The sixth night of Kraftwerk’s “retrospective” at Tate Modern, during which they are playing each of their albums chronologically, was devoted to the one when it all went wrong – Techno Pop, the German pioneers’ uncertain response to the dawning of the digital age.
Techno Pop’s recording sessions were drawn-out and abortive; the album finally came out in 1986 under a different name, Electric Café. Much had changed in the four years since its predecessor, Computer World. CDs had arrived, and new studio technology meant that the synthesizers Kraftwerk had used to such futuristic effect only a few years before were now outmoded. Electric Café (which reverted to Techno Pop for the 2009 reissue) was supposed to herald a new epoch of computerised music. Instead it was their first flop.
At Tate Modern, the foursome stood at computer-lecterns like visiting art lecturers, albeit lecturers unconventionally clad in Tron-style sci-fi bodysuits. They launched straight into the album’s opener, “Boing Boom Tschak”, a bouncy electro track with an uncharacteristically (for Kraftwerk) human sense of energy. Its onomatopoeic title alludes to the then-new hip-hop skill of human beat-boxing. Perhaps the Germans had sat stony faced through Police Academy while making the album.
Their difficulty in the mid-1980s was that technology didn’t sound like technology any more. Synth-pop was passé; instead of computerised bleeps, the latest synthesizers sounded like “real” instruments. The excellent acoustics in the Turbine Hall enabled one to trace exactly how the band responded.
“Techno Pop” mixed rippling electro beats with jaunty keyboard melodies. “Musique Non-Stop” mimicked the sound of turntable-scratching as 3D visuals showed the Max Headroom-style computer-animated heads they developed for the original’s promo video with artist Rebecca Allen. A most un-Kraftwerkian effect rang out in several tracks – a slap-bass groove, accompanied in “Sex Object” by an urgent violin theme redolent of a Hollywood thriller.
The album has aged surprisingly well. Accompanied by neat 3D images, knowingly retro in effect, the songs resembled not so much the misfires of repute as a viable blueprint for the band’s future into the late 1980s and beyond.
But that wasn’t to be. For some reason – a cycling accident Ralf Hütter suffered, lack of confidence, an egotistic desire to lead – Kraftwerk fell silent and began to shed members: only Hütter remains from the quartet that made Techno Pop. At the close of the show, the band having overrun the curfew, he made a theatrical gesture of looking at his watch, shrugged, and disappeared. It was the perfect end to an evening devoted to the album when time ran out for Kraftwerk.