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.
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.”
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