Are you onboard with Kraftwerk? The Deutsche electronic music pioneers are far better known now than when they created their definitive romantic/ascetic albums in the seventies. In fact a halo of electronic divinity now surrounds a band whose membership grew then shrunk and at one point even toured a set of robotic dummies instead of live musicians.
When I saw them in Melbourne in 2005, the four enigmatic figures standing at their consoles might actually have been those facsimiles, except for Ralf Hütter’s slightly wavering vocals and the very occasional un-programmed twitch. But let’s go back to the studio for a moment.
After meticulously restoring (and tweaking) that part of the Kraftwerk catalogue Hütter and Schneider acknowledge—the first three electro-acoustic albums have disappeared from their memories, apparently—it was decided to tour re-arranged versions of each album at various venues around the world, accompanied by new fancy visuals enjoyed by an audience equipped with fifties 3-D glasses.
The concerts were recorded (beautifully), edited (painstakingly) and released as an eight disc (nine LP) boxed set. If you are without memories of the actual performances (as most of us are) then this re-jigged set is a slightly disconcerting concert experience. There is no audience noise at all, the sound—including the placement of effects and ‘instruments’ on the aural sound stage—is unbelievably good, and the music itself has all the discomforting familiarity of someone who you knew intimately ages ago but kind of looks different now. Better or just different? Let’s find out.
In the four+ decades since the release of Autobahn, the freeways of Kraftwerk’s homeland have become turgid with automobile cholesterol. Not so this 21st C re-imagining. It is spacious and airy with new melodic material adding zip and dash. Though at under fifteen minutes for the title journey, this trip is too short.
Side two is remarkably faithful to the spacey ambience of the original. The upgraded sonic quality is superb.
There was always something melancholy about the electronic dance of Radio-aktivät. This new version has even more space, letting the austere, spectral beauty seep through. When an unexpectedly romantic “Ohm Sweet Ohm” closes out the album, it is deeply moving. A long half-life on this one.
Readers will know of my love of this 1977 album. Sadly, it is not well served by this performance. While the recording of the pieces is fine—a change of route can refresh a familiar journey—somehow the pre-war patina personified by the original album photographs is digitised away. Moreover, at 24 minutes (in total), TEE is indeed an express, a disappointment for those anticipating the full railway experience.
Re-arranging the order of tracks can be as potent as rearranging the music. Here, the 1978 classic gets an upgrade in both departments. The re-ordering is fascinating. By swapping the opening and closing songs, the album gains confidence and authority. “The Man-Machine” sets the digital stage for some of the bands most memorable songs. “Metropolis” pulses with electricity as “The Model” struts and “Neon Lights” reflect a kind of futuristic nostalgia. At the end of the day/century/epoch, we are “The Robots”. Is it good? Affirmative.
Computer World is crammed with jaunty synthesised rhythms and deadpan humour. both are captured and enhanced in this live version. In particular, all the little auditory jokes—runs, pans, effects—are a delight. It’s like Kraftwerk channelling Yellow Magic Orchestra’s tribute version of the original. The German pioneers beamed themselves into the future and verily, it was good.
The least favourite album of most fans, El Caf gets equal status with the classics in this box. Why not, if you can spruce it up sufficiently to invite reappraisal? But have they succeeded?
Depends where you start. Following the traditional side A -> side B approach doesn’t offer much in the way of invigoration. The brilliance of Kraftwerk was to imbue their technology with an electronic soul. The tension between factory and worker was what made the music both immediate and timeless. Here, the first side has all the all the engagement of a box of diodes. But surprisingly, delightfully, the second side—which opens with “Electric Café” before moving seamlessly through “The Telephone Call”, “House phone” and “Sex Object”—connects wonderfully well. Is it the sampled voices? The nostalgia of landline telephones? Who knows. This was the surprise ‘hit’ side for me.
That Kraftwerk consider 1991’s The Mix an album in its own right is eccentric, if not downright perverse. The Mix, released simultaneously in English and Deutsch versions, was a novel—perhaps even ground breaking—idea. Tweak and remix your own tracks; be your own mixmaster. Godfathers of techno indeed.
So if you are really keen, you bought the original re-jigged ‘Best of’ album in both languages. Then the 3-D ‘sampler’ disc, containing edits of the live pieces that appear on the 2LP version of the box set. Four copies, all the same, all different. Serves you bloody right, I reckon.
#8—TOUR DE FRANCE
Ralf Hütter has been an avid cyclist for many years so perhaps it is not surprising that the world’s most famous bicycle race inspired Kraftwerk’s 2003 comeback album. The breathy lyrics, puffing to the foreground, result in a human-lead journey into the strange obsessive world of professional cycling. It’s slightly disconcerting until the peloton settles down into an updated yet entirely recognisable Kraftwerk groove. “Vitamin” is one of several highlights in this polished version of and under-rated album. Note: Just as Tour is the longest studio album, so to is this live version, completing the time trial in 38 minutes.
You’ll have noticed a consistent theme of shortened albums. I have no idea why this was deemed necessary. Has our collective attention span shrunk so much in the past three decades? Actually, it probably has. Now what was I saying? Something about the money or the box?
If you fancy a slimmed down, updated version of the Kraftwerk opus and have a pot of money sitting round doing nothing, 3-D: The Catalogue could be for you.
For completists I guess it’s a must. That’s the kind of verrükte Menchen we are.
But really, I’d say go out and get the individual albums. This set is nice and looks great in its minimalist block colour glory, each sleeve echoing the primary colour of the parent album, but the originals are essential. They are the real legacy of a game-changing band.