Mark Roland on a landmark visit to the LCR
Kraftwerk 17 June 1992
"I was still half convinced that someone was executing a huge and pointless hoax. The band had returned to live activity the year before after a 10-year hiatus, when they’d released ‘The Mix’. They’d played an eight-date tour of the UK which had sold out in the now customary few hours, including two dates at the 5,000 capacity Brixton Academy. What on earth were they doing coming to Norwich?"
We had no idea how fortunate we were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Norwich was an island marooned in a county which seemed hell-bent on keeping communication with the outside world to a minimum. The tortuous final leg of the journey from London before the A11 widening a few years ago was diabolical, and getting to Norwich from the north (or the west) still doesn’t bear thinking about.
Despite the logistical horrors of navigating a handful of rock and roll articulated Lorries to our fine city, we were treated to some very fine gigs indeed. At the UEA LCR I’d seen The Damned, The Ramones, Motörhead, Throwing Muses supported by Pixies in 1988, and the Pixies again a year later, this time headlining. Pop Will Eat Itself, De La Soul (who were deeply disappointing, actually), Faith No More - as they were visibly falling apart on a fractious tour that ended with Chuck Mosley pulling a gun on the band on an aeroplane - The Sugarcubes, and The Fall, back when they could fill the UEA with ease. All were memorable for one reason or another.
But on 17 June 1992, a gig was announced at the UEA which I found hard to believe was actually going to happen: Kraftwerk. In Norwich. The Man-Machine was going to haul their legendary Kling Klang studio all the way from Düsseldorf and up the A11 for a night of peerless synthesiser music within earshot of the Golden Triangle, in exchange for a mere £8. The Beatles of electronic music were coming, as long as they could get past the bottleneck at Elveden.
There was very little promotional activity around the gig. It was announced very close to the night itself. I think I found out about it less than a week before, via word of mouth, and as I walked down into the LCR cul de sac I was still half convinced that someone was executing a huge and pointless hoax. The band had returned to live activity the year before after a 10-year hiatus, when they’d released ‘The Mix’. They’d played an eight-date tour of the UK which had sold out in the now customary few hours, including two dates at the 5,000 capacity Brixton Academy. What on earth were they doing coming to Norwich? The answer was that the gig was a warm-up, one of two, for a big Greenpeace benefit two nights later, playing with U2, Public Enemy and Big Audio Dynamite II at Manchester’s G-Mex , an event tagged Stop Sellafield. It says something about the quality of the live events at the LCR that it was chosen by Kraftwerk for this warm-up. That and the fact that keeping a gig in Norwich secret (i.e. no media would bother to turn up) was easier than, say, nearly anywhere else within striking distance of London.
I don’t remember buying the ticket, but I can’t believe I walked up on the night expecting to get a ticket on the door, but I may well have done. The gig was long way off sold out. It was one of the most low-key gigs I ever saw there. There were large black curtains drawn across the rear of the venue, behind the mixing desk, reducing its capacity. I don’t suppose there were more than five or six hundred people in there, all in a shared state of disbelief and anticipation.
The stage itself was hidden behind another curtain. With an unerring adherence to the advertised on-stage time, the house lights went down and the synthesised voice rang out from the PA: “Heute abend, aus Deutschland, die Mensche Machine: Kraftwerk…” The curtain fell back to reveal Kraftwerk’s robot doppelgängers, as seen on the cover of ‘The Mix’, dressmaker torsos with heads accurately modelled on the band members’ own, spindly metal arms with rubber gloves on the ends waggling around comically, under lit with strobes, ‘dancing’ to the electronic blurts of ‘The Robots’.
Then the band marched on and starting tending to the Kling Klang machinery behind them, apparently tweaking and controlling the beats of ‘Numbers’, from their 1981 classic ‘Computer World’, the track that had helped to birth hip hop in New York a decade earlier. The stage was bathed in fluorescent light from the dozens of tubes incorporated into the Kling Klang studio gear. It was quite a sight. I’m not afraid to confess that, confronted with this mysterious German electronic beast so up close, which had been obsessing me since I bought my first Kraftwerk record as a schoolboy sometime back in 1978, I lost my sh*t.
The gig went by in a blur of delirium for me. The thrilling sonic clarity, the realisation that Kraftwerk architects Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were actually real people, the four video screens showing what state of the art visuals was then. I was too transfixed to fight my way to the front to press the buttons on Florian’s hand-held music machine which he offered to audience members to stab at during ‘Pocket Calculator’. I was still reeling from hearing ‘Autobahn’ played live, and watching Florian lean over and gaze quizzically at Ralf as his synth detuned spectacularly and bollocksed the song, proving that Kraftwerk were playing live and treading an electronic tightrope.
“Better than U2!” shouted one particularly enthusiastic audience member. “I can’t get a ticket! Got any spare tickets Ralf?” he continued bellowing. “I walk in through the back entrance…” deadpanned Ralf to the biggest cheer of the night.
I recently went to Düsseldorf to see Kraftwerk play, as part of the city’s celebrations for the Grand Départ of the Tour De France. It was magnificent, but nothing will equal the night of 17 June in the LCR, 1992, coming face to face with my electronic music heroes for the first time.
Mark Roland, Editor, Electronic Sound Magazine