Are Kraftwerk music’s most influential band?
**This article was originally published on May 15, 2020, after the death of Florian Schneider
What a legacy the late Florian Schneider, whose death was announced last week, has left us. Along with the man who still keeps the Kraftwerk fires burning to this day, Ralf Hütter, the duo can legitimately claim to be one of the most influential music acts of all time – more so, some even say, than The Beatles.
The beautiful paradox about Kraftwerk was that despite craving anonymity so much that they built emotionless, mechanical versions of themselves (the robots), they forged melodies that were so moving – pure electronic soul. But, as many of these 20 tracks frequently show, they were true masters of rhythm too.
‘TOUR DE FRANCE ÉTAPE 2’ (2003)
In many respects 2003’s ‘Tour de France’ album is an oddity. The 1983 single that gave it its name is present and correct here, to which the contemporary line-up of Hütter, Schneider, Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz added 11 more tracks. The triptych of tracks at the beginning – ‘Tour de France Étape 1, 2 and 3’ – are perhaps most interesting to dance music fans as they are the sound of Kraftwerk tipping their hat back to the dance music producers of the time. With its velvety pads and hissing 4/4 rhythm, ’Tour de France Étape 2’ is nothing but the purest deep, minimal house.
‘OHM SWEET HOME’ (1975)
If you are unfamiliar with this single from the 1975’s ‘Radio-Activity’ album – please note the amusing punning title – then you are much more likely to recognise its opening bars. The heavily vocodered vocal that repeats the title is used at the beginning of the Chemical Brothers’ 1995 big beat classic ‘Leave Home’. From this auspicious starting point, ‘Ohm Sweet Home’ not so much roars as sways gently in the breeze, like some deliciously odd techno sea shanty.
‘THE TELEPHONE CALL’ (1986)
There was a half-decade lag between the brilliance of 1981’s ‘Computer World’ album and its successor ‘Electric Café’. Some of that can be put down to Ralf Hütter’s cycling obsession, which some band members felt was taking over his life. It almost got the better of him in 1982, when he had a serious accident while out on his bike and ended up in a coma for several days. But when it all came together, Kraftwerk (who now were in possession of a sampler) produced some of their most poppiest songs, not least on ‘The Telephone Call’. The characteristic Kraftwerkian boom-bap is still there, but Hütter’s voice here is at its most melodic. And, in contrast to the rather critical voice of previous records, the mood is yearning and lovestruck. “I give you my affection and I give you my time, trying to get a connection on the telephone line…”.
‘THE MODEL’ (1978)
If you ask anyone, particularly over the age of 50, to name one Kraftwerk track, then this would be it. Originally released as a single in Germany in 1978, it would gain greater fame when it was released four years later at the height of the Brit synth-pop explosion that Ralf and Florian’s band had helped inspire. With its sedate electro-motorik throb and air of melancholy, it slotted comfortably into pop radio schedules filled with Kraftwerk acolytes like Gary Numan, OMD and The Human League. Twelve years after they had formed, they had a bona fide pop hit with ‘The Model’ topping the UK charts in the February. Intriguingly – and perhaps a comment on Kraftwerk’s true feelings on the track – it has only ever been played live once.
Listen to Kraftwerk’s first two albums (prosaically titled ‘1’ and ‘2’) and you’d struggle to even guess who they were by. Perhaps understandably, Ralf and Florian hated the Anglo term for the singularly progressive style of German rock music at the time – krautrock – but that’s what they were lumped in with. But their third album, 1973’s ‘Ralf und Florian’, offers a tantalisingly glimpse of who they would become, especially with ‘Tanzmusik’. Florian’s flute is still there, prominent even, albeit heavily processed, while Ralf offers up a sweet, Indian raga-like synth melody. It’s a beautiful piece of motorik, ambient pop.
‘THE HALL OF MIRRORS’ (1977)
With the wonderfully droll voice of Hütter to the fore, ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ is another of those Kraftwerk tracks that feels incredibly prescient when it comes to predicting 21st Century society – in this particular case serving as a comment on the fragile nature of celebrity and its deleterious effects. “He made up the person he wanted to be,” Hütter sings, “And changed into a new personality. Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass…” Slow-paced almost to the point of near torpor, with its dark synths gathering like rain clouds, ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ remains wonderfully, chillingly oppressive.
‘IT’S MORE FUN TO COMPUTE’ (1981)
Unlike its close sibling ‘Home Computer’, with whom it shares plenty of similarities, ’It’s More Fun To Compute’ is rawer, dancier and no more than a hair’s breadth away from the electro and techno it would later heavily influence. A few months after ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’ was released, A Number Of Names’ ’Sharevari’ appeared. Lifting almost wholesale from the original’s melody and rhythm, it’s one of the earliest proto-Detroit techno tunes, alongside Cybotron’s ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’. You’ll also hear its underlying influence in one of the great, stripped-down house jams of the late 1980s, Todd Terry’s ‘Bango (To The Batmobile)’.
‘COMPUTER WORLD’ (1981)
In 1981, Germany remained split in two – reunification was still nearly a decade away. Predictably, the sense of state-wide paranoia that East German citizens suffered from at the hands of their dreaded secret service, the Stasi, filtered down to their neighbours in West Germany. There was the constant reminder that lives could be wiped out at the push of a button. On ‘Computer World’, Kraftwerk address the more serious, invasive nature of technology where“Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard” were the focus of their ire. All this and a simple, recurring four-note that’s among their finest. To the artists who shaped techno – the Belleville Three, Carl Craig, UR’s Mad Mike – tracks like ‘Computer World’ are held in near sacred reverence.
’SHOWROOM DUMMIES’ (1977)
Ghostly, disturbing and pared back to its musical bones, ‘Showroom Dummies’ is a neo-gothic tale in which the titular dummies come to life, break the glass of the store and escape. In many ways a precursor to Kraftwerk’s desire for anonymity that would take hold the following year with ‘The Robots’, it’s one of the rare tracks by the Dusseldorf quartet that is constructed around a narrative – one that ends with its protagonists heading off into the night to find a club to stiffly boogie in.
‘TOUR DE FRANCE’ (1983)
It seems both entirely incongruous and yet apt that a band so entwined with modern technology were obsessed with something so simple, so human as cycling – or, at the very least, Ralf Hütter was. ‘Tour de France’ was originally meant to form part of an album, but it would be another two decades before such a thing would be released. To the backdrop of exhausted breaths, used as human percussion, and the slap of bicycle chains, Kraftwerk forge one of their best-loved melodies while Hütter takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the great cycle race’s key stage venues. Memorably used in a scene from 1984 hip hop culture movie, Breakdance, it’s a song that’s soundtracked moves on hundreds and thousands of linos from New York City to London to Melbourne.
‘HOME COMPUTER’ (1981)
“I program my home computer, beam myself into the future,” opines Hütter here. At a time when Britons could only access three TV stations which would routinely shut down around midnight, it’s easy to forget that the concept of home computers looked like a vision of the distant future in 1981 – although it was the year that saw the launch of the Sinclair ZX81, with its whopping 1KB of memory. Within a decade, ’Home Computer’ would help play a pivotal part in an exciting future of the musical variety. Within its unnerving atmosphere and clipped, squelching beats is the DNA of techno.
By 1975, Kraftwerk had kitted out their Dusseldorf studio, Kling Klang, with one of the finest collections of electronic music equipment anywhere. Florian Schneider was the son of a successful modernist architect (whose commissions included the Cologne-Bonn airport), so had the wherewithal to bankroll Kraftwerk’s artistic vision to create high-concept ‘techno pop’. The album ‘Radio-Activity’ may not be their best-loved, but it does contain this gem – if you can call a track about the power of radioactive isotopes as such. Its best consumed in its jauntier 1991 reworked form, where it becomes shuddering, stadium-sized dance pop with lyrics whose editorial focus shift towards a more distinctly anti-nuclear message – even to the point of directly acknowledging disasters like the Chernobyl meltdown and the Sellafield leak.
‘POCKET CALCULATOR’ (1981)
“By pressing down a special key it plays a little melody,” chirps Hütter on one of Kraftwerk’s best-known and most playful tracks. Released just two years after Casio put out the first mass market calculator, Kraftwerk were so enamoured of these devices, they used Casio’s fx-501P programmable calculator in the recording of ‘Pocket Calculator’. A promotional calculator with musical keys – accompanied by a sheet of numbered notations for each track on ‘Computer World’ – was even given out to journos ahead of the album’s release. The early dissemination and practical deployment of personal technology has remained a key feature of Kraftwerk’s existence from the very off.
‘EUROPE ENDLESS’ (1977)
Set against the backdrop of post-Brexit Britain, the positivity and fraternal energy that powers ‘Europe Endless’ feels somewhat sad. But the sprawling ten-minute opener to ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is anything but. It’s hopelessly romantic, a lovely, chiming round that celebrates Europe as a cultural powerhouse while cementing Kraftwerk’s vision that electronic music would become the worldwide language. Whatever the shape of things to come for us politically, in that lofty assumption at least, Florian, Ralf and their cohorts have proved to be spot on.
No Kraftwerk track has been covered or sampled quite as voraciously as ‘Numbers’. How must this have sounded in 1981? Like a vision for dancefloors of the future, that’s what. While nightmarish vocoders and heavily treated vocals incant numbers in a succession of languages, fizzing kick drums land like heavy ordnance while Geiger-counter style clicks tap out a relentlessly funky sub-rhythm. Understandable given that Germany was the centre of Cold War paranoia at the turn of the 1980s. It’s another Kraftwerk track that’s central to electro’s own Rosetta stone, Afrika Bambaataa’s epoch-making ‘Planet Rock’. “Kraftwerk brought the funk with machines and computers,” said Bambaataa in 2012. “They might not have thought they were doing funk, but they were doing funk.”
‘THE ROBOTS’ (1978)
It begins with a shrill pulse, like the warning alarm on the Death Star, before a syncopated riff and crisp, angular beats come crashing in – mechanical, futuristic and faintly menacing. ‘The Robots’ is yet another example of sly, knowing humour amid the Kraftwerk canon. ‘Hey, are we playing these machines? Or are the machines playing us?’ they seem to ask. As if to confirm it, this is the song on their live shows where Kraftwerk’s legless, robotic alter egos take centre stage. By 1978,Germany’s industrial renaissance – centred on the factories and research labs of the Ruhr valley – was in full swing, not far from Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf home. Intriguingly, 4,000 miles away in another great manufacturing hub, Detroit, it was tracks like ‘The Robot’ and its tight, unwavering computer-sequenced beats that would later inspire techno’s founding fathers, like Juan Atkins.
‘COMPUTER LOVE’ (1981)
It’s often said that Kraftwerk were soothsayers, not just shaping music’s future but predicting it too. Long before anyone made records using laptops, they imagined the pervasive influence of personal technology on musical production. Their much-referenced appearance in 1975 on BBC science and technology show, Tomorrow’s World, saw them demonstrate their home-made electronic drum pads, while a year later they commissioned one Bonn-based firm to make them a 16-step sequencer when such things were unheard of. Furthermore, did they, with the sparse, motor throb of ’Computer Love’, presage a time when people would hook up digitally rather than the old-fashioned way? “I call this number, call this number / For a data date, data date / I don’t know what to do, what to do / I need a rendezvous, rendezvous,” croons Hütter. Some quarter of a century later, another generation fell in love with its melody when Coldplay borrowed its timeless riff for ‘Talk’.
‘NEON LIGHTS’ (1978)
Occasionally, if you’re unlucky, you still bump into musical Luddites who dismiss electronic music as artificial, ephemeral and emotionless. For those moments, just dial up the Ralf Hütter-fronted ‘Neon Lights’, a devastatingly gorgeous ode to – once again – thoroughfares, albeit on this occasion of the night-time variety. Recorded at the same time as punk was exploding across the airwaves, it borrowed from a melody by a keyboard innovator of a far earlier vintage – Claude Debussy’s ‘Reverie’. It would later be covered by Brit synth-pop goliaths and Kraftwerk obsessives, OMD, while ’80s stadium rock icons, Simple Minds, named a 2001 after it and U2 recorded a version for 2004’s ‘Vertigo’. ‘Neon Lights’ is Kraftwerk at perhaps their most irrepressibly, iridescently beautiful.
Although 1973’s ‘Ralf und Florian’ had seen Kraftwerk rely more on electronic instrumentation than earlier records, it was 1974’s ’Autobahn’ that saw them finally hit the sweet spot when it came to their quest to create pure electronic pop music. Schneider and Hütter were early adopters of the Minimoog to which they added such legendary synths as the ARP Odyssey and EMS Synthi AKS, all used with alacrity across the ‘Autobahn’ album – equipment that would define their unique sound in the second half of the 1970s. ‘Autobahn’, the single, is extraordinary. Unfurling majestically, magically, over 22 minutes, just like the German motorway network it eulogises, it’s as if it will never end. If you didn’t know better, you may have looked at Kraftwerk’s collective deadpan visages and thought they lacked humour, but their lyrics so frequently showed Kraftwerk’s tongues were nearly always firmly in their cheeks. “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn”, they sing here (“We’re driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn”), mimicking the famous line from The Beach Boys’ ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’.
‘TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS’ (1977)
Kraftwerk’s founding duo of Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter were both born less than two years after the end of World War II into a Germany ravaged structurally, economically and politically by its recent conflict. The country was, in many ways, a blank canvas. No wonder its younger citizens – like Florian and Ralf – looked to the future. By 1977, Kraftwerk had been a going concern for seven years. The band’s sixth studio album, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, was a paean to pan-European co-operation through the prism of a luxury train service. But the influence of its title track – hypnotic, lingering, electronic funk – went way beyond Europe. As the bedrock of a track called ‘Planet Rock’ by Bronx gang leader-turned-DJ Afrika Bambaataa, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ helped birth electro and techno and, in turn, house, jungle, dubstep and all points in between. It’s difficult to argue against the notion that modern electronic dance music started right here.
Stephen Worthy is a freelance writer, follow him on Twitter