An attempt to create a forward-looking music that provided a bright new path for Germany away from the brutality and horrors of the Nazi era. It sounds high-falutin’, but in numerous interviews it has become clear that this objective was shared by Kraftwerk and many other German groups subsequently bracketed under the tacky ‘Krautrock’ media banner. But while the group formed by core members Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 had some musical common ground with peers like Neu! and Cluster, it ultimately established a crystalline electronic territory that was entirely its own. As impressive digitally remastered editions of Kraftwerk’s eight principal albums are released, David Davies reflects on the pioneering electronic act’s extraordinary past – and its possible future
The first three albums – Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian – are officially unavailable on CD at present, making their evaluation problematic. In their fusion of organic and electronic sounds, however, they are widely regarded as exploratory works, and it wasn’t until 1974’s Autobahn that the defining elements of what is generally regarded to be the Kraftwerk aesthetic finally coalesced, most obviously on the remarkable 22-minute title track. Relentlessly rhythmic and discreetly funky, ‘Autobahn’ takes the listener on an aural journey along the German motorway system. Embellished with gorgeous flute (courtesy of Schneider) and synth washes, ‘Autobahn’ is the first complete fruition of Kraftwerk’s desire to fuse electronic textures with an unashamedly idealistic vision of the modern.
In retrospect, the following year’s Radio-Activity could be seen as providing the flip-side to this idealism. Interspersed by eerie sound effects and spoken word, Radio-Activity depicts the nuclear age in all its dynamism and implicit sense of threat, but feels more like an intriguing curio than a classic. However, a masterwork was – ahem – just about to pull into the station: from opening synth spiral to final fade, 1977’s Trans Europe Express is completely compelling. A rich, romantic evocation of a Europe brought together by high-speed rail, the album is the first in a sequence of three that should be the first stop-off for any new Kraftwerk initiate.
The man-as-machine/machine-as-man duality that was to characterise much of the band’s imagery over the coming decades was first signalled on the next studio release, 1978’s The Man-Machine. In addition to several of the band’s enduring live favourites (‘The Robots’, surprise mega-hit ‘The Model’), ‘Neon Lights’ is simply one of the most beautiful recordings in electronic music full-stop. The core Kraftwerk ‘trilogy’ was completed by 1981’s Computer World. The album’s 34-minute running time might seem a little lean even for a band as attuned to minimalism as Kraftwerk, but really, what else could be added? Fascinated by the potential of the emerging computer age but mindful of its possible consequences, Computer World also features some of the band’s hardest-hitting beats yet on ‘Numbers’ and ‘It’s More Fun to Compute’. Issued at a time when Kraftwerk’s influence began to filter through electronic and hip-hop acts worldwide, the album remains the group’s last consistently great release to date.
With the rest of the planet beginning to embrace the Kraftwerk aesthetic, it is not surprising that some of the band’s subsequent work lacks the sense of boundary-pushing present in so much of its earlier music. Kraftwerk spent increasingly long periods away from the public eye, sequestered in its Düsseldorf studio or – especially in the case of Hütter – out on the road indulging a fervent passion for cycling. Indeed, these two strands were brought together on the 1983 single ‘Tour De France’ and its belated parent album, Tour De France Soundtracks, which was released a full 20 years later and added 11 new compositions to the original song. Lithe and supple, Tour De France Soundtracks (now renamed simply Tour De France) would be regarded as a high-point for any band lacking Kraftwerk’s iconic status.
In-between these two related releases came one album of original material and a remix collection. 1986’s Electric Cafe (now restored to its originally-mooted title of Techno-Pop) emphasises rhythmic ingenuity over melody, and after a while its metallic surfaces and click/grind/grunt sound effects begin to grate. A chillingly insistent makeover of ‘Radioactivity’ aside, 1991’s The Mix feels, well, somewhat unnecessary.
Prior to the release of Tour De France Soundtracks, the Kraftwerk fan might have been forgiven for thinking that the band was gradually retreating from view altogether. However, in the years since this release, the group has undergone a major live renaissance. Over successive tours, the band has refined a brilliantly compelling greatest hits set (chronicled on the 2005 live album and DVD Minimum-Maximum) that both underlines and reinforces the band’s pioneering role and magisterial back catalogue. Schneider’s departure in 2008 therefore came as a shock, but with Hütter and co. reportedly at work on a new studio album after another lengthy run of live shows, it appears that the Kraftwerk story still has several chapters yet to be written. Whatever the future brings, the band’s immense contribution to electronic music – and pop in general – is beyond doubt.
The Catalogue boxset featuring remastered editions of Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World, Techno-Pop, The Mix and Tour De France is available now from Mute/EMI - all albums are also available separately and on vinyl. For more information, visit