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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 Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”