With the technology the band predicted all around us, their innovation now is in striking visuals and rebooted sungs that accentuate humanity
With the obvious exception of the Beatles, its hard to think of many acts who have had such influence on popular culture as Kraftwerk. The German electronic pioneers have left their fingerprints on genres from electropop to Detroit techno to hip-hop and EDM. Artists from New Order to Madonna have sampled them; David Bowie named his song V2-Schneider after one of the founder members, and Coldplay had a whopping made using one of their melodies.
Today, the way most of our pop music audios and is built owes much to Kraftwerks 1970 s ideal of a marriage of humanity and machine. Meanwhile, the technological world Kraftwerk envisaged is around us. Its mind-boggling to think they were singing about Computer Love the idea of lonely souls determining each other via electronic communications decades before we even had the world wide web, never mind internet dating. How improbable all this must have seemed in 1975, when they appeared on the Tv science program Tomorrows World looking like accountants laughter at some secret but hilarious in-joke, playing silver foil pads with electronic knitting needles.
However, they were so far ahead that in recent decades the big problem has been what to do now that everyone else is catching up. Thus, in the absence of a new studio album since 2003, Kraftwerks innovation currently is in terms of presentation. Their biggest UK tour in 25 years is promoting 3-D: The Catalogue, an eight-album box defined of live concerts with 3D visuals performed in contemporary art galleries. The Philharmonic Hall is more of a classical/ pop venue, but this show is as much a visual art presentation as a gig. Each audience member is given a pair of 3D glass, and a succession of images, from home computers to showers of musical notes, lunge from the stage. During the opener, Numbers, person actually ducks, fearful of losing their head to a flying figure 7.
With the four band members squeezed into neoprene/ LED body suits, playing neon-lit consoles, its so removed from the regular pop experience that watching it feels like being a child taken to the cinema for the first time. There are squeals of delight during Spacelab, when a 3D craft is first pictured flying over Liverpool and then actually lands right outside the venue. The 1974 hit Autobahn a Germanic answer to the Beach Boys time travels between nostalgic images of old-fashioned motoring, complete with empty roads, and a looming utopia of driverless cars. When a vintage Volkswagen Beetle drives from the screen over the audience, one poor chap is so overcome that he stands and raises his arms to the ceiling, as if worshipping a deity.
Kraftwerks oeuvre has always been such dry, wry eulogies to technology, with a quaint, elegiac, almost nostalgic quality, but their ageing songs now undergo constant evolution. This two-hour odyssey ensures ballads extended, reworked and given new funky segments. Later material, including with regard to, is rebooted with such ear-battering sub-bass that large sections of the gig feel like a futurist rave. Some tunes take on meanings they never had on release: 1981 s Computer World seems to have anticipated the sinister power of big data; 1976 s Radioactivity, originally an ode to radio wave and radioactivity, has become a hymn for the victims of nuclear disasters, from Sellafield to Chernobyl to Fukushima. Its eerily moving when Ralf Htter sings part of it in Japanese. Their 1982 hit The Model is delivered virtually as it was recorded, presumably because there is no need to tamper with pop perfection.
Throughout, the four human musicians stare at their gadgetry so impassively they could be watching Coronation Street on the sly. However, a couple of brief but telling musical malfunctions devote short shrift to any distrusts that everything is pre-programmed. All right! sniggers Htter, his face registering a rare smiling. This was a failure of electricity.
The ageless, cycling-trim 70 -year-old is now the sole surviving member from the 70 s lineup. When all the musicians are replaced by lifesize, moving android replica for The Robots, its a taster of an idea they first mooted back then: that when they are all gone, the machines will perform the music. But until that happens, Kraftwerks intrinsic humanity seems more striking as the world becomes more computerised and remote.
Htter sings the shimmering Neon Lights so beautifully, its as if he is humbled by the power of nocturnal urban cathode ray for the first time. And he is palpably touched by the crowds rapturous ovation for his lifes run. When he strides forward and touches his heart, he seems to recognise something that has been implicit all along: the core of the man-machine is an emotional soul.