What’s The Topic? Kraftwerk
It’s hard to overstate the influence Kraftwerk have had over the years on popular music. Formed in Düsseldorf, West Germany in 1970 and initially part of the Krautrock scene that saw Germany start to produce popular, original music for the first time since the end of World War Two, the band rapidly outgrew its roots and went on to become one of the most important and influential bands of the 20th Century. Always a four-piece revolving around core members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider – at least until Schneider’s improbable departure in 2008 – the band’s obsessions with technology became their primary focus, starting with their fourth official album, 1974’s Autobahn. Autobahn spawned an unlikely radio hit with an edit of the title track, helping to cement the band’s position, unexpected though that success was.
The follow-up album, the excellent but under-appreciated Radio-Activity with it’s ethereal radiophonics and odes to distant stars and resistors, was less well received, but the three albums that followed that have gone on to become some of the most influential ever recorded. The band’s final album of all-new material was 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks and they have always mainted a glacial working pace that makes continental drift seem positively jaunty. Yet even without new material the band have continued to tour and innovate, including two hugely well-received multimedia concerts at New York’s MOMA and London’s Tate Modern in 2012 in which they played each of their albums in its entirety on subsequent nights. The shows were a vast success – demand for tickets broke the Tate Modern’s website, and they were received with huge critical praise. And since then their 3-D concerts have become the stuff of legend, always in demand and always well received. The band have always found new and challenging ways to intersect the human with the technological.
Kraftwerk’s influence on popular music is vast. House, hip-hop, the boom in 80’s electronica, Industrial, as well as contemporary acts like Daft Punk, all owe a huge debt to the Germanic man-machines. The weight of that reputation, though, can sometimes obfuscate the actual music, especially as you don’t need to be a fan of any of those genres to enjoy the band themselves. For all that Kraftwerk’s influence continues to resonate today, their image can also be a problem. Cold, robotic, intentionally artificial imagery coupled with a tight-lipped approach to publicity and information from the band’s two main creative writers, lends an austere, remote air which can make engaging with them tricky. Yet listening to the actual music is an entirely different experience, with albums full of dry humour, nostalgia, wit, warmth and compassion alongside the artificial and the mechanical. Radio-Activity is spectral and a beautifully fragile thing. Tour De France Soundtracks is pulsating and full of energy. Kraftwerk are at their best where humanity meets the artificial, whether mechanical or electronic, and in those moments it becomes clear why the band commands the reputation it has.
Entry Point: Trans-Europe Express / Trans-Europa Express (1977)
It’s perhaps a little too simple to say if you don’t like Trans-Europe Express you’re not going to like Kraftwerk, but it’s still largely true. The first in a run of four unimpeachable albums (the preceeding Radio-Activity, along with 1978’s The Man-Machine and 1981’s Computer World), Trans-Europe Express distills everything that make Kraftwerk such a force to be reckoned with. The opening nine-minute track, “Europe Endless”, with its sweeping, classically Romantic melodies rendered entirely electronically belies every cold, mechanistic stereotype of the band. It’s a beautiful piece, orchestral in its construction yet incredibly contemporary, filled with a sense of longing and nostalgia, with a sparse but effective lyric that takes a bird’s-eye view of the continent. Even more importantly, though, it’s a piece of music full of joy. It’s Old Europe (capital O, capital E) in its constructed perspective, and much the better for it. Here, vocordered lyrics are delivered in a style that lends just a touch of distance and objectivity but which never lose the human element. That it can followed by something as profoundly odd and po-faced as “The Hall Of Mirrors” but that the transition never feels jarring shows just how in command of the material the band are. “The Hall of Mirrors” recalls, as much as anything, the 1920’s, recapturing the faded elegance of the interwar years set over an ominous, strobbing synth line, and lyrics are enunciated with a bone-dry delivery. It’s an entrancing piece, and an absolutely astonishing piece of music, unlike anything else in their repertoire. And of course there’s the absolute titan of the album, the title track. Among many other claims, the middle section (“Metall Auf Metall”) can lay claim to originate Industrial, composed of nothing but clattering metal rhythmically pounded and sustained for a remarkable two minutes before fading back into the main theme, but it’s that main theme that drives both the track and the entire album. Over a few spartan yet incredibly evocative phrases (“In Vienna we sit / In a late night café / straight connection / TEE”) the track, as with the opening number, seems to encompass all of Europe in its journey before the last section (“Abzug”), finds the repeated vocal (“Trans! Europa! Express!”) blending in with the instrumental line until it matches the clattering of a train on rails before finally, with a screech of brakes, reaching its destination. Yet after this titanic piece, there’s the final, gentle beauty of the purely instrumental track “Franz Schubert”, bringing the whole journey to its end in the most charming way possible. The combination of all of these elements renders the album completely beguiling.
The two albums that follow Trans-Europe Express are every bit as good, but in very different ways. The Man-Machine, at least on the surface, conforms much more to the stereotypical view of Kraftwerk as cold and robotic and while there is truth to that it’s certainly not the whole story. Interested in the intersection of man and machine as much as machines themselves, both “Metropolis” -obviously deriving both its title and inspiration from the Fritz Lang film of the same name – and the title track find the machines in the ascendancy, and the aching sadness of near-instrumental piece “Spacelab” – as fine a composition as any, yet often overlooked – hints at just how remote the obsession with machines can leave us. Of course, most obviously “The Robots” makes the themes explicit, but there’s still an underlying hint of that Kraftwerkian humour (“we’re charging our battery / and now we’re full of energy” is not being delivered entirely seriously) that allows the human side of the equation to come through. The best-known song form the album, hit single “The Model”, also has that dry sense of humour, this time used in a much more observational way, but it is the beautiful, shimmering “Neon Lights” that allows space and warmth to infuse the album and provides a much-needed contrast to the starkness of some of the other tracks.
While The Man-Machine is primarily mechanical in its outlook, Computer World presciently takes an electronic approach to the same subject, two albums representing opposite sides of the same coin. If “Trans-Europe Express” inspired “Planet Rock” and from thence the foundations of what became hip-hop, Computer World’s influence is felt in house and trance, via the album’s closing two tracks, “Home Computer” and the punning “It’s More Fun To Compute” but it’s a mistake to think of these albums only in terms of what they inspired. Once again, the Kraftwerk sense of humour is present, this time in the jaunty “Pocket Calculator”, while the loneliness and isolation of “Spacelab” on the previous album is here represented by the incredible “Computer Love”, a song so great even Coldplay couldn’t quite destroy it. It’s a track with a palpable sense of ennui, as a directionless protagonist longs for company (and it’s easy to see the “data date” as a sort of precursor to computer dating sites, despite the lopsidedness of the term) after spending another lonely night in front of the TV. As with much of Kraftwerk’s music it is evocative, yet entirely minimal, and provides another insight into the human side of the man/machine dichotomy.
The first three Kraftwerk albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf Und Florian, all have something to recommend them (especially Ralf Und Florian, which is very strong), but they are probably better appreciated after having an idea of where the band were going rather than where they came from. They certainly lack the thematic resonance and cohesion of the albums that followed, and fit much more comfortably into the Krautrock scene which the band grew out of fairly quickly. These albums are conspicuous by their absence in the 2009 re-releases of all the band’s albums, Hütter considering them to be from “a different period”, which they are. At the other end of the spectrum, their last two studio albums, 1986’s Electric Café (given its original name Techno Pop in the2009 re-release The Catalogue) and 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks (restyled simply Tour De France in the same box set) offer some charms but don’t really approach the level of the albums that precede them. In the case of Electric Café – whose release was delayed thanks to a cycling accident suffered by Ralf Hütter, then almost entirely re-recorded because it wasn’t felt to be sufficiently cutting edge – a rather sterile feel overtakes the music. The machines have won, and the humour and emotion than allowed such depth and variety on the previous albums is replaced by electronic indifference. The first side has become the usual live concert closer – “Musique Non Stop”, probably the best of the Electric Café tracks – but the album falters on side two and contains the first outright bad song on a post-Autobahn album, the utterly unremarkable “Sex Object”. Tour De France finds some humanity seeping back in and is all the stronger for it, with breathing and heartbeats layered over house beats, while “Elektro-Kardiogramm” stands as one of the best tracks the band ever recorded.
A Brief Word On Language And Media:
Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer World and Electric Café have been released in both German and English versions. Radio-Activity feature lyrics in German and English with only the titles of tracks being translated, and Tour De France Soundtracks only has one, multi-lingual, release, with the lyrics mixing German, French and English. Autobahn is in German. Which version of these linguistically varied releases is better is a matter of some debate. Certain tracks certainly fit German better – for example the additional syllable in Trans-Europa Express, and the emphasis on the German pronunciation – “Oi-rope-a”, rather than the English “Your-ope” – makes the vocals fit the rhythm of the track “Trans-Europa Express” better than in English (and the effects applied to the vocal are more successful on the German version as well). Elsewhere, it can simply be a matter of preference. Much of Die Mensch-Maschine (The Man Machine) sounds better in German, but probably their best-known single – “The Model”, a huge hit a whole five years after it was first recorded – sounds better in English, though “Neonlicht” from the same album is always better in German (live, the band start the song in English then move to German and it’s a shame there isn’t a studio version done that way). In terms of buying the actual albums, the mid-90’s CD releases, while cheap, are terrible, with absolutely no care taken in the mastering process as was sadly common at the time. The 2009 release of Der Katalog (The Catalogue) corrects this and all the albums from Autobahn to Tour De France Soundtracks (including sort-of remix album The Mix but excluding live album Minimum-Maximum) are fully re-mastered, including expanded artwork and re-designed covers, and are absolutely revelatory for those used to the crappy CD releases. Those are the versions to get. If it’s on vinyl then so much the better.
The Way In: