The second night of “Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” included a particular challenge of presentation. The band’s fifth record, 1975’s Radio-Activity, is a relatively quiet affair, long on sound-effects sketches (“Geiger Counter,” “Intermission,” “News”) and German being spoken ominously through a vocoder (“The Voice of Energy,” “Uranium,” “Radio Stars”) but short on actual pop songs (“Antenna”). The first record recorded by the so-called “classic” Kraftwerk lineup – founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, plus Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos (of whom only Hütter remains in the MoMA iteration) – is a concept album, the subject of which, as hinted by that cleverly placed hyphen in the title, is equal parts spirit of the radio and Madame Curie’s discovery.
Live at MoMA, however, there was no such nuance. Instead of the plaintive original version of “Radioactivity,” which would have been faithful to Kraftweek’s retrospective theme, the band delivered the bombastic no-nukes version of the song from their overly souped-up Nineties reboot The Mix. The band’s only overt piece of activism, this “Radioactivity” is an all-out DEFCON 3 protest against nuclear power (and more specifically about Sellafield, the British nuclear reprocessing facility an Observer headline once called “the most hazardous place in Europe”). On the screen behind the band, 3-D atoms danced a fission ballet, while blaring graphics reminded today’s crowd of the now-distant disasters of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Rather than updating the song for the present day, however, these tactics actually felt more dated.
In a 2009 interview, producer and DJ Francois Kevorkian likened the sophisticated melodies on Radio-Activity to classical music. “It almost gives me a sense of Mozart or something,” he told me. “Maybe not in the sense of a string quartet, but the sensibility of it, the way the melodies come, the elegance of it.” Indeed, the punnily titled album-closing instrumental “Ohm Sweet Ohm” (What’s German for “ba dump bump”? Boing boom tschak?) is as delicate as a lullaby, one of Kraftwerk’s sweetest compositions. At MoMA, alas, they delivered a far-too-brief rendition, pulling the plug just as the song was about to break out of minuet into full gallop. Then it was on to an hour’s worth of back catalogue hits, virtually identical to the night before, as the Kraftweek party train chugged onward. Next station stop: Trans-Europe Express. . . .