One night in 1997, in the grounds of a country house just off the M1, I watched Kraftwerk, the enigmatic Mensch-Maschine, successfully evolve. Their appearance at the dance music one-dayer Tribal Gathering was the group’s first ever festival set. To be there was to witness Kraftwerk in the context of the black dance music they had inspired and were inspired by.
The performance was a timely reboot for the band. Their last original album – the lacklustre Electric Café – was released in 1986, when early jack, house and techno was leaving Kraftwerk behind. A 1991 remix album, The Mix, also received lukewarm reviews, although it reshaped their older tracks within cleaner, clubbier lines. The Tribal Gathering set was about Kraftwerk acknowledging where their influence properly pulsed – and where its future lay. That night, they were the only act playing live in the main tent. The Detroit stage next door had shut for Kraftwerk’s set, as techno royalty such as Kevin Saunderson and Jeff Mills didn’t want to miss their spiritual forebears. Before the first “eins zwei drei vier” of Numbers, the tent was closed to prevent dangerous overcrowding.
This was the best gig of my life. Back then, I was a curious, slightly square undergraduate who loved Underworld and Leftfield as much as Pulp and Suede. I got to the Trans-Europe tent two hours early, camping out as Two Lone Swordsmen entered the intense final leg of their eight-hour sound-system set (a neat way of the stage being readied for Kraftwerk’s precise specifications).
At first, I felt like a female anomaly among the handful of deeply serious men, some in anoraks, standing stage-front. But by 11pm, the tent was a mass of tight, whooping waves made up of every demographic: I felt accepted in the festival’s mix of glammed-up ravers, trance hedonists and hoodie-wearing ordinary Joes. Then a robotic voice cut through. “Meine Damen und Herren,” it began … Numbers from 1981’s Computer World exploded into life, repeated patterns of melody bending and phasing, rhythms expanding and contracting.
Kraftwerk’s Tribal Gathering set came at a crucial time for dance music in the UK. Three years earlier, rave culture had been targeted by the Conservative government’s criminal justice bill. Now we were 23 days into New Labour’s brave new world, and 30,000-strong legal, overground parties seemed to be the future. The techno-inspired dance acts of Tribal Gathering’s world had also become mainstream concerns. The Chemical Brothers had two No 1s after headlining in 1996. Orbital, returnees to Luton in 1997, had two Top 5 hits earlier in the year. I would see their exhilarating set at the Planet Earth tent just after Kraftwerk, before experiencing the visceral rush of a French duo called Daft Punk who had recently released their debut album.
The gig was 23 years ago, so my precise memories are sketchy, but I still remember feeling an overwhelming sense of awe throughout the 90-minute Kraftwerk set. (I should add that I was skint and largely sober, only able to afford a few beers at the end of a university year.) To be in the presence of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider felt miraculous in 1997: their last album had been 1991’s The Mix, after all, and they had never played in such a setting. I remember the crowd as a warm-hearted embrace, unlike the laddish atmospheres I was used to at indie gigs. I remember hit after hit, and the perfect, metronomic beauty of the music slotting us together, up and down, on their soundwaves.
I recently found footage of the set on YouTube, which filled in the details. They frontloaded their set with tracks from Computer World: given the direct impact this record had on hip-hop and the early metallic hisses of techno, this was perhaps unsurprising. I had a vague memory of a total banger near the end, which I discovered with a thrill is a track they’ve barely played since, and never released. There were gentler moments, too: Radioactivity disseminating its air of beguiling yet menacing mystery, Tour de France slowly unfurling like a Schubert minuet. I love how the crowd screams, then claps along, when Autobahn begins, sweetly and naively. The wonder Kraftwerk impart about the possibilities of technology feels shared in that moment.
Before Tribal Gathering, Kraftwerk played theatres and tribute shows. After it, they became festival fixtures. It felt precious to be there at that pivotal moment, at both a peculiar homecoming and an annunciation.