The last time I saw Kraftwerk in 2009 was in a field in some godforsaken corner of Burgenland. Since then, the group – and in particular Ralf Hütter, who to all intents and purposes is Kraftwerk these days – have begun to adopt a more reverential and curatorial approach to their history and to live performance. The release of The Catalogue in late 2009, and the New York MoMA run in 2012, ushered in a new era for Kraftwerk, who now exist solely as a repertoire act. With no new material in the offing (and, since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, none likely to be forthcoming – which is probably just as well), Hütter seems content to revisit and repackage old material for a living, buffing and shining old songs and presenting them to new global audiences in the surroundings of a slick 3D live show. In embarking on this endeavour, he might well have had in mind his national poet Goethe’s dictum that “refashioning the fashioned/lest it stiffen into iron/is a work of endless vital activity.”
The problem, of course, is that this Kraftwerk bears little resemblance to the Kraftwerk I grew up with. It’s a matter of profound regret that only Hütter remains from the classic 1974-86 line-up of the group, leaving him and his current roster of employees to bask in the goodwill that was generated in no small part from the presence of Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. To argue, as some have tried to do, that it really doesn’t matter who is up there pressing the buttons ignores the significant contributions made by the other three members of the classic line-up to the music, the iconography (see the iconic covers of Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine) and the legend of Kraftwerk. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Hütter, who has erased all trace of his former colleagues with such Stalinist efficiency that none of the music critics currently writing about Kraftwerk even seem to be aware of the issue.
Although this historical revisionism leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, there is still much to enjoy about the current version of Kraftwerk. There are two things in particular that I really admire about this curatorial project. The first is that it firmly establishes that the Kraftwerk canon consists of the eight albums from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks. I get tired of so-called cognoscenti who bemoan the fact that Hütter excluded the first three albums from the reissue programme, as if they represent some disruptive experimental tendency that he has ruthlessly expunged from the group’s history. An artist is entitled to establish his own canon, and if Hütter wants to tell his story starting in 1974, that’s fine with me.
The other thing I like about these retrospective concerts is that they situate Kraftwerk as an art project, taking the group out of the nightclub and the muddy field and into the art gallery and the concert hall. The narrative that we hear so often of Kraftwerk’s influence on other musicians, particularly those in the techno, electro and hip-hop genres, holds no interest for me; there are other, more pressing contexts for their work. By presenting the group’s history in such extravagant audiovisual terms, in the rarefied atmospheres of MoMA, Tate Modern and now the Burgtheater, Hütter foregrounds the discourse of Kraftwerk as artists and downplays the standard, largely irrelevant tendency to view them as the “godfathers of techno”. It’s a recontextualization that makes perfect sense to me, placing Kraftwerk firmly in the lineage of pop art and minimalism.
Over the course of four evenings, then, Kraftwerk presented their eight albums in chronological order, doing two shifts per night like the workers they have always liked to portray themselves as (although it’s hard to imagine anyone else going to work in those glow-in-the-dark neoprene suits). I saw the first five of the eight shows, choosing to skip the last three on the basis of the alarming drop in quality that happened between Computer World and Electric Café. Each show’s album run-through was followed by a generously timed greatest hits set. In fact the group often seemed keen to dispatch the relevant album as quickly as possible, with the album polished off in the first 25 minutes or so of the 110-minute show. There were occasional setlist variations, with some songs present at every show and others having to fight for their place. Lesser known tunes like “Kometenmelodie 2” and “Airwaves” achieved instant classic status, although the keenly awaited “Europe Endless” disappointed because its visuals (some dull abstract patterns) were so uninspired. Undoubtedly the biggest treat came at the end of the Man Machine show, which saw “Aerodynamik” and the rarely heard “Planet of Visions” played as encores.
I’d never been to the Burgtheater before, and it was just as splendid a venue as I’d expected it to be, with crystal clear sound and perfect 3D visuals even in the cheap seats. My only gripe concerned the view from the seats at the back of the lower circle. I’d plumped for this circle for The Man Machine and Computer World, my two favourite Kraftwerk albums, but was dismayed to discover when we took our seats that, due to the overhang from the upper circle above, our view of the top half of the screen was completely obscured. Fortunately we were able to move forward and sit on the stairs for the duration of the show, thereby obtaining a perfect uninterrupted view. I was, frankly, astonished that the ushers allowed us to stay there; in London we’d have been steered back to our seats in the name of health and safety before you could say “boing boom tschak”.
The passing of the years can’t rob Kraftwerk’s music of its unearthly, crystalline beauty; it still sounds impossibly smart, funny and wise (although – sorry, Germans and Austrians – the lyrics definitely sound much better in English). The repeated melodic phrases, classical harmonies and insistent mechanical rhythms fuse to form a fresh, distinctively modern take on minimalism. The onscreen imagery, meanwhile, forms a persuasive visual complement to the music, its dry humour and beguiling simplicity making explicit the connections between Kraftwerk and pop art.
“In Vienna we sit in a late-night café”, sang Hütter in 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express”, one of Kraftwerk’s few lyrical references to a real place in the world. And if I’m not at home, there’s very few places I’d rather be than a café in Vienna. But rather than any one place, Kraftwerk’s home is the world itself, its distances melted away by car, train, bicycle and computer, the “I” slowly becoming “we”.