Darkness is beginning to cling to the outside of the Tate Modern, yet a queue stretches along its facade, clinging to the wall then dissipating by the far corner. It’s cold – extremely cold – yet still people wait in the vain hope that someone might return their Kraftwerk ticket and allow them entry.
It’s a strange, puritanical logic which has led people here. But then, Kraftwerk were always about strange feats of logic, the slicing away of human emotions to reveal the machinery with which we construct our everyday lives.
Performing an eight night stint at the Tate Modern, tonight belongs to ‘Computer World’. Released in 1981, the album marks the band’s commercial apex (it falls immediately after the global success of ‘The Model’) and finds Kraftwerk responding to a world which was rapidly catching up with them.
So, with 3D glasses stretched around our heads, we troop into the belly of the Tate to find exactly what the German auteurs have in store for us. Emerging onstage, the current edition of Kraftwerk forego with the previous nights’ routine – an introductory pre-amble based on their back catalogue – to plunge almost straight into the classic album.
It’s a typically logical decision. One of the shortest albums in Kraftwerk’s discography, it is given the space to breath by divorcing it from the back catalogue. ‘Computer World’ is heavy, with the quartet wringing out every millimetre of the track’s proto-techno sonics. ‘Pocket Calculator’ has some cute, humane moments, with the dramatic 3D visuals pared back to reveal a basic school calculator while a crudely animated finger pokes at the digits.
‘Numbers’ is all intense electro-funk, a shuffling yet static reminder of just why Kraftwerk were so revered in those early hip hop years. ‘Computer Love’ veers into the group’s softer tones, an almost perverse, Ballard-esque hymn to technology’s ability to solve affairs of the heart. ‘Home Computer’ is a dense soliloquy to the family unit as a machine, before ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’ once again finds Kraftwerk indulging in a cheeky, mechanised wink to the audience.
Then it’s over. Taken as a whole, ‘Computer World’ feels at once Futuristic and faintly antiquated. The sudden rush of technology – the emergence of the home computer, the birth of government controlled data capture – is familiar, but the actual machinery has been usurped. There is a retro-Futuristic edge to proceedings, even down to the animation, with Kraftwerk seeming to revel in exploring recollections of potential Futures.
Which brings us to a ‘Greatest Hits’ show. One of the most fantastic, thrilling aspects of Kraftwerk’s career is the lack of a relevant parallel in rock history. The band are Elvis, Beatles, Dylan combined – not only did they lay down the lexicon of electronic music, but Kraftwerk invented the sounds by which this language might be explored. ‘Autobahn’ draws breathless cheers from the crowd, before ‘Radioactivity’ – and it’s repeated exhortations to nuclear power plants across Europe – extends around the vast hall.
‘Trans Europe Express’ is allowed to broaden out, slices of improvised melody sketched in between the carefully programmed structures. In fact, these additions are what impress most – when ‘The Robots’ is performed, for example, the instantly familiar refrain is cut down, staccato, machine-like but funky. ‘Tour De France’ – an always under-rated piece of Kraftwerk’s output – is allowed a prominent slot, with those wheezing synths expertly blurring the lines between man and machine, athlete and robot.
Ending with ‘Techno Pop’ the group seem to pause and reflect on their own influence. Written at a time when Kraftwerk were finally begin to find kindred minds across the globe, it’s condensed proto-techno feels minimal impossibly dense, fuelled by the passion of ideas whose time has time. That those ideas still sit on the cusp of modernity is a testament to the sheer vivid imagination of those involved.
Emerging back into the cold, it becomes almost impossible to focus on any one aspect of the show. Two hours of heavily programmed yet humane, flexible music Kraftwerk seem to have expertly re-assessed their own legacy. It’s a re-interpretation, for sure, yet a valid one - what is left is the overpowering sense of both their output and its impact, their music and its legacy. The men and the machines.