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.
Next came Autobahn, named after another German invention. In spring 1975, a radio edit of its 22-minute title track became an international hit. Its synthesizers mimicked fast traffic and car horns; its celebration of driving clicked with western audiences. Soon after, Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos joined the band on electronic percussion. Electronic music suddenly had its John, Paul, George and Ringo, although they looked and sounded very different to the rock bands of the time.
It’s hard to appreciate how alien Kraftwerk appeared back then. The first advert for Autobahn in the black-and-white British music magazine the New Musical Express (NME) looks particularly shocking: a bright blue sign from the future, under a feature on country music divorcees. At the time, the song was dismissed as a gimmick by the press — but not by fans who made it a No 11 hit.
Then came the xenophobia. The war was still a recent, scorching cultural memory, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that a Barry Miles live review was headlined “This is what your fathers fought to save you from.” The NME reprinted a feature by US critic Lester Bangs, in which Hutter was asked if Kraftwerk was “the final solution” for music. The image with the piece was even more tasteless: a press shot superimposed on to a Nuremberg rally.
It’s not that Kraftwerk didn’t flirt with sinister ideas. Radio-Activity (1975) began with the sound of a Geiger counter, evoking nuclear dread. But their music also played with double meanings and humor. Ohm Sweet Ohm (say it out loud) took central European pop into the realm of technology, while Radio-Activity’s title track hinted at the utopian possibilities of the wireless. Throughout the melodies and lyrics, there is a touching innocence and simplicity.
Hutter often name checked the Bauhaus movement, and liked its internationalism. The band’s songs started to feature words in different languages; they got inspired by James Brown’s funk, and even punk (years later, Hutter admitted that the start of 1977’s Showroom Dummies — “eins-zwei-drei-vier” — came from The Ramones’ “one-two-three-four”). But a statement of Hutter’s from 1979, pinned to a noticeboard in Chris Petit’s cult film Radio On, reveals how Kraftwerk linked the past and the present. “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun,” it began, naming the film director who fled the Nazis, and the scientist who made the V-2 bomb and the Apollo mission rocket, Saturn V. “We are the link between the 20s and 80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.”
This forward-thinking spirit had already started to infect pop. David Bowie adored Kraftwerk, writing the track V-2 Schneider for his 1977 album Heroes (the band would namecheck him back on Trans-Europe Express). African American DJs also found an odd kinship with the Germans. Keen to find a new musical language, they were familiar with the urban sounds Kraftwerk were using; 1978’s The Robots became particularly influential on the dancefloor, and in the burgeoning B-Boy and breakdancing scenes. Afrika Bambaataa fused the melody of Trans-Europe Express and the rhythm of 1981’s Numbers to create Planet Rock, one of hip-hop’s pioneering tracks. Trailblazing electro group Cybotron used a loop from 1977’s Hall of Mirrors; its founder, Juan Atkins, would create techno, and from there came modern dance culture.
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.
Hutter also took a tour of the Tate last year, Wood adds. It was a busy day and he made no effort to hide. Nobody ran to shake his hand or even noticed his presence. It’s because Kraftwerk is about much more than one man. The robots have become part of our music and we have, very happily, become part of their machine.