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Tribal Gathering, Luton, England
May 25th 1997

As the largest 'tribal gathering' to date, a crowd of 35,000 amassed in the pastoral haven of Luton. Past shimmering acid green fields, swans gliding primly over glittering streams, bus loads of geezers descended for almost 24 hours of synthetic beats. Enormous circus tents had been installed, decorated with banners, blow-up Buddhas, polystyrene sculpture, nets, billows of dry ice and re-named for the event, Planet Earth, Amazon, Arctic, Pacific, Equator, Sahara, Detroit, with the largest being Trans Europe/Atlantic , which was to be the venue for Kraftwerk's first world appearance in more than 5 years. Hyped by electronic music aficionados of an over-zealous music press as this summer's prime event, Kraftwerk were given the kind of tribute that attracted trans-global fans.

Seeing more geezers sporting more brand new trainers than you'd see at Niketown in Manhattan, blue-white pale pimply teenagers, hippies and a crowd that was best seen in the dark, was a feeble start to the afternoon, especially as my guarana and neurofen were close to being confiscated.

We wandered over to a group of wig wams, and towards one of the tents to see Farley and Heller who were spinning disks furiously by 5pm. A sweating tightly packed crowd were already making it difficult to get close. As the evening began to grind, and the gangly teenagers fell like flies, shivering in the cold (many having reached their point of no return by midnight), the build up and anticipation for the main event intensified.

The line up was to include Daft Punk, Orbital, Deep Dish and Roger Sanchez (from NYC), and an array of DJs from most sides of the planet. Visibly missing were The Chemical Brothers, (who we saw coincidentally that morning walking down our street, joining Brett Anderson, Damon Albarn and Jamiroquai as neighbours...)

However, as six thousand bodies (prematurely) perspired under one roof, they faced a stage that was missing a focus, missing the performative and dramatic show of a live concert. Two distant DJs with their heads down, barely moving at all, and certainly not interested in being objects of the gaze, let alone desire, had little on stage except for their turntables and a selection of disks. Kraftwerk however, were notorious for their exhilaratingly theatrical stage shows, and we wondered whether they would be going to the effort that night.

We got our positions early, squeezed amongst an older crowd, most of whom seemed to be music journalists and (tall) die-hard fans. We waited facing a large black curtained stage, euphoric impatience erupting in several bursts for the German "kling und klang übermenschen." Sampled now for over 15 years of dance music, including Afrika Bambata and Grand Master Flash.

Twenty minutes late (and we were wondering about German precision) the curtains drew apart to reveal four commanders in high Nehru-meets-Spock dark shiny suits, their control panels strapped to their abdomens, looming video screens and computer equipment behind them. Two enormous screens flanked either side of the stage. These were immediately filled with black-white-red constructivist graphics as they began their Man-Machine multimedia event of onomatopoeic noise and graphics imitating machinery. Having devised, augmented and constructed a large part of their own equipment, indeed inventing new electronic sounds and instruments, their unique sound and physical presence mesmerised every single member of that jaded audience. Performing Trans-Europe Express, with the initial intro of "Boing Boom Chuck" started a riot. Kitsch painted 1950s scenery, training through an idealised country-side was montaged with black and white vintage Tee footage, reminiscent of early cubist and constructivist film (especially El Lissitsky's Ballet Mechanique). Computer generated numerals flashed and counted down in electric green. The graphics were an odd mix of art historical references, pure kitsch and technophilia. They hammed it up, too, serious about the music but playing with their images. These gents, transformed from the Thunderbirds club with slicked black hair, now quite bare or white haired, were much more reminiscent of commanders from The Fifth Element, or at least Mars Attacks!

A major problem that night, and one that completely insulted their impeccably slick performance, was a dysfunctional curtain. A technician had to precariously climb the narrow scaffolding, completely distracting in his show of daring and acrobatics to pull the curtain together after the first set. This happened four or five times. They must have been furious! After waiting for this, to everyone's delight they were pulled apart to reveal the robots. Their robot doubles have been famously hailed as the highlight of Kraftwerk's previous performances, and they were breathtaking, creating a mechanical ballet as the four Robots interacted with each other, spectacularly spot-lit. I wished they had performed "Sex Object" and "The Model" but the show was definitely focused upon the grandiose theme of "Man and technology," (including an anti-nuclear anthem). Several encores later (a very tricky operation with this curtain), an astonished, apparently visually and aurally starved audience left, not quite expecting what they'd just experienced.

Daft Punk and Orbital followed, with mass audience appeal. One would have expected Orbital to have been the unanimous heavy-weight techno champions, with Kraftwerk relegated to dated, retro second place, yet their seminal, thoroughly contemporary sound left orbital sounding derivative and lack-lustre. What struck me was how tame it all was; totally organised, totally legal, utterly undebauched. How much fun can you have at a rave like this?

Alice Hutchison
15 June 1997