Back in September 1975, a band played in Britain for the very first time. On stages across the country they wore smart suits and ties and played peculiar instruments. There was no clamor for tickets, no feverish press. This review of a half-full show in Newcastle, north-east England, was par for the course: “Spineless, emotionless sound with no variety, less taste ... [and] damn little attempt to pull off anything experimental, artistically satisfying or new,” wrote Keith Ging in the Melody Maker. “For God’s sake,” he railed, “keep the robots out of music.”
Here in the 21st century, Kraftwerk’s forthcoming gigs at London’s Tate Modern are the hottest tickets around. Back in December 2012, demand for them crashed the gallery’s website; angry fans who missed out stormed the venue, while thousands raged online. For eight nights this month, Ralf Hutter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen will play each Kraftwerk album since 1974 in turn — from their fourth, Autobahn, to 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks — with 3D film versions of their iconic visuals. They will wear neoprene neon suits and stand behind expensive technology. They did the same to rapturous reception in 2012 at New York’s Moma and in their hometown, Dusseldorf, in December.
These are art-event spectaculars to which everyone wants entry because no other band since the Beatles has given so much to pop culture. Kraftwerk’s beats laid the foundations for club music: for hip-hop, synth-pop, techno and house. The sounds they invented have been sampled by hundreds of artists, from Madonna to R.E.M, from Missy Elliott to Fergie. Coldplay and Jay-Z have had hits with their elegant melodies and their image has influenced David Bowie, Daft Punk and Kanye West. We also now live in the kind of world their future-obsessed lyrics predicted: we find Computer Love online, models smile from time to time and Europe Endless exists.
For hardcore followers, the fact that this band named after a power station are playing in one (Tate Modern is a former oil-fired power station), is also irresistible. The band that remaining founder member Hutter always called musikarbeiter — musical workers — will be creating energy themselves, in their own Turbine Hall.
Kraftwerk’s story begins in 1968, in Dusseldorf. Two young men born just after the end of the second world war meet on a music improvisation course. Ralf Hutter plays keyboards, Florian Schneider the flute; they perform their first gig at the city’s Cream Cheese Club. Playing in Organisation, a progressive, free-form group, they become obsessed with synthesizers, which are newly invented. In 1970, the wealthy Schneider buys one. The same year, they see Gilbert and George in the city’s Kunsthalle: two men wearing suits and ties, claiming to bring art into everyday life. The same year, Hutter and Schneider start bringing everyday life into art and form Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk’s first three albums do not feature in the Tate gigs, but they hold clues to the aesthetic roots of the band. The cover art for Kraftwerk (1970) and Kraftwerk 2 (1972) have pop art traffic cones on their sleeves, suggesting a more industrial take on Warhol’s Velvet Underground banana. Tracks have mechanical titles, such as Spule 4 (Inductor 4) and Wellelange (Wavelength), and then come the songs about Germany. Some, such as Heimatklange (The Bells of Home), are gentler, but Von Himmel Hoch (From Heaven Above) is provocative. Named after a carol by Bach, it features synthesizers replicating the sounds of warplanes and bombs. It also reveals Kraftwerk trying to make a new national music, rooted in everyday sounds, made by machines that offered a new future.