Which is the most influential band in history? The Beatles? The Stones? How about an isolated group of German uber-nerds whose machine-like toil in a Düsseldorf studio invented computer music as we know it today?
Kraftwerk’s influence on dance, hip hop and pop is unparalleled. The sounds they created on home-made electronic instruments have been sampled by Madonna, New Order, Afrika Bambaataa and even Coldplay. Their industrial soundscapes of the late ’70s became street jams in ’80s Detroit, inspiring the beginnings of the techno scene. In short, I’d argue they’re responsible for everything from beat-driven pop to thudding club bangers. But then, I would.
Kraftwerk have been my gods ever since I came across ‘Pocket Calculator’ on an old C90 cassette of my dad’s (the one labelled ‘Rob G’s Party Mixtape’). A song about a piece of classroom equipment you can spell the word ‘boobies’ on, delivered by an effete German over a backing of brain-tickling bloops – it was the best thing my eight-year-old ears had ever heard.
Now, aged 27, I’ve got the chance to pay homage to Kraftwerk (and the mysterious Rob G) at a rare live show. The relentless Ralf Hütter is the only original member left in the current Kraftwerk line-up, due to play eight dates at Tate Modern from February 6–14.
The four-piece will cover one album per night from 1974’s ‘Autobahn’ to 2003’s ‘Tour De France’. Though with tickets trading online at prices upwards of £300, it’s enough to make one lose one’s veneer of robot-like cool. The solution? More Kraftwerk, of course! Specifically a six-hour listening marathon taking in all eight of the Tate albums. As well as a serious geek-out session it will be an experiment to see if extended Kraftwerk exposure can make a human fitter, happier and more productive. Or whether, in fact, my mind will fry like an egg.
With three of my friends enlisted as Kraft-test dummies it’s time for the pseudo-science to begin. Let’s get to werk! The red shirts are on, the lipstick is applied (as much to make us feel classy as for the sake of authenticity), and my ersatz band take their seats for Kraftwerk’s album tribute to the German highway system.
There’s an awed silence at the first synth notes, then doppler-effect whooshing noises and motorik rhythms fill our ears. We are hearing the sound of progress, taking in the possibilities of spotless, black asphalt. ‘It reminds me of driving,’ says one of my guests – inanely stating the obvious while opening a second can of Holsten Pils. ‘Kraftwerk, is this who we’re listening to now?’ asks someone else. I ignore them. They are the Vauxhall Corsas disappearing in the rear-view mirror of my powerful Mercedes.
Mental state Gearing up. ‘Autobahn’ passes without major incident. But we’re hungry, so it’s time to crack into the Kraftwerk snacks: sauerkraut, rye bread and frankfurters. By 1975 Kraftwerk had begun to hone their sound, giving it the sharp, metallic edges that would go on to inspire generations of dance music producers. But my friends are more concerned with the fact that I’ve served French mustard with German sausages. ‘This mustard is thinking of surrendering to us,’ one of them quips, blitzkrieg-ing the dijon with his meat baton. This sort of frivolity would make Ralf Hütter vomit with disgust. Strangely, it just makes me hungrier.
Mental state Feeling like a wiener. It’s time to get tough. The band must become a band. I thrust a £9.99 Argos keyboard into the arms of one wide-eyed participant, then ready a selection of upturned skillets for percussion. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is a complex and varied album, with moments of intense beauty, shades of minimalist composition and sections that sound like early Detroit techno. My cohort seems to be on board. We are focused, in time and as one. ‘I feel light. I feel efficient. I feel like I’m going to get shit done,’ someone hollers above the din of wooden spoons pounding on French cookware.
Mental state On track. The Teutonic euphoria (Teuphoria?) continues into Kraftwerk’s classic, ‘The Man-Machine’. We jerk around the room like raving robots. Yet ‘The Man-Machine’ has an unmistakable dystopian darkness to it. Kraftwerk were half-fascinated, half-fearful of the coldness of the future, and were satirising progress at the same time as they attempted to embody it. On ‘The Model’ they compress commercial society’s obsession with surface beauty into an emotionless smash hit, and echo cubism in drawing attention to the inherent flatness of their artistic medium. ‘This one sounds like “One in Ten” by UB40,’ comments one of the plebs in my flat. ‘Honestly, mate, early UB40 is banging.’
Mental state Admiring the Kraftsmanship. As we reach my personal favourite Kraftwerk album the group starts to break up. Two uncommitted listeners head out for brunch in Stoke Newington and the last has to leave to go on a date (loser). ‘Computer World’ imagines a more benign future than ‘The Man Machine’, one in which romance and technology can enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Left alone, I wonder if ‘Computer Love’ is trying to tell me I should set up an internet dating profile? Hütter never married, but perhaps he would want me to go out with Emma, a 32-year-old PR living in Ealing, who likes cats, red wine and karaoke?
Mental state Overheating. ‘Electric Café’ sounds like a pastiche of earlier Kraftwerk albums, but with beefier beats to keep up with ’80s synth-pop and hip hop trends. There are still classic songs, but it’s hard work, and even my commitment is wavering. Where does this road lead? I ask myself. What path is my life taking? Should I fill in my tax return and open a cash ISA? By track five, ‘House Phone’, I decide to do the only sensible thing and call my mum.
Mental state Not much (robo)cop A short parental pep talk later I decide to stop drinking lager, and start the washing-up. I tidy my room. I put all my dirty socks and pants in the washing machine. This feels like progress – not of the sort the German economy is making, but still, a step forward. ‘The Mix’, however, was a step backwards for Kraftwerk, being an album of previous hits all reworked to sound more like contemporary dance music. It’s not their finest hour, but it is urgent and driving enough to get me through wiping the mustard off the floor.
Mental state Powering through. Kraftwerk’s last studio album evokes the superhuman efforts of Tour riders, and was produced to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the cycle race. It’s my cue to transfer the tunes to my iPod, and get on my bike. The pulsing, metronomic bass synth of ‘Aero Dynamik’ kicks in as I increase the cadence down Tottenham High Road. I don’t exactly feel like a well-oiled Wiggo. I feel more like a sweaty, dishevelled Boris Johnson. I shouldn’t, I realise, have expected Kraftwerk’s music alone to have increased the potential of my mind and body. After all, they never said the future would be painless. It was grind and commitment that enabled Hütter and co to make genre-defining music, and one Sunday spent farting about on a bike won’t raise my focus to genius level. I head for home as the last of the synths splutter out.
Mental state Reaching obsolescence. At 5.16pm the experiment is over. It’s had its ups and downs. I’ve spent six hours or longer listening to electronic music before (most weekends, in fact) but I’ve never felt it to be as cerebral and draining an experience as this. One striking thing is how well Kraftwerk’s albums – particularly their mid-career output – have aged. Many of the tracks sound like they could have been made last week. Society has veered away from the cold industrialism of postmodern life and towards a cosier way of living. We value the boutique, the bespoke and the ‘special’. Yet, the continued popularity of Kraftwerk’s music goes to show that our dark fantasies of robotic inhumanity remain close below the surface. People of London, continue to eat your Innocent veg pots, watch your Ang Lee films and buy your Orla Kiely bags. Just remember, the man-machine is still coming.