If it's a hot, puthery day in midsummer, and I'm in the back of a Peugeot estate heading up the M56 with my chums Tez and Wendy, then it must be another Kraftwerk gig!
Yes, as trailed here, it was time to see and hear my robotic heroes again. This time, we were goin' fi play it cool-an'-easy Rasta and go up early so that we could get a meal first before moseying over to the Bridgewater Hall. So they picked me up shortly after three, and off we went.
The thought occurred to me on the way that the last time I had travelled this route was at the beginning of July last year when - I could see in retrospect - I was, if not at Death's door, then definitely shambling up his driveway.
Anyhoo, we encountered nothing more than moderate traffic on the autobahn...sorry, the motorway, and arrived at Medlock Street car park shortly before 4:30. Within a few minutes, we were in the cooler confines of the Gasworks Brew Bar which features as part of the First Street development. The place wasn't busy at that time, although many of its customers seemed to be sun-worshippers who were sitting outside. Given that none of the three of us is a heliophile, a table near the door (and the aircon) was ideal.
We ordered drinks and meals from the very amiable and helpful staff, and sat there for a good couple of hours enjoying our food, shooting the breeze and watching what appeared to be a photo-shoot taking place outside in which shoes of various sorts featured prominently (either an advertising campaign or something so arty that only Paul Morley could possibly explain it).
Finally, sometime around 6:30, we made our way slowly up Albion Street, pausing on the way for Wendy to take some pics of me and Tez. This was because I had had the bright idea that we should dress up in the same garb as our heroes wore on the sleeve of their 1978 Man Machine LP (as seen here). Tez had a red shirt from their wedding, but I had had terrible trouble finding one. None of our usual clothing shops hereabouts had formal shirts in that colour (well, OK, one of them did, but it was subtly the wrong shade), so I'd had to resort to eBay to get one at a very reasonable price from a guy in London. Anyway, Tez and me were both in the right garb (Wendy hadn't been able to find anything suitable), and so we posed outside one of the other buildings in the (rather pleasant) new development in Man Machine pose. I always say that if you're going to make yourself look like a dick, you should do so con amore.
Bridgewater Hall, built in the mid-90s as a replacement for the Free Trade Hall of revered memory and as a new home for the city's fabled Hallé Orchestra, is a quite pleasing piece of modern architecture, and there seemed already to be people going in for the gig, even though it was still well over an hour before the start time of 7:45 shown on the tickets. Nonetheless, we sat on the steps for a while overlooking the canal and fountain round the eastern side. We were trying to see how many people turned up in the same rig as us, and were disappointed that so few of our fellow fanatics seemed to have made the effort. Perhaps they'd had the same trouble finding a red shirt...
Shortly after seven, we decided to make our way inside. Our tickets were checked and we were handed the 3D specs:
Our first port of call was the merchandise stall. This - probably because this gig was part of a substantial tour rather than a one-off - was somewhat better stocked than the one we had encountered eight years previously at the Velodrome gig. I picked up my small object of desire, namely an Autobahn mousemat - it looked like I got the last one, too - and then tried to find out where our seats were. Because the concert had been organised by an outside promoter rather than the hall itself, the staff seemed to be a bit unsure, but eventually we climbed up two floors and made our way into the Centre Circle. Our seats were plumb in the middle, the second row from the back (row M). The auditorium started slowly to fill, and Wendy spotted the legendary Johnny Marr right down at the front of the stalls. I couldn't help but think that the great guitarist would end up with a terrible crick in the neck by the night's end. But at least he - and we - would get the best 3D effects; I couldn't imagine what the people in the side galleries thought they would get (well I could imagine, in fact; it would be much like what we got in 2009).
The stage was set up in the customary style, with a curtain coming right around it like the Kaaba at Mecca and, at about 7:50 (the information screens on the concourse had told us that 8:00 was now the start time), a projection appeared on the curtains accompanied by the same rather creepy tones and swoops as we had heard last time. Finally, just a tad after the appointed moment, the house lights went down, and we were treated to the traditional robotic announcement:
"Meine Dammen und Herren...Ladies and gentlemen...Heute Abend...Die Mensch Maschine...Kraft...werk!"
The curtains parted to the opening of Numbers. But, where were Die Knaben? Seconds later, they appeared stage left and moved behind their respective consoles in what is now the traditional order, Ralf Hütter (an almost jaunty seventy-year-old; probably all that cycling) stage right, the imposingly tall Henning Schmitz next to him, the somewhat diminutive figure of Fritz Hilpert third along, with the video controller Falk Grieffenhagen stage left.
Now, I need to explain at this point that, in contrast to 2009, what follows is not a detailed description of the performance; this time, I wanted simply to immerse myself in the audio and video, to simply enjoy the experience. No note-taking, no abstract theorising, no time-wasting. I did, nonetheless, take a reference picture on my dumbphone so that I could at least remember the running order afterwards. This worked only about tolerably well; they all - it being a shitty camera on a shitty phone - came out blurred, some of them so much so that I've still had to resort to online sources as to the setlist. What follows, therefore, is more a set of general remarks and impressions.
The first impression I got was that this 3D lark wasn't up to much. I had read a review of the previous week's gig at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool which described how one audience member during the opening song actually ducked because he was afraid of being trepanned by a menacingly advancing numeral. I wasn't getting any of this, and after a couple of tunes I nudged Wendy to ask if she was getting the full effect. "Oh hell, yeah!", was her emphatic reply.
It was at this point that my worst fears were realised. Due to an uncorrected childhood squint (to be seen in some of the photographs in these Galleries, I have very poor stereo vision. I had wondered whether a similar failure to get the benefit of the 3D graphics in 2009 had simply been down to our sitting off to the side on that occasion, but it seems not. I kept the bins on over my own specs anyway, because the graphics were pretty damn good even without the intended effect, and they would have looked wrong without them.
From Numbers, we moved further into the Computer World suite, as one must call it: the title track, It's More Fun To Compute (this mixed in with Home Computer) and Computer Love. It was this last track where I noticed the first of a number of very substantial revampings of the material. This Computer Love seemed at the same time warmer and beefier than usual.
Having 'done' the Computerworld album, we then moved on to a suite of tracks from 1978's Man Machine. Again, the title track first, then Spacelab, where the graphics showing a flying saucer moving almost casually past the Salford Quays and touching down outside the very hall we were sitting in made for the biggest cheer of the night apart from at the very end of the show.
(They had done the same with the landmarks of all the other cities on the tour, with the same enthusiastic response of recognition each time. I wonder what they'll do for the three Royal Albert Hall gigs which remain? Perhaps the saucer will land on the very apex of that iconic nippleoid edifice rather like the way the spaceship in the U-Friend Or U.F.O. episode of The Goodies touches down on Knutter's Knoll?)
The Man Machine sub-set continued with the inevitable medley of their Number One, The Model, followed by the ever-sublime Neon Lights, which track demonstrates the clear nonsense of any claim that electronic music is ipso facto cold and devoid of feeling. I was a bit disappointed this time in the way that they had revamped the instrumental coda - which, in its original form, I would be happy to have on an endless loop - so that it didn't sound to my old lug'oles as lyrical as heretofore.
Another thing which impinged on my reeling consciousness was Ralf's voice. I mean, it was certainly loud enough - in another contrast to 2009 - but he seemed even less in tune than before, with his customary Sprechgesang now veering closer to Sprechstimme (I had to look up the difference; I suggest you do the same).
Speaking of sound, it's more than time for me to mention the quality of the audio. Because the Bridgewater Hall is yer actual concert venue, the acoustics were always going to be top-notch. The sound system Kraftwerk were using last night was, however, absolutely awesome. The volume was certainly there, but - even in the loudest moments (award yourself a bonus point if you know which seventies LP I'm referencing there) - there was no hint of distortion, unless any such distortion was clearly intended. Everything rang clear, and as for the bass, well all I can say is that it was no place to be if you had a weak bladder; it went into you from all conceivable directions.
Anyways (as the great DJ Todd always says - he's Canadian, he can't help it), having sampled the atmosphere of the city at night, it was now time to go hurtling off down the Autobahn. This was a another new arrangement, in which a sample of each of the sections of the entire original piece featured, along with visuals - heavy with references to the VW Beetles and Mercedes saloons which had inspired that masterwork - which gave the required impression of moving unhindered at speed.
We then went to a selection from the Radioactivity album, starting with a track I'd never heard them doing live before, namely Airwaves. This was a considerable re-ordering of the original, with the visuals showing the obvious sound-profile waves. This then morphed - as on the original LP - into the Intermission call-sign followed by the News from a variety of German radio stations of the era; again, tracks I wouldn't have expected them to play in concert. Finally, we were treated to the album's lead-off numbers, the menacing Geiger Counter followed by the title track, suitably updated to refer not to Hiroshima but to the ongoing - and dangerously unreported in Western media - catastrophe at Fukushima, with Ralf getting the chance to try out his Japanese.
Then came another suprise, in the form of the title track of Electric Café, a piece which - although coming from their least well-regarded album - was lyrically and thematically well ahead of the curve.
It was then time to move forward to one of the old regulars, namely Tour De France. This started with the original 1983 version but - as it did in 2009 - seguéd seamlessly into a large chunk of the 2003 take. I suspected that we wouldn't see a repeat of the revelatory Velodrome experience of actual cyclists appearing (it would have been akin to a mass Wall Of Death in these purlieus), but the whole piece pedalled on very nicely.
From the same Soundtracks album came the now-obligatory airing for Vitamin, one of the quirkier of their numbers, with pills and tablets flying slowly out of the screen towards an audience which may have been need of an analgesic or two by that point.
Having hit the road and flown through space, it was now time to board the Trans-Europe Express, appearing as ever in its triptych form, with the closing Abzug being concluded by the closing of the curtains to enthusiastic applause (another thing which went right by comparison to last time: technically, the whole show in every respect went without a hitch).
There was, we had been informed, to be no interval in this gig, so why close the curtains? Those of us in the veterans' league knew well enough; it was to enable the human members of the band to slip off and be replaced by their robot equivalents. Sure enough, after scarcely a minute, the opening bars of The Robots came over the PA, the curtains parted and there stood Die Roboter themselves. This time, they had legs too, although as ever, most of the movement was in the arms and heads. Even this had caused certain technical 'issues' earlier in the tour, but the requisite tweaking (or threats of having their solenoids ripped out) had obviously worked wonders.
The curtains closed again for a minute, and then opened one more time to the Men Themselves as they launched into the up-tempo foot-tapping of Aéro-Dynamik. This was followed by a similar storming through Planet Of Visions, in what seemed to be another radical remix...
...And then, with a sad inevitability, came the call of "Boing, Boom Tschak!", heralding the last number of the night. This seemed to be more extended than before, however, with full reign given to the three tracks which make up the first side of Electric Café, Boing Boom Tschak itself, Techno Pop and, finally Music Non Stop. Halfway through this last segment, Falk's console went dark, and he walked stage left to take his bow before disappearing down the steps at the back. After some heavy manipulation of beats (with Ralf and Henning looking across at him with what looked like a combination of admiring and quizzical expressions), Fritz took his turn to say goodnight. After some more techno-noodling, Henning himself took his bow and - in a twist which only he could answer for - walked backwards down the steps (*). This left Ralf - who had looked to have enjoyed himself immensely all evening - to drive us home. Then, it was time for the leader himself to wish us "Goodnight! Auf wiedersehn!", before taking a rather extended ovation (we were all understandably on our feet by this time) and retreating back to the dressing room (or the laboratory, it's hard to be sure sometimes).
The house lights went up, the spell was broken and, rubbing our eyes and our ears, we made our way out to the foyer, having seen and heard a Gig For The Ages.
While we were waiting for the queue for the gents to diminish, Tez and I were approached by a fellow attendee who - obviously impressed by our sartorial sense of occasion - asked us to pose for a couple of photographs, which we were delighted to do. Who knows where those pictures may appear in the days ahead?
The necessities taken care of, we wandered in a sort of euphoric daze back to the car park and headed homewards, Wendy and Tez dropping me off outside Mental Towers shortly before midnight, at the end of a most remarkable evening.
Envoi: I did say that this wasn't going to be an in-depth review, didn't I? Given that, I do seem to have rattled on a bit, don't I? I hope you'll overlook a rare burst of enthusiasm.
(*) Correction: My memory played me false on this; studying the footage on YT, I now see that it was Fritz who reversed off the stage rather than Henning.