Europe, Endless? On Watching Kraftwerk Live, A Year After Brexit

Almost exactly a year after the UK voted to leave the EU Luke Turner finds the experience of watching Kraftwerk play live has acquired an unexpected melancholy aspect. Do we Brits no longer deserve their European futurism?

A few months before the EU referendum I was speaking to a Berliner friend about cultural differences between Germany and the UK. At one point I said "you in Europe", or words to that effect. He smiled and said: "There you go. Are you not in Europe too?" I was taken aback, the 26 miles of cold water that separate the ports of Dover and Calais splashing me with a sharp reminder at what seemed to be a latent inability to see our island as part of the wider continent. Was I incubating an inner UKIP?

Almost exactly a year on from the day when the people of Britain voted by a tiny majority to set us adrift from the European Union it feels strange, surreal and poignant to be sitting in the Royal Albert Hall watching Kraftwerk. Waking up and turning on the news the morning after that night in June a year ago was as if the stylised, 3D VW on the giant screen at the back of the Albert Hall’s stage had disappeared from Autobahn’s cruise through green and pleasant digitally dreamed topography to emerge on streets lined with lazy dereliction and decay, choked with the noxious fumes of nostalgia, nationalism, xenophobia and a naive belief of a return to a British golden age that never existed, because golden ages never did and never do. It was if Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail and Tory party had tried to force the nation to wear rose-tinted spectacles, guaranteed a mere 2D.

When I’ve seen Kraftwerk before, in front of a pissed-up festival crowd in Croatia or a psychically mangled one at Sonar, they’ve sounded effortlessly futuristic, optimistic, technologically wholesome. Tonight, as the digital figures like code appear on the screen in ‘Numbers’, and the mechanical voice intones "DEUTSCHE BANK CIA SCOTLAND YARD" in ‘Computer World’, I think back over all that has happened since the times I’ve seen them before – the NSA revelations and false messiah Julian Assange, Brexit, Trump and election hacking, an increasing enslavement to the algorithmic power of Google and Facebook that puts even the survival of this publication under threat, there’s a sinister, ominous whiff, as if somewhere in those four tidy stands onstage, circuits were burning.

It’s as if that neon-bright world that Kraftwerk documented wasn’t actually for us after all, this nation that responds to the troubles of collapsing industry by shooting itself in the foot, where we can’t house our poor without burning them to death, where our prime minister is a malfunctioning, embarrassing niece of the suave robots that once deputised for this group.

When during ‘Spacelab’ the Google map onscreen picks out London on the map, nobody really cheers – a far different reaction from when I’ve seen this in European nations, and everyone loses their shit. Tonight the London murmur feels almost embarrassed. There’s clearly a sense that something about us, as Britons, can’t live up to what’s still evolving, still modern onstage in front of us. After all, British music was pretty fallow when Kraftwerk ushered in a modern sonic age with the release of ‘Autobahn’ in 1974. Arguably the best of our music (and America’s for that matter) since has its roots in what they and the other German groups of the time achieved. A friend who works in a secondhand record shop in Detroit recently told me that when old African-American house and techno DJs come in to flog their collections it’s often the Kraftwerk vinyl that’s the most knackered from playing. These were blueprints that went on to inspire bold new forms. It’s brilliant, of course, this seated electonisches Promenade, but as we step blindly into the Great British Rudderless Not Very Calm Carry On, their promise feels like an farewell wave, symbolic of a Britain that could have been, if only we’d listened to the Germans.

You could argue that the contemporary popularity of Kraftwerk is merely retro-fetishism, like running a Bakelite blog or skipping under the bunting into a vintage pop-up. The biggest whoop (and the one that sees the most phones pointlessly raised to capture the 3D graphics) occurs when ‘The Robots’, in the classic red-shirt-and-black-tie combo, replace the LED-suited humans onstage. What makes Kraftwerk, who have not released a note of new music since 2003, more than a digitised fossil? Now a fairly established touring group, to see them live is perhaps not the radical treat it was at the end of their silent phases, though that’s not really their fault. Whether a group that believed so in futurism ought continue like this is a conversation perhaps often had in email threads, fax or cycle couriered conversations between the original members, of whom only one, Ralf Hütter, is onstage tonight.

I would still say what I did back in 2009, that Kraftwerk will always sound like the future because they built it. Their refusal of the rock ego and the simultaneous absence and eternality of their constituent members will mean they can, and perhaps should, continue in perpetuity. The machine is well oiled, there’s always new software to tune and make purr. And after all there’s that great truth of Kraftwerk that their top-line melodies were internally accessible (hence the Coldplay rip from ‘Computer Love’ for their hit ‘Talk’), giving even this most potentially clinical of music a warmth and a soul, even a wit. The sections between the hits where tracks are stitched together (‘Trans Europe Express’ to ‘Metal On Metal’ and ‘Abzug’) become muscular electro and, the only moments when they don’t feel entirely modern. It’s the pop songs, and those tracks where the music gradually and magnificently unfolds, that Kraftwerk still sound unbeatable. This is crisp and thick, dense and rich in the bass, the Geiger and Morse stabs of ‘Radioctivity’ tickling up and around the boxes, or the almost house inflection to ‘Tour De France’, as if its melody that might have come from the Albert Hall’s grand organ, hidden away behind a giant curtain. The energy that might get people out of their seats is always bubbling just under the surface, which is a shame but well, it is a day of record-breaking eat and at 38-and-a-half I’m one of the youngest people here. The 3D element, though considered an integral part of the Kraftwerk live experience these days, is part of this problem. Oddly, the cardboard-framed 3D glasses are a lot more effective at contributing to the atmosphere than the rather dated-looking, screensavery visuals themselves. Looking round the audience around me it’s as if at a room of humanoid cyborgs receiving oracular programming from the images on screen.

However brilliant they are, though, I’m left with an air of melancholy. An idealised sense of the European is distilled in every vibration of every note and tonight that feels like another world. The culture they came from has its flaws but seems to progress, evolve, recover, all those words of human and holistic positivity. Meanwhile, Britain scrabbles around in our sandpit, the castles of our national certainty crumbling, paper flags soggy in the summer rain. A different kind of trans-Europe express has changed Germany for good in the last few years, bringing in Angela Merkel’s million refugees, and that country is coping in a way that … well, we’ve not even been allowed to try. Let’s not get carried away, of course – I bet more Germans have had a riotous time dancing to Schlager than have ever got down to Kraftwerk, but still. Perhaps this is over-romanticising Kraftwerk, but I don’t really care if it is – romanticising the unusual is what they have always been about. And here, in Britain, there’s been little to romanticise in the past few years. Indeed, the very notion of romanticising outside the concept of inter-personal love has been soured by those on the right who’ve hijacked it to their disastrous ends.

Perhaps the continental future as soundtracked by the modernist folk music of Kraftwerk was never for us. Europe will indeed be endless, the landmass has a name now that will endure as long as humans do. But what about Britain? Where will we be? Not "fahren fahren fahren auf der autobahn", but stuck in a jam on the polluted loop of the M25, honking and irate, somewhere near Staines.

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