Who better than a machine to tell you about Kraftwerk, the band who became one with their machines?
Originally formed formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970, Kraftwerk pioneered what electronic music might, could and did become. The band’s name in their native German means “power station,” so that 80s American supergroup fronted by Robert Palmer and a bunch of robotic dancing women? Not so original. Anyway, “original electronic music” at the time was either unheard of, or at best a novelty (or both, “two things”), even after Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Moog had switched on Bach rather that the more usual avant-garde bleep-bloops. Kraftwerk’s influence across the deacdes has spun off into and on a number of genres and artists; for one weak example, whosampled.com lists at least 637 times Kraftwerk’s been sampled. Now, I generally hate reading long lists in paragraph form, so for some not-so-weak examples, let me list out some for you in list form, which is one of the sillier things I’ve written in the past few hours:
Drum and bass
Disco (hey, that’s really not fault, OK? It’s not like they dragged people into Studio 54 and made them snort all that coke)
Hip Hop (despite Kraftwerk being very white; I once saw a demonstration of that bizarre new “break dancing” in a mall circa 1987 and smiled upon recognising that they were breakin’ it to “Numbers” from the album Computer World)
Musical Artists who’ve either publicly acknowledged Kraftwerk as an influence or may as well have because it’s so damn obvious:
David Bowie (“V-2 Schneider” on his album Heroes is a direct tribute to one of Kraftwerk’s two founding members, so maybe we should add Brian Eno to this list; also, I was unaware of this connection before doing this write-up, so maybe that explains why I like Heroes so much, beyond the fact it’s so good)
Daft Punk (duh; I bet they have to send royalty payments)
Richard D James (Aphex Twin)
Joy Division, New Order
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
The Human League
The ‘Belleville Three,’ Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson & Derrick May
Vince Clarke (of Erasure, Yazoo and Depress – I mean Depeche Mode)
Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys (founding members of OMD)
Dr. Alex Paterson (of the Orb and Prodigy)
And so on. I could probably spend a few minutes and dig up more artists and styles, but you get the idea, plus lists are boring and purely bad writing, Buzzfeed. By the way, here’s one more list (ha ha).
Kraftwerk albums considered the most important:
Trans Europe Express (1977)
Man Machine (1978)
Computer World (1981)
(The other five albums are either early works somewhat unrelated to what they became, or are of interest more to Kraftwerk completists rather than the casual explorer that I’m assuming you might be.)
Kraftwerk created a vast majority of their music solely with analog electronic instruments, some of which they built themselves, and often treated and distorted their voices as well. I don’t speak German, but their lyrics are usually simple enough that I’m pretty sure we’re getting them more or less as-is in the English (or French) versions. Still, hearing a vocoder grate “we are the robots” or a heavily treated whisper breathe “Through constant decay, uranium creates the radioactive ray” is liking hearing Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” come to life. That also probably applies to Kraftwerk’s big picture as well, but this is one of those rare times when such mediuming and messaging actually produced something worth a gander after the medium became old hat (despite what those “beeper-code haiku” aficionados might tell you). I can’t pretend to knowledgeably cover the history of the then-new technology Kraftwerk used – you’ll have to look elsewhere for that esoterica – but I can tell you about Kraftwerk’s musical arc and separate works from my own subjective (if machine-aligned) viewpoint.
Some probably annoying critics have placed Kraftwerk’s influence on pop music up amongst the same diamond clouds that the Beatles sit upon, which might sound like BS until you consider how extensive electronics (both analog and now digital) have become in pop music. At their best, Kraftwerk took these cold, alien instruments and created warm, human music by meeting them halfway, “becoming one with them” one might say, by figuring out what they could be good at doing and then working towards that end; all that before anyone else had. My half-serious take on their fate though is that Kraftwerk became some sort of Twilight Zone-worthy allegory about men who become too much machine and lost their souls along the way. Before I get to that though, let me cover my relation to the music; I’ll try and keep it short, but I can’t promise it will be John Denver free.
I, for one, welcomed our new robot overlords from an early age. See, when I was about 13 or so in the late 1970s, my mom, sister and I all joined the Columbia Record Club, that “twelve records for a penny!” outfit. I don’t remember what all I picked up for my one cent except for the Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits, John Denver’s Greatest Hits (I had enjoyed a concert my mother took me to in 1976) and probably something by Kiss. I know my tastes were terrible, but I was 13, shut up. My mother was an adventurous music cosmopolitan though, and so, despite the John Denver concert, one of the things she picked up was an 8-track tape of this weird-looking German band we’d never heard of. That glorious 8-track tape was “Man Machine” by Kraftwerk, and it very quickly became my tape.
One of the great things about an 8-track tape – OK, probably the only great thing – is how you can just leave it looping endlessly in the player, the entire album playing over and over again without you having to get up and flip it like a record or a cassette tape. I remember letting “Man Machine” play for hours at a time whenever I was near my 8-track player while I reading, writing, attempting to draw, taking apart old stereos, or anything else that didn’t distract from listening. I had other 8-tracks, but this one was my favorite.
One of my friends from the mid-1980s had been exposed to better stuff than I had been where I grew up in the south and through him, I fell in with a dangerous crowd – computer geeks and tech nerds who actually did operate their own pocket calculators, programmed computers, and built the occasional robot. They accepted me into their tribe (even though I was not so mathematically or logically inclined), so I kept running into Kraftwerk. I even went through a somewhat embarrassing snob phase of preferring the original German versions, to my great shame.
By the end of the 80s though, New Wave and my interest had already come and gone and Kraftwerk just sort of faded from my aural life and the forefront of the music scene. They had come to proclaim a new age of electronic music, show people how it was done, and then got left behind in the electronic rapture as everyone else followed their path; and me, I was into “noise” by that point. These things happen.
A CD of Man Machine is the only Kraftwerk I own these days, although I do still have that venerable 8-track tape out in my garage too. Having committed it’s notes to deep subconscious memory by endless repetition, I don’t pull it out too often, but when I do, it’s still a brilliant, glittering retro-future that helps me forget about John Denver and Kiss.
So, enough about me, what about Kraftwerk’s albums? Well, let’s start with something I know nothing about: their early years between 1970 and 1974. They apparently spent them in the same obscure musical community that Can and Tangerine Dream awoke from, making a few albums of “experimental free-form instrumentals” and treated recordings, but to little acclaim, shockingly. That still sounds like something I could get into these days, but I haven’t given them a shot yet. What I’ve read about them says these early albums feature few electronic instruments, but more traditional physical instruments; Schneider is a classically trained flute player, for example.
Kraftwerk’s big break though came down the road in 1974 when they picked up some new tech and created Autobahn, an album about traveling and travel machines (I promise to restrict myself to this single Dalek shout-out) – more the trip-taking itself, that bardo state of being neither here nor there, but there, in your machine. The theme was a good fit for the rhythmic music and simplified lyrics they were developing, although the back half or so of the album contains a few throwbacks to their earlier experimental phase, I’m guessing, as Schneider’s flute shows up. Autobahn hit number five on the US charts, which is still amazing to me when I discovered that these were the top five Billboard albums of 1974 (sorry for another list):
1. GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (Elton John)
2. GREATEST HITS (John Denver – argh! there he is again!)
3. BAND ON THE RUN (Paul McCartney)
4. INNERVISIONS (Stevie Wonder)
Kraftwerk’s next release Radio-Activity brought a glow to 1976. It’s something of a concept album of fissionable wordplay on the title – which makes it sound sound silly or at worst slight, but this deliberately-paced record is neither. It’s not often one gets musical commentary from internationally renowned artists, but the British painter David Hockney said “people who understand music understand silence, and the LP is full of moments when the music drifts to almost nothing, or is slowed so that the spaces between beats are exaggerated… sonically muted, Radio-Activity [is] at times fragile and beautiful.” (Hockney probably wasn’t a Kiss fan, I’m guessing) It’s a pretty good description for an album that opens with a Geiger counter clicking off random cosmic rays that slowly coalesce into the beat that welcomes the choir-like tones of the first song. The album also makes time for more upbeat rhythms, but it really lives in those slower airwaves; it’s probably my second favorite Kraftwerk album. But “pop music” it’s mostly not, which might explain why it didn’t do as well on the charts as Autobahn had. Speaking of wordplay, the final track is called “Ohm Sweet Ohm” and features what was probably the first time someone made beautiful music with a vocoder. Kraftwerk had found its soul inside the machine.
Trans Europe Express (named for a former European railway hub) laid the tracks for Kraftwerk’s electronic mechanized rhythms and melodic minimalism. The style of songs, if not the instrumentation, occasionally echo those from the Wiemar period in Germany, a time right before that guy with the funny little mustache came along and derailed everything. Wolfgang Flür (a band member up until about 1987) somewhat stiltedly explained why: “we were children who were born straight after World War Two … we had no musical or pop culture of our own … there was the war, and before the war we had only the German folk music. In the 1920s or 1930s melodies were developed and these became culture that we worked from.” Trans Europe Express did really well critically and topped “Radio-Activity” in sales. Kraftwerk had made the trip and had now become their true selves.
Kraftwerk fully wired up to proclaim “we are the robots” on Man Machine in 1978. Despite having already made amazing electronic music before, Man Machine is really where they fuse into the perfect blend of, well, man and machine. This one also didn’t do as well as Autobahn had, but who cares when it’s this beautiful? This scintillating music is by turns chilly and transcendent, exciting and very human. Neon Lights is my favorite track and includes, I like to think, a near-miss nod to that “woo-EE-oo” keyboard from the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (Kraftwerk too have their own influences, after all). Neon Lights is eight seconds shy of nine minutes long and includes an instrumental back half of the most amazing sparkling, gentle reverie that I could ever hope to wrap around myself to go drifting into space with, but maybe that’s just me. “The Model” is probably the best known song though, having been covered multiple times across many genres (whosampled.com, again, lists fifty of them). Other notable track titles are the Fritz Lang nod “Metropolis” and of course “The Robots.” But what do robots build next when they control everything?
“Computer World” booted up in 1981; Hütter has noted in one of his rare interviews that no one in the band actually owned a computer at the time, which is pretty funny. Bits include “Pocket Calculator” (“I am adding, and subtracting” because what else can you sing about a calculator, the mischievous fun of 7734 or 58008?) and “Numbers,” mostly a very rhythmic recitation of numbers in different languages, as if presaging our interconnected world. The finale “It’s More Fun To Compute” is almost too inhuman and cold until a few dystopian notes leak through near the end, like that sci-fi trope I mentioned above about mankind losing their souls to the machines. Computer World bore more ominous signs of Things To Come however: remember those “avant-garde bleep-bloops” I also mentioned above? The system here seems to have glitched and thrown up a couple of them in “Home Computer” and “Pocket Calculator”’s “beep-bleep… blooorp.” Both are knowingly employed pop cultural evocations and weren’t the worst possible bug, but the melodies taking a back seat to the rhythms might be; nothing here is as stunningly beautiful or elegant as anything they’d previously done. Pop music’s “Melody Vs. Rhythm” wars are pretty much over of course, so it’s tempting to think of this as one of the early torpedoes aimed at melody’s plimsoll line. Some people consider this their peak album, but I still favor Man Machine. All that may sound like late sixties’ technophobia from an episode of Star Trek or The Prisoner, but I still greatly enjoy this brave new Computer World, even if I find it a bit worryingly soulless compared to what had come before.
Now that the future’s here – where to go next? After Computer World, Hütter became an avid cyclist, perhaps in search of another way to blend man and machine. He wanted Kraftwerk’s next album to be entirely about cycling but had to settle for just one such track (at least at the time; more on this later). Electric Cafe wasn’t served until 1986, delayed by both Ralf Hütter suffering a cycling accident-linked coma and serious album retooling when the band didn’t think the record sounded as innovative as they had hoped. The opening track plays like a doubling down on “Numbers” from Computer World, all rhythm and bits of spoken words, but that rhythm is obviously the real reason we’re here now. I didn’t hear much of this one back in its day, and listening to it now, I can see why everyone shrugged when it came out: it neither holds together as a solid work nor advances electronic music in any meaningful way; electronic means of making music had come of age and spread, now anyone could be a cyborg. Most bitterly however, the human warmth was in full retreat from rhythm’s advance. It’s still not a bad cup of joe, but it was obvious that our robots had lost their way.
Automatons, unlike true robots or computers, can’t be reprogrammed, they just keep repeating the same operations built into them during construction. Kraftwerk has only put out three “new” albums since Electric Cafe: The Mix from 1991, Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003 and Minimum-Maximum in 2005. Leaving Tour aside for a moment, the other two follow the same formula of reformulating Kraftwerk’s past successes, but one much more successfully than the other
The Mix comes across more like feckless looting than a celebration of Kraftwerks past, somehow displacing the original hypnotic rhythms for metaphoric shouts of “dance for us, euro trash, dance!” The pedigree of the samples blended into that frenetic cocktail almost saves the whole thing, but reducing the meditative Radio-Activity down into mere strobe dance music feels like some sort of goddamn crime. Have you ever seen the Sex Pistols movie “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle”? The Mix reminds me of the moment when Steve Jones goes into a nightclub and discovers that Malcolm McLaren has slickly re-recorded some Sex Pistol songs as disco. The Mix isn’t actually the worst thing you’ll ever hear, but it’s the one Kraftwerk album I wish didn’t exist, which is bad enough.
Minimum-Maximum (also available as a two hour DVD set) is a more valid reworking of past Kraftwerk than The Mix was in just about every way. One good example is the opening track that starts with the Man Machine’s vocoder singing its rising praise of the machine, but a cappella this time – as if Kraftwerk is reclaiming their breathing space in the silences that The Mix eradicated. It was also a good example of how Kraftwerk continues to rework their past, “in the moment,” for the foreseeable future. Kraftwerk really does seem to be invigorated by remixing live rather than in the studio, judging by this album and some other bootleg live footage I’ve found on YouTube. Hütter agrees, saying in a recent Pitchfork interview that “The Man-Machine is a live electronic music machine. For me, the music is spiritual and I think comes to life when we perform it in concert.” Where The Mix was met with shrugs by both record buyers (now CD buyers, really) and critics, both groups welcomed Minimum-Maximum.
That other third album was Tour De France Soundtracks which included a rerecording of the song by that title from Electric Cafe; Hütter got his wish for an entire album about cycling. Conceived as a celebration of the one hundredth eponymous bicycle race, Tour De France Soundtracks actually peddled out a bit too late for that date. It’s their last album to feature any new compositions, and very dance music oriented. The opening track is terribly slick if vaguely forgettable, kind of like something from Moby. Tour does pick up a bit more later and thanks to some human warmth that spins through in spots, is still quite listenable. It was also Kraftwerk’s best selling record ever in their mother country.
Kraftwerk’s last release, The Catalog, is a remastering of all their albums from Trans Europe Express onward that was ordered and shipped in 2009. One reviewer noted “the sound shines like brand new—a punchier low end, crisper syn-drums, even more shimmering neon lights. And warmer human voices. Looking back, it’s remarkable how concise these albums are, averaging around 40 minutes and seven songs each, as is the fact that such feats were achieved by purely analogue means. Even in 2009, compare them to tour-mates Radiohead, and it’s debatable which band [is] truly the most forward-looking.” The one possible bum note I’ve seen mentioned about The Catalog is that Radio-Activity has been rendered “too clean” and glowed better in its original analog fields.
You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the individual members; one reason why is that I can’t begin to delve into the twenty plus people who’ve been in the band over the years. But Kraftwerk was, despite my over-stretched robot metaphor, like any other band whose rotating members could get on each others’ nerves. Such disputes didn’t normally make it into the public eye though, the band has always been the sort to try to remain behind their curtain and let the music do the talking. I also haven’t found any mentions of the usual tiresome self-destructive spirals of drugs or anything like that, thankfully, but both Hütter and Schneider sued Wolfgang Flürone (credited with electronic percussion for the albums from Trans Europe Express to Electric Cafe) over disputes in his memoirs about the band, which is apparently something you can sue over in Germany? Flürone also claims to have invented one of the electronic percussion instruments Kraftwerk used, but the copyright papers say it was Hütter and Schneider. Karl Bartos, also an electronic percussionist from Radio-Activity through The Mix, walked out after deciding Hütter’s and Schneider’s perfectionist tendencies mired the band’s working pace (see the reworking of Electric Café above). So there you go – turns out they were human after all.
They (or maybe just Hütter anyway) regard live improvisation as an important part of the band, perhaps in a nod to their roots before they broke big. Essentially just a Hütter touring project now (Schneider left in 2008), Kraftwerk began touring more often after 1990ish with some replacement members. Kraftwerk still tours today behind a set list of greatest hits, doing what they call “3D concerts,” but also hasn’t ruled out creating new material. They put on a great live show by all accounts and the ever-present witness YouTube, but I’ve never seen them myself. So go see them yourself if you’re lucky enough to have a show nearby, or look them up on YouTube!
(yes, those are actual robots at the first of the video, not the band themselves)