Kraftwerk perform their 2003 album Tour de France in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, 14th February.
As a child I remember stepping into the Turbine Hall and feeling absolutely overwhelmed by such a fascinatingly vast space. The immense cavity, the high ceiling and enormous windows – how bleak and industrial it was, yet at the same time how beautiful, how inspiring. That sensation of bewilderment stayed with me throughout the years, and, when I returned to London as a teenager I was taken aback by that very same feeling. Some years ago, I spent two weeks here completely on my own, and during that time I’d often return to Tate Modern because of that feeling of familiarity and comfort that the space conveyed to me. In the past few months, again, the Turbine Hall has provided me with a refuge in times of need, so much so that I might consider it to be my favourite place in the whole city. When I moved here last September I went through a first few days feeling insecure about my new life, and it was walking through the Turbine Hall with a dear friend that I remembered why I came to London in the first place.
Now, here I am again, in this immense atrium, about to see Kraftwerk perform live. And quite suitably so – what better place for this historic band to play than a former power station? (Kraftwerk in fact means “power station” in German.) This is the last night of Kraftwerk’s The Catalogue tour, consisting of eight nights, eight albums, in chronological order. For some people tonight is Valentine’s Day. For the eight hundred people standing around me it’s the chance to experience the band’s 2003 album Tour de France live.
Back in December, these pioneers of electronic music broke the internet as Tate Modern’s website crashed within minutes of the tickets going on sale. (Buying the tickets turned out to be quite a feat because of the high demand. I came across this review which brilliantly describes the irony of those circumstances and how a few lucky people, including me, managed to secure tickets.) Yet a small part of me still thinks that it might all have been a very cleverly planned piece of conceptual art… Thousands of people repeatedly tapping away on their mobile phones, dialling the gallery’s number over and over again hoping to buy tickets, only to find a permanent engaged tone. A constant electronic rhythm of beeping, bleeping and pressing of buttons, not completely dissimilar to some of Kraftwerk’s music. But mainly yeah, what I really want is to experience a mind blowing show, which seems promising enough due to the expected performance time of two hours, and the 3D glasses we’re handed at the door, amongst other things.
Finding a decent spot with a good view isn’t too difficult. The crowd stands spread out on the sloped floor of the Turbine Hall, waiting for the show to commence. The lights dim and the curtain rises to reveal a stage equipped with a large screen and the band’s mysterious consoles. Behind them, dressed in tight-fitting body suits, stand the four members of Kraftwerk – of which Ralf Hütter is the only remaining founding member. The Tour de France begins.
The effect is incredible right from the start. We slip on our 3D glasses and the footage on the screen jumps out at us: black and white images of cyclist’s calf-muscles pumping away, the street speeding underneath their wheels. Minimal red-white-and-blue graphics overlap original vintage Tour de France videos and the result is a real treat for both ears and eyes. I’ve never been a fan of 3D effects, but this, this is really something. The band manoeuvres a strangely quiet crowd through the three Étapes and subsequently slides into Chrono. A large vitamin tablet drops into a glass of water on the screen and starts fizzing, sending miniscule effervescent bubbles into the audience. The bas-relief images of hundreds of pills, capsules and tablets slowly floating out of the screen amplify the entrancing effect of the catchy lyrics of Vitamin: “Car-bo-hy-drat Protein, A-B-C-D Vitamin”. The deep throbbing basses of Aero Dynamic, again accompanied by beautifully minimalistic graphics, give way to a mesmerising Elektro Kardiogramm. The effect is incredibly powerful as an intense, rhythmic heartbeat mechanically pumps away, followed by deep, cadenced breathing, transmitted in full volume into the Tate’s vast Turbine Hall. I close my eyes and stand perfectly still to absorb the full effect, letting my body sink into that rhythmic pulse. That’s the thing about the whole 3D show going on in the background; as beautifully suitable as the imagery is, I sometimes find it a little distracting. For a visual person like me, it’s almost impossible to detach myself from the striking visuals and focus entirely on the music and the sensual experience my hearing is going through. I open my eyes and turn around, smiling at the sight of hundreds of people staring out in front of themselves in their white 3D glasses, completely captivated. From sensory to sensual, as Ralf and co. launch into La Forme, before picking up a more energetic tempo. The accelerated heartbeat and rhythmic breathing of Elektro Kardiogramm are recalled in the intro of Tour de France (song), which in a way (and quite rightly so) seems to sum up the entire album.
Thing is, the way the floor of the Turbine Hall is inclined, by the end of the album it feels as if I really have been cycling. During any other show I might’ve been a little bit annoyed, but in this case it seems to add to the overall effect. I don’t even realise it’s the end of the album. There’s a brief pause, followed by the sound of a car engine revving, and before I know it an old-school computer generated animation of a motorway is accompanying Kraftwerk’s 1974 Autobahn. (NB. I refrained from reading any reviews before seeing the show, or before writing my own review, so this comes as an exciting surprise to me.) The second half of the show is made up entirely of a retrospect of Kraftwerk’s best-known songs (you really can’t call them greatest hits, can you?) album by album, starting from Autobahn and ending with Techno Pop. My highlights have to be: The Robots – a manifesto for this evergrowing love affair between man and machine; Spacelab, with its hypnotic melodies and suggestive sound effects; and Neon Lights, accompanied on the screen by images of old neon signs, a colourful composition of overlapping lines which takes my mind back to William Klein’s Broadway by Light – how perfectly it would fit. Then there’s Radioactivity, compellingly entrancing and rendered excruciatingly contemporary by the addition of “Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Fukushima” to the original lyrics. This tour de force finishes with Music Non Stop slowly coming to an end as the band members leave the stage one by one, leaving only Ralf Hütter to part with the audience as he utters the first non-synthesised words: “Thank you”.
There’s something about the computer generated images, the 3D glasses, the fact that we can’t really see what the band is doing on those strange consoles, and the camera-phones held up to document the show, glowing their pale, aseptic light, that makes me think that today’s world is no different from the imagined future of the 1970s. I don’t know whether forty years ago Kraftwerk could foresee people walking around with headphones plugged deep into their ears, sitting on automatic trains reading from Kindles and iPads, mobile phones stuck to their hands because they’re incapable of functioning without them,… but in a way it goes to prove that they really were ahead of their time, and strangely enough still might be. So, not only are they one of the most influential bands in history, but quite possibly they are also geniuses.