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Yesterday’s tomorrows: Kraftwerk are today less a band than a conceptual art project

Even back in the Seventies, they understood that ours had become a “Computer World”.

No one would call Kraftwerk a conventional pop or rock band. You shouldn’t really call them a band at all: in this late phase of their long career, especially as a live act, they are more like conceptual artists as they tour from city to city, experimenting not only with electronic music but with video sequences and computer-generated 3D animation.

To see late Kraftwerk live, as I did twice during their eight-night residency at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2013, and again last week at the Royal Albert Hall, is to enjoy an experience in both sound and vision. Onstage the four members of Kraftwerk wear luminous, one-piece, Spider-Man-style bodysuits. And at the Royal Albert Hall they did something unexpectedly conventional: they played an encore.

This being Kraftwerk, however, it was no ­ordinary encore. The curtain came down at the end of a 90-minute tour d’horizon of their back catalogue, the reluctantly seated (it was the Albert Hall) audience applauded and cheered, and then, when the curtain reopened, the band members had been replaced at their techno-consoles by robots.

More precisely, the “robots” were mannequins resembling Kraftwerk as they had appeared on the cover of the album The Man-Machine in the late Seventies: short, slicked-back hair, narrow black ties tucked into red shirts, dark trousers. The mannequins moved in mechanised formation as we were treated to a reconfigured version of “The Robots”, one of the six tracks on The Man-Machine.

The audience was euphoric and a few people left their seats to dance in the aisles. Perhaps the gig should have ended there and then. For this was the summer solstice, the longest and, indeed, the warmest day of the year so far (34 degrees Celsius in London). But then the humans returned to replace the robots – as one day the robots might replace the humans, at least in the world as imagined by Kraftwerk – and the show went on.

Kraftwerk have not released a new album since 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks, which included a reworking of the 1983 single “Tour de France” – a song that fetishised professional cycling at a time when it was still a minority pursuit rather than the dominant cultural form it has become today. Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s presiding genius and sole remaining founder member, is 70; a pensioner whose visions of the future now have a decidedly retro feel and are all the sweeter for it.

We in the audience wore plastic 3D spectacles similar to the ones I’d worn in 1983 when I took my first girlfriend on a date to see Friday the 13th Part 2 (or was it Part 3?) at a cinema in Essex. (Odd that I should have chosen a film in which adolescents are murdered so gruesomely – but at least my girlfriend held on to me from time to time.)

In the late 1970s, when I first started listening to pop music, Kraftwerk were like no other band. Their sound was, as Karl Bartos, who left the group in 1990, has said, “a blueprint for all further electronic music”, from the “futurism” of Gary Numan, the Human League and OMD to house, techno and rave music. Afrika Bambaataa adapted a riff from “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) for “Planet Rock” (1982), one of the most influential tracks of the Eighties.

Kraftwerk emerged from the avant-garde Krautrock scene, and their pioneering use of synthesisers and vocoders, their cold industrial soundscapes and pan-European sensibility, and their fascination with robotics and artificial intelligence inspired a generation of neurotic boy outsiders to throw away their guitars, cut their hair, powder their faces and start experimenting with synthesised sounds and beats.

Kraftwerk’s influence was much greater than their commercial success, though they had a surprise British number one in 1982, when the single “Computer Love” (the melody was later popularised by Coldplay) was flipped and DJs started playing the B-side, which was “The Model”, a track originally on The Man-Machine.

With its catchy chorus and beguilingly banal lyrics, “The Model” is as close to a conventional pop song as any in Kraftwerk’s back catalogue. Hütter’s voice held up well enough when he sang it at the Albert Hall but, of course, it’s not his singing that one admires: it’s the overall musical and visual effect, as well as the hypnotic hooks and graceful melodies.

From the beginning, Kraftwerk embraced modernity in the way they made music and what they made music about. Like the novelist J G Ballard, they were futurists whose interest was less in the future than in the psychopathologies of the present. They wrote music about motorways and high-speed trains and the transformative impact of new technologies. Back in the Seventies, they understood that ours had become a “Computer World”, and this would change everything about how we worked, communicated and even loved. It was as if they had direct experience of the future.

What one can sometimes miss about Kraftwerk is the wit and humour. Their live show is both a joyous experience and an exercise in nostalgia. Their once-prescient songs and the images that accompany them represent the world as they found it when they were young men: tomorrow’s world yesterday. The show makes you think. It makes you remember as well as smile and, above all, it makes you move as you succumb to the pulsating rhythms.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder