Kraftwerk

By Max Leonard

At around 6pm last Saturday, a large group of men started to congregate in Brixton. Aged from their early 20s into the mid 40s, they were pallid, unshaven, some balding, a large number sported parkas, and all had an unhealthy glint in their eye. Initially worried, the police took solace in the fact that many strange things are known to happen in SW9 and, in any case, it wasn't a school night. Only at around 11 the same evening, when a similar crowd again started forming did they understand: KRAFTWERK.

OK, so I exaggerate a little, but it is true of this legendary group that, as they have grown older and more reclusive, the merest flickers of life from their Düsseldorf base have occasioned a disproportionately large reaction. Saturday was, in fact, their last date in London after a small tour, the first in twelve years, and they played two shows in one night, to celebrate. For all these reasons the anticipation was palpable as we stood in the queue that snaked round the building, waiting for this final performance scheduled to start some time after midnight. The crowd was actually fairly heterogeneous, with a small but significant female presence, but judging from the sweet fug of smoke overhead, there were more than a few guys present who spend more time than is healthy in front of a Mac, with only a Casio keyboard and a drum machine for company.

Walking into the building, shoes stuck in beer slopped onto the floor during the first gig, a residue of the emotional overspill hours earlier, a pungent portent of what was to come. Then sound, light: motionless figures backlit from below behind a curtain, stiffly posturing behind control consoles, as if Captain Picard had been beamed back in time and cloned threefold… One reached over to pinch another's arse in silhouette pretence, breaking the illusion, and reminding those, who might have taken the occasion too seriously, that camp humour is indeed a part of the Kraftwerk persona and that ve are goink to haf some fun tonight, ja? Their manifesto tune, Man Machine, pumped from the speakers and the curtains pulled back to reveal the band members, founders Florian and Ralph, with their two middle-aged johnny-come-latelys, in black suits, four bald pates glowing in the reflection of the massive ZX81-style visuals, an amazing backdrop in widescreen. For despite the inhuman stillness of the four musicians this was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Expo 2000 followed, with a swooping tour of the eponymous exhibition in lurid green vectors, and then Tour de France, with lush footage of cyclists struggling up mountains and across plateaux inset into Mondrian-esque geometric patterns of red, white and blue that captured the grandeur of the race and the clean, efficient lines of the keyboards over bass and drum. All the favourite tunes were given a good airing, sounding crisp, if maybe a little too quiet. Trans Europe Express was visually the most accomplished, with buffers crashing in time to the beat, and split-screen trainspotter chic. There were costume changes too. After the first, the band re-emerged sporting flashing ties, in a kind of off-key yuletide joke. Sometimes Ralph tapped his foot while he sang; the crowd screamed at the pure excess. At the second costume change the band were replaced by a set of eerily lifelike robots. Then they returned, Tron-like, in black catsuits shot through with neon-green light and regained control, gradually increasing the tempo with a storming Vitamin and Radioactivity, culminating with Musique Non-Stop in which, paradoxically, the band exited stage right, one by one, until just Ralph remained, carrying the tune and the beat alone at his workstation; he, too, finally left, with the only direct acknowledgment of the audience in during the whole concert: 'Thank you, and goodnight.' offended by this obscene display of emotion, we roared, and the music ceased.

How best to appreciate Kraftwerk? Some nodded their heads and stroked their chins; others shuffled; a group of shirts in front of me jumped and sang football chants: 'Ralph, Florian ner ner ner ner'; significant portions of the crowd chewed their cheeks, stroked each other, and had conversations, of which the overwhelming significance was quite forgotten in the jittery grey light of morning. The real devotees, however, watched intently, anxious to commit it all to memory, to better discuss the next day, week, year. Being more of an aficionado, or even, dare I say it, mere 'fan', it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the nuances of the performance: what, precisely, were they actively doing on stage? And while the aural side of the show would perhaps not have won the band many new fans, they were preaching to the converted; even if I couldn't tell exactly how the songs were subtly morphed and mixed from their album versions, I was firmly on the side of the obsessives: best to pay full attention, because the whole experience was too good to miss.

 Photo courtesy of Henrik Larsson, Sweden. Look at some wonderful pictures of the stunning tour at http://www.henrik.net
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