What does it sound like?:
After the recent sad loss of Kraftwerk founder, Florian Schneider, it’s an opportune time to re-evaluate their catalogue. It’s helpful that Kraftwerk, still led by Ralf Hütter, have released most of it digitally, for streaming or download, in stereo and Dolby Atmos/HD Surroundsound best appreciated via Amazon HD or Tidal. You can now enjoy the eight core studio albums from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks in their 2009 remaster and the 2017 3-D Catalogue in both English and German. Autobahn, Radioactivity and Tour de France have only one set of vocals but Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer World, Techno Pop and The Mix were issued in German for the German, Austrian and Swiss markets, and English for the rest of the world. For Kraftwerk purists, the German versions are the definitive ones.
Kraftwerk began as experimental Krautrock group, flirting with atonality and repetitive motorik rhythms. By the time of Autobahn in 1974, they had found their niche. Impressed by an exhibition by Gilbert and George, two similarly suited men with narrow ties, influenced by the Bauhaus aesthetic in wanting to make their lives into a work of art, Kraftwerk decided to look for art in everyday life. They discovered they could hear poetry and rhythms in engines and machinery and it seemed logical to set the music they heard to a backing of machine-like instruments. Hütter and Schneider were certainly familiar with Stravinsky’s description of a Germanic Thread, a lineage that can be traced from Bach, Händel, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, through to Schoenberg, but perhaps Kraftwerk’s biggest influence was Franz Schubert whose melodies float ethereally. It’s no wonder they pay tribute to him at the end of Trans Europa Express. The formula was set: simple tunes, straightforward rhythms, minimal lyrics and electronic instruments.
Listening to these five German language albums one after the other, it is striking how romantic they are. Human beings rarely make an appearance, however: Das Model is a woman with a specific agenda and Sex Objekt is ambiguous. These are not songs about personal relationships but they are love songs, in rapture of the wonders of modern endeavour. They are carefree, untroubled by worries concerning the climate or the dangers of nuclear power. There is also a nostalgia. The machines they adore are strangely old-fashioned, mostly analogue. Kraftwerk are fascinated by pocket calculators, vehicles and telephones with a dial. Even Spacelab sounds quaint. Metropolis could be named after Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie, wistfully longing for a vision of the future before fascism overwhelmed Europe. Only Computerwelt feels absolutely of its time, set in the here and now of 1981. The technology gets better as each album ticks by but they continue to radiate warmth, to have their own heart beat. The rhythms become more powerful and complex. The bassline counter-melodies are increasingly supple. For Trans Europa Express, they acquired a customised Synthanorma Sequenza. As a result, the tunes are almost spiritual, seemingly suspended in mid-air and the title track in its medley with Metall Auf Metall and Abzug pounds along relentlessly. Neonlicht on Die Mensch-Maschine is an enchanting ballad, rendered helpless by the wonder of the urban landscape. Nummern has a dynamic beat that makes the earth tremble and, merging into Computerwelt 2, a coda that is deliciously tranquil. By The Mix in 1993, Kraftwerk were preparing for a return to touring. The re-recordings and rearrangements add intricacies and meatier sounding percussion to the tracks, rendering them less subtle but exactly as required for the cut and thrust of live performance in front of a large crowd. Radioaktivität and Musik Non-Stop, especially, are transformed into thrilling hedonistic dance numbers. Kraftwerk continued to use cutting edge technology in the live setting, developing a visual and aural experience second to none. 3-D Katalog consists of a series of concerts, one for each of the core eight albums, recorded in museums and art galleries across the world, places of worship for Kraftwerk, between 2012 and 2016.
Kraftwerk’s vocals are famously disembodied, using a vocoder, samples and computer generated voices. The lyrics are full of acronyms, single syllable words, especially numbers, in various languages, allowing the vocal sounds to be deployed for their percussive effects. The best example is Techno Pop, or Electric Café as it is more widely known, where the vocal tracks are astonishing, driving the rhythms onomatopoetically. Just witness the opening track, Boing Boom Tschak. Techno Pop also features the most emotional of all Kraftwerk songs, Der Telefon Annuf, sung gently by Karl Bartos as all hope slowly extinguishes of ever getting a reply. Faced with the harsh reality of “Dieser Anschluss ist vorübergehend nicht erreichbar,” the effect in German is even more profound. The deadpan jokes are less apparent to those unfamiliar with the language and the frisson of their English accents is lost but there are significant gains. The glee in “Und wenn ich diese Taste drück, Spielt er ein kleines Musikstück” is more joyful. There is a fierce defiance to “Wir Sind Schaufensterpuppen” that isn’t quite there in English. The ‘Korrekt’ in Das Model is an aggressive growl rather than a tease. Computer Liebe feels more tender and Europa Endlos more serene. The ennui in Spiegelsaal is even more disturbing.
In their native German, there is a greater range of expression, but they retain their trademark robotic detachment and the music remains as wunderbar as ever. It’s certainly worth having a listen to the holy trinity of Trans Europa Express, the one with the widest variety of songs, Die Mensch Maschine, full of long sweeping flows of electronica, and the powerful, sleek Computerwelt. Rather pleasingly, you can now do so via your home computer, phone or other mobile device.
What does it all *mean*?
It’s More Fun To Compute
Goes well with…
An ‘office’ at home. On the go while travelling around Europe would be ideal.
3rd July 2020
Might suit people who like…
Neil McCormick thought Kraftwerk were the most influential group in Pop history. Add The Beatles, Elvis, James Brown and Dylan and you have a very solid top five.