Vivid Sydney: Kraftwerk The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at the Sydney Opera House

26 May 2013

Vivid Sydney is one of my favourite annual events in this city: a festival of music, lights, and ideas just as autumn turns into winter.

My first event this year was seeing electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk live. Their performance is called The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. In it they play two shows a night for four nights, with each performance focusing on playing live the entirety of one of their most influential albums (Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981), Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991) and Tour de France (2003)) followed by whatever hits are left over. They’ve done this in recent years in Germany, the USA and the UK, and now it’s Australia’s turn. Demand was so high people had to enter a lottery just to be able to get the chance to buy tickets.

A mate and I put in for two different nights, and I was lucky enough to get one. With my four ticket limit purchased, we saw them play Radio-Activity on Friday night, the second show on the first night.

Heineken at the 2008 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival - Day 2

Wow. It was far more engaging and interesting than you’d expect four middle-aged German guys standing behind podiums playing minimal electro could be.

Kraftwerk are called seminal for good reason. They practically introduced electronica to the public, or at least were certainly the first to make it popular. Despite it being minimal, repetitive, and half in German, it was fascinating. They always focused on themes, especially the way that technology is changing our lives, so there’s meaning there to grab hold of. And they created all the necessary pop elements with their device sounds, transforming machine noise to songs. Watching them play live was very much like watching Black Sabbath or The Stooges recently: I was awestruck to witness the artists who invented a musical form.

The songs were so cool, and sounded great in a theatre specially wired for 5.1 surround sound. Crisp audio precision and lush synth sounds filled the room, immersing us in the techno world of these visionaries. You could hear echoes of all the electronic music that’s been made ever since.

What made it extra-exciting was that the music was accompanied by a full-on big-screen 3D video presentation behind the band. Every song contained visual elements bursting out at the audience, as we wore Kraftwerk-logoed cardboard bi-colour glasses. Cars and spaceships and computers all whizzed around our heads. What a treat.

They first played all the tracks from Radio-Activity, an exploration of broadcast communications as it was in the mid-’70s. This album really got them going down the electro-robot music path, and I find it one of their darker and moody ones. It was excellent.

Then they rolled out just about every hit the assembled crowd could have asked for from across the rest of the albums that they’d play in their entirety on other nights, plus a few others. We got “Autobahn”, of course, plus “Trans-Europe Express”, “Spacelab”, “The Model”, “The Man Machine”, “Computer World”, “Numbers”,  “Musique Non-Stop”, and “Tour de France”.

But nothing surpassed the cold machine funk of “The Robots”. It was a super groove, electronic blip elements that you recognise immediately from having been sampled so much, and freaky 3D visuals. Listening to the track alone just isn’t the same, but here it is.

Kraftwerk themselves barely moved, and only really showed their humanity – a few words, bows, and smiles – at the end. But that’s all we wanted from them. These guys are true artists. I’m so glad that they’re still able to package an amazing and inventive performance.

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