Be Stiff

German robo-pop legends stand still like mean machines

At exactly 8 p.m. last Wednesday, Kraftwerk—sporting identical black single-breasted suits, gray shirts, black ties, and spit-shined shoes—materialized onstage behind identical black laptops, aligned in perfect symmetry.

Huge video screens beamed hyper-futuristic Commodore 64 visuals behind them. The band stood entirely motionless throughout the show, though they occasionally bopped their heads solemnly, and Ralf Hütter sometimes moved his lips for robo-vocals. ("You don't want your doctor to jump around when you're having an operation," he explained to Newsday recently. "It's the same intensity.") From the looks of the adoring crowd, though, you'd think these guys were Led Zeppelin; when Ralf ("the cute one") so much as cocked an eyebrow, the girls went into hysterics. If Kraftwerk were "so stiff they were funky," then this was, hands down, the funkiest show of all time.

Kraftwerk chiseled their surgical grooves to perfection, from the heady kickoff of "The Man-Machine" to the endless looping of the "Music Non-Stop" (geddit?) closer. Even the mechanized robot torsos that surfaced onstage for "The Robots" seemed a little meaner than usual. The group's subtly remixed classics sounded meatier and modernized—the tinkling melodies were a little harder-rocking, the elegant beats of yore more cutting-edge.

Music non-stop, while it lasted
photo: David Atlas
Music non-stop, while it lasted

Details

Kraftwerk
June 1
Hammerstein Ballroom

But Kraftwerk never specialized in the cutting edge; they were always best at dewy nostalgia, even back in the day. They hailed a time when the future seemed simpler and less complicated—when calculators were just for adding and subtracting, when people exulted in the glory of train travel, and when knowing how to count to eight was all that really mattered. During "Tour de France," vintage black-and-white footage of bikers racing through the Pyrenees flickered on the screens. It was impossibly moving, and you could almost sense a deep feeling of pathos in Ralf's unblinking eyes.

He also looked a little teary-eyed midway through the show, when something magical happened. With the shiver-inducing opening strains of "Trans-Europe Express," the hip-hop heads and the technoids looked at each other and grinned. Everyone up front—a rainbow of black and white, art school and engineering school, old-school and new-school, Williamsburg and South Bronx—united under Kraftwerk's benevolent greenish glow and started dancing.

 
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