A sudden chorus of whoops and yibbles burst from a kind of juke box at the far end of the room. Everybody quit talking. The bartender tiptoed back, with the drinks.
“What’s happening?” Oedipa whispered.
“That’s by Stockhausen,” the hip graybeard informed her, “the early crowd tends to dig your Radio Cologne sound. Later on we really swing. We’re the only bar in the area, you know, has a strictly electronic music policy. Come on around Saturdays, starting midnight we have your Sinewave Session, that’s a live get-together, fellas come in just to jam from all over the state, San Jose, Santa Barbara, San Diego—”
“Live?” Metzger said, “electronic music, live?”
“They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man. That’s for if you didn’t bring your ax, see, but you got the feeling and you want to swing with the rest of the cats, there’s always something available.”
— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
I recently came across this video which apparently captures the first ever show by Kraftwerk, live in Soest in 1970.
It was recorded four years before the release of the first canonical Kraftwerk album Autobahn, on which they unveiled a mostly-realized aesthetic of robotic image and clean synth textures. This performance gives little sense of what is to come, it’s closer to the Krautrock grind of Can or Faust than to the music that would make Kraftwerk famous. Still, an impressive and powerful set that clearly went over well with a crowd of German hipsters.
Watching this raised some immediate questions… Is this really the band’s first gig? If so, why so many people? And why the cameras? How did this show come to be? What were the people in the audience expecting, did they have any idea of what they were seeing?
So far, the most detailed account I’ve been able to find is from one of the attendees, Dimitri Hegemann, who later founded the famous techno club Tresor in Berlin. Forty-three years later Hegemann recalls:
We went there by train. Soest in North Rhine-Westphalia was only eight kilometers away and the city’s cultural office held a fair every November for All Saints’ Day. Part of it was a program for the youth, for which Kraftwerk performed in the “Blue Hall”. Of course we had no idea who Kraftwerk were, but liked listening to “alternative music”. That’s what it was called back then.
So… did anyone there have a sense of what they were seeing? Apparently not.
An excerpt of this performance is on YouTube with the title “First Techno” — is this really the earliest example of electronic drones and skreeches being matched with thumping beats?
Electronic music evolved alongside advances in electricity in the early twentieth century, but “techno” is generally said to have emerged in the mid-1980s. The Wikipedia article for Techno quotes Kodwo Eshun arguing “Kraftwerk are to Techno what Muddy Waters is to the Rolling Stones: the authentic, the origin, the real.”
If all this is accurate, video of the first Kraftwerk gig offers what might be the exact moment where electronic experimental music transitions to techno, where the trippy headspace also starts to shake the body. During the early parts of their first gig in Soest, Kraftwerk seem content to meander within the spaces mapped by obvious influences such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. The sounds are interesting, and probably came across as wild in the room when highly amplified. But there is no sense of momentum… it’s appealing, but mostly on an abstract level. After a while, the audience struggles to maintain interest. A standout visual is at 6 minutes 47 seconds, as one concertgoer slumps bored on the lap of another. But there is a dramatic shift at 8:00 minutes, when Klaus Dinger starts to kick rock beats on the drums, the reaction is evident delight on the faces of the audience, and almost instantaneously the energy moves. The performance continues to evolve, with a few more yummy grooves (that one sounds more like Neu!, who emerged from this same scene) and synth-saturated freakouts. No wonder Hegemann remembered it vividly so many years later.
Whether this show counts as “the first techno” is inherently and endlessly debatable. I haven’t been able to find anything that directly refutes it — the closest I can get to an option is the prophetically propulsive “Tomorrow Never Knows”, released by the Beatles in 1966, though it doesn’t have synthesizers. Still, trying to answer that question has meant exploration of a very fun transitional phase in musical evolution… I have to think there are more untapped riches in the WFMU archives. If anyone has other examples that will complicate the story, I’d be very into hearing them.