Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany



Kraftwerk   – “power plant” in English –  eschewed proto-hippy blues rock-clichés in favour of trance-inducing dancefloor grooves. Their abidingly great 1977 album Trans-Europe Express, with its signature hypnotic threnodies and percussive rail-track rhythms, suggested the industrial kling-klang of German industry and robot factory production. Donna Summer’s adrenalin-quickening electro anthem “I Feel Love” crash-landed on pop culture that same year. Together with the Kraftwerk album it represented the future sound of pop. What the Beatles were to rock, Kraftwerk were to electronic music, conceivably.


Founded in Düsseldorf in 1970 by the German musician-composers Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (who died last April of cancer), Kraftwerk were less a band than a Warhol-like performance art project, that radiated a spirit of perceived “Germanness” and conveyor-belt efficiency. A British fear and loathing of Germany and the Germans informed reviews of Kraftwerk in New Musical Express and other rock journals during the punk-era 1970s (‘Kraftwerk: The Final Solution of the Music Problem’). Kraftwerk had the last laugh: their robo pop bore directly on the Chicago house scene in the early 1980s and Afro-American turntable culture under the early hip-hoppers Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. How a Teutonic all-white outfit came to shape the sound of rap is one of the strangest stories of contemporary  music.



It is hard to imagine now how startlingly new Kraftwerk sounded in their day. Between 1970 and 1973 Hütter and Schneider released three semi-improvisatory albums influenced by the atmospheric sound clusters and motorik rhythms of “Krautrock” bands such as Can, Popul Vuh and Tangerine Dream. Like the Cologne-based Can especially, Kraftwerk rejected the “square” German music scene known as schlager (marzipan-sweet Euro-kitsch crooning) in favour of an egalitarian studio experimentation. With Warhol-style traffic cones as cover art, early Kraftwerk borrowed as much from Stockhausen’s studio wizardry as from the American minimalists Terry Riley and Steve Reich. They were finding their way.


Kraftwerk made their name in 1974 with ‘Autobahn’, a 23-minute hosanna to west German motorway driving where synthesizer swoops and ear-soothing beeps emulate the sound of passing cars along rain-slicked Tarmac. Edited down to three minutes, ‘Autobahn’ was a top-30 hit in the US and reached number 11 in the UK. A strange new propulsive music had arisen from the moral and material ruins of post-Hitlerite Germany, and it was like nothing else at the time, writes Uwe Schütte in his absorbing new cultural study, Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany.


Schütte, a UK-based German academic, argues that Kraftwerk drew on the aesthetics of the Bauhaus movement and German Expressionism to create a retro-futurist sound and image. Postwar Germany in the aftermath of its “zero hour” had given rise to a generation of children who wanted to find a new language to make sense of the human infamy that was Nazism. In a sense, Kraftwerk’s was a redemptive project, that looked backwards to the forward-looking modernist movement in Germany banned by Hitler on his accession to power in 1933. The idea of presenting band members as robots derived in part from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi dystopia Metropolis, while the strikingly futuristic red, black and white cover design of Kraftwerk’s 1978 The Man-Machine album is a homage perhaps to 1920s Soviet propaganda art.


In a fascinating chapter, Schütte argues that Kraftwerk were equally indebted to the Italian Futurist composer-painter Luigi Russolo, whose 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises urged musicians to explore a “new music” made up of car horns, clanking trams and other urban noise pollution. Russolo’s aesthetic shows in the snatches of radio interference and other static noise that distinguish Kraftwerk’s first entirely electronic album, the 1975 Radio-Activity (recorders and flute can be heard on earlier works). David Bowie, an early admirer, branded Kraftwerk’s industrially inspired sounds “folk music of the factories”. The ‘V-2 Schneider’ track from his Berlin album Heroes is a homage to Kraftwerk’s co-founder Schneider.


For all their tailored “man-machine” Teutonic image, Kraftwerk were an often humorous act on stage. Their robotic computer-manipulations were the very antithesis of the guitar antics of the Rolling Stones or the tepid, well-mannered prog of Yes, Genesis and other stadium behemoths, and suggested a tongue-in-cheek playfulness. With Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos added to the original Schneider and Hütter lineup, by the dawn of the 1980s Kraftwerk had become a “multimedia combination of sound and image, graphic design and performance”, writes Schütte. Computer World, their eighth and last great album, released in 1981, foresaw the domestic use of PCs (“I programme my home computer – beam myself into the future”) and a digital future where governments intrude into private lives through data storage and spyware.



Since then, the Düsseldorf four-piece have released only two albums of new material, preferring instead to digitize their back catalogue and perform live at Tate Modern, MOMA and other high-end art venues. Schütte’s book, for all its academic jargon (“foregrounded”, “fetishized”, “iconic”), brings the robot combo to life, pocket calculators and all.