Kraftwerk, it has to be said, are an easy band to make fun of. From SNL’s “Sprockets” sketch to that hilarious Eurotrash guy who briefly appeared on The Simpsons to, more recently, Flight of the Conchords’ “Robots”, the Teutonic techno pioneers’ chilly music (not to mention art direction) is an easy send-up. But it’s not as if Kraftwerk aren’t in on the joke. Ever since they came to being in the early ’70s, the band have maintained a healthy sense of humor about themselves, albeit a sometimes subtle one.
At the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, during a pre-Coachella stopover, this Kraftwerkian playfulness was on display. The quartet played pretty much the same show they’ve been doing for the past several years—the one on display on the recent Minimum-Maximum DVD released by Astralwerks in 2005. The stage setup was imposingly bare: the four Kraftwerkers, all dressed like they’d just stepped off the Starship Enterprise’s bridge, stood in a straight line facing the audience, each playing an unseen keyboard/laptop. Behind them, vintage Atari-like graphics and song lyrics (in German and English) were projected on a giant-sized screen. The band members all gazed stonily out into the crowd, barely moving, only occasionally tapping their feet to the rhythm or flashing fleeting half-grins at one another. The whole shtick borders on kitsch, there’s no doubt about it, but it also taps into a weird, almost uncanny realm. Kraftwerk are futuristic in a primitive way, satirically serious.
“Oh man, they’re not even doing anything,” complained one guy behind me as the music burbled and pulsated all around us. And it’s true—the band might have been up there checking their e-mail up for all we knew. But that’s Kraftwerk in a nutshell, isn’t it? Where does the man end and the machine begin? Who’s doing what? It’s easy to see Kraftwerk as some sort of dystopian statement about our over-reliance on technology, how it robs us of our humanity. But I think that’s a misreading—an understandable misreading, but a misreading all the same. The concert’s centerpiece was the epic-length “Tour de France”, a song Kraftwerk composed as a theme song to the annual bike race. The music was triumphant and emotional, accompanied by archival footage of the race projected on the backing screen: masses of men making their way through the countryside, fused to their bikes, a whirl of locomotion. Kraftwerk had opened the show with the ominous “The Man-Machine”, but watching these images, it struck me that here was the real man-machine—humanity and technology working in perfect harmony. At this moment, Kraftwerk seemed to suggest that we can embrace technology without losing our soul; that we might even be raised to new, unimagined heights through technological advancement. Kraftwerk might be skeptical about technology, but they’re not afraid of it either.
Of course, all this theorizing might obscure the fact that Kraftwerk’s music still sounds great, even after all these years. They pretty much invented the techno genre (or electronica, or IDM or whatever you prefer), and their songs can still stand next to any current version of this music. Songs like “Autobahn”, “Computer Love”, and “Trans-Euro Express” are perfect techno-pop concoctions: funny and ridiculously dance-able. Kraftwerk has always had a way with a melody—“Neon Lights” at the Fillmore sounded sublime; its softly churning rhythms bubbling over beautifully, as images of (what else?) neon lights drifted across the screen.