The word ‘great’ gets used far too often to describe music artists – it’s like the term ‘world-class’ to describe a footballer – with its overuse making it almost meaningless. But if there is one band truly deserving of the term, it’s Kraftwerk. To say they are to electronic music what The Beatles are to Rock ‘n’ roll is a severe understatement. While the latter had popular precursors such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis, Kraftwerk were the first band to establish electronic music in the mainstream.
So, you can imagine my excitement when after almost an hour of non-stop dialling and constant browser refreshing, I managed to get a ticket to see Kraftwerk play 'Trans-Europe Express', the album which many regard (including me) as their best record. I felt even more fortunate, almost privileged, when I read there were only around 700 tickets and saw the stories about angry fans besieging the Tate Modern when the ticketing office couldn’t cope with demand – in fact, when I arrived at the venue, I ended up initially in the wrong queue, where at least 50 people waiting outside in the bitter cold for returns.
Like all great bands, what Kraftwerk understood was the power of image to make their music even more striking, such as the iconic album sleeve of 'The Man-Machine'. That’s why it felt very appropriate that these concerts were taking place at the Tate Modern. As I entered the venue, it was reinforced this would not be an ordinary concert as I was presented with a pair of 3D glasses, a crib sheet about Kraftwerk’s music and a cushion. Even more welcome was the ease with which I was able to watch the concert from wherever I wanted – typically, I went towards the front.
Rather than play the album in order, the concert started surprisingly with the album’s title track and backed by the often-astonishing 3D images, it proves enthralling. Only Kraftwerk could reference meeting Iggy Pop and David Bowie in a throwaway manner, like it was an everyday occurrence. The genius of Kraftwerk was that despite playing a type of music which on the surface is devoid of emotion, they could deliver hugely affecting songs, with 'Hall Of Mirrors' sounding particularly solemn, almost elegiac. They also have a great sense of humour, aptly demonstrated by 'Showroom Dummies' which sees them poking fun at their image as detached automatons. The band play with typical deadpan expressions almost throughout, with the introduction of 'The Model' causing band leader Ralf Hütter to raise only a brief flicker of a smile.
The song, the band’s only number one in the UK, is part of a greatest hits set that follows performance of 'Trans-Europe Express'. They play their most popular songs in chronological order, from 'Autobahn' all the way through to 'Musique Non Stop' and it’s like being taken on a tour through the history of modern music. While repetition is a key element of their music, what they understood in contrast to many electronic bands today is when to stop a particular rhythm and move to a different note or section before it become monotonous to the listener.
While the concert isn’t perfect – there are a couple of sound issues and a couple of idiots throw their cushions at the band at the end of the concert, fortunately missing their target - the whole experience is incredible and like no other concert I’ve experienced. It’s remarkable how utterly modern the music sounds only 40 years since its release and it’s almost impossible to imagine to work out what pop music would sound like without them.
Equally amazing is how prescient the band were, especially about our reliance on technology today, almost to the extent that we are now slaves to it. As the band exit one by one, each touches their heart followed by a polite bow, a reminder that despite revelling in the harmonisation between man and machine, Kraftwerk are human after all.
Kraftwerk's series of gigs at the Tate Modern finishes this evening. Find more info at tate.org.uk.