Not content with re-asserting their
authority over the Techno
bandwagon with a new album of remixes, Kraftwerk are setting out on their first tour for a decade. Paul W. Hullah looks back at the history and influence of the Teutonic man-machines.
The recent release of The Mix. ‘die klassik Werks' ofthe German electro outfit Kraftwerk is an event of some note. Bringing the considerable back catalogue of this outrageously unique band to the attention of a new generation. the collection also proves that the bleeping 808 StateAdamski house soundscapes that have jammed Britain‘s dance consciousness for the last 30 months have a huge Teutonic precedent in the shape of Ralph Hutter and Florian Schneider. co-operators of the pioneering Kraftwerk machine.
Kraftwerk (it means ‘Power Plant‘) began making their stripped-down. synthesised statements in Dusseldorfin 1970. At a time when rock music was wearing its most pompous. bloated face. Kraftwerk advocated minimalism in a manner far more radical than punk rock‘s snoot-cocking baseness. Their ‘music‘ formed no acknowledgement of rock tradition; guitars and real drums were out. as were conventional verse-chorus song structures and (initially) vocals. Kraftwerk‘s art seemed to owe more to an Orwellian, proto-modernist negativism than to any recognisable rock‘n‘roll vision and yet, unlike the primitive German synth-collectives they spawned, their inventive, pared-down melodies never descended into dissonance nor the effete realms of airport-lounge muzak. There was always a place for melody in the Hutter/Schneider aural arsenal - often a brooding. ominous melody, full of minor scales and stabbed by a grating synthetic drumbeat, but a melody all the same. When vocals. finally appeared (on 1974‘s Autobahn, the then four-piece‘s fourth album), they were fey, disembodied whispers. often scrambled via a vocoder, emotionless and repetitive, like. many claimed, the group‘s musical scores. And it came 3 as no surprise that Hutter ‘sang‘ about pocket calculators. trains. computers, robots. radioactivity and roads. There seemed to be something very artificial, very anti-human about it i all.
And yet. the band's neukunsi. apparently ! anaesthetised world-view was actually full of
humour and plotted around a wry set of topical social concerns. When few electronic instruments were available. the band built their own. a strategy culminating in the construction of their Kling Klang Mobile - a computerised studio. complete with perspex robot-replicas of the group members who. at live gigs. would mechanically operate the Kling Klang ‘instruments console‘ while llutter and co sat in the audience and watched the show. On the 1982 world tour, during the song ‘Pocket Calculator' the band passed calculators (wired to the PA) amongst the audience, whom they would then invite to compose their own melody lines. a marvellous demystification of the rock process. On Mari Machine ( 1978). they declared ‘we are men, we are robots‘, lampooning the early communist concept of‘Robotnik‘ —- workers as functioning units ofa harmonious society — cynically predicting the logical conclusions of ill-applied totalitarian ideals. Computer World (1981 ) explored the theme ofliving with computers, a controversial subject in West Germany at a time when computerised ID cards were causing paranoia amongst everyone to the political left ofthe government. There was always a socially conscious ghost in the Kraftwerk machine and, more often than not, it was laughing up its sleeve.
This intelligence brought Kraftwerk many followers — they were always a major selling concern. never a ‘cult‘ act. (They even managed a few hit singles along the way: ‘The Model'. ‘Trans Europe Express'. ‘Tour de France'.) David Bowie. always a self-confessed Kraftwerk fan.
T stole the band‘s ideas on Low and Heroes and their
. backdrop for his 1978 Stage tour. Gary Numan
: thrived ona dietof Kraftwerk'santi-humanism,
but missed the joke by a mile. The Human
League. Soft Cell and Depeche Mode owed more
; than they ever admitted to the German archetype,
; and Kraftwerk's camp archness was a catalyst for
' the early 80s New Romantic movement. In 1982.
. when Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker launched the L'S clectro scene with ‘Planet Rock‘,
; they insisted on paying royalties to Hutter, such
was the perceived influence. Much New Age
l music quotes heavily from Kraftwerk‘s early
' albums. and the repetitive. faceless but energetic Acid House style reruns the Teutonic precedent to
. great effect (check out 'Home (‘omputer‘ from
GM FOLLOWING‘PAGES: STATIC C THE ALMIGHTY O NORTHSIDE ALBUM
('ompuler World and hear embryonic house at its most potent).
Always immaculately conceived and perfectly delivered. Kraftwerk's art remains relevant today; it has taken fashion twenty years to catch up with them. that‘s all. They are that rare thing. a band who started a trend rather than followed one. Like Elvis. The Beatles. The Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols. they set an original precedent for others to pursue over the years. Like all those acts, their records still sound good now. And ifyou think their electro-tones are devoid of feeling, then listen to ‘The Model' without a smile. or ‘Trans Europe Express‘ without a yearning heart, and you're a better man than I am.
K raftwerk play The Barrow/arid, Glasgow on Thurs I] .
The List 281une— l 1 July 1991 37