Based on the staggeringly high level of security at the Hollywood Palladium for Kraftwerk’s first L.A. appearance in fifteen years, you’d have thought it was the Annual Los Angeles Gang Artillery Auction rather than a concert by the great-granddaddies of electronica. Amid chants of “No smoking, no lighters, no gum!” by testosterone-fueled security, patrons were subjected to a full-body metal detector screening before moving forward like cattle into the hands-on frisking and pocket-emptying sector. One guy was forced to prove his Visine was, in fact, Visine by placing the drops in his eyes while another frustrated concert goer commented, “What do they do when Master P plays?” Kraftwerk are from Germany, but didn’t World War II end somewhere around 1945?
Formed in Dusseldorf in 1970, Kraftwerk have influenced everyone from David Bowie and Herbie Hancock to Depeche Mode and Prodigy with their still-unique blend of repetitive, computer-generated bleeps and robotic voice synthesizing (they even spawned the Saturday Night Live skit “Sprockets”). To call them pioneers would be overly modest, given the fact that they scored a Top Five electronic-based album in the U.S. with 1975’s Autobahn, a full twenty-two years before that same feat would be equaled by Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land.
Once the venue lockdown was complete, a packed house witnessed firsthand the end result of man-machine morphing. Against a computer console worthy of launching a space shuttle, Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider, Fritz Hijbert and Henning Schmitz worked the Motherboard like NASA engineers on acid. While images of computer chips, the Tour De France and the Autobahn floated across the four video screens, the members of Kraftwerk stood incredibly still, limiting their movements to robot-like jerks and subtle swaying. For most of the two-hour show, they stuck to their better-known songs (more or less mirroring the tracks on The Mix, a best-of compilation released in 1991). Their sound has sharpened along with technology over the past couple decades, with songs like “Autobahn,” “Computerlove” and “Homecomputer” exhibiting a refined, more contemporary feel.
The surprisingly young crowd (many fans were in their teens), who were no doubt here as much for the history lesson as for a good drug-induced electronic pounding, seemed at times unsure if the music warranted some sort of bizarre high-tech freakdancing or stationary appreciation. Either way, a visit with the forefathers of techno proved fruitful and mesmerizing, leaving the kids in awe for the duration of the show. The band even took the time to enlighten the crowd on a few political issues. During “Radioactivity,” messages condemning the use of plutonium at Sellafield 2, a nuclear reprocessing plant in England, were flashed on the screens along with such depressing factoids as “Sellafield 2 will release the same amount of nuclear radiation into the air as Chernobyl every 4.5 years.”
Donning glow-in-the-dark bodysuits straight out of the movie Tron, the band encored first with “Trans Europe Express,” their 1977 ode to Europe’s rail system. Then, in a move perhaps unprecedented in the music industry, pulled off the old “encore without the band” trick when they never appeared for “The Robots.” The show ended with the familiar buoyancy of “booing boom tschak!” from “Music Non Stop,” a spastic battle cry which was still looming over the P.A. as the crowd came back down to earth and emptied out into the parking lot — no doubt with a better understanding that when Kraftwerk sing “I program my home computer, me myself into the future,” they mean a Commodore 64, not the latest do-it-all Power PC on the market.