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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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia