Entry updated 16 January 2021. Tagged: Music.
Enormously influential group of German electronic musicians, formed by Ralf Hütter (1946- ) and Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020) in 1970. The group achieved international fame as a quartet, with drummer Wolfgang Flür (1947- ) and Karl Bartos (1952- ), following the release of their fourth album Autobahn (1974). The 20-minute title track reproduces a car journey on its titular motorway, from the initial ignition of the engine through a linked suite of chugging, wonderfully evocative synthesizer music and sound effects. The album also includes the more science-fictional "Kometenmelodie 1" and "Kometenmelodie 2", which together reproduce the passage of a Comet (supposedly Comet Kohoutek) from the minimalist environment of the outer solar system of part one to the more frantic solar approach of part two: it is an evocative and effective piece of music. Radio-Aktivität (1975, released in the UK as Radioactivity, 1976) creates suitably charged and sinister music to express its theme, from the opening track "Geigerzähler" ("Geiger Counter") through to "Die Stimme der Energie" ("the Voice of Energy") and "Uran" (Uranium'). This largely instrumental album is augmented by occasional, reedy vocals from the group, something which adds to the mood of slightly strangulated alienation. Trans-Europa Express (1977) saw the group develop their interest in the machinic, not only the trans-European express train of the title track, but more significantly the jerky and pulsing celebration of Automata "Schaufensterpuppen" ("Showroom Dummies"). In this song a group of commercial manikins come robotically to life (see Robots), break out of their shop and go off to a club to dance, but the track takes its little narrative very seriously indeed. Indeed, the robotic aesthetic as an ideal not only of music but of life itself underpins perhaps their most significant album, Die Mensch Maschine (1978 released in the UK with English-language vocals as The Man Machine). The components of this expertly assembled collection – "Die Roboter" ["The Robots"], "Spacelab", "Metropolis", "Das Model" ["The Model"], "Neonlicht" and the title track – elaborate one of the most compelling excavations of the will-to-android in sf. Kraftwerk promoted the album with four life-size dummies in place of the musicians, and in future tours the musicians on stage either imitated robots, with stiffly limited movements as they played their instruments, or else replaced themselves on stage with four motorized manikins. Nor was this robotism merely a publicity stunt; interviews with the band make it plain that they view it as a practical ethos. They live their lives with an eccentric devotion to routine and regularity, divided between the recording studio and cycling, and perform "the machinic" in both arenas. Of his obsessive cycling Hütter has said "it is not for holidays. It is the man machine. It is me, the man machine on the bicycle. In the same way the music: Kraftwerk – the man machine". The band's next release was the more simplistic but still rigorously cyborg music of Computerwelt (1981, released in the UK and USA as "Computer World"). By the 1980s, however, it was clear that Kraftwerk's influence was achieving an unexpected dominance in the music scene, an influence channelled through two very different musical demographics. On the one hand, the 1980s saw a boom in synthesizer-based bands who directly copied Kraftwerk's sound, amongst them Gary Numan, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Human League and Ultravox, and whose music largely appealed to a white, middle-class audience. On the other hand a large number of hip-hop and rap musicians directly sampled Kraftwerk to underpin their own music (Afrika Bambaata and the Sonic Soul Force's "Planet Rock", 1982, was arguably the first of these), and whose appeal was to a largely urban, Black audience. Whilst synthesizer music proved to be a largely 1980s phenomenon, rap and hip-hop have demonstrated a global appeal and continuing life. Ironically, as Kraftwerk's influence and fame grew the band itself has fallen increasingly silent. Electric Cafe (1986) is a disappointing and over-familiar album. Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) includes some perfectly tooled machinic electronica embodying the bicycle-and-rider "man-machine", but the group's sound is now so familiar that they themselves sound second-hand and uninspired. They may, in fact, have rendered themselves redundant by sheer cultural ubiquity. Kraftwerk's appeal is rooted both in the rise of dance culture and its valorization of the robotic qualities of the somatic dance experience, and in the somewhat chilly affectless cyborg content of its music. Indeed, bridging these two worlds, the physical and the intellectual, is likely to be seen by future critics as their greatest achievement. The most perfect robot-music yet recorded also turns out to be some of the most human. [AR]
- Tone Float (RCA, 1969) as by "Organisation"
- Kraftwerk 1 (Phillips, 1970)
- Kraftwerk 2 (Phillips, 1971)
- Ralf und Florian (Phillips, 1973) as by "Ralf und Florian"
- Autobahn (Phillips, 1974)
- Radio-Aktivität (Kling Klang, 1975)
- Trans-Europa Express (Kling Klang, 1977)
- Die Mensch Maschine (Kling Klang, 1978)
- Computerwelt (Kling Klang, 1981)
- Electric Cafe (Kling Klang, 1986)
- Tour de France Soundtracks (Kling Klang, 2003)
about the group
- Pascal Bussy. Kraftwerk. Man, Machine and Music (London: SAF Publishing, 1993) [several updated editions including 2001 and 2004: pb/]
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