Kraftwerk’s Kinderspiel

 

Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tate Modern

Kraftwerk are serious. Serious music fans listen to them on seriously expensive headphones, alone, wearing dark clothes. These fans are mostly balding men in polo-necked jumpers; the kind of men who walk around the Barbican in good strong shoes. Kraftwerk’s beats are metal on metal. Their basslines are radioactive. They live in a place called Kling Klang castle. They probably eat umlauts for breakfast using forks made from pylons. Ralf Hütter, the singer and only remaining member of the original line-up, is so serious he replaced the other three with “music workers” – sound engineers in National Grid wetsuits. He probably speaks to them in JavaScript these days.

So when Kraftwerk (Deutsch für “power plant”) perform this series of retrospective concerts inside, err, an old power plant, you don’t exactly expect candyfloss and backflips. You are handed a neat black Tate cushion to mitigate the cold hard Turbine Hall floor, should you choose to sit down, and a pair of 3D glasses, the proper cardboard ones from velvet-lined cinemas of yore. You shuffle quietly across the concrete, trying not to grin. You do not jostle for a good view, you politely find your chosen spot, like it’s Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds up there on the stage not the entrance to a giant, thrilling kaleidoscope of sound and vision. Yet soon enough it’s 1,250 shades of neon for this luckiest of crowds, some of whom battled a serious three hours of computer hate for these Wonka-like hot tickets.

Kraftwerk are the inventors of electronic music, the men who brought the world synthesisers, who inspired everyone in modern music from David Bowie to Afrika Bambaataa. But, during their eight-night residency at Tate Modern in London, they do not let these quirks of pop culture weigh them down. They are playful, cartoonish even. Their huge Orwellian screen, which spans the width of the Turbine Hall, emits not blasts of Fascist rhetoric, but dancing musical notes which bob and play through the air before our 3D-bespectacled eyes. During Autobahn the graphics recall 1980s computer game OutRun, which gave me RSI when I was 12:


In other words, Kraftwerk’s stunning visual live show—with its neon lights, floating spacelabs, waving robots, Sega road trips and retro Numberjacks—is child’s play. This whole experience is an inverted Emperor’s New Clothes: we look for stark greys and stylish minimalism, but actually find rainbows and childishly literal technicolor imagery. This is a futurism we all know from our past and, for many of us, contains strong whiffs of the teenage/childhood stuff (computer games, 80s movies, Etch-a-Sketch) we are getting to experience again through our own (possibly brainwashed) offspring. Serious men, leave your Joy Division frowns at the door. Nina and the Neurons step this way, mind the Scalextric.

This residency, minimally labelled The Catalogue 1-8, was billed as a methodical journey through Kraftwerk’s seminal albums – but it’s not even particular methodical. And that’s not a criticism. The set darts from hit to hit, delighting the awe-struck crowd with classics like The Model (yes, featuring a model in billowing gown) and Computer Love (you guessed it, featuring a Sinclair-esque computer monitor). 1977’s Trans Europe Express, on vinyl a serious metallic affair, is coquettishly flipped so that we hear side B first, illustrated with zooming trains which lurch out of the screen and over our heads. The only heavy moment, where you might consider covering your 10-year-old’s eyes, comes during Radio-Activity with Fukushima, the scene of Japan’s most recent nuclear disaster, added to Hiroshima and Sellafield as the lyrics boom out in Japanese.

Kraftwerk’s music soundtracks the future we imagined when we were young, some of it dark and worrying, most of it jet-packed and dazzling, which is why this most sought-after adult show would work just as well in the Science Museum, with an audience of primary school kids waving glow sticks. Which other band formed 40 years ago can say that?

Anna Doble

A version of this article was first published at culturekicks.co.uk

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