Friday, 8 February 2013

Kraftwerk: A Night at the Power Station*

The fact that ‘Kraftwerk’ translates from German into English as “power station” meant that as a venue to play the eponymous band’s entire back catalogue, London’s Tate Modern was a genius idea. And as the old Gilbert Scott building’s first function as an electricity generation station has long since been switched off, it felt like Kraftwerk had somehow won and the band’s music seemed entirely modern and even looking forward to the future. The old war horse ‘Radioactivity’ from 1979 felt bang up to date as it had been rewritten to include Fukushima, which Ralf Hütter underlined by singing it in Japanese.

The atmosphere beforehand was one of calm reverence – probably as 700 people couldn’t really believe that against the odds they were really there at all. We stood in the Tate's Turbine Hall with all the lights on for over an hour with no background music and it felt like a cathedral with us as nervous pilgrims. 


Kraftwerk performing at MoMA, New York; photograph by Peter Boettcher

With no pomp, the lights went down, the curtain dropped and we were off. After a reminder that they still are the robots, the band played the 1974 album Autobahn in its entirety, complete with 3D animation that was quite wonderful while not without some risks. The Volkswagen driving through the country on the autobahn with more rising suns than really necessary seemed to be looking more to the past than I was comfortable with but no one else seemed to notice so it was probably just my problem. 


Kraftwerk performing at MoMA, New York; photograph by Peter Boettcher

And then it was off on a greatest hits tour of one of the best back catalogues there is, all complete with 3D visuals. ‘Spacelab’ stood out as fitting the mixed media perfectly; beautiful graphics of space and spacecraft had many people in front of me ducking to avoid a Spacelab going over our heads. Clearly, Kraftwerk employs the same acoustic engineers as God: the music couldn’t have sounded any better and occasionally we would all look around to follow a sound as it whizzed through the hall.

The one thing that I found difficult on the night is best explained by describing my experience with subtitles. While in English operas I know what is going on all the time, the intellectual experience of reading is entirely separate from listening, so on Tuesday I felt that I was reading a pop concert rather than listening to it. And the effect of the wide arms of the glasses meant I could only see the screen, not my friends or indeed anyone else, so it became an entirely internal experience. I would take them off occasionally, pat my mates, put them back on and go into my own private world. I doubt the alienation was intentional, but it is odd to be watching one of my favourite bands with some of my closest friends and feel crushingly lonely.

And with two short sentences – "Thanks for coming; see you tomorrow" – the band was gone. I think I might have just dreamt it all. 



* Guest post by Ciarán O'Meara (© Ciarán O'Meara)


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