Live Review: Kraftwerk
Venue: New Theatre, Oxford, UK
Date: 6th June 2017
“The comment that Kraftwerk are more influential, more important, more beautiful than The Beatles could ever be is becoming less and less odd, and more and more exactly we always thought it would be: the truth.” These are the opening words taken from the outstanding documentary ‘Kraftwerk: Pop Art’ uttered by the much-revered music journalist Paul Morley. Surely not we hear you cry, The Beatles are pop music, right? Well, let’s not take anything away from the Fab-Four but when you take a moment to plug your brain into Kraftwerk’s digital mainframe, it’s evident their lineage splinters far and wide. Like digital secret agents, the German innovators have permeated almost every essence of pop music since their formation in 1969; from inspiring new wave groups like Depeche Mode, being chopped up and sampled in the early days of hip-hop and then creating the cornerstone of modern pop; our musical landscape would be very different if Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider hadn’t crossed paths in Dusseldorf all those years ago.
Tonight, the anticipation in the air is palpable; WWPSM,
prior to the 2-hour sprawling set of synth-pop experimentalism, are informed by
a fellow attendee that they’ve been waiting 35 years to see Kraftwerk. To say
this chap was excited would be understatement. We didn’t have the heart to tell
him that he’s been waiting to see the German innovators for as long as we’ve
been alive. This just typifies the reach Kraftwerk have, they’ve not released
an album in 14 years but they can easily sell out venues across the world in
the blink of an eye plus the expectation of witnessing one of the forbearers of
modern pop is, quite frankly mind frazzling.
This isn’t your normal gig though; Kraftwerk have brought their 3D spectacular to Oxford – a show that is part art installation, part musical masterclass. The juxtaposition of seeing the pop modernisers in the quaint surroundings of Oxford’s New Theatre versus the futuristic digital soundscapes on stage just adds to the show’s charm. With the pulsing, rigid electro coming from the venue’s stage, it feels like we should be in a disused warehouse or an austere industrial setting. Given that it’s an all seated affair carries another oddity; many punters fidget in their chairs and bob their heads along with the studious funk of Kraftwerk but you get the feeling most in attendance would happily stand so they could bust out some awkward moves.
The three-dimensional experience amalgamated with Kraftwerk’s timeless electro-pop makes for a perfect marriage; the set commences with ‘Numbers’ – all jittering circuit-bending rhythms and flitting electronics, while digits leap out from the screen behind the sonic scientists on stage. As you would expect, all in attendance are wearing 3D specs, so the visuals quite literally get in your face. ‘Autobahn’ plonks you right onto a German highway with a Mercedes cruising along at a leisurely pace, while ‘Spacelab’ culminates with the nice touch of an augmented UFO landing outside the New Theatre – something the group do for every venue they grace on their 3D spectacular. ‘Geiger Counter/Radioactivity’s mechanical tones have the menacing backdrop of a warped radioactivity warning sign – that also projects the names of several nuclear disaster sites, namely Sellafield, Fukushima and Chernobyl. These glimpses of past tragedies are given an even more relevant twist when you consider the recent war of words between the USA and North Korea about the possible use of atomic weapons. It’s not all glimpses of the future-past and threat of global annihilation though, ‘The Model’s wafting synths and steadfast beats are accompanied by black and white clips of elegant women from days gone by. Life often imitates art with ‘Metal on Metal’ sounding like digital iron girders rubbing on one another and ‘Trans Europe Express’s impeccable, jerky motorik rhythms invoke notions of train travel through the binary landscapes of a Tron-like digital-verse. This is all matched by the monochrome visuals of a locomotive with TEE emblazoned across its nose.
Over the years, Kraftwerk have shied away from public life, rarely giving interviews and when it comes to publicity photoshoots, they just send their robot selves to do their bidding. Their mechanical doppelgangers make an appearance during the most apt song for Kraftwerk: ‘The Robots’. Taken from seminal record ‘The Man Machine’ the iconic track is given a frantic re-wiring as it takes on a new danceable, techno-infused lease of life. The flawless showcase of pop and art is brought to a close by the triple header of ‘Boing Boom Tschak/Techno Pop/Musique Non Stop’ and it’s at this point we realise (as if it needs to be said) we’ve been in the presence of greatness.
Without sounding gushing, tonight was a revelation and one we’ll never forget – witnessing Kraftwerk as an audio-visual extravaganza was something we thought would never happen – it was truly an honour. WE ARE THE ROBOTS.
Photography by Naomi Abbs