Kraftwerk – the Big Bang of Electronic Pop

Please note: this article, created by Stephen Dalton, appeared in the British Uncut Magazine in 2009. All (c) are with the magazine and its authors. You can find the original article as images in the text below, and as a downloadable pdf at the bottom of this article.

Discreet, contemporary Germans initiate the Big Bang of electronic pop. Fifty years on, the band continue to inspire and innovate.  

Fifty years ago, Kraftwerk first beamed themselves into the future. Breaking new ground with their use of electronic instruments, these Dusseldorf techno-pop titans laid the groundwork for generations of future musicians from Ultravox to Underworld, Depeche Mode to Derrick May, Afrika Bambaataa to Aphex Twin. Synthpop, electro, techno, acid house and EDM can all trace their musical DNA back to Kraftwerk. Without their inspiration, most of the artists in this magazine would have had very different careers, or maybe no careers at all.

Sometimes called the “electronic Beatles”, Kraftwerk were a paradigm shift in music, a Big Bang moment that ushered drummachines, synthesizers, vocoders, samplers and sequencers into the pop mainstream. In their late-‘7os heyday they were a key inspiration on contemporaries including David Bowie, Michael Jackson, The Human League and Joy Division. The staggering list of artists who have sampled or covered their music includes U2, New Order, Chemical Brothers, Stereolab, Orbital, LCD Soundsystem, Missy Elliott, Madonna, Coldplay, Jay-Zand hundreds more. In 2013, The Observer called Kraftwerk “still the world’s most influential band”.

The Kraftwerk concept first began to take shape in 1968 when Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben, both students from wealthy Dusseldorf families, met at an improvised music class. Hütter was an architecture undergraduate, Schneider studying at the city’s conservatory. Raised on classical and avant-garde music, the duo began playing improvised electro-acoustic jazzrock, mostly at student parties and art galleries. First performing as Organisation, then under the duo name Ralf and Florian, before finally settling on Kraftwerk (“power station” in German), they recorded four embryonic albums in the early ’70s with key figures from the German rock scene, including future Neu! founders Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger.

In 1971, Hütter bought his first primitive drum machine. But a more significant purchase was his first Minimoog synthesiser, then priced about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle. Establishing their Kling Klang studio in an anonymous backyard space on Mintropstrasse, close to Dusseldorfs central train station, Kraftwerk began to streamline and focus their emerging minimalist manifesto, importing experimental ideas from modern classical music and avantgarde art into the pop realm.

 “We were brought up within the kind of classical Beethoven school of music,” Hütter told Uncut in 2009. “We were aware there was a contemporary music scene, and of course a pop and rock scene. But where was our music? Finding our voice, I think that was the use of the taperecorder. Our contact to the taperecorder made us use synthetic voices, artificial personalities, all those robotic ideas.”

Kraftwerk’s career-changing breakthrough came with Autobahn in 1974, an epochal album that would become a touchstone for generations of electronic musicians. The serene title track, a 22-minute sound painting combining the childlike simplicity of a nursery rhyme with sampled car noises and sly Beach Boys homages, became an international hit in its condensed form.

For the Autobahn album, Hütter and Schneider recruited two new percussionists from Düsseldorf’s art-rock scene, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. Their light-touch style complemented the group’s increasingly minimal, mechanised sound. All four band members cropped their long hippie hair and adopted smart business suits. It was a self-conscious reclaiming of German identity, an elegant and witty riposte to Anglo American pop hegemony. “Ralf had a kind of German idea in mind,” Flür told Uncut in 2015. “Germany also needed something like The Beach Boys.

Something with selfunderstanding and immaculate presence, after the ugly wars our parents had inflicted on the world.” But narrow German nationalism was never part of Kraftwerk’s cosmopolitan worldview.H i.itterc alls the band “Europeans with German passports”, and often stresses how close Düsseldorf is to France and Holland.

Every Kraftwerk album after Autobahn has featured English, bilingual or multilingual lyrics. A hit on both sides of the Atlantic, “Autobahn” put Kraftwerk on the global map. In 1975, they toured extensively. Around this time, David Bowie became a highly vocal fan. After obsessing on the album during his dark mid-’70s exile in LA, Bowie invited Kraftwerk to support him on his 1976 Station To Station tour. They declined the offer, but later met Bowie socially and paid homage to him in their lyrics.

Bowie credited Kraftwerk for helping to inspire his relocation to Berlin in 1976. “This was where I felt my work was going,” he told Uncut in 2001. “My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’sAutobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.”

Kraftwerk followed Autobahn with a suite of classic late-‘7os albums, each a sonic and technological progression, each based around a loose conceptual theme. Full of crackling sinewave static and Cold War paranoia, Radio-Activityw as their first fully electronic album, and their first to be released with bilingual English and German lyrics. But arguably Kraftwerk’s most seminal musical statement was their next album, Trans-Europe Express.

Released in 1977, his retro-futuristic paean to the romance of travel invented a new kind of crunchy Teutonic funk. It went on to play a key role in the history of New York hip-hop and electro.

Using the rock-steady rolling shudder of a train track as its main rhythmic motif, the album’s title track was later widely sampled by dozens of hip-hoppers, industrial rockers and techno boffins, most notably Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker on their milestone 1982 single “Planet Rock”. De La Soul, Doctor Dre, Will Smith, WyclefJean, Li! Wayne and many more would later borrow the same locomotive beat. In 2014, the LA Times called Trans-EuropEex press” the most important pop album of the last 40 years”. Released in 1978, the Man-Machines aw Kraftwerk predicting the skinny-tied newwave synthpop ‘Sos two years early. Their songs were becoming increasingly glossy, melodic and archly self-aware, from the comically deadpan electro-funk chant “The Robots” to the droll nightlife confessional “The Model”; According to pop folklore, Michael Jackson became so fixated on the album’s sleek space-age sound that he called a meeting with Kraftwerk to propose a collaboration. Hütter has always denied this deliciously bizarre rumour, but usually with a wry twinkle in his eye.

Widely regarded as the last great masterpiece in Kraftwerk’s imperial phase, Computer World was released in 1981. With its supple rhythms and liquid-crystal melodies, the album managed to invoke a dawning cyberscape of microprocessors and interconnected networks years before such a world was even possible. It was an analogue album dreaming of the digital future.

“We didn’t even have computers,” Hütter told Uncut in2009. “Even though the music was created by synthesisers and sequencers, it was analogue, pre-computer. We got our first home computers after the album was finished, the firstAtaris. We would like to have had laptops in 1981, but computers were huge IBMs, and they were not even transportable.”

As the 80’s progressed, Kraftwerk’s golden period of innovation began to flag. The band developed a passionate interest in cycling, which led to the sublime 1983 single “Tour De France”. But a planned album on the same theme was shelved after Hütter was hospitalised following a serious bike crash. Kraftwerk began withdrawing from media and public exposure, isolating themselves for long periods in their Kling Klang fortress. Live concerts were rare, interviews ever rarer. They stopped posing for band photos because, as Hütter later explained, they were “not necessary”.

Although Hütter is fond of describing Kraftwerk as tireless “musikarbeiter” (musical workers) who “invented the 168- hour week”, the band produced only one new album in the ‘Sos, the underwhelming Electric Cafe. Released in 1986, this oddly faceless effort was originally called Techno Pop, and later reissued with that title restored.

As second-wave synthpop bands like Depeche Mode, Human League, Pet Shop Boys, Eurythmics and OMD began translating Kraftwerk’s robotic blueprint into chart success, the electronic Beatles themselves started to sound outmoded. By the end of the ‘Sos, their classic lineup had dissolved, with Flür and Bartos both departing. Detroit techno, acid house and rave culture paid due homage to Kraftwerk as electronic pioneers. But when the band released their eccentric club-remix hits LP The Mix in 1991, they sounded more like imitators than innovators for the first time.

And yet, despite spending most of the ’90s with their creative batteries flat, a digitally rebooted Kraftwerk resurfaced with renewed vigour in the 21st century. In 2003 they released their first new studio album in almost 20 years, Tour De France Soundtracks, a cycling-themed opus that revisited and expanded on the sparkling 1983 single of the same name. Their first ever official live album and DVD, Minimum Maximum, followed in 2005. Around this time they also relocated their Kling Klang studio headquarters from central Düsseldorf to a much grander space on an industrial estate in Meerbusch, north-west of the city. The shiny new Kling Klang is much bigger than its predecessor, and even more secret.

Over the decades, Kraftwerk has included more than a dozen secondary members. Some were temporary, some were fired, others simply became frustrated with Hütter’s painstaking perfectionism and left. But the most serious rupture came in 2008 with the shock departure of co-founder Florian Schneider after four decades as joint commander of the Starship Kling Klang. Kraftwerk are the electronic Beatles, this was the equivalent of Lennon leaving McCartney.

Hütter has inevitably proved extremely reluctant to discuss the divorce in interviews, but he explained that Schneider had disliked touring for years. And yet losing a founder member has not proved as damaging for Kraftwerk as it might have done for a more conventional group. Thanks to their purposely faceless image, Hütter can now add interchangeable replicant Kraftwerkers at will. The current lineup reportedly includes long-time studio collaborators Fritz Hilpert, Henning … Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen. But frankly, how would anyone know?

Crucially, Schneider’s departure appears to have liberated Hütter to put all his energies into Kraftwerk’s glorious thirdact comeback. In 2009, the band released The Catalogue, a long-gestating boxset anthology of eight remastered and repacked albums from Autobahn onwards. Since then they have performed more than 300 shows, more than during the entire previous 30 years. They have also won a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and been nominated for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame four times. Never before have Kraftwerk been as busy, as visible or as successful as they have been this past decade.

In 2012, Kraftwerk began playing extended back-to-back runs of dedicated single-album shows in prestige locations such as New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern in London, and Sydney Opera House. Hütter may now be 72 years old, but he will be taking the man-machine out for another extensive tour in 2019, selling out arenas and headlining festivals from Tokyo to Rome to Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Kraftwerk detractors claim the group are now a sterile museum piece, having produced scant new music or fresh ideas for decades. But it makes more sense to see them as a giant piece ofliving, breathing Pop Art, constantly refining and upgrading, perfecting and polishing. It was barely 10 years ago that they first began experimenting with the 3D video screens that are now standard at all their shows. Younger electronic artists like Flying Lotus, Calvin Harris and Deadmaus have since followed suit and begun to adopt 3D visuals. Even today, Kraftwerk still pave the way.

As technology has evolved and miniaturised, the future has finally caught up with Kraftwerk’s prophetic vision of rockconcerts as immersive, cinematic, sound and vision spectacles. The concert stage is their natural home today. Anybody still labouring under the delusion that electronic music is cold, mechanical and humourless have clearly never seen Kraftwerk live. On stage, their synthetic symphonies and sci-fi lullabies are colourful, sensual, achingly romantic, serenely beautiful, and often hilariously funny. Half a century later, the power of their modernist machine dream still burns brightly.