Andy Gill, Mojo, April 1997
Do the men play machines? Or the machines play the men? How four humanoids with one vision revolutionised pop.
IN THE WORLD OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC, Kraftwerk are the kings across the water. Despite releasing no new material in over a decade, they continue to wield more influence than any of their Anglo-American peers in the arcane business of bleeps and beats. Scratch a techno whizkid or studio engineer, and nine times out of 10 you'll find a Kraftwerk fan (the tenth will be too busy sampling them to respond). And it's not only in the big studios that their influence is felt; in bedrooms and back rooms all over the globe, autodidact musicians are massively in their debt. Most amazing of all, it's undoubtedly true that without this whitest of white groups, the history of black music in America would have been completely different. When Afrika Bambaataa took Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express' and 'Numbers' and combined them to form 'Planet Rock', he set in train (sic) a movement which, as the rappers say, just don't stop: not only was this effectively the birth of hip hop culture, but in Detroit young black kids like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Carl Craig fed on Kraftwerk's hypnotic rhythms and developed what later became known as techno. In Britain, meanwhile, late '70s industrialists such as The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire built on Kraftwerk's breakthroughs, taking the sequenced-synthesizer sound to the furthest reaches of, respectively, pop's heartland and rock's avant-garde.
THOUGH KRAFTWERK WOULD BECOME INTERNATIONALLY famous a few years later for their meticulous hynotic grooves and 'Showroom Dummies'/'Robots' personae, they started out as experimentalists in the grand Krautrock tradition, classically trained musicians in revolt against the old ways. The group's core, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, met while studying piano and flute respectively at a classical conservatory; bored with the restrictions their studies imposed, they found a new fascination in the electronic music which the nearby West Deutsche Rundfunk radio station in Cologne would broadcast late at night.
"We were trained on classical instruments, but we found them too limiting," explains Ralf Hütter. "In the old days a pianist would have to practise repetitive mechanical exercises eight hours a day just to keep the fingers supple; with our computers, all this is taken care of, and you can spend your time in structuring the music. Practising is no longer necessary -- I can play faster than Rubinstein with the computer, so it's no longer relevant. It's more about getting closer to what the music is about. It's thinking and hearing, it's no longer gymnastics."
The duo first worked together in The Organisation, a Düsseldorf avant-rock quintet whose only recorded work, the RCA album Tone Float, is one of the rarer Krautrock artefacts. Striking out as a duo in early 1970, Ralf and Florian subsequently set up shop near the city's main railway station, a small studio with no public access, no receptionist, and no telephone; indeed, reflecting their approach to music, it's more like a factory than an office. Called Kling Klang, they have remained there ever since.
"Our music has been called 'industrial folk music'," acknowledges Hütter. "That's the way we see it. There's something ethnic to it; it couldn't have come from anywhere else. The Berlin scene is different from the Munich scene, and we are from the Düsseldorf scene, from Ein Ruhr scene, which is an industrial area, so our music has more of that edge to it."
Initially, Ralf and Florian gave their musical ideas a firm rhythmic base by adding drummers Andreas Hohman and Klaus Dinger to the Kraftwerk ranks. This line-up, aided by legendary producer Conny Plank, made the first LP, Kraftwerk, on which treated flute and keyboard patterns are joined by electronic oscillations and the kind of industrial noise signalled by the group's name, which means 'Powerplant'. Hohman left shortly after, but the remaining trio was soon expanded to a quintet by the addition of bassist Eberhardt Krahnemann and guitarist Michael Rother.
The results weren't to Hütter's taste, and after one session he and Krahnemann left the group before Rother and Dinger, sensing a shared psychedelic proto-punk sensibility, themselves split to form the splendid Neu!. Only one (unreleased) session was recorded by the Schneider/Rother/Dinger line-up, though an 11-minute appearance by the trio on the German Beat Club TV show has apparently since been released on laserdisc in Japan. Hütter rejoined Schneider back at Kling Klang Studio, where they made Kraftwerk 2, on which the beats were provided by primitive drum machine and echo units which imposed rhytmic structures on their instruments. Indeed, the track 'Klingklang' shares with Sly And The Family Stone's 'Family Affair' the distinction of featuring the first recorded drum machine in pop, both pieces appearing in 1971.
A third album -- the relatively tranquil Ralf and Florian -- followed before, still looking to expand their sound, they brought in drummers Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur. The latter, whose band The Spirits Of Sound broke up when Michael Rother had been poached by Kraftwerk, was consequently a little peeved at first when Hütter called to invite him to join, but knew on which side his bread was buttered.
At that time, Kling Klang Studio was far from the technological hub it would become. "The studio was a big room in an old factory building with brick walls," recalls Flur. "There were big home-made speakers, amplifiers and so on. Florian had his side, with his flutes and one of the very first Arp Odyssey synthesizers, while Ralf's side had Hammond and Farfisa organs and a MiniMoog synthesizer. But they only had a children's drumkit, which I didn't like, so I found a little rhythm machine from an organ. It had knobs and switches, which we could press to play a bass drum, snare drum, cymbal or anything. It was a very elegant way to play, just with fingertips, and the sound was great."
It also provided Ralf and Florian with the first of a series of aphorisms with which to describe their work: "Our drummers don't sweat anymore," they would say when, out of the blue, their 1974 single 'Autobahn' was a huge hit the world over. Blending the hypnotic rhythmic style of classical American minimalist composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and LaMonte Young with the European representative traditition, they had stumbled onto what would be the Great Idea of their career: Romantic Realism. "Walk in the streets and you have a concert, cars playing symphonies," Hütter would claim. "Even engines are tuned, they play free harmonics. Music is always there -- you just have to learn to recognise it."
For 'Autobahn', the group applied impeccable logic to their recording methods, driving around with a microphone outside the car window, taping the automotive ambience, then using the real sounds as templates for their synthetic approximations of car sounds, doppler shifts and the like. But unlike real traffic noise, Kraftwerk's faked version has a deeply satisfying, amenable sound: realism polished to an attractive, Romantic lustre -- what rock critic Lester Bangs in 1975 called their "intricate balm". "What we are doing is making sound-pictures of real environments, what we call tone-films," said Schneider, while Hütter was at pains to point out the exactitude of their work: "We strive for clarity, not nebulosity; we are trying to recreate realism, not vague images. In our music we make the machines sing: in 'Autobahn', the cars hum a melody, in 'Trans-Europe Express' the train sings."
To some, however, Kraftwerk's realism embodied a cold, impersonal manner: sure, the machines were singing, but where were the feelings? For those brought up on blues-based rock'n'roll, a music that depended upon, and reified, the extravagant expression of emotion, this "mechanic ballet" seemed impersonal and so... Teutonic. Lester Bangs's Kraftwerk feature in the NME caused a mild furore because of the layout's crude, parodic use of Nazi imagery, and the headline "The Final Solution". (In the piece, when Bangs suggests that hypothetical brain implants capable of transferring thoughts instantly into music might be "the final solution to the music problem", Ralf Hütter actually demurs politely -- "No, not the solution. The next step.")
For their own part, Kraftwerk paid as much meticulous attention to their visuals as to their music, with their designer Emil Schult developing a seamless, impermeable image whose effect was manifold. At the simplest level, the gleaming neatness of their hair and quintessentially manifold suits in the exquisite photographs of the Trans-Europe Express sleeve self-deprecatingly satirised their reputation as unemotional laboratory boffins or tailors' mannequins, pre-empting the crassest of criticisms; at a deeper level, the photos oozed nostalgia for the lost, pre-war European culture which is one of the album's more poignant subtexts. As the classically-trained percussionist Karl Bartos told journalist Pascal Bussy, "I remember thinking that with the four of us, Kraftwerk looked a bit like an odd string quartet. Concerning the clothes, it was basically the same: I had to wear a suit to perform classical contemporary things, and I also had to wear a suit with Kraftwerk!"
The subsequent marshalling, in revolutionary red and black, of the dynamic diagonals of the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky for the cover of The Man-Machine was a further brilliant stroke which carried all the paradoxical utopian promise and totalitarian threat of the modernist notion of 'machine art' which they were effectively resurrecting. The album's pristine presentation of tracks with titles like 'Neon Light', 'Spacelab', 'The Robots' and (most pertinently) 'Metropolis' drives home its theme of antique modernity: these are all old, nostalgically recalled visions of the future, polished and shiny with the awed glow of conviction, before the notion of modernism began to rust.
"The music, the photos and lyrics, for us it was like a holistic artform," explains Hütter. "And today, with video and computer images, it's moving more and more in this direction. We think that the artforms are not at all as divided as they appear to be: you can read music, speech has a musical melody, phonetics are musical sounds, cars can sing as in 'Autobahn'. So our idea was a mixture of all these things."
Their idea, and their taste, extended to every aspect of their artwork. At the launch party for The Man-Machine, they hosted (along with their dummy lookalikes) a reception in a chic club atop Paris' Montparnasse Tower, where their music soundtracked, with a creepy aptness, Russian expressionist silent films. In live shows, meanwhile, they utilised the strength of symmetry, with the two drummers busying themselves at their pads side-by-side stage centre, and Ralf and Florian in three-quarter profile at the sides, each member standing behind their own neon-signature box, while four screens suspended above showed identical images, and banks of coloured fluorescent tubes added their own ghostly pallor to proceedings. At one point, the drummers would position themselves inside a box framework and perform semaphore signals, their hands breaking photo-electric beams to activate the drum sounds. For a group that barely moves at all on-stage, they are one of the most rivetting live spectacles of the age.
They are quick to deny, however, that their live shows are simply note-perfect representations of the recorded versions. Unlike more recent computer-controlled rock concerts, in which every last little ad-lib and 'instinctive' moment is carefully pre-sequenced, Kraftwerk long ago took pains to build into their performances opportunities for the improvisation with which they started their career.
"The compositions on our albums are written like film scripts," explained Hütter at the time of Trans-Europe Express. "We act out certain sequences, certain scenes, and they come out differently in different cities. In a story like 'Autobahn' there are points where we start together and then improvise until we come back together at a certain point." By the time of Computer World (1981), they had even managed to draw the audience into their improvisation, handing out pocket calculators and encouraging fans to play along: for a band with such supposedly totalitarian overtones, this was more democratic than the average Sham 69 gig.
And if the audience didn't want to play, well, the machines could just play themselves. "We play the machines, but the machines also play us," claims Hütter. "The machines should not do only slave work, we try to treat them as colleagues so they exchange energies with us." The old saw about the guitar being a more emotional instrument than the synthesizer, meanwhile, received the shortest of shrifts: "We feel that the synthesizer is an acoustic mirror, a brain analyser that is super-sensitive to the human element in ways previous instruments were not, so it is really better suited to expose the human psychology than the piano or guitar."
KRAFTWERK'S IS, HOWEVER, A FINITE ART, DOOMED BY ITS VERY perfection to diminishing returns: as their painstakingly devised glacial tones were increasingly sampled by a new generation of electronic composers, their own output dwindled away to a trickle. In the 16 years since Computer World, they have released just one new album (the patchy Electric Cafe), one 12-inch single ('Tour De France'), and a remix album, The Mix, in which choice selections from their oeuvre were overhauled and given new rhythm motors, like vintage cars being refurbished by audio mechanics.
In 1983, an album called Technopop was slated for release: EMI had received artwork for it, and had even allotted it a catalogue number, but after several postponements, it disappeared completely from the release schedule, with no explanation. A track of the same title appeared on 1986's Electric Cafe, prompting speculation that it may be the same LP in different guise, but the group's extreme reclusiveness has left the abandoned album as a lingering mystery. What seems increasingly probable, however, is that their legendary perfectionism has set almost impossible standards for them to follow, while their obsessive self-sufficiency -- they've turned down offers to collaborate with David Bowie, Elton John and even Michael Jackson -- has left them musically isolated.
Hütter explains their minimal release rate through the '80s and '90s as largely down to studio renovation. "Our instrument is really Kling Klang Studio, and we rebuilt it completely as a digital studio, which we felt was necessary to update our music," he told me in 1991." So we spent a lot of time inventing and engineering some of the instruments, and working on visuals. It's not just about music, it's engineering and art and music all combined. Computer World was the last fully analogue album we did; Electric Cafe was a mix of analogue and digital elements. By The Mix, we were working completely digitally." Others claim that Hütter's fanatical dedication to cycling -- he's ridden most, if not all, of the famous stages of the Tour De France, and is rumoured to pedal 200 kilometres a day -- leaves him little time for working on music.
Their notoriously slow working process -- every last detail is apparently agonised over for days, even weeks -- took its toll on Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, who left while Ralf and Florian were working on The Mix. The painstaking digitisation of all their old analogue sounds, purely to reconstitute them in slightly different versions of the old songs, must have seemed a less than satisfying way of spending five years, particularly since the percussionists were only peripherally involved in the project.
This was itself a signal of a much deeper rift in the group, for despite their stalwart work over the past five or six albums, Flur and Bartos were still effectively second-class cogs in the Kraftwerk machine, to which Ralf and Florian continued to hold the ignition keys. It wasn't so much the usual dissension over composer's royalties -- Karl Bartos, in particular, had become increasingly involved in composition, co-writing most of the Computer World album with Hütter -- so much as the pervasive inertia of the situation.
Virtually alone among pop groups, Kraftwerk have never employed a manager, Ralf and Florian making decisions on an ad hoc basis, a process made more difficult by their perfectionist reluctance to delegate duties to outside parties. (When William Orbit remixed 'Radio-Activity' for a single, Ralf Hütter visited him in London -- twice -- to check how work was progressing.) Without an outside manager to direct their career, Kraftwerk's inclination was to let things ride, turning down offers and opportunities, and gaining a reputation for not even responding to their own record company's enquiries. They have never collaborated with anyone, nor remixed any other artist's work. And as the '80s ground on, it seemed that they had effectively ceased working with themselves, too, preferring to let reclusive inaction deepen the band's growing mystique.
For Bartos, the frustration was unbearable: "I can remember saying to Ralf, 'It's like I have this Jumbo Jet in the garden, but it never takes off,'" he told Pascal Bussy. "All those people who wanted to work with us, and we never even did a soundtrack. We could have crossed over, become a big, big selling band. But there was never any management, not even on a small level, like two or three people. There was no telephone, no fax, nothing And in this business, if you need five years to put out a record, then people forget about you." Bartos subsequently started his own group, Elektric Music, while Flur set up an interior design company with former Kraftwerk visual director Emil Schult. (Their duties in Kraftwerk were assumed, on the live tour that followed the release of The Mix, by Kling Klang Studio engineers Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz; they will also play at Kraftwerk's eagerly anticipated Tribal Gathering performance at Luton Hoo on May 24, 1997.)
Ironically, the suspended trajectory of Kraftwerk's career-curve leaves them in the paradoxical position of being more and more influential as they release less and less music. The ghosts of their work are everywhere: from the early approbation of Bowie to the widespread approriation of their sounds and techniques in the ambient and techno fields, Kraftwerk's ideas and methods now permeate modern pop more thoroughly than any group since The Beatles. Perhaps the truth of their lengthening silence is that, from their rarefied perspective, every way is down.
Thanks to Paul Wilkinson for Wolfgang Flur interview and to Pascal Bussy, Mick Fish and SAF Publishing for permission to quote from the book Kraftwerk: Man Machine And Music (SAF, 㾷.95).
Copyright © 1997 Mojo Magazine. Reprinted with a permission.
Some synth pop and techno tracks inspired by Kraftwerk.
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