Here’s something that never happens – well, has never happened before – EVER – for me. I was flown over to Sydney to see Kraftwerk. Earlier this year. Man! It was the best. I’d have to think of the first Kraftwerk gig as the best of the year in 2013. One of the best ever.
Hold up? The “first” Kraftwerk gig? Yep, you see I saw them twice in the same night. They played all their classic albums in a row over four nights, two shows a night. I saw the opening night. Autobahn and then Radio-Activity. I love the Radio-Activity album and that show was special – but of course by the time I’d seen them once they’d revealed all their tricks. So that first show was the one. And man was it cool.
Added bonus: Sylvie Simmons was in Australia on a book tour and when I told her I might see her there she said to me: “see if you can get me a ticket?” She’s interviewed every one famous in music, tells stories of flying in helicopters with Aerosmith, peeking deep into the soul of Leonard Cohen. “Erm, yep, sure thing Sylvie, I’ll see what I can do…”
And you know what – it worked. An email. And I’m in. With Sylvie Simmons as my date for the night. Well, if you’re going to have your mind blown seeing Kraftwerk perform Autobahn in its entirety with 3D images from the backdrop surging to the foreground you might as well pick the best music writer around to accompany you for that particular journey, eh?
For the opening show of Kraftwerk’s The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 series of concerts at Sydney’s Vivid Festival it’s1974’s Autobahn, but Kraftwerk (now Ralf Hutter and three new, anonymous showroom dummies) begin the show with The Man Machine’s scene-setter, The Robots. And try as they might to disappear into the music, to seem more machine than man, there’s just so much heart in this performance; it is so very human – audience and band on the same side as soon as lyrics from the song start pouring out from the backdrop and there are hushed gasps and excited murmurs from within the sea of 3-D glasses.
And then from red to blue the screen signals time for the ride to start properly: “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn”. Weightless, the song is a glide, somewhere – still odd to think it – a hit single sits inside this 23-minute blueprint for ambient electronica. The album cover comes to life on the screen behind the band – a car’s wheels turning in time with the music’s perpetual roll/role.
Autobahn is a short album – but always a beautiful ride. The opening title track, aka side one, is the dominant half but as we’re guided through the glide of Kometenmelodie 1 and 2 (“Comet Melody 1 and 2”), Mitternacht (“Midnight”) and Morgenspaziergang (“Morning Walk”) it all feels like it’s over too soon, 42 minutes that almost seemed like only half that – but will go on to live forever too; there was some dream-like drift and dream-logic lapse to it.
There is applause to mark the end of each piece and a huge swell of pride and a surge in the clapping as the band puts this live version of the album to rest. You can see a slight jiggle in the legs of the Kraftwerk Klan, maybe a puffing out of chests too – but it’s straight on to a run of hits, “hits” and shoulda-been-hits from the rest of the catalogue.
Each tune matched to the iconic artwork of the associated album, Trans-Europe Express’ title track receives a whoop of applause as the black’n’white of the TEE logo morphs into train tracks and this forward-motion theme of travel continues.
The Model has vintage footage hanging in a cloud above the band and is greeted by the audience as if the evening’s only true pop song.
Computer World’s offerings (particularly Numbers) are among the highlights, but then so too is Tour de France and Electric Cafe/Techno Pop’s Boing Boom Tschak and the closing Musique Non-Stop.
Throughout the nearly two-hour show that doesn’t so much trace around 00s cafe-culture soundtracking, 90s trance and techno and 80s hip-hop as it does float along in its own parallel universe, married up with footage that offers its own waft and drift, its own actual parallel universe, Ralf Hutter provides all of the vocals, his voice almost bloodless at times it is so calm.
These almost-too-faithful recreations are a proud testament of the sound-world carved out by Kraftwerk’s dogma, the stringent focus on everything that is not the 12-bar blues scale; that is not ever close to that magic combination of chords derrived from Pachelbel’s Canon in D has resulted in 40 years of work that is its own canon; that is tied to whatever part of our past – as audience members, from when we discovered it – but is still given enough rope to slide out and off toward a future sound; a series of found future sounds.
One by one the members of Kraftwerk have at their consoles, hovering down over the laptop and iPad and synth that hides inside each desk-tray, these cubicle-workers of the stage. One by one they walk to the side, take a bow, as if to receive a medal from the princess in honour of the work they have offered to further the cause of dance music’s Rebel Alliance.
Ralf Hutter is last to leave the stage. “Good night!” he says, as if an instruction, a command. “Auf Wiedersehen!”
And that is all that he said all night. And all that he needed to say. The dream is over. Euphoric, charming, innovative, still loaded with both naivety and – because of that – a mystique that’s been cultivated, slaved over, the music sounds as fresh – so boundless – as it ever did; ever could. Linear, sometimes dark, always beautiful, there was pop music inside of sci-fi soundtrack; there was dance music with heart, with soul, with smarts.
Kraftwerk, the members, leave the stage. Kraftwerk, the music: its members – both audience and band – have disappeared inside the tunes. A form of transcendence.
So on it goes, on it lives. Choruses hidden inside gently unfolding melodies. Melodies shaping, dictating rhythms.
I go to a few other shows that weekend, catch up with family and friends, have a great time with Sydney and its always-perfect hospitality.
And then I get home to read Chris Schulz in the Herald comparing Kraftwerk, as he seems to with everything, to Nine Inch Fuckin’ Nails!