|Ohm Sweet Ohm||Radio-Activity|
|Europe Endless||Trans-Europe Express|
|Showroom Dummies||Trans-Europe Express|
|The Model||The Man-Machine|
|Neon Lights||The Man-Machine|
|Computer World||Computer World|
|Computer Love||Computer World|
|Vitamin||Tour De France|
Contributor: Rob Morgan
Many years ago on a music forum far far away, the question was asked – what are the three most important singles? My answer was That’s All Right by Elvis Presley, I Want To Hold Your Hand by The Beatles and Autobahn by Kraftwerk. I was told off for being iconoclastic and anyway, Autobahn wasn’t that important in the history of music, was it? But it was important. Sure there’d been synthesisers on singles and in the charts before; from novelties like Popcorn (Hot Butter) and Son Of My Father (Chicory Tip) to more serious efforts like Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who). But Autobahn was a huge leap forward for music. The single was a clumsily edited three minute segment of the twenty three minute side long title track to Kraftwerk’s fourth album. It was a hit single in the UK and the US in 1975, bringing the German band into the mainstream and popularising the synthesiser as a primary source of sound for a band. It was a signpost to a future which very few people could imagine at the time – the future we are now living in – electronic music in the mainstream, electronic music as the norm, electronic music being so commonplace that it isn’t even thought about as ‘electronic’ any longer. “Synthetic electronic sound – industrial rhythms all around” as their song Techno Pop predicted in 1986.
“Hang on a second,” I hear you cry, “You just said Autobahn was Kraftwerk’s fourth album? I thought it was their first?” Well Kraftwerk would like you to think they started with Autobahn in 1974, emerging perfectly formed and fully electronic, but it didn’t really happen that way. The roots of Kraftwerk go back to the late 60s when Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider met as students in Dusseldorf, first forming an experimental rock band, Organisation, who issued one album, Tone Float, in 1970. Hütter and Schneider formed Kraftwerk later that year – the name is German for power plant – and initially sounded like any other Krautrock band. They had a drummer and a guitarist, Hütter played keyboards, Schneider played flute and they dabbled in primitive electronics. Kraftwerk’s self-titled debut album is a peculiar mix: Ruckzack is a pounding flute heavy rocker; Megaherz, a floating mood piece; Vom Himmel Hoch, a sound picture of falling doodlebugs. A concert for German TV in 1970 has just been added to Youtube and makes fascinating viewing.
For 1971’s Kraftwerk 2, the band was reduced to the duo of Hütter and Schneider and a primitive drum machine. Klingklang was an 18 minute beauty, the drum machine chugging away over sweet electric piano and drifting flute melodies. The rest of the album was more experimental. Spule 4 sounds like someone dropping a set of spanners on an electric guitar, but Klingklang was a way forward. 1973’s Ralf und Florian was more oriented towards electronics and melody. You could draw a line from the squelching pulsing Moogs of Kristallo to early acid house. Songs like Heimatklänge and Tongebirge are drifting mood pieces, conjuring up visions of rolling hills and running streams. Ananas Symphonie features their first vocal, albeit a vocodor repeating the song title, and is a beautiful piece of swooning synths and slide guitar. But these three LPs haven’t been issued (legally) since the early 80s and have been written out of the ‘official’ Kraftwerk history.
In a way, I can see why they might want it that way. Autobahn is a great leap forward for the band. The full 23 minutes of the title track travels through a number of movements to reflect a journey, from the opening and closing of the car door and revving up, through the relentless rolling rhythms, turning on the radio, going through tunnels and arriving at the end of the journey exhausted but satisfied. It’s not totally electronic – one section is a duet between Schneider’s flute and an electric guitar – but it makes its point – THIS is the future. The edited single was a hit in the UK and the United States, and across those countries disenfranchised youths took note – you didn’t need to play guitar to make music. Kraftwerk promoted the single in the UK not by performing on Top of the Pops but by appearing as a feature on Tomorrow’s World, the popular science show broadcast before TOTP.
1975 brought clarity to the Kraftwerk project. After a few years of changing personnel around Hütter and Schneider, they had settled on the classic four piece line up – adding Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür on electronic percussion. They were now completely electronic – no more flute or guitar – and they had a new purpose. Their LP of that year, Radio-Activity, wasn’t as well received by the media – nobody could tell if they were praising radio broadcasts or nuclear radiation – and there were a few too many experimental moments on the LP, too much noise and radar blips. But when it was good – Radioactivity, Airwaves, Antenna – it gave hints at the electro pop that would dominate the following decade. It also had a stunning LP closer; Ohm Sweet Ohm starts slowly and gently increases in tempo and complexity as the beautiful melody is repeated and extrapolated. After Radio-Activity was released, Kraftwerk toured the UK blowing minds in theatres up and down the land. They also toured the USA and had their first taste of the disco and dance music scene which would influence the band, and in turn they would influence it so hugely.
Kraftwerk were quietly influential during the mid to late seventies. David Bowie loved Autobahn and Radioactivity and they influenced the repetitive sounds on his Station To Station LP. He also asked them to play as his support act during the tour to promote that album – they refused. They continued to influence Bowie during his Berlin period; V-2 Schneider on Heroes is a hat-tip to Florian Schneider. Kraftwerk mention Bowie and his Berlin acolyte on their next LP too: “From station to station back to Dusseldorf city, meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie…” In places like London, Liverpool and Sheffield, people were listening. And in America their insistent rhythms and simple melodies were being picked up by disco producers and DJs.
Their next three LPs, Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981), are comparable to Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper. That seems a pretty outlandish claim, but bear with me on this one. Each was a clear progression from album to album, each worked as a sum greater than its parts, each moved music forward in new directions, each mixed innovation with pop craft and melody, each album was downright brilliant, each album is now considered a classic.
Trans-Europe Express takes the theme of travel, from the gently moving opener Europe Endless to the relentless almost sidelong title track. The music has a new purity of form – a specially built sequencer forms the rhythmic basis of the songs, there are rich string surges from a now ancient instrument called an Orchestron, the songs twist and turn and are wonderful. Showroom Dummies was a hit in the discos in 1977 and a belated hit in the UK charts in 1982, and is quietly humorous – mannequins coming to life, becoming human and going to the disco.
The Man-Machine was a vision in red, black and white and introduced the robots – mannequins who would appear at press conferences instead of the group and who would become more complex and realistically robotic as time passed. This would signal the start of the band’s retreat away from the press and the world – to become what they called “music workers”, clocking in at 9am and clocking off at 5pm each day at their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf, a secretive place with no phone and no contact with the outside world. As for the LP itself, it is end-to-end wonderful. Each of its six tracks is clinical, precise, honed to perfection. The Model was a perfect three minute pop song and was ahead of its time enough to become a UK number one single four years later, where its sound fitted perfectly amongst the prevailing electro pop trends. Neon Lights is a nine minute glide through a city at night, but unlike the rough and edgy L.A. Woman, this particular city is strangely romantic, a neon glow of grace. Once the minimal lyrics finish, the synthesisers carry on the journey over nine trance-like minutes. It is possibly my favourite Kraftwerk song. (Sadly this is the only Kraftwerk LP not available on Spotify – it was there a few months ago – so the playlist includes a live version from their 2004 Minimum-Maximum live LP).
After a tour to promote The Man-Machine, Kraftwerk disappeared for a few years, ostensibly to update their studio with new technology which would allow it to become more mobile, so the studio could go on the road. They gave the world time to catch up with their innovations. Between ’78 and ’81 – when they returned – a lot happened. The Bowie and Kraftwerk fans who had been listening in London had formed a ‘scene’ around a series of nightclubs – Blitz and Billy’s – intent on dressing up and enjoying electronic music – this would spawn the New Romantic movement led by Steve Strange’s Visage project. The Kraftwerk fans in Liverpool and Sheffield suddenly had access to cheap monophonic synthesisers and drum machines from Japan and used punk’s “anyone can do it” attitude to create their own visions of “one fingered” electronic pop. By 1981 the charts were filled with synth pop – OMD, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Visage. Kraftwerk’s return with Computer World could not have been more timely.
There’s a new level of rhythmic sophistication on Computer World – melodic pieces and drum beats and hi hat patterns are more complex, the parts fitting together like a well-oiled machine, all working together in harmony. I’ve listened to this album a lot recently – it’s my son’s favourite music to play in the car – and I can still pick up new nuances within the music even though I’ve been listening to this LP for over 30 years. Computer World may be well known to Brits of a certain age (mid 40s) as the theme tune to the BBC’s Computer Programme, a series of TV shows from 1982 promoting home computing and the BBC Micro. But the song itself is more sinister than that – the refrain of “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” implying how computers weren’t just there to help us, they were there to watch and control us too.
Computer Love is more romantic in an odd way – “I dial a number for a data date” – but the music itself is quite soft, no hard sounds, full of romantic surges and melt-in-the-mouth melodies. (Coldplay took the main melody of this song for their Talk single in 2006 – Chris Martin mentioned in interviews how he wrote to them asking permission through their label and legal team, waiting months and months for a response before receiving a hand written reply with one word – “Yes”). The Computer World LP ended up at number two in the NME’s 1981 end of year poll – it seems the innovators were finally being appreciated.
The problem for all innovators is that once everyone has caught up with you, where do you go from there? In the late Seventies DJs had been taking the more rhythmic elements of Kraftwerk and extending them through skilful turntable manipulation. By the early Eighties the cheap synthesisers and introduction of digital sampling – recording a section of music to play it back or loop it as a beat – meant that anyone could make Kraftwerk style music. In the Bronx, the emerging hip hop scene revered Kraftwerk and one of hip hop’s first big hits – Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force – used the melody of Trans-Europe Express over the beats from Numbers (from Computer World). Hip hop didn’t care that Kraftwerk were German or trying to be robots – it was about their funky beats. Michael Jackson asked to collaborate with them – they refused. Their 1983 single, Tour De France, was remixed and used in the soundtrack to the film Breakdance in 1984, making it a hit two years in a row.
Effectively, Kraftwerk’s work was done; they didn’t need to create another note of music and secretly they probably knew it. As new electronic musics like house and garage and techno emerged during the latter half of the eighties, Kraftwerk lost their position as trailblazers for the cutting edge of music technology. 1986’s Electric Café was sparse, more emphasis on percussion and beats and less of the glacial melodies but sounded out of date as soon as it was released. A remix project in 1991, The Mix, gave 11 of their old songs a modern house-style makeover and included a wonderful new version of Radioactivity which cleared up any previous ambiguity on that song – the refrain of “Chernobyl – Harrisberg – Sellafield – Hiroshima” makes it clear they’re not celebrating nuclear power. Oh, and the Kraftwerk robots made another appearance on Tomorrow’s World. Then nothing … Bartos and Flür left – fed up with the lack of progress – and got replaced, the four piece line-up had to remain in place. A few live concerts along the way in the 90s proved they still existed – a high profile headline slot at Creamfields – but no new music until a one-off single, Expo 2000, in 2000, a jingle for the Hannover World’s Fair.
Then to almost everyone’s surprise, a new album was issued in 2003 to celebrate the 100th anniversairy of the Tour De France. They expanded the 1983 Tour De France single into an album, capturing the excitement and sounds and energy of the legendary cycle race into an hour long suite of music. It sounded minimal, like they had honed the music down to its purest elements of rhythm and melody, and it was a pleasure to have new Kraftwerk music. Vitamin was the standout track – rich textured sounds, beautiful melodies and everything you could want from a 21st Century Kraftwerk song. Since then they have become a touring machine, over the last few years playing a series of concerts in art galleries – Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tate Modern in London – playing their albums from end to end. The biggest shock really happened in 2008 with Florian Schneider leaving the band he had co-founded back in 1970. Kraftwerk is now Ralf Hütter’s baby. And while you could say “Well that’s like Paul McCartney calling his current band The Beatles”, I’d say that Kraftwerk isn’t about just the members of the band, it’s about the music, the image, the idea of four people creating this vision of the future. According to The Observer, “No other band since The Beatles has given so much to pop culture”. Turn on the radio, channel hop through the numerous music stations on TV, go online on your computer or smart phone or iPad, listen to the processed packaged automated music all around you. Kraftwerk’s influence – directly or indirectly – is everywhere. We are truly living in a computer world now.
Read more of Kraftwerk and other musical adventures at Rob’s website, A Goldfish Called Regret.