Sixteen years ago I saw Kraftwerk headline a dance music festival. They appeared in a crammed tent in the early hours of the morning, customarily impassive, lined up in uniforms, backed by visuals cued in perfect time to the music, before an excitable but motley audience of hardcore fans and ravers.
The energy that night was immense. Flash forward to Wednesday night at Tate Modern, and a very different scenario unfolded. The German techno-pop pioneers, led by 66-year-old Ralf Hütter, have swapped sweaty dance music gatherings for art museums. Their current Tate “retrospective”, in which they are playing each of their albums over eight nights, aka the “Catalogue”, follows similar residencies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kunstsammlung NRW in their home city Düsseldorf. With traumatised museum ticketing websites crashing from demand, Kraftwerk are once again leading the way – as the first pop group to become a travelling blockbuster art exhibition.
Entering Tate Modern you half expected to be confronted by hordes of punters with Acoustiguides glued to their ears listening to Stephen Fry explain Gilbert & George’s influence on Kraftwerk’s image. Instead we were handed 3-D glasses. A large screen stretched across one end of the museum’s Turbine Hall. The atmosphere was reverential, hushed. Art history seemed to bear down on the event with oppressive weight. Yet the converted power station, an industrial cathedral of vertiginous brickwork, was also an apt location: Kraftwerk’s name is German for “power plant”.
Hütter, the only original member left in the band, stood at a synthesizer console in front of the screen; his three colleagues lined up at identical consoles next to him. The meat of the show was a rendition of their 1974 breakthrough album Autobahn, the first of the “Catalogue” to be played in the retrospective. (Kraftwerk in fact recorded three earlier albums, but Hütter treats them as pre-history.)
Its title track is a 20-minute song detailing a motorway journey, beginning with a jaunty toot on the horn and building into a mesmerising motorik beat. Meanwhile 3-D images showed a colourful computerised landscape through which the Autobahn snaked, its cartoon-like simplicity not unlike the Roy Lichtenstein pictures showing in Tate Modern’s forthcoming exhibition.
The music was irresistible, mixing Beach Boys surf-pop with pulsing electronic rhythms influenced by Stockhausen. Critics at the time raised eyebrows at the Nazi origins of the Autobahn system; but the song is actually an anthem of the Marshall Plan, an uplifting and progressive mingling of US and European values.
Tonight’s revisiting wasn’t entirely faithful. Organic elements, such as the original’s flute passages, were erased and Hütter’s stiff singing lacked the wonder he once brought to the role. But the title track’s wonderfully catchy sense of possibility and purpose rang out intact.
Other Autobahn songs were curios. The spacey drones and melodies in “Kometenmelodie 1 & 2” were the sound of Kraftwerk paying off their debt to fellow Krautrockers Cluster and Harmonia, while the pastoral mood music of “Morgenspaziergang” appeared in such truncated form as to suggest Hütter is now embarrassed by it.
The rest of the set was a best-of, accompanied by 3D visuals and performed with magnificent precision by the foursome. In a building once devoted to creating electricity, it was striking how innocently the songs celebrated energy, from “Neon Lights” to the series of cycling-themed tracks from 2003’s Tour de France, their last new pieces of music. The exception was “Radioactivity”; originally about radio waves, it has been turned, slightly too shrilly, into a polemic against nuclear power, tonight with Hütter singing in Japanese in protest at the Fukushima disaster.
I missed the energy they used to inspire in their audience – there was no dancing at Tate Modern – but the spectacle served a different purpose. It presented Kraftwerk as pop’s fulfilment of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total art work” synthesising theatre, visual art and music. The achievement is unique: even in their dotage they remain an unmatched force.
The Tate Modern concert series continues until February 14, www.kraftwerk.com