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Kraftwerk’s music for a Europe without end

Born out of Germany’s industrial heartland, Kraftwerk’s epic electronic pop did not just soundtrack a decade: it created a global language.

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Dance-offs used to be more fun. In a YouTube clip taken from Detroit’s WGPR-TV channel in 1982, a succession of young Americans are throwing shapes to the sound of “Sharevari” by A Number of Names, a purely electronic track with a bubbling synthesiser pulse and a melody taken from Kraftwerk’s then recently released “It’s More Fun to Compute”. Reflecting the song’s aspirational lyrics, the predominantly African American contestants are all dressed smartly yet, triggered by the machine pulse, they simulate the stiff repetitive spasms of robotic man-machines.

Shortly afterwards, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released “Planet Rock”, a mixture of Bronx street raps and cool, electronic beats taken from Kraftwerk’s “Numbers”, with the overlaid melody of “Trans-Europe Express”. This was a world away from the standard B-Boy breaks – usually taken from funk or disco numbers – and was met with some resistance from the group, but Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker persisted and, in doing so, created the founding document of rap.

This was an extraordinary occurrence, but the keyword was “planet”. When I talked to Kraftwerk’s spokesman Ralf Hütter in 1991 (an interview that was never published), he expressed pleasure at the idea that his group were creating a transnational music language: “That would be perfect. I would be too big-headed to say that we did it, but if it comes, it would be wonderful. We have played and been understood in Detroit and in Japan, and that’s the most fascinating thing that could happen. Electronic music is a kind of world music. I think that the Global Village is coming.”

Kraftwerk’s journey from Germany’s Ruhr through Europe into the white and black US and beyond had its ultimate application in this global music – a form that  was easy to grasp, with eloquent melodies, mutable rhythm patterns, graspable concepts, and minimal, polyglot lyrics. That this apparent simplicity was achieved through considerable complexity of thought and practice is one of the many contradictions that Uwe Schütte explores in this highly stimulating critical biography. Written from a European perspective, Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany is a pleasure to read.

Kraftwerk – “power plant” in English – began in Düsseldorf, Germany’s industrial heartland, where Ralf Hütter and  Florian Schneider were born in the immediate postwar years: 1946 and 1947 respectively. Their sensibilities were forged in  the artistic ferment of the late Sixties, where the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen collided with the concepts of Andy Warhol and psychedelic music from the US and the UK.

As Hütter told me: “When we started it was, like, shock, silence. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the Fifties and Sixties, everything was Americanised, directed towards consumer behaviour. We were part of this 1968 movement, where suddenly there were possibilities, and we performed at happenings and art situations. Then we started to establish some form of industrial German sound, and then we founded our Kling Klang studio. The German word for sound is ‘klang’, ‘kling’ is the verb; phonetics, establishing the sound.”

Kraftwerk issued three albums of increasingly structured improvisations between 1970 and 1973: these are not part of what the group considers to be the official canon and have never been reissued. They hit their stride in late 1974 with “Autobahn”, a 23-minute epic that simulated a motorway journey with a metronomic, driving pulse and synthesiser swoops that sounded like passing cars. Edited down to three minutes, it was a top-30 hit in the US and reached number 11 in the UK: no mean feat for a  German-language song.

The concepts were further refined with Radio-Activity, a deceptively punning title for an album about nuclear energy presented in the form of a radio show influenced by Stockhausen. But the big breakthrough came in 1977 with Trans-Europe Express, constructed as a train journey through an endless, borderless Europe that was at once haunted by the ghosts of former splendour and looking forward to a technological,  unified future. Again, sound and music simulated the noise of travel, in particular the clickety-clack of train wheels in “Metal on Metal”.

Coinciding with the two electronic albums by David Bowie (Low and Heroes) and the rise of synthetic disco – in particular Giorgio Moroder’s stunning “I Feel Love”  – Trans-Europe Express established electronic music as the future. British punk suddenly sounded old, and the stage was set for the electronic explosion of the late 1970s, as, only a few years after Britain joined the EEC in 1973, Europe became a source of inspiration for British musicians such as Gary Numan, Ultravox, the Associates, the Human League, Joy Division and then New Order.

Trans-Europe Express is a hymn to what Kraftwerk called “Europe Endless”. It’s saturated in romantic ideas and images of the continent seen as a whole: the Champs-Élysées, “parks, hotels and palaces”; a night café in Vienna and then the return to Düsseldorf to “meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”. This meeting, in April 1976, prompted the extraordinary Kraftwerk song “The Hall of Mirrors”, with its disquisitions on fame: “Even the greatest stars/Dislike themselves in the looking glass.”

The stylisation of the group’s imagery – created by long-term colleague Emil Schulz – was an integral part of what Kraftwerk already considered a Gesamtkunstwerk  (total artwork). Both the video for the song “Trans-Europe Express” and the group’s photo on the record inner-sleeve harked back to the Twenties, in particular Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (the word  “robot” was coined in 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his dystopian play R.U.R). It was as if the band was in a continuum between high modernism and the technological future to come, eliding the Second World War. This retro-futurism, as Schütte calls it, would become a guiding Kraftwerk principle.

The most unexpected impact of Trans-Europe Express was on the dance-floor. From mid-1977 onwards, as documented in Vince Aletti’s weekly “Disco File” column in the US magazine Record World,  Kraftwerk were very popular in New  York clubs: combined with the success of  “I Feel Love”, this made for a definite trend. “The most significant development in disco sound this year is the success of totally synthesised music,” Aletti wrote. “Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express was the breakthrough record.” These signals reached attuned antennae in the Bronx, Chicago and Detroit.

The Man-Machine (1978) was even more high concept, with its retro-futurist, 1920s imagery of the group dressed in red and black, and extended songs such as “Neon Lights”, “Metropolis” and “The Robots” – all of which relied on minimal lyrics, machine rhythms and gorgeous melodies. The shortest, “The Model” – the cool, aloof catwalk depicted as a type of fashion machine – became a number-one hit in the UK during the summer of 1981.

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Schütte teases out the many ambiguities in these concepts: trains, autobahns, radioactivity, men-machines. All have distinct negative connotations within Germany in particular. Yet Kraftwerk proposed a positive view. Their rigorous determination to deny autobiography forced listeners to focus on the ideas and the music, where apparent contradictions – local/global,  human/machine, past/future – were resolved in a sparkling, crystal-clear sound-world. This was not submission but interaction: as they said, “we are playing the machines, the machines play us”.

Indeed, Kraftwerk’s greatest achievement was to imagine a future that refused dystopia. With songs such as “Home Computer” and “Pocket Calculator”, Computer World (1981) was uncannily prescient of the digital age and the group’s own elision to come. Increasingly, the lyrics were becoming abstract, almost ready-made – with phrases taken from gadget instruction manuals – and on “Numbers” in particular, the global aspect was emphasised with the count, up to eight in German, reproduced throughout in French, Italian and Japanese.

After this fertile period – five groundbreaking albums in fewer than seven years – Kraftwerk went silent, reappearing in 1986 with the sixth in the canon, Electric Café. Its newer title, Techno Pop, makes more sense, particularly in terms of the 16-minute segue of “Boing Boom Tschak”, “Techno Pop” and “Musique  Non-Stop” – a minimalist manifesto for a digital, global pop music. “Boing Boom Tschak” harked back to the futurists with its sound poetry; lyrics and voice used as electronic percussion.

There then ensued a further delay as Kraftwerk got to grips with digital technology. As Hütter explained to me in 1991: “We’re in the middle of a revolution, there’s one phase already finished. Miniaturisation is continuing. Trans-Europe  Express was done with huge machinery,  and all this smaller stuff, transportable computers, will be great; we’re still carrying a lot of weight from city to city. We’re dreaming of carrying a briefcase from place to place, with a laptop, little samples,  little keyboards.”

Schütte marks this period as the division between two distinct periods:

While the work in their first phase (1974-86) can be described as an update of modernist ideas in the retro-futurist mode, the second stage embodies a postmodern strategy of avoiding closure with a fixed work of art, in its stead representing it as a perpetually fluid work in progress. And that in turn necessitated the vital change in the locus of their artistic work, from recording new material in the confines of the studio to performance onstage.

The renewed concentration on live concerts – the staging of which emphasised the group’s anonymity and their fusion of humans with machines – occurred at the same time as the reworking of their catalogue. The Mix (1991) contained digitally updated versions of material from all six conceptual albums, including new lyrics for “Radioactivity” that resolved any ambiguity about the group’s support for nuclear power: “Stop radioactivity/Discovered by Madame Curie/Chain reaction and mutation/Contaminated population.”

In 2003 the standalone 1983 single “Tour De France” was reworked at the centre of an album about cycling. This was Hütter’s major obsession: “We are very interested in the dynamics and the energy and the movement. The German word is vorwärts, forward – that’s what you do with your bicycle. You move forward.” The lyrics to tracks such as “Vitamin” and “Aerodynamik” were pared to the bone – “mainly buzz words, keywords, with stress on their sound, the sound of words, speech song; an early form of rap, if you like”.

In 2008 Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk for reasons which have, characteristically, not been fully explained. Apart from tours, the next major Kraftwerk project was the 2009 reissue of the core eight albums in a digitally remixed box called The Catalogue. Eight years later came the release of 3-D: The Catalogue, the same albums recorded live in various locations – the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern, the Sydney Opera House – and augmented with Blu-ray visuals.

The packaging of 3-D: The Catalogue reached new levels of minimalism. The front cover mimicked the poor-quality pixel images of human forms already used in the artwork for the 2009 Catalogue issue: inside, each of the eight albums reproduced the same image, this time colour-coded and numbered one to eight, just like the lyrics of “Numbers”. During the previous 40 years, Kraftwerk had proceeded with increasing levels of abstraction – subtracting the human element, the design variations, and all but one of  the core members – to arrive at this near-total erasure.

Schütte ends with a quote from “Techno Pop”: “It will always go on from here/Music, the carrier of ideas.” Constructing a personal biography of Kraftwerk would be extremely difficult, and Schütte takes the group on its own terms – writing clearly about each phase in its existence, with digressions into subjects such as Joseph Beuys,  Warhol, the history of machine music, and the role of trains in the Holocaust. Most of all, his book sent me back to those core eight albums.

The number “8” is a closed glyph, never ending like its horizontal variant, the infinity sign. Forty-five years on from their first commercial breakthrough, Kraftwerk now appear as a concept that,  having progressively reduced and eliminated the elements of biography,  personality and even physicality, can reproduce and regenerate in perpetuity – even beyond the life of its creators.  What is left is a pure concept, existing to deliver Hütter’s simple definition of the group’s work: “Movement. Motion  and emotion.” 

Jon Savage’s most recent book is “This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything  Else: Joy Division: The Oral History”  (Faber & Faber)

Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany 
Uwe Schütte
Penguin, 336pp, £9.99

Jon Savage is a music writer whose books include England's Dreaming: the Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded.

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics