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I Was There – Kraftwerk’s rebirth as rave gods at Tribal Gathering ’97

Eyewitness accounts from the frontline of musical history….

Kraftwerk – Tribal Gathering, Luton Hoo Estate, England 24/05/97

It’s hilarious really. The narrative about Kraftwerk’s triumphant return to claim their undisputed place as the single most influential act in electronic music, seems to indicate an absence of decades.

In actual fact, the Dusseldorf-ians had toured the UK as recently as 1991 and turned up at a Stop Sellafield show in Manchester in 1992, where they’d shared a bill with unlikely bedfellows Public Enemy and U2.

The fact that that relatively short five year period seemed like a lifetime back then tells you everything you need to know about the vastly accelerated pace at which dance culture was moving back then. It had developed out of the ‘chart dance’ infancy of rave and splintered into a plethora of different genres, each with its own specific identity and set of influences. It had, in sort, grown up

It had also evolved into a serious force in the live music arena too, with acts like The Orb, Orbital, Leftfield, Prodigy and Underworld becoming serious pullers who could hold their own against the biggest rock names of the era. Certainly big enough to stage a sizeable festival in its own right, (something which would have seemed laughable in 1992 when the Prodigy’s live act involved them simply putting a DAT on and then dancing to it).

As guitar music had generally begun to look inwards and backwards, The Kinks and The Beatles casting long shadows over Britpop’s reductive conservatism, the flip side of Cool Britannia had opened its arms and ears to the world and sucked in every influence it could, to create a wonderfully eclectic vision encompassing and re-purposing reggae and dub, jazz, disco, soul, funk, hip-hop, electro, ambient and experimental electronics. Britain was changing fast and this music sounded like it was looking.

kraftwerk press shot

Perhaps, then, that is why Kraftwerk’s appearance was so significant. The different genres and sub-genres of electronic were diverging fast, sure, but there was still no part of it which wasn’t touched and shaped by the majestic, ultra-modernist pop music the Germans had made in the 1970s and 80s. Certainly, it felt the whole multi-stage festival stopped – in the case of the Detroit tent, literally – and descended on the main (indoor) stage to hear them. Quite possibly, to be heard by them too. Listening to the various recordings of the set, you’re struck by the visceral, terrace-like atmosphere that greets what was for many years considered almost academic music. Like the whole of the dance community had come down to give thanks to its creators, in person, for the first time.

As for the set, well it lived up to these pretty considerable expectations. A mysterious vocoder-ed voice introduced their arrival, enough to send spasms of delight through the crowd. Then they were, right in front of us, banging straight into the frisky electro of ‘Numbers’, the numbers counted in a wonky, synthesized German voice at first, then a female computer voice doing the same in London.

“It seemed to me very specifically engineered for that audience at that point in time,” music writer and Kraftwerk authority Mark Roland told us, “It worked a treat, got that 90s generation on board who were aware that Kraftwerk were a prime influence on a lot of the 90s dance music they liked, but probably weren’t that invested in the back catalogue. To an old timer like me it felt like they’d successfully stamped their authority on electronic music again with a younger crowd.”

All the big tunes were there – a big portion of the Computer World album, including the opening three tracks, then ‘The Man Machine’, ‘Tour De France’, ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’, all such timeless anthems it seemed odd to be actually seeing them played and presented by their creators. All greeted with huge gusts of cheering, the crowd responding much more to certain riffs, motifs and drops rather than the beginning and end of each track. In short, the moment that Kraftwerk got the rave treatment.

Aside from the tightly packed audience and the general sense of disbelief at being in the presence of the fabled quartet, I can remember the incongruity of the dusty, sweaty, smelly crowd and the neat, streamlined and very hi-tech objects of their worship. That and the arrival of the new track, of course, which came right near the end, speedier and more frenetic than anyone was expecting and throbbing with vigour. The quality levels on this fan footage aren’t great but you can hear the astonishment in the crowd when it drops.

Given that the last time Kraftwerk had shared any new creation was 1986, you can imagine the collective beaming amazement on the faces of those present. Not for nothing did one delirious punter, captured on one of the many bootlegs recorded in the crowd, declare definitively, “they’ve blown all the other acts off the stage”.

As we trooped out. the traditional Kraftwerk curtain caller ‘Musique Non Stop’ ringing in our ears, many of us imagined that this marked the beginning of the return of Kraftwerk. We were only partly right. That incredible new song, even more incredibly, never surfaced again, and in the 23 years that have followed, they’ve only managed a couple more.

But at the same time, this show did herald a new era of regular Kraftwerk shows, from residencies at the Tate Modern to indulging their love of cycling by playing the Manchester Velodrome, inviting the stars of Team GB to zip around them on the track, as they did in 2009. It’s possible they’ve played a better show in the meantime, but nothing comes close to this in terms of its momentousness, its impact or its sense of occasion. The tribes of dance music had indeed gathered, and there was no argument about who their revered gods were.
Ben Willmott