Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Kraftwerk.
It might sound weird today, when club bangers are played at the local fast food restaurant and in virtually every car ad on TV, when we’re in the age of dubstep and techno is something your friend’s corny dad listens to, meanwhile the kids are indulging in scary subgenres like brostep. It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time before electronic music, that there was a time when it was considered fresh, avant-garde, even controversial. That it was once an adventurous and experimental musical form pioneered by a tight-knit community of inventive artists around the world. But it was, and at the heart of that community was a little German group called Kraftwerk.
Using electronic components, first-generation synthesizers and even electricity itself as an instrument, the first wave of electronic experimenters began exploring an entirely new sound and an entirely new means of sound production. In the 1950’s, the more scholarly and theoretic of the burgeoning schools of electroacoustic research and development, inspired by Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrete concept and practiced with gusto by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, was already leading the way toward a scientific investigation of electronic music’s potential from a (post-)classical music perspective.
In the 1960’s, these formal experimentations rapidly took root with a younger generation of German musicians who were gathering under the banner of "Krautrock." This composite genre encompassed various practices that mixed traditional and electronic instruments—namely, guitars and keyboards—in extended experimental, instrumental, and ambient jams, conjuring up kosmisch, psyched-out and hazy atmospheres. Throughout the 1970s, Krautrock proved interesting for its ability to bring Elektronische Musik to a new level, its capacity to cross boundaries between the underground and the mainstream, the experimental and the pop, the rock and the electronic.
“Autobahn” off the album
At the very core of this German movement were two figures—Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. The pair met at a music college in Düsseldorf and assimilated themselves into the country’s growing experimental music scene before forming a few Krautrock bands of their own (along with some folks who left to form Neu!). They played a bit with audio-bands, 4-track recorders and electronic drum machines, and then, in 1970, settled on a ground breaking project that would catapult them to fame and keep them busy until the late 2000's: Kraftwerk.
Their first three albums, recorded in the early 1970s, still carry a heavy Krautrock feel, full of long and sometimes sketchy analog jams slightly distorted for the averted ear. Yet the band slowly drifts towards synthesizers, like the emerging Moog and MiniMoog collection, and with those new tools sets out to change the course of pop music. The breakthrough comes with Autobahn (1973) and Radio-Activity (1975), the first two albums where Kraftwerk’s signature sound starts to come into its own. It’s our first encounter with the by now familiar sharp electronic riffs, cold, lifeless keyboards and deadpan vocals sung through a vocoder (in both German and English, but always with a deliberate, strong, unmistakable German accent to mock the German bands who sang in a faux American accent in an attempt to disguise their origin).
“Radio-Activity” off the album
By the late 1970s, Kraftwerk, it could be said, were an international sensation. Their immediate success and critical acclaim were bolstered both by the progressive nature of their music and their distinctive aesthetics, which permeated every aspect of their visual personas, from their album covers to their live shows. The group soon adopted visuals that borrowed elements from early 20th century artistic movements like Russian Suprematism, modern art and even Socialist Realism, twisting them and turning them inside out with something akin to an art student’s pranksterism of pop provocation.
“The Robots” off the album
Their love affair with robots, and their own metamorphosis into robotic avatars, stems from the album The Man-Machine, inspired by a philosophical motif of the "man-machine" dating back to the 18th Century and revived by continental philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari (Anti-Oedipus, published in 1972). Little did they know, the "Man-Machine" would become the holy alliance and main aesthetic pattern to describe electronic music from then on, along with computer flashing visuals and digital 0/1 lines.
In 1981, their album Computer Tour gained Kraftwerk worldwide recognition and fame. Even people with the most remote interest in and appreciation of electronic music can instantly recognize the robots performing on stage as representative of Kraftwerk. Over time, these mechanical performers (who have changed their initial lineup too many times to keep track) have become the "Tongue and Lip" logo of electronic sounds, and they are, in spite of their frightening dead and cold face, a testimony of the importance and influence of Kraftwerk over the years.
“The Robots” (live in Sheffield 1991)
This visual aesthetic is not only responsible for the way we think about this particular band or this particular genre, it was so influential as to have contributed to the whole image of 1980s Berlin we all have in mind when we think of underground art scenes in Germany.
The group’s main achievements, outside of hit singles like "Robots," "Radio-activity," "The Model," "Trans Europe Express" and others, might be the way they took over a high-brow, intellectual and experimental movement and turned it into a pop, stadium-ready and club-friendly genre. Kraftwerk is the reason electronic music became as popular as rock in youth culture.