In Britain, New Order would sample Uranium on Blue Monday, while synth-pop inspired by albums such as 1978’s The Man-Machine would set the decade’s pop mood. Kraftwerk would even get a No 1 single, The Model, in February 1982, four years after its first release. It was if the world was finally catching up with them.
Ever since, using a Kraftwerk sample has been shorthand for credibility. Jay-Z’s 1997 Sunshine sampled The Man-Machine, while Coldplay’s Talk made a melody from Computer World into a stadium-rock riff. Music producer DJ Food, a collector of Kraftwerk cover versions, says the band’s influence can be heard today among the micro-genres that have evolved from dance and R&B. “Hear dubstep producer 6Blocc’s cheeky reinterpretation of Numbers/Computer World 2 disguised under the title, Digits. Or across the pond, juke and footstep producers such as Traxman have shoe-horned Kraftwerk samples into songs such as The Robot. Kraftwerk have been part of the lineage of dance culture since the late 70s — approaching it without them is impossible.”
Once the world started to catch up, Kraftwerk started to slow down. They have only released four studio records since 1983: 1986’s disappointing Electric Café, 1991 remix album The Mix, Expo 2000, a single for a German world trade fair, and 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks. The line-up has also changed radically. Flur and Bartos both left in the late 1980s, Schneider in 2009. Hutter has said little about his departure, except that Schneider hadn’t really been involved for years.
What Kraftwerk are about now is the souped-up live experience. Playing in galleries, they align themselves with art over pop. Catherine Wood, curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, has had several meetings with Hutter. He approached her in 2010, through German gallery owner Monika Spruth. Wood was then flown out to Dusseldorf, where she visited Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang studios. This notoriously mysterious space, where outside contact has always been forbidden, even by telephone, was moved 10 miles outside the city four years ago. Inside, Wood found an impeccable, minimalist office and a huge studio, with four robots against a wall, lit in glowing green lights.
“I was struck by how clever Hutter was,” says Wood. “He talked about the seductive nature of music and how it does something to people that art doesn’t do. He also talked about how music creates gods, but art doesn’t.” He seemed in awe of that process, she says, but not affected by it. He then showed her some 3D films for the show, developed by Emil Schult, who has worked on their cover art since the 70s.
The odd thing, Wood continues, is that Tate Modern is not really connected to the music world. In a very practical way, Kraftwerk aren’t either — they rarely do interviews, don’t do TV and never hang out at parties. “But so much modern art is about the machine replacing the human,” she says, such as the work of Gerhard Richter, who recently had a retrospective there. Interestingly, Richter taught in Dusseldorf in the late 60s and early 70s: one of his pupils was Emil Schult.