Among the tents and pink emergency blankets of Generation E, little could have looked more out of place than Kraftwerk's stage set. Their familiar hardware and video screens, disposed in two severe lines across a dark, functional stage, was an installation of stark beauty, depersonalised yet romantic. While the re-emergence of the open-air festival in that time has seen little change in its overall air of motley English hippydom, despite its takeover by electronic dance and Britpop, in the 25 years since the release of Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2, the band has continued to express a purist aesthetic that runs counter to both. As the black curtains parted and they opened with 'Numbers' from the Computerworld album, it felt as if Joseph Beuys' Plight or Anselm Kiefer's Germany's Spiritual Heroes had been dropped down in the middle of a muddy English field.
For the encore, the musicians changed out of their black uniforms and returned to the stage dressed in virtual reality suits; nothing new, then, for their first appearance in Britain for five years. In the past, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider have deflected criticism that they are doing the same old thing by stating that Kraftwerk are not really a pop group but a Gesamtkunstwerk, a 'total artwork', in progress. It is difficult to be sure how studied such a defence is, but Hütter and Schneider have certainly been pioneers in the sense of showing how it is possible to construct and reconstruct meaning through editing and reinterpretation, neutralising - at least in part - the reputation-killing distinction between old and new material in pop. Perhaps they just seem to be timeless because we mortals, toiling in the robotic delirium of an emotionless techno-culture, are still digesting their humorous fable of survival.
At Tribal Gathering 97 the band considerably refined the extraordinary sequence of sound-synched KlingKlang Musikfilms that accompanied songs on the The Mix tour of 1991. The visual accompaniment comprised a striking series of computer-generated images ('Numbers' and 'Computerworld'), projected, manifesto-style lyrics ('Man Machine'), gorgeous postcard views and black-and-white newsreel footage ('Tour de France', 'Autobahn' and 'Trans-Europe Express'), and a cross-fertilisation between the nostalgic utopianism of 60s train de luxe travel and the futurism-with-a-question-mark of 'Business, Numbers, Money, People'. This imagery has hardened, as has the group's sound, and its early tone of Romantic materialism (in love with the aesthetics of technology with varying degrees of irony) has evolved into something closer to an artistic manifesto for eco-warriors. 'Radio-Activity' has undergone the largest conceptual change since it was first released in 1975 as a ballad about radio waves bombarding people with information. On The Mix (1991) it was transformed into a darker disco protest against the false god of nuclear power. This time, projected over six screens, 'Stop Radioactivity' was accompianied by warnings that Sellafield will produce 7.5kg of plutonium waste per year and every 4.5 years release the same amount of radioactivity as Chernobyl. Likewise, on 'Computerworld', the word 'medicine' replaced 'travel', and on 'Autobahn' - surely the anthem of post-war German Romanticism - footage of crammed motorways was combined with ironic opening and closing sequences depicting a truck coughing and refusing to start and the image of a traffic sign bisected by a red flash saying 'motoway ends'.
That Kraftwerk's 'industrial folk music' has been dismembered and reinterpreted by a thousand DJs worldwide as the Esperanto of contemporary dance music bears witness to the power and the genius of Hütter's 'little melodies'. The Robotmeisters, however, have remained outside this revolution, rather like the way that DNA continues to exist, aloof from its imperfect human consequences. Kraftwerk's melodic purity and technical perfection is closer to the mathematics of Bach, married to the simplicity of Doo-Wop as conceived in the muddy wastes of German post-war culture and reborn under the twinkling star of Mercedes-Benz. When Kraftwerk suddenly presented their audience with an encore of fast, competent techno-thrash, we were hearing a kind of musical aside that said: well, we can do that too.
Questioned on the group's long silence during the 80s, Schneider once retorted shyly that there was too much sound pollution. He was echoing Hütter's statement that what confronted him as a philosopher-technician was the emergence of a Fernsteuerung of society: a kind of creeping remote control by the mass forces of demographic dictatorship. They were both right.