I saw Kraftwerk play live in 1981. It was wonderful. They brought their whole opera stage with them; all those green/yellow Wagnerian boxes and knobs and neon tubes. They seemed to enjoy their show as much as their personas allowed (even daring to tap their toes) and were just then at the peak of their musical importance. It was so vital in the early 80’s Australia to have this approval from on high for music that was from a different planet to AC/DC. We were empowered by it.
We played live, knowing that we were a small part of a global musical change. At one of these gigs the sound guy told me he’d done the stage sound for the Kraftwerk show. It was all on an open reel tape he said. But what about the screw up about 3/4 of the way through the set? Same screw up every show. On tape.
That didn’t matter too much to me. When later on the boxes and knobs were revealed to be flat packed sets it seemed clever not have to carry your real studio around the world with you. Besides – it’s Kraftwerk. They get a pass.
The 90’s were not kind to them. At one stage they were releasing through Cleopatra Records in LA, a boutique label for Hawkwind fans. At least they had a label, we didn’t. And they could pull bigger festivals than we could dream of. Good luck to them, earned it.
In 2003 I was asked if we would like to play a support spot for Kraftwerk’s return to Australia. That was great! I’d been working on some new videos and a set and it would be a perfect match, little and big. I said yes. Word came back from Germany – Nein – no videos allowed. That was a bit rough for a video band. The promoter tried a compromise. What if we used our own projector? Nein – no light touching the screens. And no instruments allowed. You will only play a tape. And you must be a specified number of metres away from the main stage.
By this point the promoter said he hoped I was understanding. I was understanding. We had played under bands that only allowed us a single blue light. We had played under bands that restricted our volume level to 75%, 8 faders, no fold back … every Australian band was used to this kind of musical colonial pith helmet bullshit and knew what it meant. They were pack of gutless cowards who could get fucked. Which is what I said.
We were offered free entry to the show. Sure, OK. In the line up outside the venue John Jacobs had installed a PA in a wheelie bin. He was playing Kraftwerk mashups through this diabolical noise unit on wheels, rolling up and down the line and it was wonderful. Particularly compared to Kraftwerk themselves.
I had seen a video of their return to service in the 90’s – the videos made from Atari graphics and their funny new suits. This was 2003 and I was sure that having been so picky about this show that they had made some new and wonderful set with old and new stuff and some cool video to fill those three giant screens. As the set rolled along it was horrible to realise that they hadn’t advanced in over a decade. The symbol of musical progress, of futurism, were lazily stuck in the past. They were boring. They were pretentious. And I knew that for my faults and weaknesses this bunch had nothing better to offer. And I laughed and started to heckle. Bradbury was delighted to join in. People around us were HORRIFIED that we were HECKLING KRAFTWERK. We left before a brawl started – my fight wasn’t with the audience.
Down the road there was a surprisingly large number of other escapees drinking beer at the pub and having a great night out sans the Teutonic Nits. Apparently the promoter was running around trying to find me, I’m not sure whether he wanted to kill me or take me backstage for a meeting. Best to hide anyway.
The next show at the Boiler Room their backing tape got stuck on the intro to Autobahn. And the raver kids, who cared nothing for ‘legendary’, apparently pelted them with plastic beer glasses. A bit cruel. Just a bit. I was outside in the cool night thinking about how the Boiler Room once meant our own bands.
Vivid has announced Kraftwerk for 2013, using up half a page of newsprint in colour. As if the gods have descended. Vivid itself being less about a festival of ideas and more about a source of tourist income every year. This is the same show as they have just done at the Tate which I must note has been reviewed very favourably without ever seeming to mention the actual performance or anything they have done since 1981. One look at the pictures and it seems that they might have got a few new Tron suits to wear. Whoever ‘they’ might be these days.
Everyone is open to laughter, to being critiqued and goaded into putting some effort into their work. When somebody says that Kraftwerk are not to be mocked, that makes it twice as important that puffed up frogs are deflated. And given that they were once the champions of the future of music, that laughter may be a little bitter.