Kraftwerk by Danny Eccleston
29 April 2014
It is April 1978, and journalists and music executives attending the Paris launch party of Kraftwerk’s seventh album, The Man-Machine, are in for a surprise.
Climbing to the top of the recently-completed Tour Montparnasse, the showbiz große Käse expect to encounter Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür – the musicians of Krafwerk. Instead they are faced with four synthetic substitutes. With red shirts, black trousers, black ties and Subbuteo hair, the figures eerily approximate those of the group’s human members, occupying the stage as the real band would: ‘Ralf’ to the left in three-quarter profile; ‘Florian’, cradling a flute, to the right; ‘Karl’ and ‘Wolfgang’ in the middle, face-on, ‘playing’ synth and electronic drums. As one of the band’s new songs beeps and shimmers over the PA a vocodered voice intones: ‘We are the robots.’
‘It was totally Kraftwerk,’ one of the guests, Capitol Records A&R Rupert Perry, later told me. ‘They’d always talked about becoming one with their machines. It looked like it had finally happened.’
In any list of the top five most influential pop music acts ever to have existed, Kraftwerk ride high. Up there with Elvis and The Beatles, they are more or less single-handedly responsible for the electronic music legacy that permeates pop culture like a computer virus. Synth pop, Berlin Bowie, electro, house and techno: all were given life by Kraftwerk. Afrika Bambaaataa’s hip-hop classic Planet Rock, released in 1982, grew from the rhythm track of Kraftwerk’s Computer World track ‘Numbers’, overlaid with a melody from ‘Trans-Europe Express’, while in Detroit the holy trinity of techno pioneers – Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Derrick May – ransacked Kraftwerk’s back-catalogue (May would later describe his music as ‘George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator’).
You can be a hipster aficionado of the most cutting-edge bass music or a casual fan of Coldplay (their 2005 single, ‘Talk’, was built on the melody of Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer Love’): you don’t even have to have heard a Kraftwerk album, let alone own one, to have been touched or shaped by them.
Children of Germany’s post-war reconstruction, Kraftwerk were creatures of Düsseldorf – defibrillated heart the nation’s communications industry. Florian Schneider, though born in the Bodensee area of the south in 1947, had lived in Düsseldorf since he was three, his father a modernist architect renowned for the city’s beautiful glass-fronted Haniel-Garage. Florian learned the flute, played in jazz bands and was admitted to Düsseldorf Conservatory, where he met doctor’s son and organ student Ralf Hütter. Together, they became Kraftwerk, or ‘Power Station’.
Originally fellow-travellers with the hippy ‘kosmische’ groups – so-called ‘Krautrockers’ such as Can and Neu! – Kraftwerk’s approach would be transformed by the electronic instrumentation they increasingly employed. The pre-war ideals of the Bauhaus – its emphasis on function over decoration, its belief in the reconcilability of art and mass-production, its technological utopianism – reflected in the group’s developing aesthetic. ‘We broke down the barrier between craftsmen and artist,’ Hütter told MOJO magazine in 2005. ‘We were music workers.’
In their records, robotic discipline and elegant minimalism replaced spacey rambling and whimsical improv. ‘We were driving around Düsseldorf, and everything was very black and white to us, very industrial,’ explains Hütter. ‘So we were terrestrial, not cosmic.’
Their visual style, too, was original and rigorous. Driven by Hütter’s growing distaste for rock’s pseudo-rebellious clichés, Kraftwerk wore their hair short, kept their statements to a minimum, had a rule about staying sober at parties and, wherever possible, presented themselves as solemn, bland automata. After 1975’s ‘Autobahn’ single signalled their final break from Germany’s hippy rock scene and their arrival as an international cause célèbre, they would play up their enigmatic severity, seeing it for what it was: a USP. Walking into a party thrown by David Bowie at L’Ange Bleu in Paris in 1976, Hütter and Schneider received a five-minute standing ovation as Bowie exclaimed to Iggy Pop, ‘Look how they are! They are fantastic!’
While making music, Hütter and Schneider made art of themselves, like a Germanic Gilbert & George. Photographed around the time of Trans Europe Express (1977), they are dapperly double-breasted – sophisticated world travellers in a mythic Thirties. A year later, in their most iconic incarnation, they were technicians in uniform red and black, a touch of silent movie make-up hinting at overtones of android and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Meanwhile, their albums pursued a sophisticated commentary on the relationship of man and technology – a parallel exploration of Marshall McLuhan’s thesis that we are rewired by the media we invent – a pre-cyberpunk vision of hacked humanity. ‘We are playing the machines,’ Hütter explained in 1992, ‘and the machines play us.’
In the gorgeous electro-baroque matrix of Computer World (1981), the last of Kraftwerk’s flawless five-album run of stone classics, Hütter foresaw the digital fifth dimension of today: an extra-sensory existence in which privacy is impossible and loneliness endemic, cyber-romance the counterpart of cyber-surveillance. Like ourselves, perhaps, he was more amused than appalled: in 2014 we are all the man-machine and, on balance, we seem to like it.
After Computer World and standalone 1983 single ‘Tour De France’, Kraftwerk releases tailed off. Irresistible rumours filled the gaps in the narrative: Kraftwerk would produce Michael Jackson; Hütter had nearly died in a bicycle crash; Hütter and Schneider observed an unvarying nine-to-five workday at their Kling Klang studio, with a timetabled break for ice-cream.
But even as Kraftwerk’s output slowed to a virtual standstill, Hütter’s uncompromising curation of the Kraftwerk aesthetic has extended the group’s cultural credit line. 1997’s live set at Luton Hoo’s Tribal Gathering underlined their presiding status in the dance music pantheon, while recent shows at New York’s MOMA (2012) and the Tate Modern in London (2013) – augmented by cutting-edge 3D visuals – have been strategised to make a point about Kraftwerk’s premium art value.
Arrayed as ever as an immobile quartet in unbroken line – the 67-year-old Hütter abetted by touring musicians Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen (now that Schneider has retired from the fray) – they are an appliance whose components can be replaced, endlessly, without altering its purpose or its integrity.
Man or machine? Why choose when you can have both? Kraftwerk saw the future, and it works.
Danny Eccleston is Senior Editor of Mojo Magazine.
Left to Right: Karl Bartos, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider and Wolfgang Flür in 1978. © Everett Collection Historical / Alamy
Autobahn, the band's first commercially successful album, was released in 1974. © Clynt Garnham Business / Alamy