Founded in Düsseldorf in 1970 by the German musician-composers Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk were less a band than an Andy Warhol-like art project, that radiated a spirit of perceived “Germanness” and conveyor-belt efficiency in its studio production wizardry. During the punk-heyday in the 1970s a very British fear and suspicion of Germany and the Germans informed reviews of Kraftwerk concerts and albums (“Kraftwerk: The Final Solution of the Music Problem”). Kraftwerk had the last laugh: their robo synth-pop influenced the Chicago house scene in the early 1980s and the turntable gymnastics of the New York hip-hop pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. How a Teutonic all-white electro outfit came to shape the sound of rap is one of the strangest stories of contemporary music.
Karl Bartos, a classically-trained percussionist and former telecommunications engineer, joined Kraftwerk in 1975 a year after they released ‘Autobahn’, a 23-minute hosanna to west German motorway driving where synthesizer swoops and beeps emulate the sound of passing cars along rain-slicked Tarmac.
To Bartos ‘Autobahn’ sounded like nothing else: a propulsive new “Afro-Ayran” sound had arisen from the moral and material ruins of post-Hitlerite Germany. Bartos remained with Kraftwerk for 16 years until he left in 1991 following disagreements with Schneider. In The Sound of the Machine, a hybrid memoir and in-depth history of Kraftwerk and its music, Bartos chronicles his life as a “Kraftworker” and beyond to the present day. First published in Germany in 2017 as Der Klang der Maschine, the book absorbs from start to finish; Bartos is a born story-teller, with a fetching dry humour. Across 600-plus pages he describes how the Kraftwerk sound evolved, and its continued influence today.
Born in southern Bavaria in 1952, Bartos discovered the Beatles and Hendrix at an early age, and rejected the “square” German music scene known as schlager – marzipan-sweet Euro-kitsch crooning. (The German smash hit ‘Leather Trousers Don’t Need Pressing’ by Sven Jens elicits a droll “Sven was right!” from Bartos.) Kraftwerk emerged from the so-called “Krautock” explosion dominated in the early 1970s by Can, Popul Vuh, Neu! and Amon Düül. Bartos was intrigued by the Pop art covers of Kraftwerk’s first two albums (they showed red and green traffic cones), and he jumped at the chance to audition in their Kling Klang studio. Kraftwerk offered the 22-year-old Bartos a meagre salary but he supplemented it with a teaching day job and percussion performance duties at Düsseldorf’s Robert Schumann Conservatory. The one moment he was performing Bartok, the next he was hitting electronic drum pads with a pair of knitting needles. The book is rich in music theory and philosophical considerations of the work of, among others, Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky. In a fascinating chapter, Bartos argues that Kraftwerk were indebted to the work of the Italian Futurist composer-painter Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto The Art of Noise urged a ”new music” made up of car horns, clanking trams, back-firing automobiles and other urban noise.
With Wolfgang Flür, the band’s fourth member, Bartos co-created the hypnotic threnodies and snatches of radio interference on Kraftwerk’s first entirely electronic album, the 1976 Radio-Activity. Bartos complains that his contribution was never properly acknowledged, however, and tensions began to show. During a French tour, Schneider bought himself a pair of “extremely expensive” shoes on the Champs Elysée, and Bartos was struck by glaring financial differences. While the luxury-loving Schneider holidayed on his family’s estate near Saint-Tropez, Bartos fretted about the publishing and licensing percentages owed him.
Bartos documents a very human group of men, who enjoyed football, champagne, disco dancing and cycling (and even music by the Eagles). His book is entirely free of sex, drugs and other bad behaviour. Kraftwerk emerge as young idealists who viewed music-making as essentially hard studio graft. Bartos played a key (if, he says, undervalued) role in generating the trance-inducing rail-track rhythms of Kraftwerk’s abidingly influential 1977 Trans-Europe Express album. Along with Donna Summer’s adrenalin-quickening ‘I Feel Love’, which crash-landed on disco culture that same year, the album heralded the future sound of pop. What the Beatles were to rock, Kraftwerk were to electronic music.
Bartos worked on a total of six Kraftwerk albums. After Computer World, the band’s eighth and last great album, released in 1981, only two albums of new Kraftwerk material emerged as Schneider preferred to digitize the band’s back catalogue of painstakingly crafted analogue sounds rather than tour. Disillusioned, Bartos played his last concert with Kraftwerk in 1990 and handed his keys back to Kling Klang shortly after. Since then he has worked on music projects with the likes of Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Bernard Sumner of New Order. The Sound of the Machine, ably translated by Katy Derbyshire, brings the Düsseldorf four-piece vividly back to life, pocket calculators and all.