“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