The eye of the gig replacement therapy beast – filling the gap where live shows used to go – this week falls on Kraftwerk. Specifically, their Catalogue shows in 2013 where they played their key albums in full over four nights at the Sydney Opera House, with the audience given 3D glasses for that extra “holy shit is that a spear coming at my face” effect.
For Wind Back Wednesday it’s also partly a nod to founding member Florian Schneider, whose death was announced last week. Though he was no longer in the band at the time of these shows, his aesthetic and his conceptualising was still evident in everything they did.
Sydney Opera House, May 24-25
The gasps were genuine, like schoolkids offered their first glimpse at the showbag pavilion at the Easter Show. “Oh wow,” someone loudly, involuntarily, then exclaimed behind me, followed by giggles of pleasure across the room as the same thought hit.
It would not have surprised anyone if in this supposedly cynical (but actually excessively prone to over-praising) town a standing ovation had erupted before more than a synthesised note or two had been played. Excited much?
There had been palpable enthusiasm as the lights went down and a greeting in German confirmed we were in the right room. There were cheers as the curtain lifted to show four middle aged men in cross-hatched outfits somewhere between Star Trek and an alternative Wiggles, standing behind consoles in what seemed like dimmer spotlight – actually the effect of the cardboard and plastic glasses we were wearing – and moving their hands about on them mysteriously.
But as images began appearing on the screen behind them, turning and then heading towards us in vivid clarity and at pace, the response was immediate. You can debate the merits of 3D in over-caffeinated film drama all you like but here we all reverted to days of short pants and long straws: thrilled by the “view” from the rear vision mirror of the VW as Autobahn powered; pushed back by the power of the locomotive inexorably forging ahead in the early moments of Europe Endless; or ducking our heads instinctively as letters and symbols tumbled “over” us in Musique Non Stop.
Halfway through the four night/eight album run by Kraftwerk and I had much more than an impressive collection of 3D glasses, a parking bill already building nicely and a case of gig envy when hearing about the Bobby Womack show.
I had discovered that positively ancient graphics technology (the Autobahn animation looked as basic as my knowledge of the inner workings of a VW) works just as effectively as trippy modern effects - but that trippy modern effects sure do tickle you up.
In a related thought, I had learnt that music made in the early 1970s did not have to sound like the audio equivalent of embarrassing florid ties and big collars. And that whatever era, nothing beats the hush of an ambient bed seemingly heading endlessly outwards and the rush of a big beat kick as some nonsense words (Boing Boom Tschak, for example) smack you.
For all that, this shouldn’t really be that important a series of nights. The machinery has been updated but the principles are the same; there is only one original Werker (Ralf Hutter, looking a little more portly, a lot less coolly robotic and clearly quite pleased with what was going on around him); and no one has been writing in the papers about Hutter and friends possibly dropping into Wee Waa, or Waverly for that matter.
What’s more, if you did see more than one show, as several of us were, you would get a little too much of the same songs in the non-album/greatest hits section of each show.
However, if there is a summary of these four shows it is this: Kraftwerk in thought and deed were genuinely and - with the benefit of 30 years hindsight and a comfortable seat in the opera theatre - obviously, doing something timeless.
There is so much about this music which still feels futuristic. It’s the locked-in rhythm meeting the human breathing of Tour de France (in two, connected versions) and it’s in the hum of life and the threat of destruction in Radioactivity (now with added Fukushima references). It’s in the progress of The Robots meeting the historical temptations of The Model.
And in the end, it’s in the way The Man Machine is both promising and already true. Like Kraftwerk.
Florian Schneider: born, Dusseldorf, 1947; died 2020.