In case you missed the blanket media coverage: last night Kraftwerk played the first of eight shows in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Out of the thousands of fans who had jammed the gallery’s phones and crashed its website trying to book tickets in December, 700 filed into Giles Gilbert Scott’s modernist monolith on Bankside, put on their Kraftwerk-branded 3D glasses, and, for two hours, turned the cavernous hall into an industrial-technological cathedral. Their idols were a quartet of aging, affable-looking Germans in lycra bodysuits standing in a row and fiddling with desks full of synthesisers. It was incredible.
Over the course of the eight nights, Kraftwerk are playing eight of their albums in chronological order – although they’ve rewritten their own history to cut out the bit in the early ’70s where they wore their hair long and played flute solos. They kicked off last night (after introducing themselves via ‘The Robots’) with ‘Autobahn’, their 1974 ode to motorway driving. The sound, coming out of a 31-channel surround-sound rig, was piercingly loud, perfectly clear (despite the high ceiling) and all-enveloping. Throughout the show, an enormous screen behind the band displayed 3D visuals which somehow managed to work with rather than against the music.
But with the upbeat, optimistic ‘Autobahn’ album out of the way, Die Fabelhaften Vier* launched into a full-on chronological retrospective and things took a turn for the dystopian. Over time Kraftwerk’s music evolved from classical melodies to jittery, fragmented dance rhythms and sampling. We were already a long way from the sunshine and motorway fun of ‘Autobahn’ during a stately, anti-nuclear take on ‘Radioactivity’ (with new Japanese lyrics about the Fukushima disaster), and when a pulsating field of digits jumped out of the screen in time with ‘Numbers’, the effect was intense and exhilarating, but also genuinely scary, like music dehumanised and broken down into data: the audio equivalent of information overload. It was a dark vision of a terrifying future, a concept that the Tate had thoughtfully extended to the price of drinks: presumably £5 is what a can of beer will actually cost in 2063.
At 11pm precisely, the four men-machine on stage excused themselves one by one, bowed, and disappeared. They left me and the 699 other witnesses to this feat of musical engineering with light wallets, eyes like saucers, and above all, electronic rhythms bouncing around the insides of our skulls. Actually, they’re still in there: music, non-stop. James Manning
* Yeah, that’s German for ‘The Fab Four’