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Back to the future – Kraftwerk at the Tate and Iraq war regrets

Divisive arguments and musical nostalgia.

No event since the 1984 miners’ strike has divided the left more than the Iraq war. Friendships were ended, political reputations were destroyed and antagonists accused each other of betrayal. Few were more stridently supportive of the US-led invasion of what was once Mesopotamia than Christopher Hitch - ens. Because he was such a good writer and such a powerful rhetorician, and because he had disciples and followers and inspired lesser imitators, his influence became allpervasive during the run-up to the war and in its long, desperate aftermath. For a time, the “pro-war left” had momentum and even its own “Euston Manifesto” – and Hitchens was cheerleader-in-chief.

One of the best pieces I read on the eve of the invasion was by Ian McEwan, on the openDemocracy website, an anguished expression of honest doubt and ambiguity. “The hawks,” he wrote, “have my head, the doves my heart. At a push I count myself – just – in the camp of the latter. And yet my ambi - valence remains . . . One can only hope now for the best outcome: that the regime, like all dictatorships, rootless in the affections of its people, will crumble like a rotten tooth . . . and that the US, in the flush of victory, will find in its oilman’s heart the energy and optimism to begin to address the Palestinian issue. These are fragile hopes. As things stand, it is easier to conceive of innumerable darker possibilities.”

In the event, darkness prevailed as the state of Iraq, an artificial post-colonial construct held together by one man’s brutality, fragmented into sectarianism, suicide slaughter and chaos. Today, McEwan is among those liberal writers and intellectuals – one includes here the New Yorker journalists David Remnick and George Packer – who publicly regret supporting the war.

The only major writer I can think of who made the journey in reverse is the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. He opposed the invasion but then, several years later, following a visit to Iraq, wrote unequivocally in support of it: “All the suffering that the armed intervention has inflicted on the Iraqi people is small compared to the horror they suffered under Saddam Hussein.”

Saddam may be long dead, but the suffering goes on and surely nothing short of par - tition can ease the conflict between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis as the blood-dimmed tide washes over this desert land.

Live data date

On Monday evening I went to Tate Modern, on the south bank of the Thames, to see Kraft - werk, the electronic music pioneers from Düsseldorf who, for a series of eight “retrospective” performances in the vast, echoing space that is the Turbine Hall, had turned themselves into a kind of conceptual artwork, half men, half machine.

Kraftwerk were the first true pop music futurists: they wrote pieces about the new motorways, train and air travel, computers and nuclear power, and they were obsessively interested in how technology was changing and would continue to change the way we lived and worked and communicated. It used to feel as if they’d been transported back in time from the near future, so prescient were they. Thirty years before the iPad, they understood how one day we would all be enraptured by “computer love”.

Like the novelist J G Ballard, they examined the psychopathologies of everyday life in a disturbed consumer society, in a Europe still haunted by war.

Man or machine?

As you made your way into the Turbine Hall you were given a black cushion to sit on (though everyone stood) and 3-D glasses to watch the slide show projected on to a large screen, in front of which the four Kraftwerk members stood, impassively, at their synthesiser consoles, twiddling buttons and sequen cing sounds. Kraftwerk were dressed in luminous one-piece bodysuits, like dem en - ted extras from Spider-Manor space-age surgeons. There was no interaction with the audience, not even a cursory “good evening” from Ralf Hütter, the 66-year-old frontman, controller and sole remaining founder member. His three anonymous sidekicks were less musicians than sound engineers. I wasn’t sure that they were even fully human – Hütter has a fascination with robots and has created his own doppelgänger. The whole thing was wonderfully strange and thrilling.

Alles auf der Autobahn

The first pop bands I loved as a schoolboy were synthesiser, or “futurist”, bands. I loved the way they looked and dressed in suits and ties and palely powdered their faces and cut their hair short, as Kraftwerk did. I loved the sounds they made, the way the cold austerities and alienation of the music seemed to encapsulate and represent the disintegrating world of late-Seventies and early-Eighties Britain. Yet these bands showed how synthesisers could make a new kind of music that was not merely clinical in its computerised precision but also moving and even beautiful. All the bands I liked were in one way or another influenced by Kraftwerk – who, in the mid-Seventies, had been in revolt against the hippie-ish excesses of the era just as much as the punks were: the long hair, the lousy clothes, the pomposity and decadence of rock music.

When they first emerged, Kraftwerk sounded like no one else. As Karl Bartos, who left the band in 1990, has said, “Autobahn” (1974) was “a blueprint for all further electronic music”, from house to rave, as it was.

Look back in languor

Yet the ultimate effect of the Turbine Hall performance, which began punctually at 9pm and ended two hours later, was one of nostalgia. Kraftwerk no longer seem as if they’ve come from the future. They look at the world as it was before the internet and globalisation, and not as it is today. They have become nostalgists, endlessly reworking and reinterpreting their best work, which covers the period that began with “Autobahn” and ended in 1983 with “Tour de France”, the greatest musical celebration of an event that, before his disgrace, Lance Armstrong once described as a “contest in purposeless suffering”.

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 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on