Simon Price on Kraftwerk: Are we nearly at the future yet?

A band called ‘power station’ plays its power station album in a former power station – you can’t fault Kraftwerk for effort

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The moment Kraftwerk were born was the moment the ink dried on the Potsdam Agreement. It wasn't only the victors of the Second World War who underwent a baby boom. The vanquished did too. Ralf Hutter (born August 1946) and Florian Schneider (April 1947) were Marshall Plan kids, who reached maturity at a time when nostalgia for the art and artefacts of their homeland was unconscionable. The only way was forward. This is why, while the Britain of the early Seventies wallowed in The Faces and Free, and America in Creedence and Skynyrd, West Germany gave us Kraftwerk. This is why, for many of us, a Kraftwerkian "ein, zwei, drei, vier" is as iconic as a Ramonian "onetwothreefour".

In stark contrast to other early electronic acts, Kraftwerk had arrived at a disciplined, diligent sound, described by Lester Bangs as "the Cybernetic Inevitable". And there's a case to be made that the inevitable conclusion of this aesthetic is an eight-day, one-album-a-night, 3D-heavy residency at Tate Modern, of which I choose to attend the second, Radio-Activity.

Beginning with a crackling Geiger counter and a morse code bleep spelling out the word "radioactivity", it's a concept album which initially appears to invite us to imagine radiation as a thing of beauty. Its title track, however, is a deeply ambivalent hymn to atomic energy, its melody radiating utopian optimism, its naive lyrics ("Radioactivity/Is in the air for you and me/Discovered by Madame Curie") seeming to play along, but the sinister underlying chords counselling caution. Tellingly, the updated version lists the locations of disasters or near-disasters (Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Fukushima, Sellafield).

Conceptually, it's almost too perfect: Kraftwerk, which means "power station", inside a former power station, performing an album about power stations! But it's arguable that, rather than a cutesy stunt, these shows are the logical culmination of the entire Kraftwerk programme. As early as 1991, Hutter was speaking of "holistic" art, or Gesamtkunstwerk, and telling Melody Maker that "music, software and images are our medium".

The 3D element doesn't always dazzle, even if there's something inadvertently apt about the sight of hundreds of people in cardboard glasses staring the same way, like witnesses to some 1950s A-bomb test at Christmas Island. And there's something old-fashioned and Sputnik-era about the graphics. The Milky Way looks like dots on a flat plane, rather than stars hanging in a space of infinite depth. That said, the Ohm symbol floating during "Ohm Sweet Ohm" receives mind-blown "woahs" from the assembled.

Things improve for the hits section. For "Autobahn" it's a wheel's eye view of a VW Beetle cruising towards a silhouette of industrial Dusseldorf. For "Trans-Europe Express" it's Vorticist railway lines in immaculate perspective. For "The Model", however, there's no 3D, and the performance sounds strangely live and human. Or, at least, semi-human. With such an enormous screen behind them, it's easy to forget that there are four men standing behind synthesisers. Only one was a member of the line-up who recorded Radio-Activity. Since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, Hutter is the sole original, filling the spare berths with technicians who might as well be Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. Some long-time fans refer to this incarnation as "Ralfwerk". There's only one solution: Ralf must be fired, and this show must be sent on a never-ending world tour, manned by showroom dummies and updated by new custodians with each new technological advance. You want the "Cybernetic Inevitable"? There it is.

As the frankly awful name Iggy Azalea would suggest, this Australian rapper, born Amethyst Amelia Kelly, has an act that's made up of other people's spare parts. Stylistically, the 22-year-old former model is a mash-up of previous pugnacious, potty-mouthed white-girls – Uffie, Peaches, Princess Superstar – while visually, with her hotpants, PVC thigh-boots and peroxide pony-tail, she owes a debt to Gwen Stefani.

"Pussy" is as cunnilingus-fixated as her near-namesake Banks' "212" ("open ya mouth, taste the rainbow ..."), while "My World" actually namechecks pop's original Iggy. But if the dirty, booty-shakin' beats of new single "Work" are anything to go by, this mix-and-match MC may have enough about her that's original to survive. And if she doesn't, she's gonna die with her boots on.

Next week

Simon Price catches the comeback of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Critic's choice

Eleven-piece folk-rock collective Bellowhead play Oxford New Theatre (Wed); Sheffield City Hall (Thu); Poole Lighthouse (Fri); Warwick Arts Centre (Sat) and Ipswich Regent Theatre (Sun). Meanwhile, increasingly poptastic electro-indie quartet Everything Everything follow their second album Arc with shows at Cambridge Junction (Mon); Birmingham Library (Tue); Heaven, London (Wed); Oxford Academy (Thu) and Sheffield Leadmill (Sat).