3D - The Catalogue - Kraftwerk (Klingklang/ Parlophone)
Get this, and get it good: If you’ve never heard Kraftwerk before, this stuff isn’t just rated five bottles out of five. This set, "3D - The Catalogue", is about 30 bottles out of five. Or a couple of kegs.
The first Kraftwerk record I ever heard was the single "Autobahn". I heard it on the radio, a surprise and rather freakish hit in 1975. Beyond that, I gave the band no more thought until I heard the LP "The Man Machine" at my mate Paul’s place, which prompted a continuous scurry around the second-hand record shops until I had everything I could find.
Which, along with several other bands (but not very many) altered the way I think and react to music. After "The Man Machine", I started buy Kraftwerk’s LPs whenever I found them. That said, I’m not the biggest Kraftwerk fan by any stretch, as I met a chap in 1982 who had not only all the LPs, but all the singles - in every language issued. (He also had about 400 Buddy Holly bootlegs, but that's another story).
Kraftwerk have been to Australia several times, each time it seems heading to the Eastern states (bastards) and only twice coming to Adelaide (in, I think, 1978; in 2003 it was more or less by default as it was the Big Day Out) so that means I’ve seen them… once.
I cannot tell you the pleasure it gave me to see them. The crew put a huge curtain around the stage and only removed it as the lights went out and the intro had been spoken ("Hell-o A-de-laiiiiide. We are Kraft-weeeerrrrrrk"), revealing four pissy black podiums holding a laptop and mouse each, with another device attached. Now, I know you’re thinking that this would be damned boring, particularly given Kraftwerk’s oft repeated (and rather loopy) idea of sending robots out to do a man’s work, but no.
It was quite clear from the first notes that several aspects of the music were controlled by two members, while other areas were well and truly worked on the spot - wibbling of the mouse (a sequencer, I’m guessing) and live vocals. And no, the songs weren’t quite the same; they were quite different.
For example, "Radioactivity", once apparently about the acceptance of natural radioactivity, "it's in the air for you and me", took on a distinctly barbed edge with the interjected "stop" before the original chorus word: "radioactivity". Either the band realised they'd been far too damned droll first time out or they'd changed their minds.
And Kraftwerk were fabulous - the film backdrop (a series of precisely worked images and animation) synced up perfectly. I couldn’t help but feel rather pleased that I was forking out not for the stuff on display on the main arenas (Foo Fighters, Jane’s Addiction and Underworld; with an assortment of other horrors like the Living End and the Deftones), but in a hangar I suspected was more usually used for sheep, cattle and horses watching four chaps in their 60's stand there like undertakers, one occasionally jigging about a bit.
Aw, come on. Ever see your idols?
Well, let me put it like this, so’s you get it. In terms of music-centric cultural influence, Kraftwerk are as important as The Beatles, Iggy and the Stooges, and The Ramones.
And no, that’s not just because wanky bands like OMD or a Flock of Teabags were influenced by them.
For instance, Kraftwerk were the first to make - and continue to make - music using synthesisers, home-made electronic drums and generally to herald the advances of the modern world and welcome it into our hearts. I recall seeing The Models’ first tour of Adelaide, and a couple of Reels tours, where they were booed for openly using electronic drums, synths and a reel-to-reel machine onstage.
Look, compare the few live scenes on YouTube with the actual recordings… they’re not the same - and it’s clear that the band intend their live work to be distinct - to vary - their recorded work.
Here’s a link to the audio of a 1975 gig. Sure, what’s significant is partly Kraftwerk’s style of music. So much of what they pioneered is in use now, whether it be hip-hop, techno and the other dance stuff, or that lyrical gothy stuff made so popular by Mute.
Daniel Miller, Mute’s founder, actually owns Kraftwerk’s first vocoder (he reckons it’s like owning the Hendrix guitar he used to record "Purple Haze"). Today? Go in to any supermarket run by people under thirty and they’re blasting repellant songs with a huge overuse of some sort of voice distorter - and here’s the thing. The stuff currently bombarding us in the malls and other (hell, I’ll say it -) public places has no meaning save to waste our time and get in our ears. Whereas Kraftwerk’s principles of minimalism is similar to Delmore Schwartz: say what you mean, and keep it short, for greater impact.
Take the LP "Computer World" (yeah, this is a weak example); but Kraftwerk were using computers to store, use and alter their music back when computer screens had a black background with green text. Images? Not hardly. Today, computers probably outnumber us all on this planet (no? take a squint at your smartphone. That thing - even the first smartphones - all had more oomph inside them than the huge computer used to put men on the Moon. Now remember why you need to turn your phone off at least once a week. It’s a computer, and it needs to reboot. So how many smartphones have you owned and ditched?) and Kraftwerk were regarded with amused disdain by most people back then.
You can’t say Kraftwerk made computers hip, or cool, or even sexy ("Computer Love" is about arranging a "data date" with an anonymous sex worker, while "The Model" is about liking female models, because they’re female and pretty, then there’s "Sex Object" - and that’s it, really) - in fact, Kraftwerk genuinely ploughed their own furrow, very much against the mainstream, for decades. Even once synth music became more popular in the late ’70’s, they were ahead before all the other bands came along.
Why? Their sound is like nothing else. When I heard the opening sounds of "Spacelab" in 1978 it was a bit like arriving on another planet. Kraftwerk’s sound has always been so full, smart, complex and carefully simple (there never really seems to be more than four instruments in use at any one time); hard clicking sounds, solid liquidy sounds… their music held multiple contrapuntal rhythms for a while, then slowed into an orchestral aspect, then … well. Warp Factor Five, I spose.
Almost every band with a fucking synthesiser used to namecheck Kraftwerk, or pretend they’d never heard of them. And then you’d hear them feebly trying to get the hang of the bloody machines.
In the meantime, how many bands which started in the 1960s are actually making new music which is actually influential today?
Don’t give me that guff about the Stones or Bozzy Washbourne, nor that Neil hippy who occasionally loses it and gets all feedbacky. I’m not talking about your favourite bands, or your pet preferred brands of music. Sure, the stones and the beatles and so on, their old stuff will keep interesting people. But not their new. No-one’s going to build a movement from Macca’s latest, nor Keef’s.
On the other hand, while everyone knows Bowie was keen on Iggy and the Stooges, few recall that interview with "Playboy" (published in 1976, conducted through 1975) where Bowie - quite seriously - declares Kraftwerk to be his favourite band (although typically he misses the point when he describes them as a "noise" band).
So when Bowie’s fantastically influential "Heroes" comes out, and "V-2 Schneider" is regarded by some in the know as a respectful nod to Florian Schneider (one of Kraftwerk’s founders), you kind of wonder what Florian’s reaction would have been - the V-2 was the Nazi’s guided ballistic missile, the world’s first ICBM; over 1500 were fired at Belgium, over 1400 at England (mostly London), and more at France, Holland and a few at Allied targets within Germany itself. With WW2 only 20 years away (really? people still talk about that Cobain guy) anyone over 25 would’ve got the inference instantly - if that’s Bowie’s idea of praise, it was a very backhanded compliment. Talk about "don’t mention the war"…
Kraftwerk’s entire band/brand concept is so simple, yet so assured and complex that people still find themselves attempting it. Kraftwerk’s new interpretations of their own back catalogue are, on this showing, a marvel.
How many people who can do that, never mind bands? Nor do they continue to cause ructions. Because Kraftwerk have a highly deadpan sense of the absurd. They know they’re freaks; Ralf and Florian always knew. They exploited it. And they find deep humour in the continuous confusion caused by their band - are they serious? Are they taking the piss? Well, yes, kind of, to both questions, but …
Llook. I can’t think of a single other band who used the sound of different languages to make a rhythmic, contrapuntal point. Kraftwerk’s approach to language is that it’s not just one means to several ends, but multiple means - rather than just "it’s what we use to talk, so what?" which almost everyone else uses, Kraftwerk actually use tonality within languages to convey the same emotional idea. In the end, with Kraftwerk’s songs it doesn’t really matter what language they’re using, as the result, emotively, is the point.
Then, of course, there’s the Kraftwerkian methodology. The approach to making music, and song; the structures of the songs. The very breadth of Kraftwerk’s achievement may seem small if you’re not familiar. But to a classical musician, The Ramones must seem small beer. Never mind Iggy.
Now, Kraftwerk have released remastered versions of their back catalogue already - it was called "The Catalogue" and, then as now, started at LP number four (the first two LPs being self-titled using different colour traffic cones to distinguish them, and the third being "Ralf and Florian"), and I’ve told several friends all of who love the original albums up to about "Computer World", so why on Earth would you want "3D - The Catalogue"..?
There’s a bunch of reasons. First, if you’ve only really heard a few Kraftwerk songs and were always curious, this is the best place to start (though I confess the vinyl set is rather pricey); but the CD and Bluray sets are great value.
Second, all the songs here were recorded live over 13 different concerts and, despite outside impressions, no song whatsoever is identical to the original recorded versions; in fact, there is considerable leeway. New Order or The Hoodoo Gurus, this ain’t.
And third, even if you have, as do I, every issue of Kraftwerk plus the remastered stuff, you’re going to need - as in, absolutely need, "3D - The Catalogue". Because these renditions are as cracking as the originals. I don’t dare say they’re better. Because I am so fond of the originals.
And fuck, fourth: the recordings are so absolutely clear, powerful, mind-melting that you just can’t stop putting the discs on, one after the other. I can’t think of any other band who have so much as attempted anything like this.
This… this is magnificent. Just to refresh your old memory, these are the LPs which are reworked here so masterfully;
"Autobahn" (1974), "Radioactivity" (1975), "Trans Europe Express" (1977), "The Man-Machine" (1978), "Computer World" (1981), "Electric Cafe" (1986), "The Mix" (1991) and "Tour de France" (2003).
"The Mix", if you’re not familiar, was when Kraftwerk took what was currently moving in the clubs and applied it to their own songs - with a rather extraordinary result over either two LPs or one CD. Certainly the ‘e scene’ dance stuff had borrowed from Kraftwerk, and they more or less inverted some of their favourite songs, and rejigged them for the dancefloor.
And here, the live version of "The Mix" is different - and magnificent - all over again - the versions aren’t just the versions on the other discs here. What fascinates is how alive, how modern, and how witty this music is. If you think you’ve heard Kraftwerk, you haven’t heard them until you’ve got "3D - The Catalogue".
This has been a hell of a lot of work. I mean just consider any single one of your favourite musical heroes doing this: reworking their entire back catalogue from 1974 to 2003 - and making them just as magnificent and as enjoyable - as they were when they were first recorded. I mean, come on.
There’s just no-one who can pull this off, and certainly no band who started in the fucking '60s.
So, there are several choices. The 8 LP set; the cheaper 8 CD set (which I got) and the four disc Bluray set which includes two films and a book - which I will also get as soon as I can.
Harass a decent record shop, or if you’re out in the sticks, go here.
"3D - The Catalogue" is fucking magnificent; I’ll be listening to this, and all their other albums, for weeks to come. And if you like this, you'll go out of your way to get the original LPs as well...
and the rest