I love Kraftwerk. When I was 12 years old and the most fanatical Gary Numan fan in Salisbury, I would study interviews with Numan in Smash Hits in which he would expound at length on his many “influences”. After Bowie (whom I have never really “got” to this day, to tell the truth) and John Foxx-era Ultravox! (whom I have very much “got” in recent years), the third often-cited Numan influence was Kraftwerk, a name that sounded impossibly mysterious and glamorous to me at the time.
On one of my occasional visits to Southampton (for an account of a later one, and another initial encounter with a German group, see here), I shelled out my pocket money on what was then still the most recent Kraftwerk LP, The Man Machine. The cover, of course, reinforced the sense of mystery and glamour that had so seduced me in the group’s name: these four white-faced men of indeterminate age, neatly dressed in matching red shirts and black ties, gazed to the right in a pose of strength and heroism, while the bold and multilingual lettering conjured an equally beguiling image of Soviet-era iconography. The music, meanwhile, was like nothing I had ever heard before. Glistening, precise and oddly moving, it put Numan’s more popwise constructions firmly in their place.
The following year, Kraftwerk emerged with a new LP, Computer World, a highly appropriate release given that the first home computers were then making inroads into people’s lives. And the group toured the album, even coming to the Southampton Gaumont, but sadly I was too young to attend. I recall Smash Hits explaining how rare and special Kraftwerk concerts were, since the group were effectively dismantling their Kling Klang studio and bringing it on tour with them. As a meagre consolation prize, I was in Threshold Records in Andover one day (a record shop, I am now astonished to learn, that was owned by the Moody Blues – a fact which would account for the fact that their picture was prominently displayed on the shop’s bags) and walked out with reams and reams of fake, promotional green and white computer printer paper with the Computer World logo on it, which I plastered all over my bedroom wall.
It would be another ten years before I did finally pin Kraftwerk down live, at the Brixton Academy on the Mix tour. A few years ago I caught them again at the Royal Festival Hall, by which time they had pared down their stage set considerably, with the banks of keyboards replaced by a very minimal laptop-based setup. Last week’s concert at Wiesen (part of a dance music festival so shoddy and unpleasant that I refuse even to mention it by name) was more or less a shortened version of that Minimum-Maximum set, with the music enriched by a stunningly effective multimedia show. Stunning in its simplicity, that is, since Kraftwerk instinctively realise the power of straightforward and unadorned imagery as an accompaniment to the steely beauty of this music.
For beauty is what Kraftwerk music aspires to and reaches. The vocals and melodies are precise, clipped and serene; they go exactly where they need to go, and no further. There’s a strangely haunting, sinister quality to a song like “Radioactivity”, the stately tune of which sounds like a romantic paean to the slow death of mankind. There’s an uncanny humour to much of the set – case in point: “The Robots”, with the delightful and laugh-out-loud funny appearance of the titular androids. And Kraftwerk are, of course, utterly thrilled by the idea of motion. Whether serenading the autobahn, the express train or the bicycle, there’s an ongoing fascination with the liberating possibilities of travel. Uniting past, current and future technologies in their tender embrace, Kraftwerk sing of worlds we know and worlds we wish we knew.