“No, I have not shorted out or fallen in love with a cyborg,” insisted Robert Christgau in his review of Kraftwerk’s 1977 album Trans-Europe Express, which he credited with “a simple-minded air of mock-serious fascination with melody and repetition” and textures that “sound like parodies by some cosmic schoolboy of every lush synthesizer surge that’s ever stuck in your gullet — yet also work the way those surges are supposed to work.” To electronic music fans, Kraftwerk now have a status even beyond that of the grand old men of the tradition, but continue to tour the world enthusiastically (with their own detached, biomechanical interpretation of enthusiasm), performing the deliberately technological, sometimes startlingly jagged, sometimes startlingly rhythmic music they invented.
The world got their first taste of it, in an early experimental form, a few short years before successful and relatively mainstream Kraftwerk records like Trans-Europe Express or Autobahn came along. The group debuted onstage in their native Germany (in the town of Soest, to be precise) in the 1970 concert captured on video. Watch the gig above, or find it on YouTube. Together, the footage captures with unexpected clarity the avant-gardism of both Kraftwerk’s performative sensibility and technological setup as well as the reaction of the crowd, on the whole more pleased than bewildered. Now, in an age where performers playing from laptops onstage have become commonplace — even Kraftwerk themselves have joined that rather introverted party — it doesn’t seem as striking as all that.
But the genre of “kraut rock” (which All Music Guide describes as made by “legions of German bands of the early ’70s that expanded the sonic possibilities of art and progressive rock,” going in “mechanical and electronic” directions by “working with early synthesizers and splicing together seemingly unconnected reels of tape”) began in a different reality — in an era when Christgau could still, reviewing a later Kraftwerk album in 1981, write that every time he hears their lyric “ ‘I program my home computer/Bring myself into the future,’ I want to make a tape for all those zealots who claim a word processor will change my life.”
The complete 1970 concert is on YouTube here.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.