On a windswept February day in Blackpool, scores of Kraftwerk fans gathered to swap notes, watch probably the only Kraftwerk covers band in the world and generally party, while paying homage to one of the most influential electronic bands of our time. Convention organiser Paul Wilkinson brings us this report.
Kraftwerk are as influential as they are long‑lived, with a standing in electronic music circles that is belied by their retiring — some might say reclusive — habits. Commercial releases are few and far between, and personal appearances relatively rare. Yet hardcore Kraftwerk devotees create their own amusement: a fanzine is circulated and there is a thriving underground fandom scene, which surfaced in the UK three years ago with the staging of the first annual Kraftwerk convention. The third, now named the Kraftwerk and Elektric Music convention, to reflect the much‑publicised schism undergone by the Dusseldorf Four, was held at the Rosecrea Hotel, Blackpool on Sunday 27th February, 1994. It was attended by nearly 100 fans, many travelling from other countries such as Germany, Belgium and the United States. The type of fan attracted by the convention ranged from hardened Kraftwerk devotees to lovers of electronic music in general.
The first convention was held in January 1992 and was the brain‑child of a group of fans who met at the stage door of a concert on Kraftwerk's UK tour in July 1991. These fans found an instant rapport, and conceived the first convention as a day for fans to meet, make new friends, and watch a video show. The convention was well received by the 55 fans who attended, some travelling from as far away as Holland and Sweden for the event.
Through this first convention, organiser Paul Wilkinson was introduced to the Welsh band Elektro Kinetik who were currently working on their own cover versions of Kraftwerk tracks. He was invited to attend one of their first gigs and was impressed enough to invite them to perform at the second Kraftwerk convention, which was held again in Blackpool in February 1993.
The second convention still allowed fans to mingle, but an agenda was introduced to create some structure for the day. A special video show featured much rare material collected by Paul from various countries throughout Europe. The performance by Elektro Kenetik was well received and they gained many new fans and admirers of their own. The convention was concluded with a video request spot. In all, the second convention was a great success, attracting well over 100 people, and was even featured on Scottish local radio. It was decided that a third annual convention must follow...
The doors of the third Kraftwerk and Elektric Music Convention opened at 10.30am. Each person attending was handed a specially‑produced programme, detailing the agenda for the day and providing background information on Elektro Kinetik, who were again invited to perform. The programme also explained how to view the Kraftwerk autostereograms — three‑dimensional pictures — specially designed by John Shirlock and on display around the room. Also on display was an 8ft high photograph exhibition detailing Kraftwerk's career, and including early shots taken inside the Kling Klang studio and live stage shots and promotional pictures from 1972 to 1993. A small adjoining room was provided with a video recorder showing a programme of promo videos and studio performances which was repeated throughout the day. Most of these clips had been shown at previous conventions, but were very popular with the fans attending a convention for the first time.
Before too long, discussions about Kraftwerk's records, concerts and other points of interest began. Many fans brought with them rare and unusual recordings to show and swap, some never before seen by many people. The convention officially began at 11am with a welcome speech from the organisers, Paul Wilkinson, Ian Calder and John Shilcock, detailing the many events of the day. Arranged throughout the day between events were periods of 'freetime', to encourage fans to meet and make new friends. The first of these freetime periods followed the organiser's welcome speech. Fans were informed by the organisers about any people present with interests similar to their own or any interesting artifacts that had been brought along. This ensured that even the more shy people were able to make new friends and enjoy themselves.
At 11.30am, fans were treated to an audio spot entitled 'Sounds Like Kraftwerk', wherein many unusual and rare Kraftwerk tracks were played. These included the 'Technopop' Demo (different in the version finally featured on the Electric Cafe album), 'Kohoutek'/'Kometenmelodie' (Kraftwerk's first ever single, released exclusively in Germany) and 'Mini Calculator' sung in French).
The main video show began at 12.15pm. This was a selection of video clips shown on a giant TV screen. As in previous conventions, Paul had gone to a great deal of trouble to obtain clips (many from foreign TV broadcasts) which most of the fans present had never before seen. The 45‑minute show featured 1993 concert footage, MTV articles, and an interview with Ralf Hutter, who explained how Kraftwerk's giant TV screens are operated and gave a guided tour of Kling Klang. Elektric Music were also featured, with an interview of Karl Bartos and Lothar Manteuffel and videos of Elektric Music's singles 'TV' and 'Lifestyle'. The video for 'Lifestyle' was especially well received.
Following a buffet lunch at 1pm, Elektro Kinetik took to the stage and performed their 90‑minute set (see box). The band were very well received and were the highlight of the convention for many. Elektro Kinetik hope to play more live dates later in the year, and plan to start work on their own original material towards the end of summer.
Following the band's performance, a debate session took place. A panel consisting of John, Ian and Paul sat at the front of the audience and endeavoured to answer any questions on Kraftwerk, Elektric Music or the Kraftwerk fanzine Aktivitat. The questions asked by fans were varied; one hopeful wanted to know where he could locate Kraftwerk's Kling Klang Studio (nobody was prepared to divulge the location). Other questions regarded the legendary unissued Technopop album, Kraftwerk's live dates over the years, and Elektric Music's productions for other bands. After an enquiry about former Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flur, one fan actually produced and read aloud a letter he'd received from Wolfgang the previous week, wishing the convention well and detailing his current involvement with his new band Jamo. The debate session was scheduled to last for only fifteen minutes, but proved so popular that it over‑ran by another full half hour.
The convention came to an end with a raffle. Tickets had been on sale throughout the day and the goodies eventually won included badges, an official cycling T‑shirt from the '93 tour, files of press cuttings, Aktivitat fanzines and some of the specially designed autostereograms on view throughout the day. Following the raffle, Paul brought the convention to a formal close, encouraging the fans to stay in contact with their new‑found friends, and for another hour or so many fans remained chatting to each other and swapping Kraftwerk‑related stories. In all, the third convention proved to be very popular by all who attended, although some fans were unable to travel all the way to Blackpool in order to attend. It is hoped that other regional meetings for Kraftwerk fans may take place some time in the future, but at present this is just in the planning stage. For more details write to:
Paul Wilkinson, 80 Poulton Old Road, Layton, Blackpool, Lancs FY3 7LJ.
The proprietor of the B&B greets me over the breakfast table with a broad smile. "You're here with the others, aren't you?" he asks, putting a groaning plate of sausage, egg and bacon down in front of me. "It's the Handicraft Convention, isn't it?" I foresee difficulties in explaining that I've come to pay homage to The Best Band In The World rather than an exhibition of fancy raffia and basket weaving, so I just tell him that it's another kind of Kraftwerk and leave it at that.
We are not alone in the convention capital of the North, for hardcore fans of German synth‑driven rock are rubbing shoulders with Real Ale enthusiasts and IBM members (that's the International Brotherhood of Magicians to you) on a rainy, windswept Sunday morning. Even the local radio station runs a piece on the invasion of the magicians. Why nothing on the really important event?
The arguments about Kraftwerk as the missing link between avant garde electronics and the whole house/techno scene are well‑worn ones, but the fact remains that this band's impact on modern music is incalculable. Kraftwerk took synthesizers out of the university music department and invented a new musical language in the process. 'Computer World' is a soul record: the first time I heard it, I was seduced. There is talk among convention delegates of Can, and of Faust, Eno, Derrick May, Depeche Mode and David Sylvian — but everyone at the Rosecrea Hotel seems in general agreement that Kraftwerk are quite simply the best.
It's oddly touching that around 100 people have gathered here to swap notes, stories and reminiscences about a band that hasn't put out any significantly new product in years; the sheer dedication of these people is impressive. Some have been to virtually every European gig in the last decade. They have albums of photos, files of press cuttings, obscure items of merchandise. I am only slightly suprised not to see a 1991 vintage bottle of Florian Schneider's sweat from Brixton Academy.
Other fascinating diversions span a goldmine of old video clips (including footage of an early incarnation of the band resembling a cross between Led Zep, Can and Jethro Tull) and John Shilcock's collection of computer‑generated stereograms. The highpoint for many, though, is the performance of Elektro Kinetik — quite possibly the world's only Kraftwerk covers band.
Elektro Kinetik's Colin Jordan has taken enormous pains to recreate the band's sound, and it must be said that the effect is impressive. It's a rather surreal experience to hear 'Europe Endless' from the comfort of a parquet‑floored hotel ballroom, but somehow the whole thing makes perfect sense. By 'Tour de France', Elektro Kinetik are kicking. Crouched over their primordial collection of largely analogue technology, the band gallops through a set that draws heavily on the Computer World and Electric Café eras, but also throws in some earlier gems like 'Metropolis'.
While a lot of the synth and vocoder sounds are near enough indistinguishable from the originals, Elektrokinetik play around with the structures of many of the songs — just as Kraftwerk themselves have always done. While many of today's acts are constrained by the ubiquitous DAT backing track syndrome, let's not forget that improvisation has always been a hallmark of the Kraftwerk's own live performances. For the finale, convention organiser Paul Wilkinson (in black shirt and obligatory flashing LED jewellery) picks up a custom controller and joins in on an epic re‑reading of 'Pocket Calculator'.
By now I realise that I am surrounded by people who know considerably more about Kraftwerk than Kraftwerk themselves do, as the brain‑scramblingly detailed Question and Answer session confirms. The Q&A slot comes to an unexpectedly hilarious conclusion when someone from the floor asks the team to identify a demo version of a previously unreleased Kraftwerk track. The tape machine whirrs into life, and we sit attentively as if waiting to hear the first communication from an extra‑terrestrial lifeform. It certainly sounds like Kraftwerk at first: the robotic drum track, the stark synth patches, the underlying tension between glacial beauty and raw, desperate emotion... until The Voice comes in. It's the unmistakable sound of Paul Wilkinson attempting his own 'freeform' version of 'Pocket Calculator' with what sounds like a Stylophone and a Bontempi organ for accompaniment. The session briefly degenerates into physical violence as a red‑faced Paul attempts to strangle his fellow panel members before order is restored.
Despite not winning a Ralf Hutter‑style cycling shirt in the closing raffle, I stagger back to the station happy and contented for the long journey home. Best music event of the year, no contest — and thanks to Paul, John and Ian for pulling off a uniquely different and enjoyable day. See you next year. By Chris Solbé
Elektro Kinetik, their name deriving from a Kraftwerk compilation LP issued in the early '80s, were formed in June 1992 with the aim of bringing the music of Kraftwerk to a wider audience through live performances. The band (a duo, actually) consist of Colin Jordan and Shirleyann Davies. Colin has been involved with electronic music since the late '70s and is responsible for the song arrangements and all the sequencer programming. Shirleyann is a classically trained clarinet and saxaphone player who has performed in many concerts throughout the country and appeared on TV.
For live performances, the band are usually joined by a guest musician on electronic percussion. For the convention, they were joined by Simon Darvell who is currently studying music at university. On this occasion, Simon also played additional keyboards and electric guitar.
The audience were treated to versions of several tracks from Kraftwerk's current live repertoire, including 'Numbers', 'Home Computer', 'Tour de France' and 'Computer Love'. Also included in the set were tracks such as 'Europe Endless', 'Metropolis' and 'Sex Object', which are very rarely played by Kraftwerk themselves.
Elektro Kinetik played out with 'Pocket Calculator', for which they used a mini sampling keyboard and custom‑designed, hand‑held remote control gadgets, which the audience were encouraged to play, triggering various bleeps and sequences. Their final track was a version of 'Musique Non Stop', each band member performing a solo towards the end, before eventually leaving the equipment to play by itself a la Kraftwerk.
The band like to perform with their entire studio on stage; they have a wide variety of vintage analogue equipment, including synths from the Korg MS range and the Firstman MS01 Sequence Synth, which contains all of the bass sequences, transposed manually during a performance. A Roland MC202 Microcomposer acts as a master clock for the analogue gear and in turn controls, via the sync‑24 outputs, two Roland MSQ700 Digital Sequencers containing various MIDI sequence data. Additional sequencers can be linked via the MIDI clock if required. More up‑to‑date equipment includes the Yamaha WX11 MIDI Wind Controller and Akai sampling. Elektro Kinetik don't use samples from other peoples' music and never sample from records, preferring to sample from their own instruments and sounds from real life.
To accompany the band's set, synchronised computer graphics were displayed on the giant TV screen. The images were generated by specially‑written software designed to read the analogue sequencer's clock pulse via interrupts. This software was also designed by Colin Jordan.
Details of Aktivitat, the UK‑produced Kraftwerk fanzine, can be obtained from Ian Cable, 108 Cummings Park Crescent, Northfiled, Aberdeen AB2 7AR.
Pascal Bussy's Kraftwerk: Man Machine and Music makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the band. The book is available from SOS Mail Order (see the Mail Order pages in this issue for details).