Kraftwerk – men and machines

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On Thursday 2nd July my colleague David Pattie, my friend Jon and I descended on the Manchester Velodrome to see a set by the electro-pop legends, Kraftwerk. With only Ralf Hutter left from the original line-up, they still managed to put on an amazing “performance” – I put the term in speechmarks because with Kraftwerk, you just see four men standing at lecturns clicking away on their laptops. They look like they might be aboard the Starship Enterprize as they call up samples and create their pioneering brand of electronic dance music.

Kraftwerk have always faced a dilemma when playing “live”: how can such calculated, pre-programmed music also seem spontaneous? They managed to keep the show successfully afloat with several integral gimmicks, the first being the British Olympic team who zipped round the track for ‘Tour de France’ and added a physicality to the portrayal of gender. Then they wheeled out the dummies (dummies were more performative than they were!). Finally the audience donned 3D glasses for a grand finale.

The group wore dull or “networked” suits for the whole show and – along with some computer animation behind them – audience members were asked in effect to focus squarely on their heads. This, after all, is head-led music. I therefore found myself wondering what I was seeing. As Ralf Hutter gestured to speak out his vocals, was it worth getting a closer look? It was as if the smallest traces of their bodily performance – the tap of a foot here, the shifting of an elbow there – revealed that they were feeling and thus humanly making them music. Their slightly moving bodies gave away clues that they were feeling their form of music into being, and that notion humanized the event. Meanwhile it was clear that artists like Daft Punk and Squarepusher have now taken the thrillride into digital futurism much further than the German four piece, and yet nobody cared. As Ralf Hutter anonymously shuffled back on the shuttle to Dusseldorf, perhaps he was feeling fine with the idea that Kraftwerk are now an object of retro-tech nostalgia.