Kraftwerk

Kraftwerk at Düsseldorf station, chartering a train to the future
Kraftwerk: At the way station to the future

With Florian Schneider’s passing this spring, one of the great institutions of modern music was laid to rest. Kraftwerk’s reputation truly precedes them, to the point that introductions are hardly even necessary at this point. Suffice it to say that the group took all of early krautrock's wild post-acid freakouts and experiments in electro-acoustica and refined them down to a sleek, elegant form that sounded wholly unlike anything that had preceded it (and I do mean anything).

Once everybody else started to catch up, this sound would come to be called synth pop (or latterly electropop), and their music served as the crucial spark that set off everything from electronic disco and the U.K. synth pop explosion to dance music’s ongoing fractal developments into freestyle, electro, machine soul, house, techno, and beyond. When all is said and done, in one way or another all of them trace back to these four men from Düsseldorf and their vision of pop music made with machines.

As a tribute to their sleek, futurist vision, I’m going to pare this tribute down to just three key records for discussion this evening. No long, winding progoid excursions into the entire discography this time out, nor any detours into side projects and related ephemera. In this case, I think that would be missing the point. From where I’m coming from, these three records are the core of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre, the purest distillation of their pristine vision, not to mention the ones that I find myself returning to again and again and again. The skeleton key, the Rosetta Stone, this is their time capsule from the future...

Kraftwerk Autobahn

(Philips: 1974)

After four records1 of abstract kosmische, Autobahn was where Kraftwerk truly came into their own. The marathon title track, clocking in at 22 minutes and encompassing the entirety of side one, is undoubtedly the centerpiece here. Opening with the sound of a car starting up and taking off down the titular stretch of road, a robot voice intones the song’s title before dissipating into serene ambience and the introduction of the tune’s recurring melody.

Then, a treble-light electronic beat begins to tap out the rhythm, and we’re launched into an ethereal wisp of downtempo Beach Boys-inflected pop. The tune slips in and out of various movements, shifting gears into a double-time sprint and back again in parallaxing slow-motion, even as it cleaves to its core melodic motif throughout. This isn’t a prog suite like Yes’ Close To The Edge or Genesis’ Supper's Ready, but rather a marathon pop tune, twisting and turning around its metronomic pulse like an extended dance mix stretched to the limits of the vinyl itself.

That level of focus sets it apart from nearly everything else in 1974, a glistening diamond shaped with razor precision in a shaggy, earthtone era. The second side is dominated by Kometenmelodie 1 and 2, a pair of shimmering electronic instrumentals that continue down the austere path hinted at in Ralf & Florian (Kraftwerk’s previous album). The remainder of the record is given over to atmospheric outings, colored by flutes, piano and bubbling synths, a final wave goodbye to the last few strands tethering the group to their roots.

Kraftwerk The Man-Machine

(Kling Klang: 1978)

They further refined the Autobahn sound on Radio-Activity and Trans-Europe Express,2 employing ever-increasingly forceful rhythms to drive their ethereal kosmische pop. However, The Man-Machine was their next quantum leap, an eighties record in all but name. By 1978, even the Brits were beginning to catch on, with records like The Human League’s Being Boiled and The Normal’s Warm Leatherette. But where those records were comparatively grimy and down-to-earth, marked by a brute force approach to rhythm, a track like The Man-Machine’s The Model is strikingly nimble and precise, its sleek lines drawn crisp in four dimensions. One can hardly imagine that it came out in 1978!

There’s also an increasingly dancefloor-oriented pulse laid out in tracks like Spacelab and Metropolis that run parallel to what Giorgio Moroder was getting up to at the time, delivered here with a concision and focus that clearly prefigured the coming eighties new wave. You can certainly hear the blueprint for Berlin’s The Metro in a tune like Metropolis. Further doors are opened with the disarming Neon Lights, a vulnerable, intimate tone poem that exposes the beating heart of the (man)-machine (a side of the group's sound that would become increasingly important.

Still, there’s plenty of Teutonic austerity to be found here, particularly in the tracks that bookend the album. The Robots is as stately as anything on Trans-Europe Express, its rejoinder we are the robots intoned in android deadpan over a push-me-pull-you synthline, pin-prick bleeps and a clockwork rhythm, while the title track loses itself in a hall of mirrors, it’s vocoder refrain gradually submerged in deep blue computer psychedelia. At this point, Kraftwerk were surfing a creative peak — with everyone from David Bowie to Giorgio Moroder singing their praises — and they were poised at the vanguard of the musical scene. Having successfully remade pop in their image, it seemed the world was finally ready for the 1980s...

Kraftwerk Computer World

(Kling Klang: 1981)

But it wouldn’t be until three years later that Kraftwerk emerged with their follow up, and the landscape had changed considerably in the intervening years. From to the charts and film soundtracks to a whole host of early adopters, suddenly electronic music was everywhere. Even aging rockers wanted in on the action! Where could Kraftwerk go next, now that the world had finally caught up with their vision? Well, they’d go headlong into the future, of course.

Computer World was a perfectly-realized glimpse of dance music’s burgeoning pact with electronica, a fusion that has yet to let up some forty years on. This is ground zero for electro (not to mention its unruly cousin techno), and likewise an important factor in house music’s deviation from the larger post-disco party. It even had a profound shaping influence on new school rap’s transition from the live funk grooves of the old school to the cold machine beat matrix of Afrika Bambaataa and Mantronix.

But impressive as all that is, it’s the tunes themselves that are key. The title track is the perfect realization of everything they’d been moving toward since Autobahn, its nimble precision imbued with an analogue warmth that belies its supposedly cold electronic obsessions. It’s a perfect fusion of The Robots’s stately Teutonic pulse and Neon Lights’s more intimate touch. This is taken to its absolute limits in Computer Love, an android paean to love so moving it could make a machine weep (a side of electronic music that would come to full bloom through Detroit’s cracked pavement later in the decade).

Conversely, there’s an almost menacing edge to the record’s denouement that’s similarly far-reaching. It's More Fun To Compute is the blueprint for the whole late-nineties electro boom. I mean, Dopplereffekt practically based their entire '90s career on it! It seems that everyone from Drexciya to Anthony Rother and even DJ Assault pulled a couple pages from the Compute playbook as well, a tradition that’s continued well into the 21st century. By this point, two decades in, the playbook's as dogeared as an old copy of The Catcher In The Rye.

Of course, first wave electro was no less indebted to Computer World, and nowhere is that more clear than on Numbers. From its sequenced bleeps to Speak & Spell vocals right down to the crashing drum machine beats — which paired with the synthline from Trans-Europe Express was the very basis of Planet Rock — it was the impetus for everything right up to and including Juan Atkins’ Metroplex Records. Which of course makes it a key touchstone in techno’s early development as well.

A fact that's further emphasized by Home Computer, which is the template for whole swathes of abstract electronica from Aphex Twin and Autechre to LFO and The Black Dog (basically Warp Records’ first five years, truth be told), their whole Hall Of Mirrors phantasm locked onto the metronomic pulse of the dancefloor. When factored into Computer World as a whole, it serves as the cornerstone to an album that planted its feet in the middle of the winding river that is electronic dance, and forced it to branch out into nearly every tributary of dance music to come...

Kraftwerk on stage and enmeshed in the grid
Kraftwerk live in the 21st Century

The group continued down this path with Tour De France and Electric Cafe before vanishing for over a decade, their parting shot The Mix a remix project of their own material released at the dawn of the nineties. As much as the group may have been out of the limelight for the remainder of the decade, their legend loomed large over the whole electronic dance culture that had continued to develop in their wake.

Then, in 2001, they resurfaced with the Expo Remix project, and then Tour De France Soundtracks and a global tour that was immortalized in the Minimum-Maximum live album in 2005. Squaring the circle in the 21st century, they were back and bigger than ever, and still sounded ahead of their time. In that light, it's hard to come to terms with the fact that it's all we'll ever get to hear from this foursome from Düsseldorf.

And yet, they've left behind not only a peerless oeuvre and towering legacy, but a world shaped by their sound. And to this day, every time somebody makes the machines dance and the people dance with them, the ghost of Kraftwerk lives on in the machine...

Footnotes

1.

The first of which — Tone Float — was credited to Organisation, featuring the core duo of Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter around which Kraftwerk would orbit, along with Fred Monicks, Butch Hauf, and Basil Hammoudi.

2.

In fact, Trans-Europe Express is often considered their finest hour.

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