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When robots go bad
by Steve Low [Q-Magazine; 2003]

Inscrutable techno geeks who pretended to be machines, Kraftwerk aren't like other bands. The poolside orgies, caffeine-induced heart attacks and unhealthy addiction to cycling are proof of that.

In 1978 Kraftwerk were in Venice to appear alongside other international pop acts for a trans-European TV broadcast. The German technophiles were halfway through changing into their regulation red shirts and black trousers when their dressing room was unexpectedly invaded by Julio Iglesias and his entourage. Kraftwerk had been mistakenly allocated the luxurious suite set aside for the crooning Lothario, who now began shouting them in Spanish, a language they did not understand. Kraftwerk were not moving. After all, there were four of them and only one of him, thay were already half-naked and thay had even started eating his fruit. With no other rooms free, the furious Iglesias was forced to change in tha corridor outside, apparently to the sound of boisterous Teutonic laughter.

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.
In one radio interview, asked how they went about recording, Hutter drily replied: "We just press the red button." Judging by the response to these off-message memoirs, the supposedly cool technicians have some red buttons of their own.

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 for life".
Not that they were always successful; inspiration for their biggest UK hit The Model (Number one in 1981) came from gazing at the untouchable models at The Bagel - a local playboy hangout with an Ibizan theme. An infamous bootleg CD, Heute Abend, contains a version recorded at a 1991 sound check in Edinburgh in which "I'd like to meet her again" becomes "I'd like to fuck her again". Sadly, they stopped short of bumper stickers proclaiming: "Robots do it on repeat".

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.
The cycling fixation played a big part in driving Bartos away from the band as, entering his mid-30s, Hutter decided the way forward had two wheels. For a while, all four band members took to the saddle with a relish other bands save for cocaine. Their adopted catchphrase was, "Tous à vélo"! ("Everyone on the bike!"). Calling themselves the Radsportgruppe Schneider (The Schneider Cycling Club), they presented an intriguing sight, riding around Dusseldorf and the surrounding Bergisch countryside wearing all-black gear to reflect both their nocturnal recording habits and the coffee they drank in abyndance (in Kraftwerk: Man, Machine And Music, band biographer Pascal Bussy suggested that Hutter even suffered a minor cardiac incident brought on by excessive coffee intake).
Cycling extended the man-machine concept and was a good way of keeping fit. But friend and French label manager Maxine Schmitt suggested Hutter - who shaved and oiled his legs like the professionals - was getting obsessed: "Ralf had a tendency to go too far with the bicycle... Sometimes we were riding in the mountains for 200km, having donw two or three passes in the Dolomites, I would stop but he would carry on doing some more pass and he wouldn't get back intil well after sunset."
Then, in 1983, disaster struck: Hutter had a serious crash, fractured his skull and spent two days in a coma. According to legend, his first words on walking were: "Where's my bike?"

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.
Touring was also becoming less fun; the increasingly introverted Schneider would frequently go missing before show time - he would usually be found enjoying a solitary curry in the nearest Indian restaurant.
The years went by without new material. By the late '80s the dance music explosion offered a triumphant vindication of their vision but, in response, Hutter and Schneider decided to laboriously re-record old tracks by digitally sampling their old analogue music. Five years were spent producing the electro-pop equivalent of Gus Van Sant's frame-for-frame remake of Psycho. For Bartos and Flur, this was torture. Both eventually departed; Flur in 1987 and Bartos after 1991's The Mix. Since then, Schneider has claimed to barely remember his ex-colleagues. "People are strange", shrugs Bartos today.
On the subsequent tour, Bartos and Flur were replaced with doppelgangers Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz. New robots were unveiled on the BBC's Tomorrow's World but, despite some advances, they looked rather quaint - even Judith Hann was unimpressed. "Do kids really want to see Ralf as a robot, or do they want to see the new ones like in Terminator?" wondered sleeve designer and invisible fifth member, Emil Schult.
In 1997, they appeared before awestruck ravers at the Tribal Gathering festival. "Kraftwerk were without doubt the most difficult act we have ever had to deal with", admits organizer Paul Shurey. "It took three years and thousands of phone calls to pull it off. The band requested a totally sterile backstage area - which meant virtually no one outside their small entourage was allowed anywhere backstage. Detroit techno legends like Jeff Mills and Derrick May had to wait patiently for hours out the front like everyone else."
The first glimmer of new material came with the commission to write a jingle for Hanover's Expo 2000. The whole expensive event - which bore the Kraftwerk-style motto "Humankind, Nature, Technology" - was already fast becoming a national scandal to rival the Millennium Dome, with eventual losses to the German taxpayer running to many millions. Kraftwerk received 400,000 Deutschmarks (£125,000) from the German public purse for the commission. Is lasted three whole seconds and consisted simply of a vocoderised voice singing the phrase "Expo 2000". Kraftwerk had always has a comic edge, but this was just taking the piss.
This incident crystallized the affair in the public's mind; even Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a keen Expo defender, said he thought the payment rather profligate. Expo manager Birgit Breuel was forced to defend the work as a "courageous, artistic production".

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 activity.
The new album was meant to celebrate the Tour de France's centenary but last-minute tinkering meant its release lagged behind the event by some distance. But, while Kraftwerk missed it, Hutter certainly didn't. Despite refusing almost all recent interview requests, in July he did have time for one TV appearance. Keen viewers of pan-continental cable channel Eurosport might even have seen it. There, in the rear of the official car, was the recluse, sitting alongside other dignitaries and chasing the lead pack around some precarious mountain bends. It must have made Huetter one happy robot.

© Q-Magazine - 2003

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