Photos By Clarissa Villondo, Words By Andy Johnson
It’s cliché to heap praise on Kraftwerk’s historical importance to electronic music, so I’ll skip over summarizing their biography to get to the heart of the matter: this was indubitably an amazing spectacle. The German group’s sound and visuals translate remarkably well to the modern age. Indeed, the group explored the themes of technological isolation and infatuation four decades prior to Instagram, Google Glass, and Spike Jonez’s Her.
Let’s not ignore that this was a very strange show. We were, after all, wearing paper 3D glasses to watch four old German men in skin-tight Tron jumpsuits toggle switches. The two-hour-plus performance was divided into mini-suites reflecting the art and sounds of each of their eight albums. This choice makes sense, as Kraftwerk has been playing each album in its entirety in residences at “serious places” like New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and London’s Tate Modern. Because Washington was limited to two shows, we were privy to Kraftwerk’s greatest hits, a bonus because they culled weaker songs from the set list.
The late show at the 9:30 Club started precisely at 11:00 pm—Germans are known for their punctuality—with “The Robots”, the first song off 1978’s The Man-Machine. Ralf Hütter, the sole original member of Kraftwerk, handled the vocoded singing throughout the night, intoning, “We’re functioning automatic /And we are dancing mechanic.” The song’s repetitive beat should be familiar to most young folk: it’s the grinding backbone to LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous.”
The audience was a combination of aging, die-hard Kraftwerk fans, geeking out that they’d finally get a chance to see the group in concert, and curious millennials, interested in experiencing the sights and sounds of the formative (and forward-thinking) electronic group. The visuals, a combination of Constructivism, Atari 2600 graphics, and pop art, floated above the crowd, with an occasional robot face or obsolete computer terminal zoomed toward you, amplifying the 3D effect. I was impressed with the visuals of “Metropolis,” which resembled Spider-Man web-slinging through a never-ending city of skyscrapers.
Each of the suites varied in quality. Songs chosen from Computer World, arguably the group’s best album featured a transition from the bouncy “Numbers” into the synthetic “Computer World” (via a giant all-caps text drop). The visual shift was also a rhythmic one, as the group turned to dance-ready techno and house.
The Man-Machine suite deserves recognition for its striking science fiction visuals. “The Man Machine” featured Hütter’s robotic voice repetitively hum “Machine, machine, machine, machine” as building text and geometric figures crawled along the display. “Spacelab” ended with a UFO descending onto the White House lawn and a picture of the 9:30 Club, which got a hearty cheer from the audience. During “The Models,” it felt eerie watching visuals of 1920s flappers dancing to the sounds of 1970s synthesizers in the 2010s.
The group’s replication of “Autobahn,” one of their earliest songs, was the evening’s highlight. The lengthy krautrock piece mimics a sunny drive on the German highway system, as Hütter deadpans, “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn.” The visuals of a Volkswagon breezing along the speed limit-free motorway relaxed the crowd, lulling us into a trance as the four Germans worked away on their neon podiums.
One criticism I have of the show is the question of how much was performed live and how much was scripted. Each member was responsible for certain aspects of the performance—vocals, bass, visuals, etc. During shorter songs, like “Radioactivity” which recognized Fukushima alongside other radiated cities like Chernobyl and Hiroshima, the group sounded alive and flush. However, parts of the group’s three long pieces—“Autobahn,” “Tour de France,” and “Trans-Europe Express”—felt automated. This did not diminish my enjoyment, and I recognize some automation is required to link the audio and visual, but after you watch a train scoot around on track for six or seven minutes, you start to wonder if the guy stage left is supposed to look stoic and constipated, or if he actually just is stoic and constipated.
The show concluded with the songs from Electric Café/Techno Pop, full of clanging drums, rumblings in foreign languages, and offbeat noises. The album’s cover image, a floating, bodiless robot head, taunted the crowd in a metallic rasp, “Synthetic electronic sounds / Industrial rhythms all around.” I’m not sure how you say “One more song” in German, but after some low-key keyboard soloing and several 90-degree bows to the audience, the group left the stage, only to return to play the techno-heavy “Aero Dynamik” from 2003’s Tour De France soundtrack, and “Planet of Vision,” a Detroit-techno remix of “Expo 2000,” the song that ended the group’s 14-year lull in creative works between 1986 to 2000. Kudos to the group for electing to end the late night on a song that focused less on mediating the relationship between man and technology, and more on getting the tired audience moving again after a marvelous feast for the senses.
One of the reasons this concert was so satisfying is that it was a nostalgia show that didn’t feel like one. On paper, this is a once-popular group—with just one remaining member—charging a bounty to baby-boomers to cash in on past success. However, Kraftwerk’s inclusion of 3D graphics, an emphasis on all aspects of their discography, and a commitment to unflattering jumpsuits and made the night seem more exhilarating than seeing… I dunno… the Eagles or Van Halen roll out stale radio hits.