Past catches up with futuristic German electronic band after Beijing bans quartet over performance that never was

As pop stars go, they are pretty much as inoffensive as you can get, a bunch of German pensioners who practically invented electronica with their hypnotic loops and robotic antics.

But Kraftwerk have apparently fallen foul of the Chinese authorities, not for their lyrics or their dissolute ways (the most you could ever accuse them of is eccentricity) but for something they did more than 10 years ago. A case of the past catching up with the futurists.

According to reports in Beijing, the ministry of culture denied the German quartet a visa because they were scheduled to perform at a pro-Tibetan independence concert in 1999. In fact, Kraftwerk's performance at the Washington DC fundraiser was ultimately cancelled because of a lightning storm.

The Beijing-based record label Modern Sky originally invited the German group to headline its three-day Strawberry music festival in late April before China's ministry of culture denied their application. "Kraftwerk were not allowed to play … because they participated in a Free Tibet concert," an unnamed Modern Sky employee told Agence France-Presse. "We had already arranged the show, it's a pity they can't come, it's a great shame."

The festival has replaced Kraftwerk with the British pop band Travis. "I can't say we are 100% confident with Travis as headliners," Zang Keyu, Modern Sky's director of performance and operations, told the state-run Global Times newspaper. "But it's a fact we have to accept."

Kraftwerk thus become the latest victims of Beijing's rigorous control of who does and does not come to entertain its youth. After turning up their noses for decades at western rock for much of the 1980s and 1990s, China's authorities have come to view large-scale, multi-day festivals as a useful exercise in generating both popularity and cash.

But for even the most enlightened officials, so-called social stability remains a top priority. In 2008, Björk was banned from the country after repeatedly shouting "Tibet" during a song called Declare Independence. And after Elton John dedicated a Beijing concert to the dissident artist Ai Weiwei in November, China's cultural authorities bulked up restrictions on foreign artists.

At a 2011 folk festival in the city Suzhou, a large projection behind the stage displayed short messages sent by audience members – until Ai Weiwei's name flashed across the screen. That year's Strawberry festival was immediately cancelled and Zuoxiao Zuzhou, a rock musician who ostensibly sent the message, was briefly detained.

Kraftwerk's rejection underscores Tibet's special standing in the eyes of Chinese cultural apparatchiks. In March, the band Gang of Four, named after a cultural revolution-era political faction, toured through the country without a hitch.

John Lydon, who shot to fame as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, will play at a Beijing club on Saturday night. "The Chinese government has analysed my lyrics, and are fully aware of how I'm coming to China, and what I stand for, and gave me a pass with flying colours," he told the Smart Beijing online magazine. "This is a good thing for China."

The post-rock instrumental ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor is scheduled to perform at a marquee Beijing club next month, despite their subversive politics. "In our day-to-days, we're all witnesses to the demeaning outcomes of debauched governance," they told the Guardian last autumn.

"I read that [concert organisers] were having trouble bringing Godspeed over – not because of that, but because they have God in their name," said Liz Tung, music editor of Time Out Beijing. "And that goes to show how careless and arbitrary they are about who they're going to flag, and who they're going to let in."

She added that while cultural authorities might draw the line at Tibet associations, they rarely devote extensive energy to researching foreign acts. "I think kids get disappointed when acts are cancelled, but they're also used to it," she said. "They're used to shows being censored, movies being censored, they're used to things being pulled at the last minute for stupid reasons."

Banned bands

Lady Gaga was forced to cancel a sold-out show in Indonesia in 2012 after Islamic conservatives protested, saying that her sexy clothes and dance moves would corrupt the country's youth.

Julio Iglesias was among more unlikely acts including the Sex Pistols and Kiss to be banned from Soviet airwaves in the mid-80s.

BBC radio has enjoyed a long history of banning songs, including the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen and Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax, as well the equally saucy 1930s classic The Window Cleaner, more commonly known as When I'm Cleaning Windows, by George Formby.

Acts from Billie Holiday to the Dixie Chicks have seen their music banned by radio stations. After criticising George W Bush on stage in London, the latter were defended at a Senate commerce committee briefing by future presidential candidate John McCain.

In the 1980s Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Centre attemped to ban an instrumental Frank Zappa album after he likened the advocacy group's agenda to a "sinister kind of toilet training programme to house-break all composers".

Singer Thomas Mapfumo moved to the US after his music was banned by Robert Mugabe's government. "Every piece of music that is critical of the government is not allowed to be played on the radio," he has said. © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image of Kraftwerk in Kiev in 2008 by Andriy V. Makukha on Wikimedia Commons]