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”.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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