BACK TO THE FUTURE?
'Back to the future?' is a review of Kraftwerk's May 1993 Concerts, by IC
Were it not for the unofficial networks such as Aktivität and the Kraftwerk e-mailing list, many Kraftwerk fans may have been unaware that the band have been active of late, performing a small number of concerts in Holland, Belgium and Germany at the end of May and in Austria during mid-June. As it happens, the gigs provided a good meeting place for fans who have previously known each other via letters or computerised communication.
Still, to the matter at hand; the gigs. There were three concerts performed during the last week of May; at the Oosterpoort in Groningen, which is in the North of Holland, on May 25th - at the Vooruit in Gent, Belgium on the following night, the 26th, and finally at the Stadthalle in Osnabrück, Germany on the 27th. This final gig was part of the Klang Art festival held from 26th-29th May in Osnabrück. It's probably fair to say that Kraftwerk's show was obviously viewed as one of the high-profile events of the festival. As well as these three gigs, the band also performed at another festival, the Ars Electronica festival held in Linz, Austria on June 17th.
Kraftwerk perform 'Computer Love' at the Klang Art concert, Osnabrück (Photo by IC)
So, lets get to the important bits first. Previous to these concerts there was a lot of speculation that they would be performing new songs. This did not happen. In a rather strange turn of events, the band have actually taken a backward step; as the first gig progressed it was obvious that they were performing the songs in the exact same order as for the 1991 tours. Except for one exception; the inclusion of 'Die Mensch Maschine', which, to my knowledge, was the first time that the band have ever performed this song live. So, if you know the set-list for the 1991 gigs all you have to do is insert 'Die Mensch Maschine' between 'Tour De France' and 'Autobahn' and - presto! - Kraftwerk 1993. Sort of...
Kraftwerk perform 'The Man Machine' at the Klang Art concert, Osnabrück (Photo by IC)
The layout of the stage-set is also back to the 1991 format; the ' v-shape ' layout. (For the three concerts in England in 1992 the band were in a straight line, facing the audience.) One notable difference though was the addition of what I believe are called 'Vari-Lights'. These computer controlled spotlights were used quite sparingly really and the overall level of lighting on stage is still pretty dim. More often than not these new lights were illuminating the Kling Klang equipment more than the men with their fingers and feet on the controls!
There have been live reviews in previous issues of Aktivität of the 1991-era live shows and since these were so similar it seems inappropriate to devote even more column inches in what can only be a reprise. So, here are some details of the notable differences. 'Die Mensch Maschine'; the 1993 version is not too drastically different from the original LP mix in fact. The song kicks off with a different start, the 'electronic voice' on its own with the familiar 'man machine, machine, machine...' passage. The unmistakable rhythm of the song then commences and the jerky electronic tones of the tune join in. These are still very similar to the original version. However, the rhythm has been beefed-up though it has not had a 'four-from-the-floor' bass drum tattoo grafted on I am glad to report. Such a rhythm would perhaps wreck this particular tracks symmetry. The electronic voice is different though, sounding more like examples to be found on 'The Mix' instead of the more vocoder-ish original. The song is longer than the original version too.
Obviously, there are graphics to accompany the track displayed on the screens. These are relatively simple, based on the lettering from the LP sleeve and in particular inspired by the geometrical graphics from the rear of the cover and are all in black, white and red. Half of the track features the German lyrics and the final section features the English lyric. The individual words are flashed on screen in-synch with the music. This was a real bonus as it made deciphering the German lyric easy. It also made obvious that there is no mention of the man machine being a 'super-human being'; only a 'semi-human being'. This track was easily the most noisily appreciated of all three nights - something of a hint perhaps that the fans like to hear something different from the standard set.
Kraftwerk perform 'The Man Machine' at the Klang Art concert, Osnabrück (Photo by IC)
By and large, the version of the other songs held no great surprises. 'Radioactivity' was notable because it was similar to the re-arrangement first aired at the three concerts in England in 1992. 'Tour De France' still features the excellent intro which is performed in near darkness before the tri-colour sleeve design silhouettes the band as the rhythmical breathing commences. It is something of an overture really and is quite a welcome addition.
As ever, 'Music Non Stop' and 'Pocket Calculator' changed radically from night to night. Some different lighting effects were evident for 'Pocket Calculator', with white spotlights high up behind the band illuminating the audience at the front almost as much as the band themselves.
As in 1991, both 'The Robots' (with the video of the bands robots shown) and 'Robotronik' (with the actual robots themselves in the, er, 'flesh' as it were!) were performed. It's still a neat trick I guess, for fans who have not seen it before, to witness the unveiling of the robots after the video versions fade away.
The concerts finished with 'Music Non Stop' again, though the song is much shorter nowadays in comparison to the 1991 renditions where each member would contribute their own little solo. As usual, the band exit the stage one at a time, Florian abruptly, then Fritz followed by Henning and finally Ralf.
From my own point of view, the German gig was very interesting because of the differences in the video accompaniments. For instance, 'Computer Welt' has a more substantial lyric in the German language thus there are extra phrases/images displayed, including a very short, but very memorable, computerised image of a house pieced together. In the English versions, the word 'entertainment' is animated and so too is the German equivalent, 'unterhaltung'. One part I was puzzled about was during 'Das Model'; there were a couple of loud cheers and I could see nothing much that had prompted them; however, it was later explained to me by Derek Floyd, who is now much familiar with such things, that it was when the images on the video screens panned upwards of the women's legs - this appealed to the German sense of humour!
The security arrangements at the concerts were very stringent and aimed obviously at stifling the trade in live tape recordings, videos and photos. Previous issues of the fanzine have featured plenty of live pix, so I trust that the small amount of live pix in issue 4 won't be too disappointing...
Concert poster for the Vooruit, Belgium concert (Photo by IC)
As to merchandising, there was some new produkt. As well as the familiar T-shirts featuring the robot logo (in both black and white variants) there was also two different designs of cycling shirts; a blue one with the 'autobahn' logo on the front and motor car logo on the back, both printed in white, and also a yellow one with bright orange 'radioactivity' lettering and symbol. Now you don't have to win a stage of the Tour De France to wear the yellow jersey; you can wear the Kraftwerk version instead!
It has often been a point of debate amongst fans as to how much of the music the band actually play live these days. As John Shilcock pointed out in his article from Aktivität 2, 'What a difference 10 years make?!', the man machine has become more of a machine man. In 1991, I was surprised to see Fritz Hilpert using drum sticks. It was obviously something of a Kraftwerk hallmark, an echo from the classic period when Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos powered the rhythm section, but somehow it seemed quite quaint in this day and age of sophisticated drum machines and samplers. But it was good to see and did actually add a special something to some tracks. By last summers concerts only a couple of the tracks still featured Fritz and his drum sticks. Now, there are none and this has reduced the already slim ratio of actual performance even further. Further observation from the balcony at one of the concerts merely confirmed such reckoning.
Fans watch as Kraftwerk roadies pack up the equipment after the Klang Art show (Photo by IC)
I must say then, regardless of however much I enjoyed the concerts I was disappointed at the lack of anything really new. As much as I like the songs and in particular the live versions of those such as 'Computer World' and 'Numbers' that have yet to be released I still would have preferred to hear the band try out new material. Or at least some more of their other songs, such as 'Showroom Dummies', 'Neon Lights', 'Sex Object' et al. It may well be because they are aware of the fact that such a set would be an easy target for the bootleggers to cash in on that they stick to the familiar set as a deterrent, but that is hardly an excuse. The next excuse down the line may be to stop playing gigs altogether in order to thwart the bootleggers. Take it further and it may be to stop playing anything at all, in order to thwart the samplers! What good is a band then? For the last four years now the band have featured the same set of songs at all of their gigs, except for the inclusion of 'Die Mensch Maschine' for these latest ones. Seems strange...
Updated: 16 : 5 : 2010