Kindergarten, Autobahn, Schnitzel. We all speak a little German. Kraftwerk is another German word. It means power station. Kraftwerk is also the name of the most innovative and influential electronic band in the history of electricity. Formed in Düsseldorf in western Germany, the band’s core of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider met at high school and were part of Düsseldorf’s experimental scene of the late sixties. Initially their music included acoustic elements such as Schneider’s flute, but after three exploratory albums they shifted emphasis. It was a seismic change that altered popular music forever.
When Ralf and Florian invested in some of the new synthesisers appearing in the early seventies it set their course for the rest of the decade. Using rudimentary percussion pads and electronic keyboards (the minimoog and the ARP Odyssey synthesisers), Kraftwerk augmented their instrumental arsenal with machines they either made or modified themselves. Their Kling Klang studio was an electronic workshop, recording centre and experimental hub, and it was here (as well as at producer Conny Plank’s studio) that Kraftwerk’s breakthrough album Autobahn was recorded.
Although Autobahn has some acoustic elements (treated flute and violin, for example) it sounds like an electronic album. Even the human voice, passed through a vocoder, sounds technological. The subject matter of this sidelong masterpiece is a trip on one of Germany’s famous freeways. Sounds from the ‘real world’—a car door closing, an engine starting—merge with synthesised vistas both evocative and transporting.
“Autobahn” is no noodling piece of music. It is utterly modern, sleek and liberating. 1
Interestingly, the other side of Autobahn consists of gentle, impressionistic pieces that anticipate both ambient and New Age music. They were indeed pioneers.
A chilly ambience pervades Kraftwerk’s next release, Radio-Activity (1975), whose double meaning (action via radio communication or nuclear material) gives it an unsettling and mournful feel. This is in stark contrast with the joyous, sumptuous richness of 1977’s Trans-Europe Express. If you never imagined electronic music being romantic, this LP will change your mind. But it’s not just a hypnotic train journey through a nostalgic Western Europe. TEE also has several catchy and fascinating songs that boost its accessibility enormously.
Trans-Europe Express placed in the top 50 of Mojo’s 100 Best Albums of All Time. 2
Sections of TEE have been used in genres as diverse as ambient house and hip-hop, while the album is credited with having a huge influence on the nascent Detroit techno scene.
With The Man-Machine, Kraftwerk reached their biggest audience yet, its futuristic satire (“We are the robots”) and sly humour (“The Model”) making it great fun yet satisfying to hear again and again. Similar comments could be made about 1981’s Computer World. Kraftwerk were hugely influential on the development of synth-pop and EDM, their minimalist musical constructions producing an enduring body of work that sits in music’s archival server awaiting discovery by new generations.
Although we have focussed on the key middle years of Kraftwerk, their story continued with Electric Cafe, a refurbished collection named The Mix, and 2003’s excellent Tour de France Soundtracks (which some guides slot into the ‘Techno’ category). They have also toured several times, releasing a live DVD, Minimum-Maximum, in 2005.
More recently, the band compiled a boxed set culled from performances between 2012 and 2016. The concerts were beautifully recorded, painstakingly edited (removing all audience noise) and released as an eight disc (nine LP) boxed set. Although differing from the original albums in many ways, 3-D The Catalogue (Kraftwerk love those hyphens!) offers a sweeping survey of this pivotal band. For long-term fans, “the music…has all the discomforting familiarity of someone who you knew intimately ages ago but kind of looks different now”3. Nevertheless, “the recordings are awash with details and production effects that simply would not have been possible when most of the pieces were originally composed”4. It’s a beautiful object and a great platform from which to launch further Kraftwerk adventures. Get on board.
© Bruce Jenkins 2020
1. Kraftwerk Publikation (2012) David Buckley (Omnibus Press, London).
2. Mojo — The Music Magazine (1995) 100 Best Albums of All Time
3. Power Plant Back On Line (25 November 2017) Bruce Jenkins (Vinyl Connection) https://vinylconnection.com.au/2017/11/25/power-plant-back-on-line/ Retrieved 22 May 2020
4. 3-D: The Catalogue (publication date unknown) Paul Simpson (Allmusic Guide) https://www.allmusic.com/album/3-d-the-catalogue-mw0003043217 Retrieved 22 May 2020.