Legendary and iconic are two words often bandied about without due care and attention, particularly in the hyperbolism prone world of music. But with the German electronic and technological pioneers (Kraftwerk means ‘power station’ in English) there can be no doubt that these words can be applied with an extremely high level of certainty. You may not particularly like their music, or their aesthetic, but you would be a fool to not acknowledge the immense importance that this group has had on rock’n’roll in particular, and culture in general, beginning with David Bowie himself. The ever reliable beacon of quality and cutting edge endeavour throughout the 70s even invited the band to tour with him, in support of his Station to Station album, which they declined. Never one to be easily put off, Bowie named the ‘V-2 Schneider’ track off the Heroes album after Florian Schneider, founder member of Kraftwerk, but who parted ways with them in 2009. Much of the subsequent synth-pop music of the late 70s and early 80s (Pet Shop Boys, Tubeway Army, Yello, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, The Human League et al), the electro-hip-hop of Afrika Bambaataa (particularly ‘Planet Rock’ where he re-recorded the ‘Trans-Europe Express’ riff over a sample from ‘Numbers’) and of the techno pioneers of the mid-late 80s can be directly ascribed to Kraftwerk. The so-called Detroit-based Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May) fused the repetitive melodies of Kraftwerk with funk rhythms. For instance, Juan Atkins sampled the racing, percussive melody from ‘Home Computer’ for his classic electro track ‘Clear’. They popularised synths and electronic music, and inspired countless others to create their own unconventional sounds. Their influence has been maintained right into the 21st century. LCD Soundsystem, for instance, sampled and built a song entirely around Kraftwerk’s ‘Robots’.
Kraftwerk took electronic experimentation into the mainstream (indeed they call what they do ‘robot-pop’), but crucially their music was melodic and easy-on-the-ear, and via the influence of English artists Gilbert & George, took to wearing suits and looking smart on stage, and “Bringing art into everyday life.”
But, it was not always that way.
In the beginnning Kraftwerk were plain old prog-rockers, with pastoral leanings, and plenty of flute action, courtesy of Florian Schneider, within their first three albums. Albums that they have done their best to consign to the dustbin of history. They aren’t on Spotify, they’ve never been officially released on CD, and they simply aren’t talked about much. But, there they are. Everyone has to start somewhere, and usually that involves coughing and spluttering into life, as musicians try and find their feet, and locate their true artistic calling. Those first three albums (Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, and Ralf und Florian) consist of free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined song structure of later work. These albums were mostly exploratory musical improvisations played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, organ, flute, and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 are purely instrumental, and were rarely heard beyond their homeland.
The third album, Ralf und Florian, was a distinct bridge to what we know of as the Kraftwerk sound. The album is still almost entirely instrumental (although ‘Ananas Symphonie’ features the band’s first use of a machine voice created by an early prototype vocoder, a sound which would later become a Kraftwerk trademark) but the instrumentation begins to show more obvious use of synthesisers. Indeed, Kraftwerk have hinted that they now accept this recording as part of their history, and may even allow it to be officially re-released and piped to the internet.
But it was 1974’s Autobahn, and particularly the title track itself that truly pioneered the use of synthesisers, drum pads, vocoders and the like. 22 minutes long and bookended by the sound of a slamming door and the roar of acceleration, this simple yet futuristic piece was edited down for radio purposes and, amazingly, made it to number 11 in the singles charts. Kraftwerk were on their way. Importantly, by bringing voices into the music, they were giving a more human aspect to their increasingly computerised and manipulated sounds.
Subsequent albums Radio-activity, Trans-Europe Express (which is considered by many to be their greatest achievement, and which is their ultimate exploration of German identity and European-ism), The Man Machine, and 1981’s Computer World saw the band develop and refine their leftfield electronic and industrial pop, taking the band to ever higher levels of artistic and commercial success. And it was via this string of albums that they enthused a childlike optimism about what new technologies could do, not about the terrors that they could deliver. ‘The Model’ single (originally a B-side to ‘Computer Love’) was released in 1982 – apparently against the band’s wishes – and became their highest ever chart placing, reaching number one, once again exposing the band to the masses. But the world was now catching up to Kraftwerk via the explosion of synth-pop, and Kraftwerk’s artistic juices quickly evaporated after this high point. Their 1986 album Electric Cafe is considered a low point, and it wasn’t until 2003 that they released a new studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks, released as part of the centenerary Tour de France celebrations, and a further paean to transport and travel, and its innate rhythmic and mechanical workings, following those of the car and the train. A commercial and artistic success, it helped to breathe some life into the band that was close to being considered a heritage act, rather than continuing innovators. Since then they have enjoyed exalted status as one of the all-time greats. Their reach is such that some journalists consider them one of the two most influential bands in history, the other being The Beatles.
To coincide with the UK tour, Kraftwerk are bringing to life eight of their studio albums (all except their first three albums), via recordings, and developed using high definition 3D visuals, with Dolby Atmos surround sound and presented to the technological and audio standards one would come to expect from such a seminal act. Ralf Hutter is the only surviving original member, but the catalogue features new recordings of Kraftwerk’s eight classic albums performed and filmed at museums and opera houses around the world between 2012 and 2016 and mixed at the band’s own state-of-the-art, Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf, the studio that they have used for almost their entire recording career.
You can now experience the ‘gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art’ in the comfort of their own home. As Kraftwerk sang on ‘The Robots: “We’re charging our battery / And now we’re full of energy.”