Sunday, February 05, 2012

Kraftwerk at the Lyceum, 1981

BBC Radio 6 have been having a Kraftwerk-themed weekend, based on the rather slender premise that it is the 30th anniversary of The Model getting to the top of the British singles chart. The track was actually recorded in 1978, but got a new lease of life and a number one hit in February 1982 on the back of the British synth-pop boom - which Kraftwerk were of course a big influence on.

I saw Kraftwerk play in that period and it was certainly one of the most memorable gigs I have attended. Live performances by the band in Britain were rare, and their gig at the Lyceum on 28 June 1981 was their first appearance in London since 1976 (and indeed only their fifth gig ever in the city). They were in the country as part of their 'Computer World' tour, the album of that name having been released in May. Four London gigs took place - one at the Hammersmith Palais and two at the Hammersmith Odeon, but it was the first at the Lyceum that I went to.

Poster for Kraftwerk's 1981 London shows

I can still vividly remember scenes from this gig, starting with the line of glamorously dressed new romantic blitz kid types outside the venue. There were the screens showing railway tracks during Trans Europe Express; the mannequins on stage during The Robots and most of all Pocket Calculator, where the four members of the group came from behind their machines and stood at the front of the stage with miniature electronic devices. In an act demystifying electronic music making they let people in the crowd generate sounds by tapping the keys on a wired-for-sound calculator. Arguably this was the group at their creative peak on the back of three classic albums - Trans-Europe Express, Man-Machine and Computer World - all of which they drew from at the gig.

Mary Harron reviewed the gig in the Guardian: 'On stage Ralph, Wolfgang, Karl and Florian stood before their synthesisers, dressed severely in black, backed by a wall of computers. As they proceeded serenely through their greatest hits video screens flashed bright geometric images and flashing lights put the audience in a pleasant state of trance... their concert was less like a visit to Metropolis than a store filled with marvellous clockwork toys'.

Review of the gig in The Guardian
Those marvellous toys had a fascination of their own - in that period most of us had never seen a computer outside of a special room at school. Synthesisers were becoming more accessible, but were still relatively rare. The school friend I went with actually made his own synth from a kit. I haven't seen him for years, but a quick search shows that he is now a professor at Oxford University with research interests including 'Phonetics, speech technology, laboratory phonology and computational linguistics' - how Kraftwerk is that?!

Steve McMahon, who was also at that gig, recalled: 'The Royal Wedding was about to happen and the riots in Toxteth – when me and my school mates went to see Kraftwerk play at the Lyceum in London. I seriously think that barring Iggy Pop a year later, at his drug addled most bizarre, this was one of the best gigs I ever went to'. 

Like Laibach later, Kraftwerk played around with totalitarian imagery such as uniforms which sometimes confused those who didn't perceive how they were subverting it with a critical intelligence. In a rare UK 1981 interview with Manchester's Beacon Radio, Ralf Hütter gave an insight into their thinking at that time: 'unfortunately a lot of control-oriented people have been using computers to store other people's data and take advantage of it. We didn't like that too much. In Germany there's very strong state control, a very strong bureaucratic system. The BKA have, I think, millions of people's data stored. This made us very upset. We're more concerned with working with computers in other directions: more creatively or productively, and not leave it to these kind of people who are only into compensating for their lack of love or personal acknowledgement. We are more interested in cooperating with computers as an extension of the creative side of the human being. Which I think is more the way society should be going: being more productive in expressing your ideas and fantasies and wishes, or visions. Anything that could help in making society a better place to live in, you know? And we feel we're only just starting to go in this direction, with the help of musical machines, computers or whatever it takes to put ideas across to other people. Communication between people in the technological society is what we are about'.

In the same interview he described 'The Man Machine' as being partly about 'certain aspects in society where people are mechanically reproduced, or bought and marketed, or robots: the original Russian word "robotnik" means "worker". That's really our identity, what we are'. Intriguingly he also said 'we're very much into situationists, so what we do now, and the next few steps, is what we're concerned about'. In 1981, nobody was name-checking the Situationist International in the media - was this really who Hütter was referring to? I wonder.

If Kraftwerk's influence in 1981 was particularly felt in the post-punk electronic scene (the Human League, Soft Cell, Cabaret Voltaire etc.), it was soon to spread even wider. A year or two later I remember hearing Afrika Bambaataa's Kraftwerk-sampling Planet Rock for the first time under the Westway at Notting Hill Carnival. Electro-funk, techno and so much more was to follow - but that's a whole other set of stories.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Best gig ever.Dancing under the stage with our girlfriends watching from the Lyceum balcony.

Jstant said...

I was at the 1st Hammersmith Odeon show and yes, when they stood at the edge of the stage, even dancing(!) a little, it was a special moment. As an aside, Phillip Oakey from the Human League was sitting next to me at this show.