3DglassesIt’s 22 years since I last saw Kraftwerk, in Brixton in 1991. I was glad I went but I think I was disappointed, though I probably didn’t say so at the time. I saw them again last week — well, Ralf and his hireling mannequins, and their three-dimensional spectacle — at Tate Modern, an Xmas gift from my sister, and this time I loved the show. Not least because I suddenly grasped something I’d missed before (also: the sound was amazing). The shows they played this time were each based round one of their longer-player releases: the one I attended was The Mix, which came out that same year; their long-awaited response to a pop world catching up with them. Am I wrong in feeling that the widespread anticipation in 1991 was a little dashed at the time: The Mix was greeted as a kind of remixed Greatest Hits, in other words a recap of the near past, rather the next bold step into our shared machine-shaped future?

Since the late 80s, I’ve been researching and writing — at some times rather harder than others — a critical history of music and technology. The first section I actually completed and sent to an editor, so he had a sense of where it might be going, was the one on Kraftwerk. I dug this out, all 60-odd pages of it, including the various notes that had silted up round it in the ensuing two decades, and scanned them to see what I’d been thinking (note to self: FINISH THIS STUPID PROJECT, there is better stuff in it than you have read elsewhere on all manner of matter, including Stockhausen, James Brown, Terry Riley, Joe Meek, Josef Beuys, fluxus — and of course the Futurists)

(Futurists of course because Autobahn is the realisation of Russolo’s famous manifesto Art of Noises, not least because it’s such a charming, cheeky demoliton of Marinetti’s — or Attali’s — deeply pretentious and idiotic parasite-manifestos, which fashioned themselves on a tin-eared misgrasp of Russolo’s delicate empirical explorations.) [1][2]

autobahnAnyway, there’s way too much to excerpt and post, so I’m going to stick with one thing I got right (though I didn’t really say it right) and one thing I realised last week in Southwark, standing for two hours in the Turbine Hall with my 3D glasses perched over my normal glasses, savouring every minute.

Here’s a quote that surrounds what I was right about with things that aren’t, quite, and a little tweaked to stop us plunging down now-irrelevant academic rabbitholes (not tweaked enough to suppress how I used to write, at least for me):

In the project of 20th century modernism, traditional values are allowed to lapse when their systems of justification are revealed as a congeries of illogical and arbitrary habits and superstitions — to be rebuilt scientifically, where the new order can at last be born from a moral basis of the glorification of human will, of strength, vitality, destructive creativity and personal, rational godhood. A willed, constructed-from-zero fundamentalism, to erase religion and stand in its place.

If Futurism is considered a key element in modernism, Kraftwerk aesthetics embrace a worldview altogether more humanely ironic in its scope, a postwar morality: by this definition less arrogant, deliberately distanced, coolly anti-fundamentalist, dryly amused, laconic and deftly sardonic. The vast transformative projects — dam-building, waste-clearing, marsh-draining, city-streamlining, moon-landing — were already lurching into deep trouble by the late 60s. The Atom Age was spinning towards disenchantment, its Faustian ambition foundering in the details… To sing the humanism of the car-engine (its waywardness, its narcotic attractions); to revel in the godhood of the passive little tape-recorder, which levels no mountains, drains no seas; to reroute intractably functional technology towards its hidden pleasure principle, its dream-state — all this is wipe a cloth across the axioms of pure rationalism (as institutionalised, scaled down and paltrified into academic theory as background noise — pernicious in all encompassing complacency, in its insulated, undemanding nostalgias for the avant gardes of 50 years before) and to begin again, again.


paik-robotRecall Nam June Paik’s “Robot K-456” (1964), that tatty-meccano pile of bric-a-brac and second-hand circuitry, with plastic breasts and a sandpaper penis, which toured Europe with its creator the Fluxus-star, its speakercone mouth spouting taped speeches by Churchill and Kennedy. Just what is it that makes K-456 so appealing, so ineffable, so raffishly loveable? Through what portal does its surreal, magical quality come into play?

One answer invokes those elements of fantasy, irrationality and unsocialised desire which form the hidden — but essential — substratum of human activity. Joseph Beuys and Paik were both advocates of the use of “poor materials”, materials engrimed with the greasy or rusty patinas of human handling, surrounded by the low-rent aura of wrecking yard, the junk shop, the rubbish tip. K-456 is composed of just such materials (Paik’s later Robot Families were largely built of defunct televisions): as novelist Thomas Pynchon has perhaps most seductively proved, garbage and waste are every bit as human as the gleaming, aspirational per-ardua-ad-astra products of the frontiers of human thought.

But there’s something else: and this, if you like, best typifies the Kraftwerk elaboration of Beuys-thought. This reminds us that all robots, all mechanical beings, dirty, goofy or clinically sinister, are objects of our affection. K-456 is excellent — but we also love playing at being Daleks.


If nothing else, Kraftwerk — in love with machines, never in thrall to them — prove that modernism and pop aren’t opposites, but a perversely intertwined couple.[3] The act of love Kraftwerk never choose to depict is instead celebrated in the endless seductive romance — not to say bodymerger — between the conceptual opposites and metaphysical antagonists that are their life’s work. The ‘humanism’ wells up in the form of this patina of fond machine-love: what turns modernism into pop is the act of nostalgic recall, a nostalgia that implicit assumes the failure of modernism’s projects (famous example: Ballard’s neat phrase “memories of the space age”).

calculatorI won’t pick this apart — you can do that! As I say, some of it is right and some a bit shaky — but here to follow it and perhaps direct you is the realisation that allowed me to enjoy really every element of the show last week. Kraftwerk have NEVER been about the future: they’ve always been about the past, though sometimes that past was (at moment of arrival) so recent it was hard, if you weren’t playing attention, to spot. The 3D visuals — clips of found film, animated logos and designs and signals, so child-friendly simple occasionally they might have been from a kind of Cyber-Sesame Street — effortlessly drew you back to some piquant historical moment, three years ago or 20 or 70, when a potential future seemed to be being sketched, to diagram, every bit as delicately empirical as Russolo strove to be a whole century gone now, the fleeting feeling as you embraced this coming way of being (“by pressing down a little key, it plays a little melody”); and — never commenting, only describing — allowing us to grasp the meagre in the utopian, the melancholy in the dream, the absurdity in the sweeping grandeur. ADDING: I found the show endlessly funny — gorgeous and absurd — as well as hauntingly sad.

The name I missed out of the list above is Warhol’s, of course — post-war avatar of unmoralised observation in art. I didn’t discuss him in this section, but I did actually quote him, at the chapter’s start: “I want to be a machine.”

1: The Rise and Sprawl of Horrible Noise: or Why Jacques Attali is a Prat, now more than a decade old I see, yikes (note: pitas seems currently to be down for maintenance).
2: Destroy All Music, The Wire #180, February 1999, collected in Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music, Continuum Books, 288 pp, pbk, ISBN: 0826464505. This is where I point out where everyone ever is completely wrong about Russolo apart from me (and Kraftwerk).
3: The word I actually had instead of “pop” in that sentence was “post-modernism”, just so you know. They’re not synonyms: I changed it because I do know what the paragraph means with “pop” in it (though I’m not sure it’s true); without it I don’t know what I was arguing. Post-modernism is a term that no two commentators use to mean the same thing, and 20 years on I am no longer quite the commentator who wrote the stuff in italics.