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Kraftwerk Fifty Years On

Kraftwerk in 2019 in Copenhagen
Kraftwerk in 2019 in Copenhagen | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/Gonzales Photos

"We are programmed for everything, and whatever you want will be executed" – Kraftwerk’s 50th anniversary prompts Arno Raffeiner to look back on the history of the pioneers of electronic pop music, their various musical approaches and genres over time and their seminal influence on music in Germany and the US.

By Arno Raffeiner

In 1970 Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider started up the band Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf. They played their first live gig that July in Aachen, and their first album (untitled) came out that November. Over 50 years later, Kraftwerk are now considered one of the most seminal pop culture projects ever. Their role as pioneers of electronic pop music and their importance for other genres can hardly be overestimated. Kraftwerk set new artistic standards through the interplay of form, content and technology to create multimedia Gesamtkunstwerke, or “total artworks”.
Their actual anniversary year was overshadowed by Florian Schneider's death on 21 April 2020. Schneider had already quit the band in late 2008, but most of the obituaries became tributes to Kraftwerk's oeuvre, to which hardly any new music had been added in the last thirty years. So Ralf Hütter, the only founding member left, now takes all the more care in managing their back catalogue.

Context and history

Hütter, Schneider and the other band members were part of the immediate post-war generation. In the wake of the cultural decimation wrought by the Nazi dictatorship, and amid the heavily Anglo-American influence on mass culture in West German after the war, the band were looking for a musical tradition and idiom of their own. This search found expression in krautrock. Although coined as a derisive epithet by the British press, over the course of the 1970s krautrock was to become a hallmark of quality for exciting new sounds “made in Germany”.
Bands like Can (led by Stockhausen’s pupils Holger Czukay and Irmin Schmidt) and later on NEU! (with Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, both of whom had played in an early Kraftwerk line-up) deliberately turned away from the blues paradigm of the American and British models and experimented with freer, often purely instrumental forms involving improvisation and hours-long immersion in sound.
What made all the difference for Kraftwerk’s subsequent development was that, after an early phase in this musical environment, the band eventually turned away from all “rockisms” to focus consistently on new technologies: synthesizers, drum computers, sequencers, vocoders – some of which they developed or adapted themselves. Hütter and Schneider were born into the well-heeled educated middle class and had the money to buy this equipment, which most of their contemporaries could hardly afford. Paradoxically, however, with all this gear they would eventually point the way for the democratization of the means of production invoked in the course of digitization. On the album Autobahn (1974), Kraftwerk combined electronic music, previously a primarily academic domain, with catchy melodies and transparent structures, and brought this mix into the international mainstream.

Post-industrial folk music

Autobahn also marked a turning point in its use of vocals and German lyrics, combined with an approach that makes Kraftwerk quite current even today: the music is very much about observing, on an ongoing basis, technological developments and the repercussions thereof in everyday life. Hence their concept albums about transport (Autobahn, Trans Europa Express), media and energy production (Radio-Aktivität), robotics (Die Mensch-Maschine) and telecommunications and digitization (Computerwelt). For Kraftwerk, man and machine are not opposed, but engaged in a perpetual dialogue.
Besides private vehicles, fast trains would also set the beat for a brand of music that sought to capture a changing present with changed tools. While their collaboration with producer Conny Plank heavily informed the band’s music up to 1974, they then seized sole control over their means of production and built their Kling-Klang Studio in Düsseldorf, which they considered an instrument in and of itself and used accordingly. Outwardly, they cultivated a more scientific habitus, opting for precision and control rather than effusive expressiveness, eschewing the image of individual artistic genius and the associated cult of personality in favour of an image as Musikarbeiter or "music workers", as Hütter himself put it. They took this posture to the next level in the most decisive stage of the band’s history, putting robotic stand-ins for themselves on stage – and even letting them give interviews. "We are the robots", as they sang, was a key element of the band's iconization and overall multimedia image.
Anticipating major upheavals in the digital age, Kraftwerk reflected and took up the newest latest production methods and, as a result, significantly informed the soundtrack of the present era. With its futuristic feel and yet simple, laconic form, their music straddles the line between faith in progress and criticism of technology. Some critics censured the band for being all too naïve and gung-ho in singing the praises of technical innovation, and they quite understood: so the originally neutral, descriptive lyrics of “Radioaktivität”, for instance, were supplemented in a revised version with scenes of nuclear disasters and the rallying cry: “Stoppt Radioaktivität!"
This reworking was indicative of the next turning point in the band’s history: after the album Tour de France (2003), they stopped putting out any new music, focusing instead on cultivating their oeuvre to date: technically optimizing the sound, transferring the music to new formats and performing it live. Their new paradigm was the catalogue, which meant continually revising their most important body of work – from the years 1974 to 2003. This turn towards cataloguing may be viewed as a form of self-museification, a concomitant to general recognition of their historico-cultural import: since 2011, Kraftwerk have been presenting multimedia “best-of” shows, replete with 3D technology, at such renowned art institutions as MoMA in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Robots in the diaspora

Over in the US, Kraftwerk's music in the late ’70s and early ’80s helped usher in two emerging currents that have become mainstays of pop music today. The first was techno, house and electronic dance music in general, mainly from Detroit, with acts like Cybotron, later Underground Resistance (with their album Afrogermanic) and Drexciya, who explicitly reference Kraftwerk. The second was hip hop and electro-funk. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa in the South Bronx combined elements of Kraftwerk’s songs “Numbers” and “Trans Europa Express” to compose “Planet Rock”, which The New York Times called "perhaps the most influential black pop record of 1982".
“Planet Rock” is an incredibly serendipitous upshot of pop music history: Kraftwerk's ideas, which seize on elements of the pre-1933 modernist and Bauhaus avant-garde and develop them with new media, fuse here with the cultural heritage of slavery in what are by and large African-American parts of US big cities. This is what the British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy calls the "counterculture of modernity", the musical currents of the “Black Atlantic”, as Gilroy titled his 1993 book. The search for new musical alternatives brought Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa together.
Part of Kraftwerk's appeal in this context is precisely their robotic rigidity and machine-like precision, in which musicians based in New York, Detroit and Miami have discovered a new form of funk. Concepts like their “Man-Machine”, a direct reference to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, connect Kraftwerk with Afro-diasporic utopias, such as the cyborg world created by US musician Janelle Monáe on The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013). Monáe's albums are further proof of the enduring power of Kraftwerk's over 50-year-old programme: to use music to carry ideas.