March 18, 2014
Before Daft Punk there was another group of European electronic musicians who imitated robots and sang in funny English. Though they're not as rich, German dance-music pioneers Kraftwerk came to Disney Hall last night and began performing their albums one by one.
Wearing what appeared to be Tron-like spandex suits with glow-in-the-dark grids on them, the four members stood before podiums, fiddling with instruments before a movie-theater-sized screen showing 3-D music videos in bright, vivid color, as deceptively simply and hypnotic as the songs themselves. It was something like the greatest laserium show conceivable – audience members were handed 3-D glasses upon entering. Those aesthetics combined with Disney Hall's perfect acoustics quickly made clear that seeing Kraftwerk any other way would be ludicrous.
They're performing eight of their albums (with greatest hits thrown in) over four nights this week in L.A. – perhaps the most lucrative stop on a profitable world tour. (Top ticket price for the Disney Hall shows is $75, though on the secondary market tomorrow's Computer World show are going for $2800). And despite the fact that the group helped create hip-hop, dance music and youth culture as we know them today, the Disney Hall shows are filled with, well, the same wealthy white folks seen at typical classical performances there. Yes, the fact that no one was smoking weed was distressing, and the show we saw – Autobahn – felt more akin to an art show than a rock concert. But all that aside it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, nearly flawless in its execution.
Can we talk about how Kraftwerk predicted everything? A world where computers run the show and humans stare at screens all day has come to pass, and the electronic inhumanity of their songs has come to dominate popular music. To be sure, the retro-futuristic universe of their songs (most popular in the '70s and early '80s) wasn't entirely bleak – “Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn” is really only about 5 percent more ironic than Tomorrowland. Further, “Autobahn”'s accompanying visuals last night – Volkswagens and Mercedes idling along a German expressway, past verdant hills – felt more meditative than incisive. Similarly, while “We Are the Robots” made it clear that these mechanical slaves weren't exactly thrilled to be serving us, this new world order was inevitable so everyone should probably just get comfortable with it.
The robots were represented on screen by human-like dolls in red dress shirts and blinking ties, as creepy as it sounds. Just like the performers, there were four of them, and Ralf Hütter, Falk Grieffenhagen, Fritz Hilpert, and Henning Schmitz were depicted on screen in other incarnations as well. Near the end, they became hologram-like figurines, positioned in front of their podiums and twisting knobs simultaneously. Considering we're used to seeing single DJs work giant rooms, it wasn't entirely clear why four people were needed to create this soothing, minimalist techno, and their instruments were hidden in such a way that, for all we knew, the music not have even been performed live (though Hütter's singing appeared to be). But the dehumanization of entertainment is part of their message, which is also why they barely spoke a word during the entire 1 hour, 45 minute performance.
The visuals, at least the best since Miley Cyrus's a few weeks ago, really did make the show. A pervasive motif were eighth notes flying through the air – and they didn't skimp on that awesome gimmick of making it seem like things were coming through the screen to smack you in the head. “Radioactivity” featured a giant, yellow and black radiation symbol pulsing, alternating with the names of nuclear fallout sites like Chernobyl and Harrisburg. In the wake of the Japanese meltdown three years ago, it could be chalked up as something else Kraftwerk predicted.
Again, let's not minimize their influence, which as great as anyone's in the modern era. (Don't forget that Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock,” which plucked the melody from Kraftwerk's “Trans Europe Express,” basically kicked off hip-hop as we know it.) But will these Kraftwerk shows change anybody's life? Nowadays, like a lot of fine art, the messages seem more academic than practical, and the effect last night was likely that a lot of people who arrived in practical cars left feeling smart. But hey, it was undoubtedly a cerebral good time, and the transfer of the ones and zeroes in the audience's bank accounts to that of these prophetic performers was certainly well-deserved.
Set List Below
TOUR DE FRANCE
TOUR DE FRANCE 03
BOING – MUSIQUE NON STOP