Kraftwerk perform Radio-Activity
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- Tate Modern, Bankside »
It may sound an antithetical thing to say about four aging Teutonic intellectuals dressed unflatteringly in figure-hugging grid-patterned bodysuits, but no band has concerned itself more precisely with how it is perceived than Kraftwerk. The visuals have always been as precisely engineered as the music, and this concert, the second in a chronological series of eight, each presenting an album from a rich back catalogue, is about much more than entertaining the meagre audience that mottles Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.
In this cathedral of contemporary culture, Kraftwerk’s third gallery residency (following stints in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen) is an act of canonisation. Of course, Kraftwerk have long been assured their place in the pantheon of popular music; here they are concerned with sealing pop music’s position in the annals of art history. By placing their albums in the same surroundings as the Hockneys, Warhols and Lichtensteins upstairs, Kraftwerk affirm that their art pop is equal to any pop art.
Above their shows or individual songs, Kraftwerk’s albums are their masterpieces: if they are to become relics, let them be forever venerated. These shows explicitly forward albums as great works of art. To push the point home there are even Tate programme notes on the individual album that is to be presented each night. And at a moment when the album, both as sequence of songs and physical object with associated artwork, is a medium under threat, assuring his are recognised in a context beyond music may seem more important than ever before to Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s sole enduring member.
Radio-Activity may be the Kraftwerk record most suited to this affect. Of its dual themes - 'radio-activity and the activity of the radio' as the programme notes phrase it - its principal concern is the latter. Like everyone of his generation who fell in love with pop music, Hütter (along the bandmates he recorded the album with, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür) would have done so by listening to the radio. Consequently Radio-Activity was from inception a record underscored with nostalgia. A hymnal to one of the twentieth century’s great means of disseminating music to the masses, it also proves an ideal tool to honour the album itself.
The grand 3D visuals accompanying the songs from Radio-Activity convey this nostalgia. They may utilise the latest technology but, just as the album’s original cover presented a Thirties radio, they feature an archaic aesthetic. Simplistic diagrams vie with black and white images of radio transmitters that recall the logo of RKO Radio Pictures – a company defunct more than a decade before the album’s release. Where the visuals that back the rest of the night’s performance – wonderfully, Kraftwerk add a greatest hits set onto the end of the album show – are largely contemporaneous to their recordings, these deliberately hark back yet further.
The images are frequently as daft as they are deft. The giant cartoon hand that turns a dial during ‘Radioland’ sends an audible ripple of laughter across the floor. The ohm symbol that processes through the air over the band’s heads during ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ is more than faintly ridiculous. It’s not that Kraftwerk don’t know this. They are, after all, stood on stage dressed like West German veterans of an interminable version of Tron. Like all good pop artists, Kraftwerk reserve humour in amongst their arsenal. Mixing high and low culture is their forte: the rigorous application of complex musical and mechanical technique to yield ‘simple’ pop songs is how, from )Radio-Activity onwards, they made their name.
The formula holds. The songs are still beautiful. The album is still great and, as expected, it is consummately executed. But for all its glories, the performance of Radio-Activity is not there for the assembled audience, but frozen for posterity. Indeed, the audience itself are a lucky cross-section of those who wish they were there. A tiny proportion of those who logged on to crash the Tate’s site are able to present - with a maximum of 900 tickets sold for each night (more than a quarter of that number appeared to be reserved for critics) - the capacity seemed way below what it ought to have been. It was quite easy to stretch out and wander right down to the very front at any point in the course of the night. If there were twice as many people filling the hall it wouldn’t have seemed packed so much as less bare. If Kraftwerk were doing this for their fans, they could find a way of doing it for many more of them.
But once Radio-Activity has been hung on a wall, its legacy confirmed, that greatest hits set is just for those inside Turbine Hall. Also presented chronologically, the songs to demonstrate how music itself developed under Kraftwerk’s tutelage. Over one half, albeit one song, from Autobahn Kraftwerk define their journey into the future. ‘Trans Europe Express’ cracks like a jackhammer, hurling Afrika Bambaataa at our brains on the way. We are treated to two thirds of The Man Machine’s perfect pop. Four songs from ‘Computer World’ are Kraftwerk past defining our present, and getting it pretty much spot on. Eventually we we become lost in music with versions of ‘Tour de France’ and ‘Planet of Visions'. The concluding ‘Music Non Stop’ (a mash of elements from ‘Musique Non Stop’, ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ and ‘Techno Pop’ that first appeared on the live Minimum Maximum album) even sees each member of the band given a solo behind their own individual pedestal, before one by one they exit stage left, taking a lonely bow.
There may have been updated lyrics to the song ‘Radioactivity’ to reference Fukishima (supplementing the 1991 version’s lines about “Tschernobyl, Harrisburgh Sellafield, Hiroshima”), but as forward looking as they remain, Kraftwerk’s principle achievements are of the twentieth century. Over eight shows they will show just how great their contribution has been. Whatever their aims or ambitions for these shows, Kraftwerk have succeeded in making a great exhibition of themselves once again.
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