Despite the seventh night of “Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” being scheduled to spotlight The Mix, 1991’s re-recorded greatest-hits collection, I was unsure exactly what to expect. After all, the band have pretty much been playing The Mix all week; over an hour of the show each night has been devoted to running through their hits, and many of the live renditions, like “Radioactivity,” are closer to the souped-up Mix versions than to the original recordings. The prospect of recreating the sound of The Mix also filled me with me trepidation: Wolgang Flür and Karl Bartos had left the band in the years following Electric Café/Techno Pop, allegedly because of the torturous pace of creating new music (Flür would later write a post-departure tell-all memoir, I Was A Robot, which pulled back the curtain on the band’s Electro-Oz and finally answered the question, “Do androids dream of electric groupies?”), and by the early Nineties Ralf and Florian had clearly spent too much time ensconced in their Dusseldorf bunker.
Years later, after they toured again and were able to meet some of the younger musicians they had influenced, they were better able to adapt for the rapidly changing times, but The Mix smacks of a desperate attempt to “update” their music for the rave generation. Kraftwerk’s beautifully streamlined analog compositions, so clean and fuel-efficient, were suddenly cluttered with unnecessary digital doodads. Great artists need to know when to leave their work alone and walk away, and with The Mix Kraftwerk totally lost the plot. Of what other important band can you say that their greatest hits record is absolutely the one album to avoid?
Thankfully, tonight’s concert borrowed only song selection from The Mix, and hewed to the current live versions, and not the flawed Mix ones. As a special bonus, they added The Man-Machine‘s “Spacelab” and “Neon Lights” to the hits set, probably the highlights of the week both musically and visually. Besides the featured album conceit, Kraftweek’s biggest hook was its supposedly groundbreaking visual dimension. A different set of 3D graphics were created for each song, and every evening the crowd received a pair of cardboard 3D glasses in a commemorative envelope honoring that night’s spotlighted album (that Kraftwerk didn’t splurge on chunky plastic-framed 3D architects glasses for everyone was a tremendous missed opportunity).
The thinking must have been, if George Lucas and James Cameron can go back and gussy up their old work with some newfangled computerized technology, then, hey, why not Kraftwerk? The audience predictably oohed and aahed when musical notes or TEE trains appeared to zoom out at their heads, but too often the 3D felt like what is, a quaint gimmick. Along with “Spacelab” and “Neon Lights,” “Autobahn” was the most fully realized of the animations; like the song, it mimicked the sensations of driving on the German highway: winding roads, speeding Mercedes whipping past, factory smokestacks and Gothic churches on the horizon, etc. (Also nice were the trippy topographic-map-like field of green pulsing digits in “Numbers” and the dancing automaton choreography in “The Robots”, though it hardly blew away the whimsy of the lo-fi original 1977 video.)
Other animations, like “Computer World” and “It’s More Fun To Compute”/”Home Computer,” lacked inspiration or were too repetitive. For example, check out the opening credits of Gaspar Noe’s 2011 film Enter the Void (but by all that is holy avoid the rest of that film) to see what kind of dazzling eyecandy could have been achieved for the bouncing-font theme of “Boing Boom Tschak.” Nevertheless, as my colleague Piotr Orlov observed, the 3D extravaganza at the MoMA, at least for the time being, “put Kraftwerk back on top in their decade-long arms race with Daft Punk for live electronic show production supremacy.” As far as far as cutting-edge gee-whiz technology goes, however, Hologram Tupac kind of pops a cap in some 3D robot ass, sorry. Looks like Kraftwerk may need to go back to the lab for more quality R&D time if they want to compete on the big pop-culture playing field of dreams.
Unless of course. . .yes, wait a minute, I think I’ve got it: Hologram Florian!