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Climbing to the top of the recently completed Tour Montparnasse, the crimson tide of Euro hackdom have another surprise in store. Instead of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür – the musicians of Kraftwerk – they encounter four dummies onstage. Red shirts, black trousers, black ties, Subbuteo hair, the faces eerily approximating those of the group’s human members. “Ralf” to the left in three-quarter profile; “Florian” cradling a flute, to the right; “Karl” and “Wolfgang” in the middle “playing” synth and electronic drums. As one of the band’s new songs beeps over the PA, a vocodered voice intones “We are the robots”. “It was totally Kraftwerk,” chuckles one of the guests, Capitol’s then head of A&R, Rupert Perry. “They’d always talked about becoming at one with their machines. It looked like it had finally happened”.
In 1978, this aloof, geeky quartet had claims to be the coolest band on earth. Sine the freak international success of Autobahn in 1975, their influence had staged a blitzkrieg on hip rock. David Bowie had played Kraftwerk tapes before shows on his Station To Station tour of 1976, and tapped into their mantric electronica for the second sides of Low (1977) and Heroes (1977). Meanwhile, Trans Europe Express, the seven-minute title track of their 1977 album, had become a staple at New York’s disco mecca, Studio 54. Kraftwerk alone bridged the chasm between punk and disco, and were regarded as such avatars of the rhythmic arts that black American sound engineer Leanard Jackson, employed by the group to help mix The Man-Machine, journeyed to Düsseldorf sincerely expecting to meet four black musicians.
Kraftwerk’s radicalism was not simply musical, it was conceptual. They challenged the whole idea of what a rock or pop group could be or present. For a start, no band had ever looked like Kraftwerk.
“The initial image came from Ralf,” Karl Bartos would later tell French writer Pascal Bussy. “He wanted to make it clear that Kraftwerk was different from any other group and he wanted this image of a string ensemble. I didn’t like it that much, I thought I always looked like a banker”.
Kraftwerk appeared to reject the indulgent individualism of the hippie rock ethic. The wore their hair short, said little, always stayed sober at parties and wherever possible presented themselves as solemn, bland automata, a Westworld rock act staffed by dummies and robots.
Not everyone appreciated their schtick – “the band’s overall vibrations just fell short of intolerable eeriness,” wrote Melody Maker’s Todd Tolces, reviewing a Los Angeles show on their 1975 world tour – nor, for that matter, their ethnic particularism. “Kraftwerk were very German,” noted the late Michael Karoli of fellow Kraut-rockers Can. Yet the messages they gave were subtle. On the one hand, Kraftwerk were self-consciously a funny cartoon about stiff-backed Germans. On another, they were serious about contributing to the revival of German culture, long smothered in guilt in the wake of World War II.
“We want the whole world to know we are from Germany,” Hütter told Creem magazine’s Lester Bangs in 1975, “because the German mentality, which is more advanced, will always be part of our behavior. We create out of the German language, the mother language, which is very mechanical. We use it as our basic structure.”
History’s most successful German pop band were also the most German, Florian Schneider had lived in Düsseldorf, the industrial powerhouse on the Rhine, since he was three. Florian learned flute, played in jazz bands and was admitted to Düsseldorf Conservatory, where he met doctor’s son and organ student Ralf Hütter.
It was the late ‘60s, Hütter and Schneider took acid (they recall attending a Karlheinz Stockhausen concert in Cologne under the influence) and grew bored of their instruments, preferring to dabble with electronics. Schneider bought echo units, then a synthesizer. The earliest music they recorded together, first under the name Organisation, then Kraftwerk (meaning Power Plant), was improvisational, unstructured and avant-garde. Collaborators came and went, though the one staple at this time was avuncular producer, Conny Plank.
Hütter and Schneider’s music became more minimal, more disciplined, and more dominated by rhythm. The flute melodies and organ-generated tone clusters fell away. Schneider built a drum machine from an old organ rhythm unit and eventually drum machines replaced drummers. The idea of a band that was a conceptual hybrid of human and machine began to take more solid form. “We are playing the machines,” Hütter explained in 1992. “The machines play us. It is really the exchange and the friendship we have with the musical machines which make us build new music.”
With the success of Autobahn, their fourth album as Kraftwerk and last with Conny Plank, Hütter and Schneider collided with the world. Walking into a party thrown by David Bowie at L’Ange Bleu in Paris in 1976, they received a five-minute standing ovation as Bowie camply exclaimed to Iggy pop, “Look how they are, they are fantastic!”
With the financial windfall they built their own studio in Düsseldorf, KlingKlang, and began a run of four more flawless albums, yet with every release Hütter and Schneider seemed to fade further from view. There were no interviews for The Man-Machine album campaign, whilst the tour that followed 1981’s Computer World ushered in two decades of retreat punctuated by three single releases (Tour De France, 1983; Expo 2000, 2000; Tour De France 03, 2003) and two disappointing albums (Electric Café, 1986; The Mix; 1991). Hütter and Schneider still made music every day, with breaks for ice cream and discos. They just weren’t releasing any. And touring? Touring would get in the way of Hütter’s obsession with cycling 200 km a day.
Moreover, Hütter and Schneider became mired in the arse-aching process of reinventing KlingKlang as a digital studio, while a word tour planned for 1991 was beset by cancellations (they refused to play in Berlin because the venue was too dirty), The departed Karl Bartos, when interviewed in 1993, claimed that “by the end of the ‘80s Kraftwerk was a paralysed giant.”
In hip hop, house and techno, however, a virtual Kraftwerk continued to thrive. In New York, Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock single, released in 1982, grew from the rhythm track of Computer World’s Numbers and melody from Trans-Europe Express. While in Detroit, techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Derrick May were also ransacking their back catalogue. In 1997, as if to symbolize the German’s importance to the post acid-house dance explosion, the quarted – now Hütter, Schneider plus Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert – played an hour-long set at the year’s Tribal Gathering festival, Luton Hoo. Pride of place went to four brand new robots, more “human”-looking than ever before.
“You, the journalists, you will be amazed,” Hütter said in 1983. “One day the robots will be the ones who will answer your questions. They will have an electric brain and memories with all the possible questions. To get the answers, you will only have to press a button.”
The question is whether, by then, anyone will be able to tell the difference.
© Danny Eccleston | Q-Magazine - 2004