Kraftwerk: Düsseldorf's answer to the Rolling Stones set to cause chaos at Tate

Demand for Kraftwerk's series of shows at Tate Modern crashed the gallery's website. Nick Hasted celebrates their astounding, pioneering past, and laments their empty present
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The Tate Modern's 21st century technology couldn't cope. Demand for eight February shows by Kraftwerk at the gallery was so intense, the site crashed.

It could have been tickets for the Rolling Stones on sale, and the Düsseldorf band are electronic music's equivalent: so incalculably influential, it's impossible to perform in their field without falling under their work's long shadow. Kraftwerk are also like the Stones in a less fortunate way. They have recorded nothing of consequence in 30 years, existing on rare, ravenously consumed, barnstorming live resumes of a glorious past.

Kraftwerk's members grew up in a landscape laid waste by Allied bombs and the scarring schisms between East and West Germany, and between their parents' Holocaust-guilty generation and their own. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were at the band's creative heart, mostly alongside percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, through the classic sequence of albums that will dominate the Tate shows. The pair met at Düsseldorf Conservatory in 1968, influenced by Schoenberg, but drawn more to the Detroit car-factory-inspired punk clatter of the Stooges, the repetitive drones John Cale brought to the Velvet Underground, and the perfect pop and pulsing surf mantras of Brian Wilson. This was all subsumed into their utopian vision of Germany, and Europe. Their 1977 song “Europe Endless” invoked a future of perfected sound, unrolling as infinitely as the autobahn that gave their fourth album its title.

A guitarist, Klaus Roeder, was jettisoned after Autobahn (1974), surged into the transatlantic Top Five. Synthesisers and streamlined rhythms were Kraftwerk's tools. Most determinedly, they embraced the present. As the NME noted in 1976: “They are actually very old-fashioned realists… they use music to imitate their surroundings.” Motorways, trains, pocket calculators and computers populated the lyrics of the great run of records which also included Radio-Activity (1975) and Trans-Europe Express (1977), and ended with Computer World (1981). Their image, composed in consultation with their visual collaborator Emil Schult, veered between the fusty formality of suited businessmen, and the showroom dummies with car-assembly-tool hands who replaced them on stage during “The Robots”. Hütter often refers longingly to “The Man-Machine” as Kraftwerk's ideal state.

David Bowie so adored the band, he moved to their country in 1977 to make his celebrated “Berlin” trilogy of albums. The British synth-pop wave of the early 1980s, The Human League, Depeche Mode and the rest, followed his lead. Kraftwerk's 1981 No 1 UK hit “The Model” was a tribute to their ubiquity. The most unlikely and lasting chain-reaction was sparked in black America, where their coldly glistening, narcotically calming mechanical funk was heard with shocked understanding, and revolutionary impact.

“I don't think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in '77, when they came out with Trans-Europe Express,” hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa has said. “I thought that was one of the best and weirdest records I ever heard in my life. It was funky.” Bambaataa's 1982 “Planet Rock” single sampled them to create one of hip-hop's foundation stones. When Derrick May and Carl Craig heard Kraftwerk on Detroit's outskirts later in the 1980s, they created techno.

That's the story of the classic electronic-rock act whose name still means enough to crash the systems of a major British institution. But there will be nothing new to hear from them in February. After Computer World came the disappointing, largely ignored Electric Café; a 1991 return to live work after a decade's absence, greeted with similar clamour to now (a trick the Stones also pulled at about the same time; both have done so ever since); a double-album of remixes, The Mix (1991); and a cycling concept album based on their 1983 single “Tour de France”, Tour de France Soundtracks (2003). And more remixes of old work, reworked yet again in further, increasingly exclusive shows. Where has Kraftwerk's future gone?

It is locked, so Ralf Hütter says, in Kling Klang, the Düsseldorf studio where Kraftwerk have created all their music since the 1970s. They clock in daily at 5pm then clock off at 1am, the bunker's air-conditioning and electric light creating a claustrophobically artificial environment, where Hütter claims work rarely stops. The lack of end-results led to Bartos, Flur and in 2008 even Schroeder abandoning this sonic laboratory, where no stranger has entered. Hütter insists everything is fine. But there has been no evidence of new ideas or sounds.

“You have to reach a point where you can continue,” Schult said to journalist Simon Witter of the weight of achievement which may be incapacitating his old friend, “and that gets more difficult.” Kling Klang in 2012 resembles electronica's equivalent of Citizen Kane's Xanadu. All Kraftwerk's equipment is reputedly kept in working order, awaiting a call to reactivate which will never come. The prodigious work Hütter says is being constantly done recalls Answered Prayers, the novel Truman Capote supposedly worked on from 1966 until his death in 1984. His publisher searched in vain for the masterpiece he'd been repeatedly promised.

Perhaps that's all Kraftwerk's future amounts. Our present is so indebted to their past that we shouldn't complain.

Kraftwerk play Tate Modern, London SE1, from 6 to 14 February

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine