As far as hottest tickets in town go, the Kraftwerk retrospective in Tate Modern raised irate hackles on both sides of the Irish Sea after its online ticketing system collapsed. Two minutes after going on sale, State went the phone call route and ended up losing more friends than gaining when we got out of bed that morning with a brace of tickets in the bag.
The fruits of our good fortune sees us approach the turbine hall, past the calm, efficient and politely British ticket collection system and into the bar with a set of 3D glasses in our fist in a night-specific envelope. Groups have come in the red shirt-black tie combo, and one of the State team sees it an occasion big enough to break out a sky blue fur Vivienne Westwood crombie. It’s a special occasion after all, as tonight Kraftwerk perform 1978’s The Man Machine in its entirety, in the fourth show of The Catalogue series of eight here in Tate Modern’s turbine hall. With almost all the cosy 1000-person audience in the bar it’s clear that Men Of A Certain Age are 80 to 90% of the assembled. When the doors to the hall are opened we move down the ramp, grabbing a cushion on the way, for what reason we are yet unaware.
The full hall is not being used, but just a small part of it with an incline leading down to that stage which we are encouraged to sit on. It means there are no real bad seats so we take a chance and get close to the front. When the curtain drops at precisely 10.30pm it’s clear we’ll never get closer to Kraftwerk. Merely 10 metres from the relatively small stage, the myth is somewhat upset by being close enough to see sweat on their brows, if of course they broke a sweat.
The intimate event hasn’t the usual panorama screen but we do have 3D, the bitmapped polyglottal text ’MAN’ ’MASCHINE’ standing out over us to herald the start. The four Germans are clothed in their neon-piping suits, inch perfect and not a hair out of place on the two and a half of them with hair left. Everyone stands up almost immediately so the space becomes very roomy and comfortable.
The sound is perfect of course, but it’s a bit too low. Comments can be whispered to each other and there’s no physical feeling of the music, such as the bass in your chest. The visuals are almost everything, the venue itself not really playing a role (well the Main hall is still portioned off for exhibitions). Simplistic in approach, some visuals work better than others in the 3D, but the zooming space probe during ‘Spacelab’ is a duck-the-head moment. In no time we are moving through ’The Model’, Ralf Hutter throwing in some of the original German lyrics, his processed live voice still sounding like the recordings of 30 years ago. Logistically it was probably not going to happen, but nevertheless it’s a little sad that the robots don’t make an appearance for ’The Robots’. Some wonderful footage of the band as robots, all red-shirted and black-tied, does oversee it and three-dimensional mechanical arms wave across and out over the paper-spectacled masses.
Before we know it the familiar ’Autobahn’ roadsign appears and signals the end of The Man Machine but two hours were promised and it is here when things seem to click finally into place. The volume seems much higher, everyone has settled in and the long drive past all manner of cleanly rendered German-made cars on the screen above sucks attentions in and it just feels that everything has engaged. Just in time for ’Radioactivity’ too. Updated to “Stop Radioactivity”, the names ’Hiroshima’, ’Sellafield’, ’Fukushima’ floating out and hovering above us as the radiation hazard symbol pulses behind in a red and yellow tunnel. From there on in we’re completely suckered in, and unaware of surroundings – glued to the 3D and just letting it all flow in till a long two hours comes to a close, the band departing one by one.
An unusually intimate concert with these pioneers of the modernist aesthetic which finally, on the night, reached the perfect blend of warmth and technical precision, of soulfulness and structure, of Man and, of course, Maschine.