25 years of the most influential group in electronic pop
The Guardian, 26 February 1997
Frieze, December 1997
Like an indefinitely extended version of John Cage’s notorious composition 4’33”, there has been silence from the Kling Klang recording studio in Düsseldorf for the last six years, although we may assume that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider continue to turn up at the nondescript building in the city centre, according to a routine established more than two decades ago, every day, six days a week, from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. If Hütter and Schneider were most other pop musicians, they would be forgotten. They might, at best, have collected a few deluded tributes in the manner of one I remember daubed for years on the wall of the Oval — “Whatever happened to Slade?” But since Ralf and Florian are nothing like Slade, we don’t forget, we grieve instead, in the manner of the pop universe, via rumours. No new LP since a compilation entitled The Mix in 1991. No new songs since 1986 and Electric Café. (that so poignantly featured a track called “Musique Non Stop”). So, this year, Kraftwerk will tour again. This year Kraftwerk are releasing a new record. And still there’s silence.
Such rumours are the ley lines of a reverence that goes beyond ordinary star status, amounting almost to denial — like the perennial sightings of Elvis in a mart in Kalamazoo or a Las Vegas parking lot. Punctually, rumours about Kraftwerk restart because we cannot accept that we’ll never see again, or hear new work from, the electronic sound-architects who by way of “Autobahn”, “Trans-Europe Express” and “The Model” became the most influential white group in modern pop. It thus comes as a shock to learn that there is truth in rumour. EMI, which has learnt from long acquaintance not to speak until it is spoken to from Düsseldorf, has recently confirmed Kraftwerk’s presence at the rave extravaganza Tribal Gathering 97 on 24 May. Start queuing now.
In the hydra-headed world of electronic dance music no doubt the group will appear to some, in age (Ralf and Florian will both be 50) and style, as a weird revival. Others will view the occasion as an airing of the family silver. But in pop-mythical terms, the prospect of their appearance is akin to a musical second coming. In the 25 years since Kraftwerk andKraftwerk 2 were released in Britain on Vertigo, no one else has approached their position as innovators in construction, instrumentation and sound-generation.
They started in a hairy and cosmic era, their artistic bedfellows King Crimson, Can and Yes. Now there is probably not a remix studio in the Western hemisphere that does not possess the Kraftwerk catalogue on CD. How a sound that began as head-music prog rock in Germany’s industrial heartland ended up as a garage dance beat in the projects of Brooklyn is one of the strangest evolutions in popular music, yet there is no gainsaying the debt owed to their electronic universe of melodic bleeps and squeaks and vocoded vocals that Hütter terms ‘robot pop’.
Part turbine, part seraphic choir — a description that fails to capture fully either their music’s purity or momentum — the Kraftwerk sound has been cloned, copied, sampled and psychedelicised from Brussels to Detroit, from Milan toManchester. Consider the company of those indebted, from the New Romantics to Afrika Bambaataa, Donna Summer to the Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie to Grandmaster Flash; the Shamen, 808 State, KLF, Orbital, LFO, Photek….
Why the extended silence? There are the usual answers: it’s harder to maintain a pop identity as you get older; they have pioneered themselves into paralysis; now that anyone with a synthesiser and portastudio can do what they did, innovation on their own ground is incurring diminishing returns. Likewise their technical perfectionism: their admirable objective, as stated by Hütter, of “working without respite towards the construction of the perfect pop song for the tribes of the global village” also has a worrying undertone. It’s too much like Lord Tennyson’s “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, / Dead perfection”. Perfectionism kills beauty, creativity. They have deflected such criticism by pointing out that Kraftwerk is a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) in progress. The answer may be that if they haven’t come up with a new record, it may matter more to them than it does to us, because we are still digesting their vision.
There are very few points at which pop contacts with the reality that gives rise to it, the chief principle always having been, as the writer Jonh Wilde succinctly nailed it down, “it’s got a good beat, so it’ll be a hit”. Kraftwerk’s vision does: an indispensable part of their music relates to the affairs of everyday reality. An idealised version of reality, because from their first impact with “Autobahn” in 1975 — that sweeping symphonic montage of found traffic noises and synthesised momentum that vacuums up all breakdowns and bottlenecks (“Wir fahren, fahren, fahren” sung as “We fun, fun, fun”) — the Beach Boys from Düsseldorf have placed themselves firmly in the line of the German Romantics, where genius and lunatic hang out together. Kraftwerk’s motorway was a Yellow Brick Road of technology, mobility and prosperity rolled into one. Their highly engineered pop perfectly represented the postwar version of Romanticism– a strictly materialistic phenomenon of a nation climbing from its ruins and making a fortune in the process. If Mozart had designed a Mercedes, it would have sounded like Kraftwerk.
They were accused of coldness. (Very early Kraftwerk did bear a resemblance to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.) The critics who said they were the death of music were generally more afraid of the technology the group boldly embraced, designing and sculpting new low-frequency sounds with it, coercing computer companies into providing more software and new machines no one else had. In 1975 Kraftwerk sounded like the future, and there was techno-angst. Subsequent albums, Radio-Activity, The Man-Machine and Computer World all explored the relation between people and the technology that surrounds and serves them. Heard today, there is every variety of warmth in these recordings; behind it, varying degrees of irony. Are our machines human-controlled things, or are the humans controlled by them? Are these pure tinkling melodies that reflect our modern environment helping us to come to terms with the spirit of progress, or just triggering a nostalgia at the passing of earlier days?
You can never be quite sure whether their irony is studied or not, but therein lay a political position to match the musical one. The group were first with the electronic dance thing. They were also first, musically, with the Green thing, the computer thing, the robot thing. These were political albums in their manner of treating daily life. Castigated for developing those impassive robot doubles in fascist uniforms to take their place on stage, and at press launches, they shrugged and pointed out the philosophical problem: “Everyone can be robotic, controlled… we have exposed the mechanical and robotic attitude of our civilisation… at the same time it’s funny, full of humour.”
In fact Kraftwerk’s imagery is deeply unaggressive, Metropolis overlaid by the utopianism of Fernand Léger, remote indeed from cyberfuturism. They also proved the artistic law that makes critics uncomfortable, namely that if you want to combat a false vision like the unchecked advance of technology, or fascism, there comes a point comes when you have to collaborate with it.
Stand the group alone — the core of Hütter and Schneider, plus percussionists / engineers — and the discipline and purity of their sound have always been belied by something childish. Both melody and lyrics have a naïve attraction: the music that results is a kind of industrial folk music. “By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody” (“Pocket Calculator”): this is the childish joy of playing with any tone-coded gadget and at the same time perfectly describes the genius of Hütter’s “little melodies”.
They have kept this naïve simplicity since their first meeting at an improvisation class at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in 1968. In their earliest experiments they rushed straight from classical training into making the horrible bruitiste feedback music that was an antidote to the equal horror of the Hotel-California-peace-and-love sound, then screeched to a halt as soon as they realised that, in order to gratify their boyish fascination with discotheques and girls, they had to be a rock band.
The sons of a doctor and architect respectively, Ralf and Florian are solidly media-silent about their personal lives. Ralf is the more communicative, but only about the work. “Devoid of interest. Nothing special,” he says of his childhood. Florian’s favourite expression is “what boredom!” Nothing more is known about them since Pascal Bussy’s 1993 biography reported that neither was married, Schneider had a girlfriend with whom he had recently had a daughter, and that Ralf Hütter shared a house with his sister’s family, a room of which possessed walls and ceiling covered in mirrors. (Thus “The artist is living in the mirror with the echoes of himself” in the haunting auto-analytical “Hall of Mirrors”.)
In a period in which biography has gone feral and narcissism is a theology, their desire for, and control over, their privacy is something to cheer. Details that do escape — their obsession with cycling (the vintage Mercedes collection abandoned for environmental reasons), their undying love of clubs — merely reinforce an image of delightful model citizens.
Psychologically they were both driven by a need to play and to invent, and by a musical strength to resist complexity. Externally, there was the advent of the wan Seventies, which provided the opportunity to make an impact with something new. They were also part of Germany’s “fatherless generation”. “We were born after the war,” Ralf has said, “it was not much of an incentive to respect our fathers.” Fuse these elements and you had a freakish performance, but one that had shrugged off the pack drill of Mozartian heritage and Anglo-American pop (not to mention the highbrow connotations of Stockhausen, John Cage and LaMonte Young), and created its own industrial techno-ethnic music. The crossover into dance was there all the time, via the pair’s passion for clubs (they called Düsseldorf “our public living room”) and stripped-down rhythms. The breadth of Kraftwerk’s contribution to black urban sounds must also be due to their success in articulating an “ethnicity” which is now, worldwide, more to do with cities than nations, more to do with technology than roots.
If their music seems depersonalised, this is part of a widespread twentieth-century movement, from the surge of classical music to trance and repetition. At the price of a little immersion in depersonalisation, we get the sound of purity, of humour and humanising insights, and a yearning and caress: at heart a deeply romantic world-view. When Electric Cafécame out in 1986, the New Musical Express described it as sounding like “Wagner in an airport lounge trying to ring an escort service”. Eleven years later, when one in three people live on their own, a dance track like “Telephone Call” with the lines
I give you my affection and I give you my time,
Trying to get a connection on the telephone line
plus its wicked coda recorded by Schneider’s girlfriend — “The number you have reached has been disconnected” — has all the tragic intensity of “Unchained Melody”.
Does it matter that there has been nothing new for so long? They spent much of the Eighties transferring Kling Klang — their Elektrospielzimmer (“electric toyroom”) — from analog to digital technology and revising such triumphs as “Trans-Europe Express”, “Pocket Calculator” and “Computer Love” for The Mix. (With The Mix they not only made “Radio-Activity” more danceable, but intensified its black humour to speak out against Chernobyl and Harrisburg). They have shown how to construct and reconstruct meaning through editing, and seem never to date. On the contrary, there’s a growing parallelism between their model of reality and the real world, a sense that the world is being remodelled according to the structure predicted by the Robotmeister from Düsseldorf.
The vision they have produced isn’t just an extended robotics performance, more a model of the robot culture we inhabit, via which that reality can be experienced by the listener. An artistic vision, in other words, which in a sense is complete. It is up to someone else to take it further. The only recorded answer, incidentally, to why they haven’t released more records is Florian’s rather pastoral one: “there is too much sound pollution.”
What have they achieved? They made pop electronic and warm and danceable. No group has ever made such a ruthless assault on whatever sublimity pop possesses. They remain pop’s DNA, melodic purity and technical perfectionism its double helix, twisting and folding, a source to hundreds of offspring across the planet, encoding whatever essence it possesses.
As artists they remain remote in an exemplary way (even on the Web, bastion of promiscuity, the official Kling Klang site merely shows a green radio transmitter leaning at an angle, emitting concentric circles). Self-styled “workers”, not musicians; and not a pop group either — Ralf has denied that too. In a 1991 interview he said, “There’s something more of a scientific approach to how we operate. It’s more like, can we say, symphonic. It’s not really a pop group. Even though our records are pressed and distributed in supermarkets, Kraftwerk would still be existing with the closing of supermarkets.”
It’s an unintentionally apocalyptic phrase but, in stripping pop of its pomp and narcissism as they have over their 30-year collaboration, Hütter and Schneider have brought into being a realm of ego-free, crystalline melodies that sound exactly as if they will still be playing when all the supermarkets are closed, all the motorways grass, all the numbers disconnected: sounds for the end of time.
Among the tents and pink emergency blankets of Generation E, little could have been more out of place than Kraftwerk’s stage set. Their familiar hardware and video screens, disposed in two severe lines across a dark, functional stage, were an installation of stark beauty. While the re-emergence of the open-air festival in the last five years has brought no change to its overall air of motley English hippiedom, despite its takeover by electronic dance and Britpop, in the 25 years since the release of Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 the band has continued to express a purist aesthetic that runs counter to both. As the black curtains parted and they opened with “Numbers” from the Computerworld album, it felt as if Joseph Beuys’ Plight or Anselm Kiefer’s Germany’s Spiritual Heroes had been dropped down in the middle of a muddy English field.
With one exception — a mainstream techno number played as an encore, when the four musicians changed out of their black uniforms and returned to the stage dressed in virtual reality suits — there was nothing new in their first appearance in Britain for five years. In the past, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider have deflected criticism that they continue to do the same thing by insisting upon Kraftwerk’s status as Gesamtkunstwerk in progress. They have certainly been pioneers in reconstruction and reinterpretation, thus neutralising – at least in part – the reputation-killing distinction between old and new material in pop. Perhaps they seem to be timeless because we mortals, toiling in the robotic delirium of an emotionless techno-culture, are still digesting their humorous fable of survival.
At Tribal Gathering 97 the band considerably refined the extraordinary sequence of sound-synched KlingKlang Musikfilms that accompanied the songs on the The Mix tour of 1991. Composed of a striking series of computer-generated images (“Numbers” and “Computerworld”) projected manifesto-style lyrics (“Man Machine”), postcard views and newsreel footage (“Tour de France”, “Autobahn”, “Trans-Europe Express”), and cross-breeding the nostalgic utopianism of 1960strain de luxe travel with the futurism-with-a-question-mark of “Business, numbers, money, people”, the films showed how over time their imagery has hardened. The group’s sound has gone in the same direction, its early tone of Romantic materialism (in love with the aesthetics of technology with varying degrees of irony), evolving into something closer to an artistic manifesto for eco-warriors. “Radio-Activity” has undergone the largest conceptual change since it was released in 1975 as a ballad about radio waves bombarding people with information. On The Mix (1991) it was transformed into a darker disco-protest against the false god of nuclear power. This time, projected over six screens, “Stop radioactivity” is accompanied by warnings that Sellafield will produce 7.5 kg of plutonium waste per year and every 4.5 years release the same amount of radioactivity as Chernobyl. Likewise, on “Computerworld”, the word “medicine” has replaced “travel”, and on “Autobahn” — the anthem of postwar German Romanticism — footage of crammed modern autobahns is combined with ironic opening and closing sequences depicting a truck coughing and refusing to start and the image of a traffic sign bisected by a red flash, saying “motorway ends”.
That Kraftwerk’s “industrial folk music” has been dismembered and reinterpreted by a thousand DJs worldwide as the esperanto of contemporary dance music bears witness to the power of the original project and the genius of Hütter’s “little melodies”. The Robotmeister, however, have remained outside this revolution in the way that DNA continues to exist, aloof from its imperfect human consequences. Their double helix is closer to the mathematics of Bach and the simplicity of Doo-Wop, conceived in the muddy wastes of German postwar culture and reborn under the twinkling star of Daimler-Benz. When, with that encore, they suddenly presented their audience with a fusillade of fast, competent techno thrash, we were hearing a kind of musical aside that said: Well, we can do that too.
Questioned about the group’s long silences in the 1980s, Schneider once retorted shyly that there was too much sound pollution. He was echoing Hütter’s statement that what confronted him as a philosopher-technician was the emergence of a Fernsteuerung of society: a kind of creeping remote control by the mass forces of demographic dictatorship. They were both right.
© Julian Evans 1997