“Out of petrol”: Kraftwerk på Cirkus

After taking an eternity to write my review of Animal Collective live in concert, I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf and get snappy. So, without further ado, some words and pictures from last week’s Kraftwerk gig at Cirkus in Stockholm.

My first impression when we arrived at Cirkus, a kind of ‘theatre-in-the-round’ venue that did indeed start out as a circus, was that we were clearly among the youngest punters at the gig. As we stood and sipped our päron cider and watched wave after wave of middle-aged gents arriving, some of them embarrassingly boisterously, it became clear that not only was the average age of the audience around 50, but that they were overwhelmingly male, with the exception of those who had dragged their partners along. Guilty!

As the gig had been billed as a 3D experience, I was not at all surprised to be handed a pair of 3D glasses as I entered the auditorium, although I was slightly disappointed to see that the glass frames were made of cardboard. At the very least, they fitted easily over my actual glasses, and we settled into our seats (quite high up, and partly obscured by a pole but still okay) and waited for the show to start.

I had mixed feelings about seeing Kraftwerk for the first time. I don’t need to go into the history of the band, or the significance of the music, because Kraftwerk have become so omnipresent in our musical consciousness. Their influence on any number of genres — try electronica, trance, hip-hop, rap, ambient, rave or the New Romantics for a start — has been staggering. Nevertheless I’d never seen them, and wasn’t sure I wanted to anymore.

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of their middle-period works — Computer World is one of my favourite albums of all time — but I’m not here to rant on in a purist manner about when they were good: Kraftwerk have always been good, and it seems that they’ve been on one perpetual tour for the past decade celebrating that legacy.

In fact, when I checked their Wikipedia page to find out about their 3D show, I discovered that they’d performed pretty much the same set, in the same format, exactly ten years ago in Stockholm. So, while the live experience was new for me, the band was not. Crucially, however, the only cues I had in terms of what to expect from the performance visually came from Kraftwerk’s album covers.

Kraftwerk album cover art montage
Kraftwerk album cover montage, courtesy of Google Images.

When the band came onstage and launched into ‘The Robots’, I fell in love with them all over again. On the screen behind the four synthesiser-playing band members — of whom only Ralf Hütter is an original member — their 3D-puppet counterparts twirled in an elegantly retro way, their plastic arms seeming to elongate and reach out into the crowd as they turned.

Why bother focusing on the details? To put it bluntly, the first half of the set was (excuse me) an astonishing tour-de-force, with the band playing one drop-dead classic after another: ‘Metropolis’, ‘The Model’, ‘Numbers’, ‘Computer World’, ‘Computer Love’, ‘Spacelab’, ‘Neon Lights’. In a nutshell: bam, bam, bam-ba-lam.

I say ‘astonishing’ partly because I’d forgotten how good these songs are: the simple elegance of the synthesiser line in ‘The Model’ (sung tonight in its original German); the visionary statement on surveillance and monitoring that is ‘Computer World'; the hilariously sleazy re-interpretation of ‘Computer Love’ with pulsing day-glo soundwave visuals; the eye-popping matrices of ‘Numbers'; the 3D satellite that almost punctures your face as it bursts out of the screen in the simply glorious ‘Spacelab’.

By the time we got to ‘Autobahn’, I was almost fist-pumping the air with joy. However, as the iconic visuals, based on the album cover, came into view, I felt a slight twinge of embarrassment: an old-school Volkswagen trundled onto the screen, and all of a sudden we were in a Fisher Price version of Kraftwerk’s world: the audience was forced to endure several excruciating moments in which their memories of the song — and let’s face it, ‘Autobahn’ is Kraftwerk’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — were shredded and then incinerated by way of an execrable and just mind-numbingly dumb series of visual images (think an oversized hand twiddling a knob searching for radio stations, and small musical notation icons coming out and you’re halfway there) the brown-out illusion of which was only broken when the four synthesisers suffered the first of the night’s two actual brownouts, and the music stopped.

Whoever the brainiac was who suggested this visual representation for ‘Autobahn’, which would have been deemed ‘too basic’ even for an iPad app designed for infants, needs a good slapping. It was atrocious, even in 3D. In fact, maybe it’s because it was in 3D that it looked so bad. Whatever the reason, this was the moment when nostalgic affection came face-to-face with cringe. I’m sad to say that cringe won and no, I did not take a facking picture.

But back to the brownout. Despite what I’ve just written about the visuals, the meltdown of the computer system (and let’s be fair here: the amount of processing power required to run four dudes’ synths, a light show and a 3D experience is probably just a little on the excessive side) provided the band with an opportunity to improvise.

I mean, given that Kraftwerk is basically restricted to a finite palette of regimented synth and drum-machine routines, not to mention the extremely limited vocal options available to whoever has been stumped with vocoder duties within individual songs, I often wonder whether Hütter and company ever feel the need to bust out, do a few vocal runs or whatever — you know, make shit up.

Here was an opportunity to do just that. The auditorium fell silent. Several seconds of dead air followed. Then, finally, Hütter spoke.

“Out of petrol,” he intoned.

Again, to be fair to the guy, he’d probably just pressed some kind of big red emergency ‘reboot’ knob on his glistening panel of knobs and switches and was waiting for it to kick in, but I expected more. If this had been an old episode of Doctor Who, and said line had been delivered by Davros, it would have brought the house down. Ha ha, out of petrol, ja!!! However, this being a Kraftwerk concert, it just sounded tired. To top it off, we then had to ensure the rest of the visual abomination that was ‘Autobahn’, even if the setlist describes it as the ‘short’ version. Perhaps that’s the real joke.

Things took an upward turn for ‘Tour de France’, which I have to admit I’d never really paid a great deal of attention to before now but which does actually shred in concert. Hütter, who quite possibly does have a sense of humour, daringly choosing to speak to the audience for the second time in ten minutes, must have felt a rush of blood to the head.

‘And now we travel by bike,’ he quipped, launching into a funky suite of inter-related pieces that actually does work very well, and perhaps hoping that switching to an analogue-based, cycling-themed song would reduce the risk of embarrassment. The tactic obviously worked. It rocked.

‘Radioactivity’ followed, its moving reimagining name-checking Fukishima, and performed, as far as I could tell, in Japanese. However, the night’s second synth meltdown put an end to any kind of atmospherics or political message the song may have generated, and I was left feeling slightly sorry for the band. To their credit, at least they didn’t try to cover the crash with a third vocal witticism.

It was then left to ‘Trans Europe Express’ to ‘bring us home’, as we say in the industry, and boy oh boy did it deliver. From the slightly sinister black-and-white visuals — see guys, how hard is it to stick to the facking basics — to the beat-box styled drums and synth rushes, ‘T.E.E.’ still lords it over everything that came before, during, around and after, full-stop.

Basically, I would have been happy if the concert ended there. I had no appetite for any of their ‘new’ stuff. Therefore, the next forty-five minutes or so was completely wasted on me, as the band ran through some more ‘contemporary’ numbers and basically proved that their original appeal — which was grounded in minimalism, repetition and understatement — could indeed be bludgeoned into the ground.

By the time we got to a song about vitamins in which Hütter’s maudlin voice barked ‘A, B, C, D … Vitamins!’ I’d had enough. It seemed to me as if almost any human experience could be ‘werked’. I began to speculate about a future Kraftwerk album, let’s call it Domestik, in which the band run through their daily routines in songs with titles like ‘Früstück!’, ‘Shower’, ‘Pay the Bills’, ‘Treadmill’, ‘Walking My Dog’, ‘Daytime TV (Soaps)’, ‘Shopping’, ‘Dishes’ and ‘Sleep’, with scratch-and-sniff visuals to match.

Sleep was very much on my mind as the concert ended, and thankfully it was not too long before we were outside the venue, waiting a the tram stop in the snow for the last tram of the night to arrive. The same crowd of 50-something guys got on and we trundled back to T-Centralen, from where we were then able to catch a T-bana home.

The next day I found the 3D glasses in my jacket pocket and avoided the temptation to put them on. Two hours was more than enough time in which to see the world through Kraftwerk’s eyes. While I will always remain thankful for the experience, from now on I think I’ll spend more time looking around me.

More than decade ago, at a time when Kraftwerk were just starting to go retrospective, I was visiting Germany for the first time. There’s still so much more in the world to discover. As with my AnCo post, hopefully writing this out of my system will help me move, once again, into unfamiliar territory. Ironically enough, my favourite quote of Hütter’s sums it up pretty well: ‘Sit on the rails and ch-ch ch-ch-ch. Just keep going.’

Ch-ch, ch-ch indeed — and a woo-hooooo.

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