Kraftwerk Day Eight: Retrospective on 2003's 'Tour De France'

Rolling Stone chronicles the German band's eight-night stand at the Museum of Modern Art

kraftwerk moma
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Kraftwerk performs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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For the final festive evening of the eight nights of Elektronukkah, a holiday otherwise known as "Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8," the focus was on 2003’s Tour De France, which had been the band’s first album of new material in 17 years. (Well, sort of new anyway; it includes four different versions of their 1983 "Tour De France" single, memorable for its obscene-phone-call-like exhalations.) While not breaking much new ground, the record was a vast improvement on Techno Pop in terms of adapting and updating Kraftwerk’s sound for the digital age. Occasioned by the hundredth anniversary of the French bicycle race, all the songs on the album are biking themed – "Chrono," "Aéro Dynamik," "Elektro Kardiogramm," etc – which probably explains the matching Team Kraftwerk cycling suits the group wore all week (I sure hope those things are moisture-wicking). Behind the band, there was plenty of black and white vintage Tour footage, though the 3D animation for "Vitamin" featured a slow-motion cascade of Technicolor pills. Insert doping joke of your choice here.

Like the Tour itself, Kraftweek was a marathon, not a sprint. I believe I’ve spent more time in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium than anyone besides Marina Abramović; if they had only given me a cot, I could have camped out in the MoMA lobby and called it a performance art piece. At the very least, I wanted a "I Survived Kraftweek And All I Got Was This Stinky T-Shirt (That I’ve Been Wearing All Week Because I’ve Been Up at the MoMA and Haven’t Been Able to do Laundry)" tee. Instead, my only merch option was $33 Kraftwerk t-shirts, so I passed. Sometimes it seems like Kraftwerk has spent the last 25 years devising ways to repackage their old records instead of writing new music. The Catalogue, 2009’s remastered box set of the eight albums spotlighted this week, was available in a $159.95 limited edition, differing only in box cover color (was white, now black), not contents. The entire length of  MoMA’s gift shop window display – what seemed like nearly a quarter of West 53rdStreet – was taken up by stacks of the $50 Kraftwerk: 3D book, made up solely of still images from the animations (it comes with its own pair of 3D glasses, as the concert glasses won’t work with it, and vice versa). Watching the Volkswagen-branded "Autobahn" video each night, I couldn’t help but feel there was a subliminal message in there; it’s probably only a matter of time before I’m waking up at night mumbling "Passat . . . Passat."

It should be noted that the sound in the MoMA atrium was absolutely impeccable, and a momentary halt during last night’s "Autobahn" was the only noticeable technical glitch all week. Befitting Kraftweek’s uber-hot-ticket status, there were a blitzkrieg of celebrity sightings (Fran Drescher, Fred Armisen, Afrika Bambaata, Michael Stipe, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Casey Spooner, Juan Atkins, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dean Winters, Questlove, and Sasha Grey); there were probably more, but cardboard 3D glasses make great paparazzi camouflage. The opposite of celebrity, of course, is anonymity, and that’s precisely what the Kling-Klangworkers who played alongside Ralf Hütter toiled in. There was zero stage banter, aside from a terse farewell from Hütter each night, so as far as the crowd could tell, the rest of the band were simply the Bald One, the Grey One, and the Young One Whose Robot Looks Like Michael Myers from Halloween. (Okay, their names are Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Stefan Pfaffe, but really, how would anyone know?) In 2009, Hütter told me that life in the Kling Klang complex consists of "the 168-hour week," what he described as "a continuous process of creating ideas all the time." To be a member of Kraftwerk, apparently, is to be governed by the two lines in Russian from "The Robots": "Ya tvoi sluga/Ya tvoi rabotnik." Translation: "I’m your servant/I’m your worker."

What really distinguished Kraftweek, however, was the outpouring of love, that most human of emotions, directed the robots’ way. Despite the tickets being virtually impossible to acquire, the truly committed never stopped trying. One fan, "Dr. Blankenstein" (real name: Drew Blanke), even built his own "Man-Machine" synthesizer and posted a video to YouTube in hopes of getting into a show and giving it to the band; remarkably, a Volkswagen rep saw the clip and came to his aid, and he was able to get tickets and deliver the synth. Even if, as my colleague Dan Fox observed, "To watch Kraftwerk today is to watch a group whose work is more about the past than the future," the band’s remarkable power endures. "Music goes far beyond words, you can’t explain it," Hütter told me in 2009. "It’s just the sounds, they speak for themselves, the music speaks for itself."

As the show ended, and I departed the MoMA for the final time, the lifesize robots in the lobby were already gone.