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For Kraftwerk's founding pair, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, such
happy moments are best left under wraps; they have for years zealously
guarded their public image as emotionless "musical workers";
they are after all, The Robots. Their Düsseldorf studio hideaway
Kling Klang famously accepts no phone calls or mail. Since 1978, all press
photos have featured four mechanical stand-ins staring grimly ahead. Such
is their lack of contact with record company EMI, Hutter once delivered
some master tapes to the German offices by bike and was mistaken for a
courier. But, behind the band's carefully wrought man-machine mythology,
there were some very real, rather eccentric men who indulged in groupie
activity, could spend years tinkering in the studio and who developed
an obsession with cycling that came to dominate the band. In further contrast
to the identikit facade, percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos
were treated as second-class salary men. In 1999, 12 years after his departure
from the band, Flur decided to publish his memoirs, titled Kraftwerk:
I Was A Robot, which in Hutter and Schneider's eyes revealed far too much
about the men behind the machines. On the book's German publication, they
immediately sought an injunction, threatening Flur with massive financial
penalties or, alternatively, two years' imprisonment. Among their complaints
was the way in which Flur had referred to himself and his former band-mates
with the word "us". For good measure, they also threatened to
injunct a TV company which had broadcast a story about the book.
Rightly, the words Kraftwerk and influential are virtually synonymous. The amazing string of albums up to 1981 (especially the essential trio of Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World) remain profoundly evocative; funky, funny and sad, they casually invented genres and predicted much of modern life, from European integration to internet ennui.
Now they're back with their first album of new material in 17 years. Tour De France Soundtracks sees them returing to the Gallic cycle race first examined on 1983's single Tour De France. It does not signal dramatic sonic upgrade. In 2001, Hutter was asked giw the new material sounded. "Kraftwerk-like," he replied.
Both music students at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, Hutter and Schneider had played experimental art-rock together since 1968. Kraftwerk, however, only started taking recognizable shape with the addition of Flur and Bartos after 1974/1975's freak international hit, Autobahn. The central pair had well-heeled backgrounds: Schneider's father was an acclaimed architect and, in the early years, the band would host orgiastic parties around the swimming pool at his large house in St Tropez. They even raided his dad's well-stocked cellar for champagne.
On their first New York trip the founders showed off the expensive watches paid by their publishers. Schneider had a bulky platinum Rolex, Hutter chose an elaborate hold piece that displayed every time zone over a map of the world. The little luxuries didn't stop there: with the proceeds from Autobahn, Hutter purchased a dark green Bentley, which guzzled fuel and constantly broke down; he finally traded it in for a Mercedes (although, as their workerish image grew, they all opted for Volkswagens).
The group's early tours were also augmented by groupie activity on a surprisingly regular basis. Judging by his regular descriptions of firm breasts, Flur was clearly the most active member, but all apparently had their moments. On one occasion, lazing on sun-loungers in Miami, believing themselves safely obscured by the German language, he and Hutter were smuttily describing women when they were interrupted by a well-heeled Bavarian lady exclaiming: "Dirty little so-and-sos, the men from Germany!".
Back home, at weekends and on Wednesday nights, all four would clock
off from kling Klang to cruise the Düsseldorf clubs looking for action.
If their search was unsuccessful, they would drive 30 minutes down the
autobahn to livelier neighbor Cologne. At the Alter Wartesaal, they would
take up position at a raised bar to scour the dance floor. The women here
were, according to Flur, more interested and had a greater "zest
Hearing that his old band is returning after 17 years with new material
based, once again, around cycling and the Tour de France, Karl Bartos
expresses surprise. Reclining in a glass-fronted Shepard's Bush hotel,
he admits: "It's not very clever, I think. But it helps my record
a lot." Coincidentally, Bartos is also releasing his first solo album
Communication (his two '90s albums were released as Electric Music). Enjoying
the attention shunned by his ex-colleagues, last nichgt he was subjected
to some fevered worship during a packed performance at London's ICA.
Between 1971 and 1981 Kraftwerk efficiently produced eight full-length
albums. Their work rate after this suggested severe malfunction. Hutter
seemed paralyzed by paranoia. After all, technological advances meant
that even The Human League could have a game stab at their sound. During
mixing at New York's PowerStation studio, Hutter took the decision to
scrap ninth album Technopop. A rather middling remodeled version - now
called Electric Cafe - eventually surfaced in 1986.
Today, Kraftwerk are keener than ever on maintaining the fiction that
they are robotic envoys from the future rather than cranky middle-aged
men. They seem trapped by their own mystique. And the indications are
that music now comes second on Hutter's mindset, after a certain athletic
© Q-Magazine - 2003