By Gareth Watkins
“Science fiction is about the present.”
– William Gibson
CALGARY — His band may be as influential, if not more influential than the Beatles, but Ralf Hütter is characteristically modest about his ambitions for Kraftwerk. Along with Florian Schneider, Hütter formed the German electronic act and despite its staggering significance he says, “We just wanted to hear our music.”
We’ll cover the music later. For now let’s concentrate on what he meant by “our.”
Germany in the late ‘60s was shiny and new. The war necessitated a period of rebuilding: a whole industrial civilization had to be remade from the craters left in the aftermath of World War II, and nobody had any time to make it pretty. Square, grey concrete towers were the norm and humourless efficiency became the new national stereotype. The Volkswagen and the Autobahn were recast as symbols of the country’s future, despite both being pet projects of Hitler himself. The compromises with the nation’s past didn’t stop there: former Nazis like chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger were promoted to positions of power and along with other authoritarian Germans born after the war. Hütter and Schneider found themselves growing up in a country stricken by political turbulence and run by what Red Army Faction leader Gudrun Ensslin dubbed as, “the Auschwitz generation.” Culturally the scene couldn’t have been more different, as Germany’s rich musical past was set aside to be dominated by American and British rock ‘n’ roll. After all, the country was almost destroyed on the whims of a rabid Wagner fan.
From the underground short-lived psychedelic bands toiled away in Berlin squats, a few went on to international acclaim. Groups like Can (with whom Kraftwerk played early concerts) and Neu! (featuring two former Kraftwerk members) largely ignored the bluesy rock ‘n’ roll sound coming from the other side of the Atlantic and embraced repetitious rhythms and synthesizers utilizing the Moog and Prophet. An overeager English-speaking press dubbed the sound “Krautrock,” a term Hütter positively loathes: “Total bullshit. These were artists, not vegetables.”
Against this background Hütter says: “We set out to find our voice, to create our sound – the Kling Klang sound. We were the first post-war generation. So, as you can imagine, there wasn’t really a living musical culture. There was, of course, classical music from the 19th century, but there was no contemporary music like they had in America. When we found out that a musical culture didn’t exist in Germany, it was a culture shock. But there was also a possibility.”
The status of Can, Neu! and Popul Vuh grew as large as any psych-rock and avant-garde act playing in squats are likely to get. Even though they had a dedicated fan base, Germany wasn’t producing much in the way of popular music until Kraftwerk arrived. When they did, the shock waves were immediate and long reaching: they are directly responsible for spawning a dozen genres and their influence can still be felt in popular and alternative music, and perhaps always will be.
Hütter and Schneider met as students at Düsseldorf’s Robert Schumann University of Music and Media in the late ‘60s. Although the sprawling industrial town wasn’t a bohemian hub like West Berlin, it still had enough of a local scene to support the fledgling Kraftwerk. Hütter recalls: “We set up our Kling Klang studio with Florian Schneider and myself, with tape recorders and the very simple equipment we had in those days as music students. We played universities, clubs and, especially, art galleries or museums. They always had a space for us, so we were always very involved with visual art. Right from the beginning Kraftwerk was a multimedia project.”
After three albums of experimental rock, the true result of that project was the 1974 album Autobahn. Today, Hütter describes the eponymous 22-minute song that forms the core of the album as being an “electronic symphony,” and it’s hard to disagree that it has as much in common with classical music as it does with contemporary electronica. The song, which begins with an engine revving and a car pulling away, evokes the feeling of travelling along a stretch of one of Germany’s 13,000 kilometres of speed-limit-free roads. It subverts the image of the car as a method and means of attaining freedom that persisted since rock ’n’ roll emerged in the ‘50s and replaced it with what Herbert Marcuse called the “One-Dimensional Man,” an uncritical, solitary consumer. In ”Autobahn” the car, open road and consumer are presented as a place to be alone, immersed in a song written about being immersed in a song.
“One of our dreams,” says Hütter, “was that our music would be played on the radio. The lyrics in the third verse are, ‘We turn on the radio, and from the speaker we hear, ‘fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.’” Farhen is the German word for drive but widely misinterpreted as “fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn” and a nod to the Beach Boys, which it wasn’t intended to be.
Cut down to three minutes and 27 seconds, “Autobahn” got the radio play Kraftwerk dreamt of and international success that they never expected. It placed 25 on the US Billboard charts and in the top 10 of most European countries, allowing the band to invest heavily in a recording studio they christened as Kling Klang, and to tour the world with a live show that was becoming just as famous as the band. But not everybody was so enthusiastic: the U.K.’s now defunct, but then massively influential, Melody Maker magazine cried “for God’s sake, keep the robots out of music.”
Autobahn and the releases that followed cut across the artificial divides in musical culture. In New York discos Kraftwerk could be heard in the mix with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Punks embraced their Dadaist visuals: post-punk acts Devo and Public Image Ltd. would have never happened had Kraftwerk not positioned their music as an industrially produced consumer product. Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire took Kraftwerk’s compositional methods and pushed them to the absolute limit, imbuing them with a confrontational tone that Hütter and Schneider’s romantic, sentimental, sometimes even funny music lacked. Hip-hop godfathers Afrika Bambaata and The Soul Sonic Force sampled Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express” on their song “Planet Rock,” creating the electro-sound and inching hip-hop closer to its current dominance of the mainstream.
They are technical innovators as much as they are musical pioneers. Hütter and Schneider hold a patent for an electronic drum machine and have commissioned custom equipment since the very beginning. Their early shows had simple slide projections, but today’s vast multimedia spectacles employ cinema-sized 3D visuals synchronized to the music. The band’s eerie robotic counterparts (who “like to travel with us,” according to Hütter) also take the stage.
Despite a mission statement to create the sound of the modern world and a secretive studio filled with 21st century equipment, Kraftwerk employs a form that’s deeply rooted in classical music. “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a “total work of art,” is a theoretical fusion of the arts first proposed in the early 19th century and popularized through the essays of composer Richard Wagner (the ones where he’s not being a raging anti-Semite). The limited palette available to 19th-century musicians meant that the nearest Wagner could come to creating a true total work of art was fusing music, drama, dance and set design in epic operas like Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, parts of his infamous 15-hour-long Ring Cycle. Today, plenty of bands perform in front of projections (Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Neurosis among them), while others bring in elements from outside music (Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s Kabuki and Noh-influenced performance art, Purity Ring’s costumes and very Kraftwerk-esque custom instruments), but few if any have integrated music, visuals and theatrics as thoroughly or for as long as Kraftwerk.
Hütter says that Gesamtkunstwerk is the correct term, “but multimedia says it better in a modern technological way, because we are using all electronic media, photography, film, 3D images, computer animations, synthetic sounds, human voices. We’re working with all the universal sounds.” In German Kraftwerk usually means power station. However, when split apart Kraft means energy, and Werk means labour or alternatively a piece or work of art. Kraftwerk isn’t just an institution feeding energy into popular music, empowering the world with motorized rhythms and processed vocals, it is a dynamic, living work of art itself, in which each song is constantly being upgraded and improved upon. Songs, on albums like 1975’s jarring, disjointed Radio-Activity, and its follow-up in 1976, the cohesive, almost prototypically Kraftwerk-ian Trans Europe Express, are still there, but every time the band jams in the Kling Klang studio they evolve.
“Improvisation and the multimedia ideas are very basic to Kraftwerk. Now we have different tools. As you can imagine we are now working on computers, but we’re also working with pencils. Only now with computers it’s much easier to combine the compositions, particularly with live recordings now. It was only since 2002 that we were first able to perform the music that we recorded in the Kling Klang studio. It was only in the 21st century that we could hear our music the way it was supposed to be.”
Their latest piece of total art has evolved from retrospectives that the band performed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) called Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, which features their albums from 1974’s Autobahn to 2003’s Tour de France performed over successive nights. Following MoMA, the band slowly made their way around the world, then returned to Kling Klang to work on a new, still untitled record and, in 2014, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. This new tour is now about to begin with a series of dates across North America, starting in Edmonton. They plan to document the tour alongside a Blu-ray release of their back catalogue with the same 3D visuals that audience members will experience during the live concert, simply entitled Kraftwerk 3D. They have about a week left to get it all right before the tour starts. But then this is the team that boasts of working ‘168-hour weeks’ and still has time for 100-kilometre cycle rides in-between. They’ll do it.
This article is being written on a computer with an artificially intelligent assistant named Cortana. You may be reading it on a device barely bigger than a pack of playing cards with its own ghost in the machine, Siri. Swipe away from this article and, like the protagonist of Kraftwerk’s 1981 song “Computer Love,” you could find a “rendezvous” tonight on Tinder. All of this is the way technology is presented in Kraftwerk’s music. We’re all man-machines, and that’s okay.
“Technology is a work of art,” says Hütter. ”Art, technology and music are where Kraftwerk is situated.”
See Kraftwerk in Edmonton on Wednesday, September 16th at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, or in Calgary on Thursday, September 17th at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.AB, Alberta, Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 3D, Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Ralf Hütter, Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium