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Why Were Kraftwerk So Influential? Behind The Electro Pioneers’ Legacy
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In Depth

Why Were Kraftwerk So Influential? Behind The Electro Pioneers’ Legacy

With a unique vision of a completely electronic style of music, German synth-mavericks Kraftwerk changed the face of pop music forever.

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There aren’t many groups who can truly claim to have radically shifted the parameters of pop music, but if anyone deserves that accolade, it’s Kraftwerk. Way ahead of the curve with a boundary-defying run of albums, from 1974’s Autobahn to 1981’s Computer World, the German electro pioneers predicted the future with their innovative use of synthesisers and self-built electronic percussion pads. As David Bowie put it: “The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.”

The groundbreaking shift in sound which Kraftwerk introduced not only inspired a legion of synth-pop disciples, it also set in motion the evolution of numerous other genres, among them hip-hop, techno and trance. By pre-empting the rise of 80s club culture and 90s rave music, the combined talents of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür birthed many sonic forebears, their radical prescience influencing pretty much every stripe of electronic dance music under the sun. Here’s how Kraftwerk forever changed the course of music as we know it…

Listen to the best of Kraftwerk here.

“We had to redefine our musical culture”: Kraftwerk’s early years

Emerging from a disillusioned corner of a West Germany still reeling from the fallout of the Second World War, keyboardist Ralf Hütter and flautist Florian Schneider set out to revive a distinctly European sense of style unburdened by the political attitudes of the past. Eager to move his countrymen on to new sonic pastures, Hütter reflected, “We had to redefine our musical culture.” Uninterested in emulating the post-60s rock template imported from the US, Hütter and Schneider played with a band called Organisation on the 1970 album Tone Float, toying with meandering jazz influences much-loved by the “kosmische musik” scene. There were hints, however, of the duo’s fondness for electronic effects, as evidenced by Schneider’s use of studio manipulation to give his flute-playing an avant-garde twist.

When Organisation disbanded, Hütter and Schneider stuck together and built a recording studio west of Düsseldorf called Kling Klang. Working with drummers Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger, they began recording under the guise of Kraftwerk, and released a self-titled debut album in late 1970. That record’s experimental fusion of lengthy instrumentals and cosmic soundscapes saw them searching for an identity, as did its two follow-ups, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf And Florian. All three would, however, eventually come to be dismissed by the band as mere “archaeology”.

To this day, Kraftwerk’s early musical offerings remain difficult to find, but they offer plenty of alluring glimpses of the group’s undeniably original sound. Most notably, with the introduction of Wolfgang Flür – the man who helped Kraftwerk create their first electronic drum kit – the four-piece entirely phased human percussion out of their music.

“What we are doing is to make sound pictures of real environments”: ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Radio-Activity’

With a line-up of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Klaus Röder and Wolfgang Flür now in place, Kraftwerk’s big breakthrough came with their 1974 album, Autobahn, one of the first largely electronic pop records to meet with critical favour. Starkly engineered by Konrad “Conny” Plank and produced with austere beats, it was the culmination of Hütter and Schneider’s clinical, stripped-back use of synthesisers and the arty input of their friend and designer Emil Schult. Gone were the trappings of US rock’n’roll, in were minimalist, machine-like rhythms and synthetic melody lines. With lyrics romanticising Germany’s fabled high-speed road network, Kraftwerk had, for the first time, successfully distilled their electronic leanings to their essence while unashamedly displaying a Teutonic aesthetic inspired by modernist architecture.

Kraftwerk’s motorik tribute to the iconic German expressway was laden with synthesisers such as the ARP Odyssey, the EMS Synthi AKS and Minimoog, all of which felt both ahead of its time yet strangely contemporaneous. Melded with its futurist artwork, Autobahn took listeners on a piston-pumping conceptual journey that perfectly mirrored the technological crossroads at which Western European culture had found itself in the early 70s. “What we are doing,” Florian Schneider explained, “is to make sound pictures of real environments.” The album was such a new detour that a radio edit of its title track even gained traction in the US, where it peaked at No.25 in the Billboard Hot 100 – perhaps as much of a surprise to Kraftwerk as it was to the rest of the world.

As the group headed out on the road in dignified suits and ties, their rigid stage presence was seen as an iconoclastic rejection of clichéd rock’n’roll posturing. Beyond that, Kraftwerk hadn’t simply invented an entirely new style of music, they were embodying the spirit of their times. Spiritually aligned with the US pop-art greats such as Andy Warhol, Kraftwerk were transforming the dreary everyday reality of commuting into a commentary on the slipstream of post-war society, framing technology as a quasi-utopian development. By creating music that twinned the idea of transportation with the sound of forward motion, they had arrived at a new junction which would lead to a more technologically progressive world.

Having received the green light for their new direction, Hütter and Schneider again turned to the cultural zeitgeist and changed gears with Kraftwerk’s fifth record, an ambitious concept album that chimed with Cold War paranoia by exploring the divisive topic of nuclear energy. Released in October 1975, Radio-Activity, for which Klaus Röder was replaced with Karl Bartos, was partly inspired by the government’s plans to build nuclear power stations throughout Germany. As their first fully electronic record, it stands as a mood piece on nuclear energy as well as an ode to radio technology, leaping from electromagnetic radio waves to uranium and offering up a veiled exploration of yet another avenue of scientific progress. Released as the album’s only single, the title track even namechecks Marie Curie as the godmother of the atomic age.

In their time, Kraftwerk seemed ambivalent about their attitudes toward nuclear energy. If anything, they appeared to take a neutral stance, even ironically posing for press photos in a control room at a Dutch power station. However, from the early 90s onward, the group began reworking the track, imploring listeners to “stop radioactivity” by making overt references to nuclear disaster sites such as Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Sellafield and Harrisburg. Decrying the “contaminated population”, Kraftwerk even performed the song in Japanese in 2012, in order to commemorate the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daichii power plant. For a band that embodied the spirit of technological advancement, there was no longer any doubt as to where they stood on the nuclear issue.

“When you’re dancing, you’re being a mannequin”: ‘Trans-Europe Express’

By 1976, Kraftwerk were regarded as peerless sonic innovators, particularly by the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno, who had together relocated to West Germany in order to hold recording sessions at Hansa Tonstudio for the Low and “Heroes” albums – seminal works in the Thin White Duke’s late-70s “Berlin Trilogy”. With Kraftwerk’s influence creeping into his music, Bowie even visited Hütter and Schneider at their Kling Klang studio. “When he came to see us in Düsseldorf in his Mercedes,” Hütter later recalled, “he took the highway while listening to Autobahn on the car stereo.” Kraftwerk themselves were revisiting the theme of transportation, recording an extended love letter to Europe’s trans-continental railway link.

Released in 1976, their sixth album, Trans-Europe Express, is widely regarded to be their undisputed masterpiece. As a precursor to synth-pop and an electronic hymn to pro-Europeanism, it celebrated cross-border travel via the luxury of the European railway service which, at the time, connected 130 cities. More than that, its opening track, Europe Endless, wistfully evoked the rolling beauty of the continent as seen from a train window.

Similar to Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express’s title track, released as the album’s lead single, was in itself revolutionary – hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa would later sample the main hook in his seminal 1982 electro-rap single Planet Rock. Among nostalgic lyrical nods to Paris and Vienna, Kraftwerk even went to the trouble of referencing their kinship with Herrs Osterberg and Jones (“From station to station/Back to Düsseldorf City/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”).

Elsewhere, there were signs of Kraftwerk’s disenchantment with fame on The Hall Of Mirrors, a haunting The Picture Of Dorian Gray-esque assault on the distortive nature of celebrity (“Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass”). The song leads to Showroom Dummies, an early indication of the band’s later embrace of hiding behind enigmatic stage personas in order to shield themselves from the media spotlight. “When you’re dancing, you’re being a mannequin,” Hütter explained. “The same type of psychological situation, like a puppet.” Anticipating the dichotomy of the robotic nature of their music with the immovable avatars they adopted on stage, the song paved the way for many of Kraftwerk’s later ideas.

As a retro-futurist concept album, Trans-Europe Express was a seminal meisterwerk that proved Autobahn wasn’t a fluke. A paean to Europe’s open borders and a glorification of the endless possibilities of travel, it proved beyond doubt that electronic pop could be just as melancholic and thought-provoking as rock music. It also, like Autobahn, boasted a decidedly German aesthetic – the album’s original artwork depicted each Kraftwerk bandmate wearing glamorous suits, sporting 30s quiffs and staring off-camera in shop-dummy poses. Drummer Wolfgang Flür considers the album to be their finest hour: “Trans-Europe Express is the best and most melodic album that we ever recorded,” he reflected. It seemed there was little chance of anything derailing the group’s momentum.

“This is the extension of your brain”: ‘The Man-Machine’

Kraftwerk’s 1978 album, The Man-Machine, projected a more arch outlook, with the band using synths to mimic the funky tilt of disco and give their music a danceable edge. Synthesising their robot-like sound with what had become their well-honed android-esque personas, the group presented themselves as pasty-faced mannequins and moved like cyborgs on stage. Designed by Karl Klefisch, The Man-Machine’s bright-red artwork was inspired by Russian propagandist El Lissitzky and depicted Kraftwerk in semi-heroic poses as if satirising a Soviet Union poster campaign. During the album’s opening track, The Robots, Hütter intones “I’m your servant” in Russian, arguably parodying totalitarian communism’s tendency to turn its population into obedient serfs.

It was around this time that Kraftwerk’s musical influence became more noticeable, particularly among synth-pop acts such as The Human League, Gary Numan and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, as well as post-punk groups Public Image Limited and Bauhaus. Having been introduced to Kraftwerk by fellow Joy Division bandmate Ian Curtis, bassist Peter Hook later recalled just how pivotal they were: “Kraftwerk were such a huge influence on us, both musically and stylistically. Ian was so in awe of the way that they dressed and the way they acted, as well as their music.” Not only this, but Kraftwerk’s visuals pointed the way for Factory Records designer Peter Saville’s best artworks. “My own artistic point of view is highly influenced by Kraftwerk,” Saville admitted, even going so far as to say that their artistic vision was “massively significant in relation to the intuitive approach that I took to creating the Factory covers”.

Though it would be easy to assume Kraftwerk’s robot personas on The Man-Machine were a sci-fi-inspired comment on the dehumanising effect of machines, that couldn’t be further from the band’s intent. “It’s a more sophisticated relationship,” Florian Schneider said during an interview in 1978. “The machine helps the man, and the man admires the machine.” Pointing to the interviewer’s tape recorder, he added: “This is the extension of your brain.” In this respect, The Man-Machine was really expressing how technology could help humanity transcend its limitations, much in the way that Kraftwerk’s mechanised melodies were upgrading pop for a soon-to-be computerised era.

The other standout track on the album was The Model, an electro-pop classic featuring Hütter’s lyrical portrayal of a woman who plays hard to get, but “it only takes a camera to change her mind”. As if predicting the modern era’s selfie-obsessed culture of digital narcissism, the song offers a sly parodic dig at media manipulation and how seductive fame is both for participant and spectator (“I saw her on the cover of a magazine/Now she’s a big success, I want to meet her again”). Ahead of its time in so many ways, The Model’s deadpan delivery and glittery synths amount to one of Kraftwerk’s finest moments.

“That was more like a visionary album”: ‘Computer world’

With new wave music in full swing and a whole crop of synth-pop contemporaries following the trail Kraftwerk blazed, the band returned, after a three-year break, with their eighth album, Computer World. Released in May 1981, the record marked the end point of their golden period and forever immortalised the four-piece as the godfathers of electro-pop. Like a tract from Nostradamus, the predictive powers of Computer World’s lyrics still make for a highly relevant listen today, as the album explores topics such as the threat of data surveillance and the rise of computers in modern life. “We didn’t even have computers at that time,” Ralf Hütter later said. “So that was more like a visionary album.”

On Computer World’s title track, Hütter cryptically implies the Orwellian threat posed by government agencies controlling businesses and populations as technology becomes more ubiquitous. Elsewhere, with the wonky pop of Pocket Calculator, Kraftwerk mock consumerist obsessions with trivial tech commodities, as if foreseeing how busy our fingers would become with smartphones in our hands. Numbers fits the album’s overall concept with an exploration of global capitalism, while Home Computer finds Hütter predicting, over a decade ahead of time, how PCs would invite the internet into our homes and allow him to “beam myself into the future”. Unlike most of Kraftwerk’s albums, Computer World paints a starkly dystopian picture of a runaway world of technology that would usher in a surveillance society of hyper-consumerism.

The undisputed highlight on the album is Computer Love, a song that seemingly predicts online dating by depicting a lonely soul staring at a TV screen while pining for romance (“I call this number/For a data date”). When the single was chosen for release in July 1981, Kraftwerk selected The Model for its B-side, leading many people to hear that song for the first time. The double whammy helped the single peak at No.1 in the UK, where it remains Kraftwerk’s most successful single to date. Arguably their most melodically complex tune, Computer Love also stands as one of the best Kraftwerk songs of all time.

Two decades later, Coldplay would work Computer Love’s lilting riff into their 2005 single Talk. Not knowing if Kraftwerk would approve it, Martin wrote a letter to Ralf Hütter in schoolboy German, begging them to grant him permission. “I had no idea if they knew who Coldplay were, so had to explain myself,” Chris Martin said. “Everyone says it’s extraordinary that they said yes.” By introducing a new generation of music fans to Kraftwerk’s rousing synth-based alchemy, however, Coldplay no doubt helped to repopularise the band ahead of their acclaimed residency at the Tate Modern in 2013. Sadly, however, Kraftwerk’s co-founder Florian Schneider quit the group ahead of the residency, in 2009, and passed away 11 years later, aged 73. His role in the group’s pioneering development of electronic music is not forgotten, and remains unsurpassed.

“The marriage of art and technology was Kraftwerk from the beginning”: influence and legacy

Not since The Beatles has a band done more to convince a whole generation of musicians to abandon “traditional” guitar-based instrumentation and boldly embrace new musical approaches. Had it not been for Kraftwerk’s revolutionary flirtations with computerised rhythms, futuristic keyboard riffs and vocoderised vocals, it’s highly unlikely that artists at the vanguard of mainstream pop would have embraced the sonic possibilities of electronic music the way they did. Even now, Kraftwerk stand proudly at the top of that family tree. Without them, no club DJ worth their salt would be spinning discs.

Today, it’s easy to take for granted the ubiquity of computer technology and how vital it is to modern music-making, but Kraftwerk were the first musicians to recognise its potential. “We do everything,” Hütter proudly declared, “and the marriage of art and technology was Kraftwerk right from the beginning.” Tinkering away two decades before personal computers found their way into our homes, and long before the internet age consigned us all to digital nomadhood, Kraftwerk’s music offered a glimpse into the future. With their prophetic musicality and fiercely futurist philosophy they completely reinvented what music could be for the modern age, and have more than earned their place as one of the most influential groups of all time.

See where Kraftwerk rank in our list of the most influential musicians in history

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