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The elusive German quartet's latest live comeback, their first in four years, began in Paris in September. With no fanfare and minimal publicity, three ultra-rare shows at the aptly futuristic Cite de la Musique sold out in days. Inside this pristine palace of culture, grey-templed granddads and teenage pop kids were united in breathless anticipation. Sightings of Kraftwerk are as rare as those of the Loch Ness Monster, and almost as newsworthy.
Garbed in matching black uniforms and glued impassively to four identical computer decks, the professors of technopop did not disappoint. As a triptych of gleaming video screens blazed with images familiar from the past 20 years of Kraftwerk shows - old newsreel footage, clunky computer graphics, Utopian images of travel and technology - Düsseldorf’s deadpan electro eggheads emerged from their envelope of sound.
Kraftwerk have described their albums as "tone films and sound pictures", and in the flesh this concept comes alive beautifully. "We strive for clarity, not nebulosity," their musical leader, Ralf Hutter, explained in an extremely rare interview in 1997. "We are trying to re-create realism, not vague images. In our music we make the machines sing."
In Paris they played their classics: The Model, Autobahn, Radio-Activity, and Tour de France. There were minimal improvisation, limited body movement and absolutely no audience communication. Such are the cryptic rituals of a Kraftwerk show. To change now would be heresy.
Hutter and Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk's surviving founder members, are both in their mid-50s.They could easily pass for identikit corporate drones - faceless anti-charisma remains their watchword.
Although they have rightly been acclaimed as the godfathers of electronic pop, much of their music stands outside time, drawing as much from classical traditions as from fleetingly fashionable club sounds. Industrial folk music, Hutter calls it.
Also key to Kraftwerk's allure is their air of understated comedy. Having reportedly modelled their robotic image on the poker-faced art pranksters Gilbert and George, there remains something deliriously funny about Düsseldorf’s self-styled "musical workers". Kraftwerk are a sublime parody of cool German efficiency elevated to the level of high art.
"We play the machines, but the machines also play us," Huetter said in 1997. "The machines should not do only slave work; we try to treat them as colleagues so they exchange energies with us." But of course.
Joking aside, Kraftwerk are also titans in musical history. As acknowledged godfathers of industrial machine-rock, electronic minimalism, '80s synth-pop and '90s techno, they are one of the most influential bands of all time.
The roots of Kraftwerk lie in the ruins of post-war Europe. Their clean-lined modernity is a direct comment on the Utopian techno-state post-war Germany was supposed to be, rebuilt from scratch after Allied bombs had flattened its major cities.
They rejected Anglo-American pop culture, choosing a stridently Germanic name (it means "power plant"). "The question," said Hutter in 1975, "is what does Germany sound like today?"
Initially called Organisation, Hutter and Schneider first began making music in the freeform style dubbed Krautrock (most of its exponents were German), indulging in extended space-jazz jams with future members of Neu! and Can. But other concepts were already shaping these long-haired neo-beatniks as they graduated from Düsseldorf Conservatory, frustrated with both classical formalism and avant-garde jazz.
"We were trained on classical instruments, but we found them too limiting," Hutter once said.
After three Kraftwerk albums which conformed to the standard formless clatter of Krautrock, the duo reinvented themselves with the all-electronic minimalism of Autobahn in 1974. The classic Kraftwerk sound and line-up was born, with Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur recruited into the newly short-haired quartet.
"I remember thinking the four of us looked a bit like an odd string quartet," the classically trained Flur told Kraftwerk biographer Pascal Bussy. "I had to wear a suit to perform classical contemporary things, and I also had to wear a suit with Kraftwerk." For all their highbrow allure, the catchy, ordered simplicity of Autobahn also made Kraftwerk pop stars. The single did well in the British and American charts. Some US journalists even called them the German Beach Boys.
By the mid '70s Kraftwerk had withdrawn to their private playpen, Kling Klang, a studio with neither telephone nor mailbox. This was their golden age. They turned out the beautifully crafted retro-futurist epics Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and Man Machine in a three-year sprint from 1975 to 1978. Each was a conceptual whole, a dazzling progression.
Then, after a worrying silence, Computer World arrived in 1981. Kraftwerk had embraced the emerging silicon-chip revolution. Just in time, too, since their ideas were already being diluted and recycled by British synth-pop acts like Depeche Mode and New Order. In New York, the rap star Afrika Bambaataa was fusing their Germanic rhythms with electronic hip-hop and sampled Trans-Europe Express on his seminal Planet Rock anthem.
In fact, Kraftwerk soon became the most sampled group in history. Little wonder they rocketed to No. 1 in Britain with The Model in 1981, a rediscovered B-side from 1978 that predicted the decade of surface and consumerism.
In the face of growing reverence towards their cultural importance, Kraftwerk clammed up. Shunning live work for long periods after 1981, they became increasingly inaccessible and wary of being photographed. As they withdrew from view, the mystique grew.
Their next album, Electric Cafe, finally emerged in 1986 - pleasant enough but hardly groundbreaking. Kraftwerk went underground.
But as the '90s dawned, they found themselves back on the cutting-edge, co-opted as forefathers of the house and techno boom. Their 1991 collection, The Mix , was a dance-floor-friendly array of Krafty classics painstakingly reconstructed in digital form.
Meanwhile, Flur and Bartos left the band in frustration over Hutter and Schneider's snail-speed perfectionism, only to be replaced by a selection of faceless drones during the Mix tour of 1991-92.
Around this time, Kraftwerk also found themselves credited as an influence on U2's new ironic direction. They played their Mix set to thousands of baffled U2 fans at an anti-nuclear concert in June 1992.
Even if they never record another note, Kraftwerk remain a unique influence on artists old and new. "They've made some pretty important records and their sounds are devastating even now," says Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers.
"They always did new things with electronics," adds Richard James, aka Aphex Twin. "But they didn't keep in contact with what they inspired. I reckon they won't do anything inspiring again."
Maybe, but maybe not. For the past five years, rumours have abounded of a second Mix anthology and even an all-new album, possibly based on Hutter's oft-voiced fixation with the idea of the global village. As yet this is speculation. Not even Kraftwerk's record company, EMI, has been informed of their plans.
But this is as it should be. When you are the Loch Ness Monster of pop,
you write your own rules.
© Sydney Morning - 01/2003