Two members of the classic lineup are gone. The new tracks were the evening’s least distinctive. Much of the sounds were pre-programmed. One of the best moments came when the equipment faltered. And still it was one of those you-had-to-be-there shows because it was Kraftwerk.
The first American performance since 1981, San Francisco’s June 7 stop on the current nine-city world tour was an event merely because it existed. Kraftwerk shows are the stuff of legend. When the electronic ensemble played the Ritz in New York 17 years ago, every hip-hop icon of the time was said to be there. “Numbers,” from Computer World–a track consisting of little more than synth beats and counting–was played on New York black radio with the regularity of a Shalamar hit and soon inspired Arthur Baker’s production on Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” which in turn generated a flood of B-boy jams, Latin freestyle anthems, Miami bass tracks, and electro trance tracks from every corner of the globe, all of which still rock a party today. There’d never been that much electronic equipment on a stage before or such care put into the visual presentation, which was the first to include video projections and computer screens. And the band’s stage persona was so disarming because they were so deadpan about creating such revolutionary funk. Much of everything good and bad about ’80s music–the emphasis on presentation, technological advancement, sound fetishism, beat ‘n’ hook worship, conceptual savvy over virtuosity–could be traced to that concert.
Nowadays, Kraftwerk’s innovations are the electronica norm. We’ve grown accustomed to drones getting a few things right but doing the rest without the madness that drove Kraftwerk to spend year upon year in the studio searching for the perfect beat and tossing out entire albums in the process. Like their countryman Richard Wagner before them, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hutter, and pals aim for the construction of a Gesamtkunstwerk an all-encompassing artwork that seeks to engage all senses. That’s a mighty lofty goal, and our responses to electronic-music concerts have understandably changed since 1981. Our expectations raised by the techno theatrics of Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys, we expect disco opera, but try to content ourselves with a couple of guys tweaking a mixing board.
Kraftwerk’s San Francisco show fell somewhere in between, largely because it mostly aimed for refinement and re-creation, not innovation. A grand curtain parted as the familiar multilingual count-off of “Numbers” began to reveal a set designed much like the Computer World–era scenery. There were four identical banks of equipment linked together to create an arc that stretched from one end of the stage to the other, sandwiched by matching video screens in the back and corresponding keyboard modules in the front. Fluorescent tubes aimed at the back of the performers’ knees lit the crowd as numbers danced across the screens in sync to the beats. This is one of the advantages of computerized concerts: whether vintage newsreel footage or digital animation, the visuals matched the audio with the exactitude of cinema.
The first few songs were instantly familiar, not just as Kraftwerk classics, but as a greatest-hits collection of dance, hip-hop, techno, and industrial samples. Part of the fun of experiencing “Computer World,” “It’s More Fun To Compute,” “Home Computer,” “The Man-Machine,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “Metal on Metal,” and “The Model” one after the other was hearing entire genres they’d inspired burst into your head as the automatic rhythms played. The sound was as clear as you can get in a rock venue, and the arrangements further revised and greatly improved upon the re-recordings of 1991’s retrospective The Mix. Aside from that, their most recent album, Kraftwerk’s trademark sonics were created almost exclusively with analog equipment, and the transition to digital has been more of an obstacle than tool. Although the two unreleased instrumentals–both melodic
trance tracks in the Germanic style of Jam & Spoon and Sven Vath–felt like afterthoughts and a little dated, the old tracks still sounded contemporary, partly because Schneider, Hutter, and recent members Ott Pagenberg and Fritz Hilpert have mastered the updated technology, partly because their apocryphal beats and concepts have never gone away.
Elegant celluloid images of bygone trains, models, cyclists, and motorways emphasized that as much as Kraftwerk has created the future, it’s romanticized the past. Now the group glamorizes its own back pages, occasionally rewriting them to make a point (the ’90s version of “Radioactivity” adds the verb “stop” and was preceded by grim nuclear statistics), but otherwise allowing the collision of European melody and African American rhythm to speak for itself. Although he’s spent little of his three-decade career on the stage, Schneider still entertained when his mini-keyboard refused to work during “Pocket Calculator.” First, the man old enough to be much of the crowd’s father froze with shock, then spanked the toylike machine several times, flung it around on its patch cord, and shook it in time to the zips and zaps it should have created as reverent ravers, stoners, geeks, and grown-up disco bunnies roared in appreciation. Even when the musique wasn’t exactly non-stop, the Kraftwerk cabaret continued.
Kraftwerk play the Hammerstein Ballroom June 13.