn't need to take, demonstrating by doing what the audience wouldn't expect that real intellect – artificial or otherwise - has been used to configure this project. If the end is a little meek, with each of the four politely exiting stage left with Hutter inevitably last, then nobody seems to care.
You're left reflecting then that perhaps there is an answer as to why people are still so enthralled by songs about twentieth century phenomena like calculators and the combustion engine. Because everything else that appeared on nerdy gadget show forerunner Tommorrow's World in 1975 has now become a dead prototype or redundant science fact: Kraftwerk however have remained timeless, whilst they have remained as constant and aesthetically perfect as the wheel.