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Radio-Activity in Tate Modern, February 7th 2013.

Kraftwerk in Tate Modern. Photo by A.M.
I've seen Kraftwerk four times. Firstly in 1991 on The Mix Tour at Brixton Academy. Next in 1992 at a “secret” warm-up gig at Norwich University before the Greenpeace show in Manchester. Then at the epic midnight show at Brixton in 2004 and (possibly but not necessarily) finally at Tate Modern. 

In the aftermath of David Cameron's speech on the European question and open discussion of a British exit from the E.U., the high-profile arrival of an explicitly European German group with a futuristic vision couldn't have been more timely.

The Robots. Photo by A.M.

All the Tate Modern shows opened with The Robots, possibly because the 3D effects are amongst the most impressive (at least on this particular night). The figures looked colossal and the monstrous, slowly rotating robot hands were both ridiculous and threatening.

I had never imagined I would see the majority of the Radio-Activity tracks live, let alone see the entire album performed in the Turbine Hall yet here I was. Radio-Activity gets less attention than it deserves, and seems overshadowed by it predecessor Autobahn and its successor Trans Europe Express.

Radio-Activity. Photo by A.M.
One explanation for this could be due to its political taintedness. In 1975 the title track was seen by some as unambiguously pro-nuclear – the most unsavoury expression of Kraftwerk's ardent technophilia. This view mistakes ambivalence and ambiguity for an overtly pro-nuclear stance yet whether it was justified or not, the fact that in 1991 Kraftwerk rather unsubtly engineered in the word “Stop” shows that they were sensitive to the criticism. There is also the question of the cover image: the old-time radio depicted on the sleeve can induce feelings of warm nostalgia for the golden age of radio, even in those too young to have experienced this. Yet it is not just any radio but a German radio (already enough to provoke some) and more specifically a Third Reich-era Deutsche Volksempfänger (DKE brand Model 38). So the album is marked by double fears of physical and technological-political contamination, demonstrating how Kraftwerk were subtly illuminating the darker aspects of the technological they seemed to be celebrating.

Then there is the mystical, other-worldly atmosphere that suffuses parts of the album, primarily the sublime Radioland but also Uranium and The Voice of Energy. It was especially good to see the lyrics used as an integral part of the 3D projections and it seemed that lyrics were used much more extensively in the Radio-Activity projections than for the tracks from other albums. The fact that the German as well as English lyrics were being used added another element and demonstrated what many serious Kraftwerk listeners know: the German lyrics seem to have a greater weight and seriousness. Seeing the line The Voice of Energy lyric Ich bin Ihr Diener und Ihr Herr zugleich

(I am your servant and lord at the same time) was especially striking. News/Nachtirchten projected a series of short headlines (including some on nuclear power), waves of text appearing and receding in response to the sounds, succeeding brilliantly in capturing the spirit of the original. The track sounded more digital and had a fuller bass but the effect was subtle and here you could see the advantage of performing the album in full as some of the shortest tracks are actually the most interesting.

We had incredibly high expectations for Radioland and Kraftwerk exceeded them. The sound was rich and warm and the stately grace of the original shone through. The animated image of the wireless showing the names of international stations was very delicately done and evoked the ever more historically distant romance of listening to distant radio transmissions (tuning into the shortwave bands nowadays is an increasingly unrewarding and melancholic experience as more and more stations are ceasing to use this most mystical of frequencies).

In general, apart from the title track, the album was subtly filled out and updated rather than radically overhauled in the way that some later Kraftwerk tracks have been and this worked very well. The same could be said of the visuals - some of the graphics already existed (see the booklet of the re-mastered 2009 edition of the album) but the newer elements were very much in sympathy with the spirit of the album.

Unfortunately the reception of Uranium and Transistor brought the phrase “pearls before swine” to mind. Some preferred to drink and chat with their mates loudly rather than paying attention to a historic performance (at least until they were curtly requested to keep the noise down.)

I imagine this wasn't such an issue during performances of the later albums, which are far less introspective and atmospheric. Ohm, Sweet Ohm (later used by Igor Vidmar and Laibach as a eulogy for Tomaž Hostnik and also memorably used at the end of the Chris Petit's film Radio On) sounded as majestic as ever but perhaps the clouds of floating 3D cellos on the projection were just a bit too kitsch.

From this it was straight into Autobahn, which is now accompanied by a long driving video which is charming but a little empty, although the sequence of 3D notes floating out of the car radio is charming. Trans Europe Express now features newer, more abstract visuals than before, primarily black and white and more functional than those used on the 2004 tour. This seems like a shame as the train footage used then and in 1991 is far more evocative and romantic than the new 3D visuals.

Finally getting to hear Spacelab live was a great pleasure. In a sense the fact that this dynamic track was being performed was enough in itself but it was played with conviction and energy. Yet again the same can't really be said of the visuals. The 1970s pulp-comic style drawing of a spaceship window through which we view repeated runs over the Earth didn't really convince. It seemed strangely amateur for Kraftwerk and detracted (deliberately?) from the epic nature of the track. However, the way in which the 3D satellite seemed to emerge into the audience was more impressive.

On the de rigueur and perfectly effective The Model the “classic” black and white visuals were left largely untouched (although perhaps here it would have been interesting to update these with more cyborg-like models). Sadly, The Man Machine itself was much weaker than the monumental version I heard at Brixton in 2004. It seemed lacking in bass and the main sequence seemed to falter at times.

This was followed by an unexpectedly long sequence from Computer World (which of course is one of the most important and prophetic releases). The 3D animated Numbers visuals worked well and the track was full of energy. Each time Computer World itself is performed it's more poignant as we're a night closer to the dystopian ideal of total surveillance the lyrics warned of in 1981. The retro computer visuals looked both more old-fashioned and more-advanced than when I've seen these tracks live previously and it's great to see that Kraftwerk can still maintain this retro-futurist tension even in the present day context. Computer Love (which in any case can never be quite the same again after Coldplay's desecration of it) didn't feel right – somehow slightly too fast and a little ragged. Kraftwerk seem to want to sound more live and at times that can work really well but at other moments things didn't quite cohere. Fortunately Home Computer and above all It's More Fun to Compute were much tighter and more powerful and the latter was one of the highlights of the second part of the show.

The opening chords of Tour De France were spellbinding and the original version came over very well, with the classic retro cycling footage seeming even more romantic than at previous performances, surprisingly they segued straight into the 2003 version where the 3D again worked well even if I again had the feeling that it had been a little more powerful back then. Then it was into Planet of Visions which was spirited but not wholly convincing. It might have been more interesting to see an upgraded live version of Expo 2000 itself. Here the visuals have a now-slightly-embarassing turn of the century feel to them that's it's hard to get past.

Knowing that I wouldn't be at the Techno-Pop performance I'd hoped to hear my old favourite The Telephone Call live for the first time but here there were no surprises, Krafwerk finished with the standard crowd-pleasers Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop and the traditional Musique Non Stop finale. These were all in good shape, though again I found the Boing Boom Tschak visuals a bit too kitschily pop for my liking although it's a playful track so maybe they're not so inappropriate. Techno Pop sounded great if maybe not quite as (positively) cold and clinical as I've heard in the past. A powerful version of Musique Non Stop seemed to pass by far too fast but it was great to see each Kraftwerker playing a brief solo sequence with relish. By the time his last bandmate began his solo, Ralf seemed to be in a very jovial mood, smiling benignly with crossed arms and nodding head.

So definitely a memorable night with some incredible moments, yet despite the monumental artistic context of Tate Modern and the historic thrill of seeing Radio-Activity it was less of a totality than the 2004 show. The inevitable DVD release of these shows will give a chance to assess the shows better, but I really hope that Radio-Activity is made available in full as it really deserves a wider audience.


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