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In fact, the ICA is packed for a rare live appearance by Karl Bartos, who was once Kraftwerk's percussionist, but left the Düsseldorf quartet a decade ago. Even the ICA's organisers seem slight overwhelmed by the public response to the concert. One tells me that there were 200 applications for a guest list of 40. People unable to make the gig sent money and pleading letters asking for posters. "Not a lot of women here, are there?" she frowns. "I feel like I'm going to grow a beard if I stay here much longer." It's certainly a peculiar evening, testament to Kraftwerk's continued appeal: days later, the sight of a large group of maths prize winners literally squealing with delight when Bartos played Kraftwerk's celebrated song, Computerworld, is still proving difficult to eradicate from the memory.
But then Kraftwerk are a peculiar and unique band. The remaining members - Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, who formed the band in 1969, plus two hired hands called Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmidt - are about to release the first new Kraftwerk album in 17 years.
Tour de France Soundtracks, a musical celebration of the famous cycle race, was intended to coincide with this year's event, but Kraftwerk's endless perfectionism meant that the album's release date has been endlessly pushed back. It will now come out next month, weeks after the race itself has finished. In the ICA bar, this news is greeted with a sort of doleful resignation: it's Kraftwerk, innit?
Most people had given up on Kraftwerk ever releasing any new music years ago. After all, Schneider and Hütter have spent the last two decades gradually cutting themselves off from the outside world. They rarely give interviews, and when they do, they come with strings attached: one magazine which secured an audience with Hütter was informed that he would only discuss his collection of bicycles and that they were not allowed to even mention that he was a member of Kraftwerk. Their legendary Düsseldorf studio, KlingKlang, has no telephone, no fax, no reception and returns all post unopened. They have not attended a photo shoot since 1978: their record label has had to make do with blurry shots from their highly infrequent live appearances and pictures of the band's painstakingly constructed robot doubles. No band has shunned publicity with such dedication.
And I should know. I have spent the few weeks since the announcement of Tour de France Soundtracks' release attempting to penetrate Kraftwerk's enigma. It seems a worthwhile task. After all, Kraftwerk are one of the few bands in history who genuinely bear comparison to the Beatles. Not because of their sound or their image, but because, like the Beatles, it is impossible to overstate their influence on modern music. It's the five albums they made between 1974 and 1981 that really matter: Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computerworld. In their clipped, weirdly funky rhythms, simple melodies and futuristic technology, you can hear whole new areas of popular music being mapped out. Kraftwerk were so far ahead of their time that the rest of the world has spent 25 years inventing new musical genres in anattempt to catch up. House, techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, synthpop, trance, electroclash: Kraftwerk's influence looms over all of them. It's difficult to imagine what rock and pop music would sound like today if Kraftwerk had never existed.
In addition to their artistic importance, there's certainly plenty to talk about. In lieu of actual publicity, bizarre rumours about Kraftwerk began to abound during the 80s. Ralf Hütter was said to have suffered a minor heart attack, not due to stress - in fairness, overwork was hardly likely to be a factor - but as a result of obsessively drinking coffee. There were also allegations of a kind of cultural Stalinism: after Bartos and fellow percussionist Wolfgang Flür left the band, not only were their names removed from some covers, but their faces were removed as well. Less troublingly, someone once solemnly swore to me that the Düsseldorf accent in which Kraftwerk sing was a Teutonic equivalent of the Brummie drawl, which would certainly add a whole new layer of humour to their deadpan lyrics: "Oi prowgramme me howme compewter, bring meself into the fewcher" etc.
With this and other burning topics running through my mind, I attempt to go through the official channels, pestering their record company for an interview. A tentative maybe swiftly becomes a definite no. So I decide to take matters into my own hands. If Kraftwerk won't come to me, I'll go to Kraftwerk: I resolve to go to Düsseldorf in an attempt to track them down. Even if I can't find them, perhaps the city itself will shed some light on their oeuvre.
Few bands have ever seemed as rooted in their environment as Kraftwerk. While their German peers - Can, Faust, Tangerine Dream - muddied their cultural identity with a liberal dose of commune-dwelling, acid-munching hippy idealism, it's hard to see how Kraftwerk could have appeared more German without taking to the stage clad in lederhosen. While every one else was letting it all hang out, they sported suits, ties and short haircuts. Their sound was precise, efficient, emotionally cold and technologically advanced. It was music that had bagged the sun loungers while everyone else was still snoozing.
Occasionally, their image even led Kraftwerk into slightly sinister waters. In 1975, Ralf Hütter told one gobsmacked music journalist that "the German mentality" was "more advanced" than anyone else's and that German was "the mother language". The night before I leave, a telephone call comes from Kraftwerk's British press officer. Somehow, the band have got wind of my scheme. Ralf Hütter, it is intimated, will give me an interview on condition that I abandon any plans to go to Düsseldorf. This has rather the opposite effect from the one intended. Why are they so keen to keep me away from Düsseldorf? What am I going to find there? I think of Wolfgang Flür's memoir, I Was A Robot. Less an autobiography than an extended treatise on Flür's virility, I Was A Robot paints Kraftwerk not as emotionless "man-machines", but shameless groupie hounds. Perhaps Düsseldorf is filled with evidence of their youthful indiscretions, populated by children who bear a startling resemblance to members of Kraftwerk. In the case of Schneider, who the late rock critic Lester Bangs once described as looking like a man who could push a button and blow up half the world without blinking, this is a disturbing thought indeed.
The next morning, there's another flurry of communication between EMI and the Guardian. Hütter is now asking for the arts editor's written assurance that any article will not paint Kraftwerk as part of a German music scene, nor will it contain any jokes at the expense of Germans. This seems a bit rich coming from someone whose public image has involved the deft manipulation of a Teutonic caricature, but nevertheless we agree. I glumly consign a notebook packed full of rib-ticklers about bratwurst and square-headed men with no sense of humour to the bin.
Next, we get sent a list of pre-interview conditions stringent enough to make your average Hollywood superstar baulk. Hütter will not discuss Kraftwerk's history, their KlingKlang studio or indeed anything other than the new album. This poses a problem, as nobody in England has actually heard the new album yet. You suspect the end result will bear an uncanny resemblance to Kraftwerk's most recent German interview, in which Hütter and a fearless correspondent from Der Spiegel spend two pages attempting to bore each other to death. Its gripping highlight comes when Hütter is forced to admit that computers are smaller nowadays than they were in the early 70s. We tactfully decline their kind offer and I head for Heathrow.
After an abortive attempt to garner some support for my expedition from an organisation called Düsseldorf Marketing And Tourismus (no, they don't know anything about Kraftwerk; no, they never get tourist enquiries about this subject; they would recommend I visit the Rhineburn instead - "it's the largest decimal clock in the world!"), I meet up with Dirk, who is going to be both photographer and de facto interpreter for my trip. Dirk is a nice man, but he regards me with deep suspicion. Unlike Düsseldorf Marketing And Tourismus, he's heard of Kraftwerk, but can't believe that I have just turned up in Düsseldorf with no leads at all. He seems to think I'm making it up about the veil of secrecy around the band. "You have looked on the internet?" he asks, triumphantly double-clicking on a website called Kraftwerk FAQ. "The band does not encourage active correspondence," it reads. "There is no official fan club and no way of making contact has been announced."
Indeed, the only solid information we have to hand is a series of hints to the whereabouts of KlingKlang studios, dropped in Pascal Bussy's Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music. According to Bussy, KlingKlang is near the station, it is a "yellowish" building, it overlooks a cheap hotel and there is a Turkish grocers nearby. Dirk is confident - "we will find this!" - and leads the way to his car.
It quickly becomes apparent that you could never accuse Bussy of giving too much away. Every street adjacent to Düsseldorf station features a yellow-ish building, a Turkish grocers and a cheap hotel, frequently blessed with an appetising name such as Hotel Wurms. Every street also seems to feature a table dancing club, something called a Sexy-Kino and a lot of furtive-looking men. Perhaps realising that driving very slowly up and down the streets of Düsseldorf's red light district while staring out of the car window is liable to attract the attentions of the polizei, Dirk suggests we continue our quest on foot. After an hour of tramping around Düssel dorf's least salubrious area ("This is junkies' corner," sniffs Dirk, becoming more nonplussed by the minute), we come across a building that certainly might be KlingKlang. Not only does it fit Bussy's description, it also houses an electronic instrument manufacturers. Parked in its courtyard, there is a vintage Mercedes, of the kind Hütter and Schneider used to collect. One of its buzzers is left tantalisingly blank. Pushing it is no use, but inside the courtyard, we find an unlocked door.
Is this it? Are we about to walk into the world's most mysterious recording studio unchallenged? Will we be confronted with the sight of Hütter and Schneider furiously working to complete their latest opus? Perhaps they'll be impressed by our tenacity - not to mention our disregard for the law - and grant us an interview on the spot. Perhaps not. The door leads only to a series of empty rooms. We leave crestfallen, unsure of whether or not we have just stumbled upon the world's most mysterious recording studio. Dirk in particular, takes this news rather badly. He begins a lengthy monologue, delivered to no one in particular, in which the word "Scheisse" seems to crop up with alarming regularity and considerable emphasis.
Either he's angry at me, or he's remembering the last time Kraftwerk made the news in Germany, thanks to their involvement in the technological festival Expo 2000. Hütter and Schneider were paid DM400,000 (around £145,000) to come up with a four-second jingle. Snappy financial thinking like that eventually caused Expo 2000 to lose a staggering DM2.4bn (£700m) - £10 for every man woman and child in Germany - and the media deemed Kraftwerk guilty by association. As Dirk's assistant confirms, Kraftwerk's image at home could do with a wash and brush up. "I think in Germany people today prefer Robbie Williams," she says, sadly. "All the girls like him so much he had to play two concerts in Düsseldorf."
Her opinion appears to be confirmed as we head to the old town, a square kilometre containing a staggering 260 pubs. According to Wolfgang Flür's book, Kraftwerk used to come here of an evening in order to ogle local models, an experience recalled in their most famous song, The Model. It's also home to Düsseldorf's techno record shops. Surely here we will find traces of the local boys who effectively started it all? Initially, however, we meet only indifference. In one shop our timid enquiries are dismissed with a non-committal wave of the hand.
Finally, we strike gold. Wilfried Belz, proprietor of a shop called Sounds Good Records claims Florian Schneider is both an old friend and a customer. In the early 80s, he ran a club called Peppermint, at which Schneider was a regular. Would it be worth us trying to track him down in one of the nightclubs on Düsseldorf's famous Monkey Island? Wilfried shakes his head: "He's always interested in new music, but he doesn't go out to clubs any more, so he stops by here, I tell him what music is great or fabulous and he listens to them. He was last in here three weeks ago."
This information sets Dirk off again, but his increasingly threatening demands for the whereabouts of KlingKlang fall on deaf ears. "They are very private people," says Wilfried, lifting his index finger to his lips. Nevertheless, he insists that some Düsseldorfers still prefer Kraftwerk to Robbie Williams. "We have sold out of their last single, Tour De France 2003, long ago," he smiles. "They're a cult. Do we get many tourists asking about them? No. Nobody knows where they are, nobody will tell you where they are, so why would you come here?" With this final remark ringing in our ears, we leave.
Over a glass of Altbier, a remarkable local brew that smells of bacon, we weigh up our options. We have failed to find KlingKlang. Record companies and music shops have proved no use. The largest decimal clock in the world aside, Düsseldorf itself has proved not to be the sort of futuristic technopolis that would inspire Kraftwerk's music, but a slightly dull German city where people like Robbie Williams. We have got nowhere.
There is one last option. As evidenced by the title of their new album, Hütter and Schneider are obsessive fans of cycling. Indeed, Bartos once claimed that their love of racing bikes was a decisive factor in his departure from Kraftwerk: "Every day we would meet and have dinner. Ralf always talked about how he rode 200km that day. That would bore me to death." Maybe Düsseldorf's cycling shops hold the answer.
Rosso Sport certainly looks like a very Kraftwerk kind of shop. A converted industrial warehouse next to a disused railway line, it is staffed by rather stern-looking men with lycra shorts and shaved heads. One drags himself away from the giant television screen showing the Tour de France long enough to answer my queries. Yes, he says, Florian Schneider sometimes comes in here. He has two bikes. A racing model and a small collapsible bike. And with that, he curtly turns away, like a man who has suddenly remembered some kind of Kraftwerk confidentiality agreement.
Perhaps he thinks that the whole carefully constructed edifice of secrecy surrounding Kraftwerk is in jeopardy now that a foreign reporter knows that Florian Schneider owns a collapsible bike.
I start to giggle, before a troubling thought strikes me. I have flown from England to Düsseldorf, made innumerable telephone calls, wandered around its streets for a day, illegally entered a building, and really annoyed one of the city's top photographers. And what is the sum total of knowledge gleaned from this experience? Have I gained any insight into the fascistic overtones of some of their early statements? Have I discovered the key to an appeal so vast that people will fill a venue just to see the band's former percussionist play live, a decade after his departure? Have I even found out whether or not the Düsseldorf accent is a Teutonic equivalent of Brummie? No.
My investigations have exclusively revealed that one of Kraftwerk's members
owns a collapsible bike. Dirk appears at my rapidly-sagging shoulder.
"I don't think we win the Pulitzer prize here, huh?" he says
softly, a master of understatement.
© Alexis Petridis | The Guardian - 07/2003