Tomorrow Never Knows

With its recent U.S. tour, Kraftwerk stakes its claim as the most important group since The Beatles

On June 8, when Kraftwerk filled the L.A. Palladium to its balconied rims with an eclectic crowd of diehards, the real band members thankfully showed up. No opening act was scheduled, and no preshow music played through the PA. At least 30 or so fans were seen wearing the red shirts and thin black ties in homage to 1978's The Man-Machine. Ironically, the rave generation that Kraftwerk so influenced was virtually not in attendance. The somewhat older crowd, consisting of Internet browsers, industrial-music fans, gothics, and others of a more "musically educated persuasion," was greeted by a computerized voice that was largely unintelligible except for the letters "L.A."

Curtains opened to reveal the illustrious (now all-digital) Kling Klang studio: four modular racks of computers and electronics placed together in a long, crescent-shaped configuration. In front of these racks and monitors (placed at a 45-degree angle for ease of adjustments) were four custom synthlike podiums. Behind the equipment, four identical video screens stood just as symmetrically as the rest of the gear. You got the feeling that the whole thing might take off like star fleet command later in the show. It didn't. What was evident was the fact that Kraftwerk's principal stars are the machines themselves, as they were introduced first.

This has always been true. Kraftwerk lives for Kling Klang alone (they've turned down offers to collaborate with Michael Jackson, Elton John and Bowie), and touring has been secondary to their works in the studio, which includes film and video production and electro-mechanical robotics. Kraftwerk has literally created a virtual reality that goes far beyond their brilliant binary pop and subsequently, only in terms of album releases, would the group seem less than prolific. But as Schneider has said, "There is too much sound pollution."

Dressed in matching black zippered turtleneck uniforms, the Kraftwerk members made their L.A. entrance looking a lot like "The Sprockets" from the old Saturday Night Live skits. Each member walked to his designated power station with an almost programmed seriousness. Hutter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz (Flur and Bartos left the group because things moved too slowly for them) and Schneider stood virtually motionless and expressionless for what would be a synchronized span of precisely two hours.

Hutter and Schneider are both 50, but somehow their statuesque performance style is more exciting than the similarly aging Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they still moved more than Bill Wyman. Kraftwerk did not speak amongst each other or with the crowd. The only communications were done lyrically with a lone headset mike worn by Hutter.

The Kraftwerk show served as an electronic biography of the group--every song exemplifying its foresight and contribution to our present premillennium culture was performed. The first blips and beats came from "Numbers," a cut from 1981's Computer World that garnered Kraftwerk urban-radio airplay in Detroit prior to the arrival of hip-hop and techno. The four screens presented a colorful but dizzying array of digital digits that seemed to reflect how numbers have become a technical necessity in everyday life. The computer as a pedestrian prominence highlighted the show's beginning as the band performed the title track and "It's More Fun to Compute," while "Speak and Spell" spoken words such as "medicine," "entertainment" and "time" flashed on screen.

The aforementioned principles of unity between electronics and their operators are the subject of "The Man-Machine," the title track of an album that many fans believe is Kraftwerk's best. But one of Kraftwerk's favorite machines is not at all electronic. The group's fondness for the bicycle inspired them to produce "Tour De France." Performed with synchronous black-and-white footage of the famous French bicycle competition, the concert version of the song offered a reminder that it is arguably one of the most important 12-inch dance singles of our time. It defines Kraftwerk's international aesthetic with heavy breathing, harps, oriental-like melodies, and French lyrics, but this 1983 single, complete with B-side remix, still can't be found on a CD.

Then there was "Autobahn," the driving beat that bought Kraftwerk an American map. Synthetic sounds of cars and buses passing on the world's fastest motorway this side of the Indy 500 were brought to life on the big screens. Vintage Mercedes and family sedan advertisements added a sense of humor to their facial expressions that were as dark as an oil pan. The members of Kraftwerk were never really fans of The Beatles, but oddly enough, they loved the Beach Boys. Perhaps the refrain "Wir Fahr'N Fahr'N Fahr'N Auf Der Autobahn" is borrowed from "Fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes the T-bird away."

"The Model," also from 1978's The Man-Machine, is about as '90s as you can get: a model's manipulation by the camera, which in turn manipulates the consumer. Hutter sings simplistically under black-and-white runway footage, "She's a model and she's looking good/I'd like to take her home, that's understood, she plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time/It only takes a camera to change her mind."

Films of mass European transit were played during "Trans Europe Express," one of Kraftwerk's most recognizable works. In 1977, it won a disco award in New York for its metal-to-metal synthesis of train physics. The unmistakable Egyptianlike melody has been sampled by many, and Dr. Dre lifted a portion of the metallic percussion for his 1996 song "Been There Done That." Not to mention "Planet Rock," an old-school classic defined by the "T.E.E." melody. The rather ordinary techno of the new, untitled song played afterward merely showcased "T.E.E." as a far superior track.

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