Behind a curtain and bathed in a blood-red glow, the four silhouetted figures of Kraftwerk stand motionless behind their keyboard/laptop workstations. They crank up ‘Man Machine’, its clean, efficient melody booming from the speakers. When some select beats and bleeps are added, the stage – curtain parts a little awkwardly to reveal the four members looking down at their computers, each moving their mouse as if updating an excel spreadsheet. There’s no acknowledgement of the audience. They don’t look up from their screens. It’s quite an intro.
Why does this type of introduction, and their continued refusal throughout the gig to engage with the audience, work so well? How come it never feels contrived or pretentious? Because there is a genuine mystique to the band, an ‘otherness’ that has been there since Kraftwerk’s core members of Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider (the latter, sadly, is not present tonight) created this completely new type of music all those years ago in Düsseldorf. A band this enigmatic do not stroll on stage. They are revealed from behind a curtain. The live performance paradigm shifts dramatically for the Kraftwerk model and that is why seeing them live is such a thrilling experience.
Strangely, this sort of performance has drawn derision from some quarters. Why would you pay to watch four Germans tapping on their laptops? Because it’s Kraftwerk, they invented modern electronic and dance music and they can do whatever they want. The minimalist set-up, the vocoderised vocals, the ever-changing Expressionistic visuals on display tonight, the songs about cycling and motorways and pocket calculators and the wry, self-mocking humour are all part of the Kraftwerk concept and that is why we are here. Whether the music is live or pre-programmed is unimportant. Again this is Kraftwerk and the rules don’t apply anymore. For Kraftwerk, everything changes. It helps too that EVERY song aired tonight is a small masterpiece that has stood the test of time, especially ‘Radioactivity’, ‘Neon Lights’, ‘The Model’ and ‘The Robots’ where they are replaced by, yes, actual robots. You marvel at the sheer audacity of it all.
Bono once said Kraftwerk are a ‘great soul band’. People mocked him, of course. Kraftwerk? Soul Band? But he was actually correct. Despite the ostensibly ‘soulless’ nature of the music, tear away a few layers and each song has something to say about the complexities of the human condition. It’s the paradox that lies at the heart of Kraftwerk: it’s easy to think of their music as being, maybe, a little too dispassionate because of its delivery but it is actually full of soul, humour and hidden meaning. So think of ‘The Model’ as a song about unattainable women and unrequited love, ‘Neon Lights’ about loneliness in the big city and ‘Pocket Calculator’ as a sly, humourous admission of their own obsession with machines and electronics. Therein lies the genius of Kraftwerk. These robots have beating hearts too.
Kraftwerk, Dublin, 13.09.2008.