A confession: I consider myself a passionate and dedicated lover of electronic music, and yet until very recently I was only barely acquainted with the music of Kraftwerk.
I know, I know. I know. That’s like saying you’re a literary man and not knowing your way around Shakespeare; like claiming to be a Liverpool fan and not knowing the words to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. Kraftwerk’s corpus isn’t just important, it’s archetypal. Its value exists beyond simple gradations of good or bad; without it, my world would be unrecognizable. Right?
That’s what I reckoned, anyway, because everyone told me so. It’s one of those cultural tenets you get rammed down your throat from an early age: Kraftwerk are A Very Big Deal. Yet there’s nothing more off-putting, more distancing, than universal acclaim, and all those ringing endorsements left me seriously doubting whether I could ever enjoy a personal and proper connection with Kraftwerk’s music, however “important” it might be in itself. Still, you have to take on the classics, even if it’s only so that you can reject them; in the interests of personal development, therefore, I dutifully resolved to immerse myself in the band’s neatly-formed back catalogue. Not in a million years did I imagine that the experience would be anywhere near as pleasurable as it turned out to be.
Electronic music wasn’t invented by Kraftwerk, though it might never have fulfilled its destiny without their impassioned, diligent stewardship. Kraftwerk’s real innovation wasn’t so much their cultivation of a pure electronic aesthetic as their merging of it with a bright and playful pop sensibility. They liberated machine music from the academy and made it accessible for a commercial audience – they were and are, at root, a pop group; the greatest this side of The Beatles. They took inspiration from Stockhausen, yes, but their penchant for rhythmic repetition and simple, lovelorn melodies has more to do with their interest in the opiated drone-rock of The Velvet Underground and the sunny “teenage symphonies” of The Beach Boys.
Founded by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben (later known simply as Florian Schneider), the fluctuating line-up of Kraftwerk’s early years would include such luminaries as Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother (later of Neu!) and, informally speaking, maverick producer Conny Plank. Hütter and Schneider were both members of the wealthy, well-educated German middle classes – the so-called hoch bourgeoisie – an upbringing to which we might partially attribute the enduring politeness, or stiffness, of their music; a stiffness which would serve them well further down the line. “They were so stiff, they were funky,” Carl Craig would later reflect.
“Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky.” Carl Craig
Even at its most full-on, there is a delicacy, even a naivety to Kraftwerk’s music. Not for them the traditional pop/rock preoccupations of sex and drugs and crypto-adolescent angst; throughout their career they’ve elected to sing of more innocent, frankly nerdier pleasures: train travel, cycling, tuning the shortwave radio – that sort of thing. Even in the band’s embryonic stages their music displayed a de-sexualised, non-carnal quality which would become more deeply entrenched and encoded as their interest in computers grew. Looking back on their early recordings, it’s almost as if they willed the digital age into being, with all its attendant disembodiment and facelessness.
Kraftwerk’s musical trajectory wasn’t quite as straightforward as one might assume, and it’s worth noting that their self-titled debut LP remains one of their most forbidding, radical statements to date. Allegedly inspired by their youthful experiments with LSD, the strikingly freeform Kraftwerk posits the band as the missing link between the jam-oriented hippie-rock culture of the 60s and the coming age of synth-fuelled electronic psychedelia. In 1971 came Kraftwerk 2, for the most part a more radiant, accessible set than its predecessor. With its guiding motorik pulse, it’s also their most demonstrably krautrock-y album. Ralf und Florian followed in ’73. A very pretty record, and perhaps the closest Kraftwerk have come to “ambient”, it also firmly aligns them with a very German kind of romanticism – the privileging of beauty and humour, its poetic integration of art and science, the belief that the past might hold the secret to a simpler, more fulfilling future.
1974 saw the release of Autobahn and the addition of two new members, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, who not only shared Hütter and Schneider’s creative appetites but also their boundless work ethic. It should never be underestimated how much time, dedication and concentration was required to realize Kraftwerk’s studio ambitions – later in their career Bartos would reputedly spend a whole two years simply programming a Yamaha DX7 synth. It was inevitable that the band would begin fantasizing about, and promoting, the idea of a cybernetic hybrid of man and machine – on the face of it a chilly futurist gesture, but in essence really a romantic one, it would find its full fruition on the aptly titled ’78 LP The Man Machine. Even when engaged in an apparent process of self-robotizing, the human is always of central importance to Kraftwerk – the Man Machine connotes man and machine hand in hand, working together; these are fantasies of cooperation, with undertones, but only undertones, of submission and subjugation. And yet that appealingly sinister ambiguity – are the machines working for Kraftwerk or Kraftwerk are working for the machines? – understandably endures, both the music and the camp, Constructivist-inspired cover art proving influential on everyone from The Human League to Dopplereffekt. In fact, so potent is the image of Kraftwerk as the blank-faced, uniformed Men Machines, the romantic component is all too easily forgotten. “Florian [is] very annoyed at how Kraftwerk are sometimes perceived,” Uwe Schmidt, a friend and collaborator of Schneider’s who records as Atom™ and Señor Coconut, recently told me. “He’s very annoyed about the type of musicians who say they’re inspired by Kraftwerk when they lack entirely this romantic aspect which for them was very important.”
Technology is most commonly cited as Kraftwerk’s primary inspiration, but I think their real muse is the seemingly simple but actually rather nebulous concept of progress. Their work is obsessed with journeys and transformations, whether to do with industry and technology, man and machine, or travel – by car, by train, or by bicycle. Kraftwerk are always moving forward, but on their most affecting songs they can’t help but look back over their shoulder – which perhaps goes some way to explaining their music’s wistful, sighing quality; they’re moving so fast that they’re leaving the future behind. Kraftwerk are curiously adept at folklorizing technology. The Autobahn is the sleek, purposeful symbol of modern Germany, but in Kraftwerk’s hands it may as well be a quaint and rugged country path, such is the plaintive, quasi-pastoral warmth with which they render it. Indeed, listening to Autobahn (1974) now it’s easy to see what Brian Eno meant when he described Kraftwerk as sounding “nostalgic for the future.”
“It’s almost as if Kraftwerk willed the digital age into being.”
In advancing the repetitious trance-effects learned from Lou Reed and John Cale, Kraftwerk anticipate the cyclical dancefloor compositions of Giorgio Moroder, the endless feedback circuit of stimulus and response which would come to characterize disco and later house and techno. You can hear ‘Autobahn’’s influence on pretty much every techno record ever made; Carl Craig’s heavy-hearted 1995 album Landcruising is an overt homage. Max Richter, maker of The Blue Notebooks, echoes the feelings of many: “My life can be divided into the years before and after I heard the filter opening up on the bassline of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’. I don’t think I’ve got over it yet.”
With their popularity skyrocketing, 1975’s Radio-Activity found Kraftwerk pursuing a tougher, higher-fidelity electronic sound, developed in their own increasingly formidable Kling Klang studio. Alongside an increasingly spiritual delight in synthetic sound (see ‘Radioland’’s simple, rapturous refrain of “Elec-tronic mu-sic”), Kraftwerk’s wit and self-awareness is in full evidence on Radio-Activity. The lyrics of title track wryly refer to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, both of whom had claimed to be influenced by Schneider, Hütter and co, Bowie even inviting them to support him on his Station to Station tour (they politely declined). In titling the album’s closer ‘Franz Schubert’ the band re-assert their allegiance to the German romantic tradition.
Trans-Europe Express (1976) was essentially a concept album about the European rail network. The looseness of earlier recordings is almost entirely absent; this is largely down to the band’s debuting of their 16-track sequencer, which they commissioned Bonn-based synthesizer studio Matten & Wiechers to custom-build for them. Using it to control their trusty Minimoog, it allowed the band to reduce human “error” and achieve a more rigid, mathematically pure sound than ever before. It’s the birthplace of the more robust, almost unwittingly funked-up sound that they would develop two years later on The Man Machine and beyond. Listening back, one remembers that we also have Kraftwerk to thank for the ubiquity of the vocoder in contemporary music – not just Daft Punk and ADULT., alas, but Cher and Akon too.
“Even Jacko wanted to work with them. Can you imagine?”
The digital age which Kraftwerk had prophesied was now on the cusp of full flowering and they responded in 1981 with Computer World, which spawned the UK #1 single ‘The Model’. The band’s live shows were becoming more and more elaborate, combining state-of-the-art audio and video with a camp theatricality that made for a memorable spectacle but was ripe for parody. In New York, DJs began looping Kraftwerk’s beats and basslines for their own block-rocking ends, and in ’82 Afrika Bambaataa helped the German group achieve their unlikely destiny: bringing their none-more-Teutonic sound to the ears of young black America when he sampled ‘Trans-Europe’ and ‘Numbers’ for his brain-frying electro bomb ‘Planet Rock’. Meanwhile, over in Detroit, local radio DJ Electrifyin’ Mojo was spinning Kraftwerk originals alongside Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix jams; a juxtaposition which would heavily inform the burgeoning techno aesthetic of young listeners Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins. Kraftwerk’s visionary sounds had found favour with a new generation, then, but by this time their own golden area of raw creativity was at an end.
“They got more commercial after Radio-Activity,” Detroit house producer and ardent Kraftwerk fan Omar-S told FACT recently. “’76 on backwards was their best stuff. They were more musicians, they were more themselves. After Computer World it was just more more repetitive shit; no more note-playing, just programming…”
Kraftwerk’s creative decline coincided with a newfound interest in cycling. The single ‘Tour De France’ – featuring the sounds of bicycle chains, gear mechanisms and the like – was fair enough, but Hütter in particular was obsessed and wanted to make a whole album based around the concept of cycling. The band disagreed; frustrated drummer Flür drifted away after the release of 1986’s patchy Electric Café. It was the end of the “classic” Kraftwerk line-up. In the early 90s Bartos parted ways with the group; Fritz Hilpert and Fernando Abrantes joined. Kraftwerk began touring regularly again; the dodgy single ‘Expo 2000’ came out in 1999, followed by 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks – Hütter’s dream of a cycling-based concept album made reality. In 2008 the unthinkable happened: Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk. As The Independent noted at the time, there was something very Kraftwerkian about this departure: it had taken Hütter and Schneider over 40 years to realise that they had creative differences.
Talk of Kraftwerk’s brilliance, not least my own here, tends to focus on their deep and widespread influence on the artists who have followed them, be they Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk or Hot Chip or anyone in between (even Jacko wanted to work with them – can you imagine?). But, as Hütter and his robot friends prepare to embark on a new world tour, including a slot at Bestival 2009, I urge you to take the opportunity to engage with Kraftwerk and their music directly and on its own terms – it’s worth it. Their first eight albums amount to one of the most rich and singular bodies of work in the history of popular art; soul music fit for an age in which the soul is at least partly digitized. Their message rings truer than ever: it’s more fun to compute.
Illustration by Sophie Stephens