Technology played a central role in Friday night's Kraftwerk show at The Orpheum.
Kraftwerk’s signature song is “The Robots,” and for much of its career, the members deliberately performed as if they were mechanical, dispassionately executing the task at hand. At the Orpheum Friday, the members gently rocked and occasionally leaned forward to tweak the keyboards spread out on the four identical, neon-bordered pedestals that they stood behind. They looked like bankers dressed for battle in the remake of Tron, and by ordinary band standards, were stiff and motionless. By Kraftwerk’s man-machine-like standards though, they might as well have been One Direction.
In the early ‘70s, a band built on robotic principles was punk before punk. It a world where Eric Clapton, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes were revered, a band that didn’t rock out stood in stiff, stationary opposition to the dominant values of the time. Ralf Hütter sang through a Vocoder, eliminating another expressive element from Kraftwerk’s sound—the human voice—and gave the band an escape hatch through time that few of its contemporaries enjoy. Kraftwerk’s melodies don’t challenge Hütter’s vocal range, but the technology obscures any fragility that may accompany age. Hütter is also the only remaining member from the original lineup, and while that would often be a cause to look askance at a band, individual identity is irrelevant in Kraftwerk’s compositions. The parts sound the same, regardless of who plays them, so while it’s hard to imagine Kraftwerk outlasting Hütter, there’s no reason that it can’t.
Although the songs are firmly blueprinted and played as mechanically as possible, the machine can do different things from time to time. Before the show, I listened to a Kraftwerk live show from 1981 and the machine was more abrasive and attacking. Friday night, it had incorporated techno and remixed songs to make them more contemporary, which was a newish thing. Tour de France and Techno Pop showed Kraftwerk in touch with modern trends in electronic music, but many Kraftwerk songs are more accurately heard on record as minimalist pop songs. Live though, “Computer Love” retained its air of fragile melancholy as the song invited you to dance away the sadness of another lonely night 20 years into the future.
As much a technological future is central to Kraftwerk’s music—far more so than people or their relationships—the future they invoke is a retro one. The show’s visuals were 3-D and required the square, paper 3-D glasses—albeit with two clear lenses—and in “Spacelab” they even reached back to the ‘50s as a satellite that threatened to impale the audience on its antenna as it slowly moved our way. Often, the graphics were simply antiquated, but charmingly so. “Trans Europe Express” was accompanied by a black and white line drawing of a train that was cutting edge videogame technology circa 1980, while floating geometric shapes and oppressive, rectilinear cityscapes recalled modernist art movements that were progressive in their day.
The show Friday night raised the specter that Kraftwerk, like 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and countless other science fiction entities, lasted long enough to be proven wrong. The futures they predicted didn’t come to pass. But thinking about Kraftwerk in those terms might be wrong. Today, robots exist and they are machines built to do specific tasks, while in Kraftwerk’s world, they’re updated versions of classic science fiction robots—automatons built to resemble humans down to their plastic skin and hair. When Kraftwerk performed “The Robots” for the first encore, they simply put mannequins in the band’s once-trademark red shirt and black pants, and those mannequins remained motionless behind their pedestals while the video screen presented the robots in limited motion. Those robots moved more gracefully and expressively than the musicians did, and the moment was funny as it took the band’s aesthetic to its natural conclusion.
Or did it? Is Kraftwerk’s fetish for mechanization an aspiration for perfection or a desire for emotional insulation? Since musical perfection could be achieved without the musicians, I’ve always suspected the latter. The twinges of sadness in some melodies and undeniable joy in the more buoyant rhythms hint that feelings are there, but they’re suppressed—almost. “The Model” examines the woman dispassionately, considering her solely as an image and series of actions, but the avoidance of her as a person feels, well, human. Not healthy, but human. “The Man-Machine” is as much about the man as the machine, and “Radioactivity” live has become an anti-nuclear fuel song. On record, it eerily likens the ambient nature of radioactivity to the equally ambient pop radio. Live now, the rear screen names the names of nuclear disaster sites and says bluntly, “Stop radioactivity.” The songs in lyric and music explore our relationship to technology, and in that way, they remain as on time now as they were when they were written.