Published Sep 01, 2003Ah, the irony. Here I sit in the midst of the biggest blackout of all time ever, waiting for a call from Ralph Hütter, the spokesGerman for the first electronic act ever, Kraftwerk. I don't expect the ring, but I wait nonetheless by the old-fashioned corded phone the only one still in operation. Of course, Hütter does call, providing an apt opening metaphor about how his brand of old-fashioned electronica is, like my phone, still functioning after newer, flashier, higher-tech models have failed. Sure, it might stay in the closet er, studio for ages, but you're always surprised at just how well it works. Though Kraftwerk has been in hiding for the past two decades their new album, Tour De France Soundtracks comes 17 years after their last they've hardly gone away. Kraftwerk is the one band that practically every artist in popular music today would gleefully tip their hat to. No artist creates in a vacuum, but in the family tree of electronic music and hip-hop, all branches lead to Kraftwerk. By approaching music as scientists or rather, as robots they were able to use then-fledgling technology to peer into the future. But the original Teutonic proto-techno automatons have finally crawled out of their studio with a new album upgrade to their well-honed operating system.
The madness, war and industrialised genocide finally come to an end and a German baby boom kicks off; over the next two years, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider are both born in West Germany, part of the first generation untainted by Hitler. They are raised in upper middle-class families, the son of a doctor and architect respectively.
Hütter and Schneider meet at Düsseldorf conservatory. Though trained in classical music, both have a fascination with the German avant-garde scene steeped in the electronic explorations of pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. They pay scant heed to their studies, instead using their time to experiment with electronic improvisation. "Neither then nor now did we think about the future, or about some strategy," Schneider later tells an interviewer. "Why would we think about the future?"
Mixing feedback and rhythm, Hütter and Schneider join other like-minded musicians to found Organisation. Though structured like a rock band, they prefer to move in art circles, playing galleries and universities. German contemporaries like Can and Amon Duul begin to attract foreign interest, and after a flurry of signings, a German art-rock movement dubbed Krautrock is born.
The Organization album Tone Floats with Hütter on organ and Schneider on flute and violin is released to widespread indifference. Released on a British label, their music proves too German for the English and gets virtually ignored at home because it's an import. A few months later they disband and found Kraftwerk ("power station") with drummers Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger.
Kraftwerk's self-titled debut is a determinedly Germanic production, rejecting the American influence on Krautrock. Heavily indebted to musique concrete and repetitive minimalism, it is recorded in their makeshift studio with several homemade rhythm devices by producer Conrad Plank (Ultravox, Eurythmics) who eschews his usual fee because he believes in Kraftwerk's vision. Hütter will later controversially tell rock scribe Lester Bangs, "We want the whole world to know we are from Germany, because the German mentality, which is more advanced, will always be part of our behaviour." But despite their supposedly advanced mentality, the band is not satisfied with their opening salvo and will later refuse to even acknowledge the album's existence. Having never been released on CD (aside from an early 90s bootleg) it remains largely unheard. Driving around the country in a Volkswagen van, Kraftwerk perform at universities and hippie "happenings."
The band is hit by its first series of line-up changes. Hütter bails briefly between albums while drummer Klaus Dinger and gig-only guitarist Michael Rother depart to form Neu! The core duo experiments with early keyboards and drum machines because, well, their drummers quit. Kraftwerk 2, completed in a seven-day burst, includes the 17-minute instrumental "Kling Klang," which will become the name of their near-mythical studio.
Kraftwerk head to Paris for their first foreign gigs alongside Tangerine Dream and others at a festival organized by Actuel magazine, who cheerfully describe the group as "night creatures, vampires maybe." They perform in near total darkness backed by creepy projections. Their third album, Ralf und Florian, named after themselves, mixes sequencers, rhythms and electronic noises to back up their free-form piano, harpsichord and flute instrumentals. It also features the group's aesthetic shift from musicians to scientists.
The band balloons back to normal size when Wolfgang Flür (electronic drums) and long-haired hippie Klaus Roeder (guitar, electronic violin and keyboards) join the Kraftwerk "corporation" as employees. Their first joint effort is Autobahn, boasting a 22-minute, engine-fuelled title track, their first with lyrics, designed to be as repetitive and mundane as a long drive. Somehow, an edited version becomes a chart hit in America and England, while earning them pop cred as "the Beach Boys of Düsseldorf" thanks to its modulated harmonies (though they deny that the chorus "fahren fahren fahren," which means "drive," was meant to emulate "Fun, Fun, Fun"). Thanks in part to their latest purchase a mini-Moog synthesiser, which cost as much as a Volkswagen Kraftwerk achieve their greatest commercial success and the album's regimented hypno-pulses lay the groundwork for electro-funk, ambient, and synth-pop. The album also marks the beginning of their interest in transport and motion, a theme which continues today. And apparently, the Hell's Angels totally dig it, man.
For being too attached to "real" instruments, Klaus Roader is replaced by 22-year-old electronic percussionist Karl Bartos and the band assumes suits-and-ties and short hair, an image to match their futuristic sound. With Autobahn now a Top 5 album, they head to America for their first tour, where Bartos and Flür unhappily discover they're staying in a different hotel than Hütter and Schneider. Bartos later brings up other complaints. "We had certain rules, like we couldn't get drunk at parties, or drunk on stage of course because it is not easy to turn the knobs on a synthesiser if you are drunk or full of drugs." Having fulfilled their deal with the Phillips label, they look for a new, more lucrative contract, setting up the Kling Klang company and licensing their output to EMI. However, most of their newfound riches are pumped back into the studio. Towards the end of the year, the band releases Radio-Activity, a complex concept album about the airwaves and nuclear power, which opens with the title spelled out in Morse code. It crashes and burns in both the U.S. and UK, but the always-contrary French love it, buying 100,000 copies of the album and one million copies of the single, "Radioaktivität," when it becomes a breakout hit the following summer.
During a lunch at Le Train Bleu, a restaurant located in Paris' Gare de Lyon train station, a friend suggests they do a song about the Trans-Europe Express. It becomes the title track of their new album, which opens by morphing train noises into a funky drum pattern and creating a disco staple. The album is considered the first perfect synthesis of their avant-garde and pop sensibilities. They take it to Los Angeles to mix, where they also get to see their unlikely heroes the Beach Boys. David Bowie offers them an opening slot on his tour, which they boldly turn down. Undaunted, Bowie plays Kraftwerk tapes before his shows and even moves to Berlin to record his next three solo albums; Heroes contains a possible tribute to Kraftwerk in the song "V2 Schneider." They eventually become friends and Bowie is an infrequent guest at Kling Klang studios.
Kraftwerk's seeds being sprouting, Suicide and Cabaret Voltaire begin marching towards a synth-pop future and other revolutionary movements are afoot. "When Trans-Europe Express first came out in New York, somebody from the record company took us to some after-hours illegal club," Hütter recalls. "It was [hip-hop pioneer Africa] Bambaataa playing with two record players; he played Metal on Metal' for 15 or 20 minutes. I thought, what is this? It's only three minutes on the record.'"
For their newest record Man-Machine, Kraftwerk flies in a black American studio engineer to mix the album, who, based on the rhythm tracks, assumes he's working on a record by four black musicians. On the cover art, they toy with both Nazi and communist imagery, using a Soviet reconstructivist style and paramilitary attire. The album itself deals with futuristic themes of robots and space travel and "finding the soul' of the machines." "We are playing the machines, the machines play us," Hütter explains at the time. "It is really the exchange and friendship we have with the machines which make us build a new music." The album is launched in Paris, with attendees requested to wear red. When they arrive, they're greeted by the now-famous Kraftwerk automatons, inspired by their last tour, which they felt was turning them into robots or dummies. The band members remain hidden from the press until the final five minutes of the evening. The press feels snubbed, but it doesn't prevent them from swiping the dummies' clothing. Kraftwerk's influence leads to a boom in Brit synth bands such as Human League, Gary Numan and OMD (who even name an album Organisation). With the competition on the verge of catching up, the band retreats into silence for the next three years, hiding in their studio and planning their next great leap forward.
The technologically advanced society they'd long predicted is finally coming true; Kraftwerk capture this Casio-zeitgeist with Computer World. The EMI press release states, "the concept of the album is that this is the computer world, every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology and our language has become the language of computer software." They release the title track in German, French, English and Japanese. For photos, they continue to let the dummies do the work for them, yet they still top the British sales charts with the single "Computer Love." Strangely the B-side, "The Model," from the previous album, becomes the radio hit, reaching number one. They re-configure the studio to be portable; they take all their accumulated gadgets and gizmos, banks and boxes and head out on their first world tour ever, performing 90 dates in six months. "With analog and some tapes it was always a compromise," gripes Hütter, now happy to live in a laptop world. "We spend so much time setting up, transporting everything, putting the cables back in. There was so much time lost in very frustrating basic work of putting the installation into place. Then the temperature would change and all the synthesisers would get all out of tune. There would be leaps in the current, on a small scale like you're probably having from yesterday, from the electrical system in America." Kraftwerk stops doing most interviews, cultivating a reputation for obsessive secrecy, and when they do, it is under constraints such as conducting an interview in a Mercedes while driving past Düsseldorf factories.
Kraftwerk's Teutonic rhythms continue to fascinate Bronx DJ Afrika Bambaataa who, along with dance producer Arthur Baker, borrows the synth melody of "Trans-Europe Express" and the rhythm of "Numbers" and meld them with rap to birth computer funk aka electro. "We like it when our music is meeting other cultures," Hütter says. "I don't know if you know the record by the Balenesco Quartet. He played minimal string quartet music of several Kraftwerk compositions. It's fantastic." At the same time Hütter, who has become obsessed with cycling, has a bad accident, fracturing his skull; the accident comes after the band composed "Tour de France," intended to be the first single off their next album Technopop. While the single is a hit not to mention being featured in the seminal b-boy movie Breakin' Ralf's accident throws the album off course. Then, according to Karl Bartos, "we got a little bit lost in the technology, to be honest." Overwhelmed by mid-80s advancements in digital technology, such as sampling and MIDI, they decide to re-work the album with new gear. It takes three years.
A revised version of Technopop is finally released in 1986 as Electric Café. "We just change the title," Hütter says. "We continued working and then it came out as Electric Café. We always update what we record." Unfortunately, since synth music is now de rigueur, few people care about Kraftwerk's latest opus. Undaunted, the group continues digitally refurbishing both the studio and their old tracks.
Mike Myers pays tribute to Kraftwerk via his Saturday Night Live character Dieter, who ends each sketch by saying "Now is the time of Sprockets ven ve dance" while playing a pitched-up "Electric Café." Flür, tired of the glacial pace of production, quits and is replaced with by Fritz Hijbert. In an interview with a German magazine, Flür says "I left this band because I had the feeling to do something else after all these years. It was a very hard break for me, with lots of depressions following, but I knew something had to be changed." He leaves the music business to design furniture. Bartos follows Flür out the door the following year, equally frustrated by the lack of output, to record as Elektric Music. There is no further communication between Kraftwerk and their deserters. "We engaged them for tours and drumming on some sessions and then I think it just went to their head," Hütter says dismissively. "Wolfgang [Flür] was getting mentally disturbed to say the least."
After four years of effort, Kraftwerk's best known songs are released in a re-recorded and digitally updated form on the double album The Mix, aimed chiefly at the dance market. "We always work in our studio on a day-to-day basis," Hütter says. "People forget we recorded The Mix. The Kling Klang studio is our instrument, so it is really a live album." Once again considered geniuses, Kraftwerk go back out on tour this time with moveable robots but only in Europe.
Kraftwerk agree to play at an anti-nuclear power rally in Sellafield, England organised by U2, marking the first time they share a stage with another group since 1973. Bartos releases his first single "Crosstalk" but it goes unnoticed by the masses. He has some success collaborating with Bernard Sumner (New Order) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths) in the supergroup Electronic a few years later.
Though rumours abound that Hütter and Schneider have been hard at work on a new album, little is heard from them for years until they make a surprise return to live performance with a headline appearance at the UK's Tribal Gathering, after cancelling the previous year; a new song is debuted during the performance.
Dubbed the "great-granddaddies of electronica," Kraftwerk perform a spate of concerts around the world, including an American gig lauded by Rolling Stone for their ability to "work the motherboard like NASA engineers on acid."
Kraftwerk release the single Expo 2000, with four mixes of a new song based on the 30-second jingle they were commissioned to write for the international exposition in Hanover. The jingle sparks controversy after the media, politicians (including the German Chancellor) and fans decry the waste of paying 400,000 Deutschemarks for a vocoder voice saying "Expo 2000" in various languages. Flür releases a book called Kraftwerk: I Was a Robot that reveals what it was like being on the inside looking in, as well as cataloguing his many groupie conquests. Unimpressed, Hütter and Schneider apply legal pressure but fail to prevent its publication.
Bartos releases the full-length 15 Minutes of Fame but it seems his are already used up. However, Señor Coconut Y Su Conjunto has considerably more success with his Latino Kraftwerk covers. Though not the first to put an absurdist spin on Kraftwerk's catalogue there have also been country, string quartet and Eastern European covers Frankfurt-born Chilean-resident DJ/producer Atom Heart, ditches his post-techno experiments for a German-Latin fusion under the silly guise of Señor Coconut. The resulting album, El Baile Alemán, is a cult hit and he eventually puts together a touring eight-piece orchestra. He will retire the Kraftwerk covers at Montreal's 2003 Mutek festival and not a moment too soon as far as the original songwriters are concerned. "That's more funny [than good]," Hütter says, "but it's not so funny if you do too many songs."
Following a series of concerts in Paris the previous year to test their new laptop system, Kraftwerk buckle down to finally finish their too-long-awaited new album. But continuing in their vein of re-jigging old works, the bicycle enthusiasts decide to play around with their 20-year-old single-only track "Tour De France," a competition that Hütter dubs "the biggest and most difficult man-machine event on the planet." "The whole idea was now to incorporate the first composition as more of an outside view, and now to work more inside the tour. This whole idea of electronic flow within the tour, plus the training aspect of vitamins. I included my medical electrocardiogram with beats-per-minute [based on my] minimum and maximum heart rate." The album, Tour de France Soundtracks is finally released in the summer and achieves good but not spectacular reviews, with most admitting to its high quality but disappointed, however unfairly, by the fact that the band is no longer years ahead of the pack. Bartos hopes to capitalise on the flurry of publicity, by releasing his own new album Communication, with remixes by Orbital and Felix the Housecat. But the spotlight is firmly upon Hütter, who actually deigns to give interviews and denies that the band has been in hiding. "When we have nothing to say we just go to the studio and work on our music until we have finished a piece of work and we think there's something to talk about. We consider ourselves musical workers. We just go to the studio and do our work."