Kraftwerk - Biography

The obverse: In a 1975 review in Creem magazine, Lester Bangs describes an apocryphal encounter between Krautrock progenitors Kraftwerk, and bearded, Southern, boogie-rock golems Black Oak Arkansas. Essentially, Bangs’ mission is to lay into the effeminate, electronically advanced Kraftwerk as being icy, humorless, and soulless. It’s a surprising tack, coming from rock lit’s most deliberate contrarian. I mean, the guy would champion the most extreme garbage imaginable — “Hideous Blare” — just to crank up the stakes in the debate about what constituted art, rock, and genuine, rump-shaking beauty. Yet Kraftwerk were more than even he could handle.

The reverse: There is a laughably revisionist 90s television series, “Time/Life Presents the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It’s available on DVD, and it’s laughable because it defines the 1970s with the music of David Bowie, The Stooges, Funkadelic, and Kraftwerk. I mean, that’s all well and good, and we all own those records now, three decades later, but come on. No one in the 70s was listening to The Stooges. In fact, all of those bands, Bowie included, were so far off the mainstream map that they were considered novelty acts. In fact, there were probably about three white people who actually owned Funkadelic records in the 1970s, and two of them were John Sinclair and his girlfriend. Please. Everyone was listening to Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, not Maggot Brain. Give me a flipping break.

Anyway. In this TV show, they go to Grandmaster Flash, who describes his epiphany at hearing Kraftwerk for the first time. Recounting it, he reels: “Who are these funky, funky white boys?!” Basically, he and the show then make the case that Kraftwerk single-handedly laid the foundation for techno and hip-hop.

So which one is it? Were Kraftwerk rigid, technocratic automatons, subject to blame for every ill foisted upon us by Midi technology and drum machines in the last twenty to thirty years? I mean, these are gay dudes who dressed up in Roaring Twenties-era, Valentino garb and makeup, lipstick included, and self-identified as robots. Well, don’t judge too quickly — you can have my Roland TR-808 when you pry it and my bedazzled Crunk cup from my cold, dead, ATL-livin’ hands. The truth is that it’s all one coin: Kraftwerk are funky, funky, computer nerds who really did invent techno and were an indirect yet massive contributing component in the birth of hip-hop, and they’re not humorless at all. They’re just German.

Add one more item: The original line-up included not only Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, electric violin) and Ralf Hütter (electronic organ, synthesizers), but Michael Rother (guitars, synthesizers) and Klaus Dinger (drums, synthesizers), who split before the first LP to found Neu!, which to an alt-rock geek is the equivalent of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon being in the first version of the Rolling Stones. And behind the mixing desk you’ve got Konrad “Conny” Plank, who was the Phil Spector of Krautrock. Pow!

Schneider and Hütter were from Dusseldorf, and met at conservatory. Afterwards, they quickly wedged into the underground music scene, which went prominently aboveground when the UK music press latched on and dubbed it all Krautrock. It was an unruly aggregate of bands, but the common factor was a driving, metronomic beat, a rolling, repetitive minimalism, and — especially in Ralf and Florian’s case — the use of newfangled synthesizers. In the geologic epoch in which Crosby, Stills, and Nash stomped around the FM tar pit, this was clever, engaging, mammalian stuff.

It’s safe to say that Ralf and Florian are a couple of freaks. Stories of their secrecy and paranoia are the stuff of legend, from the earliest days, to recent encounters with the likes of Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Chris Whatshisname of Coldplay. (“How do I know you’re gay? You listen to Coldplay.”) Their Dusseldorf studio, Kling Klang, is shrouded in Langley levels of mystery and intrigue. It’s worth mentioning because of this mindnumbingly grotesque fact: Ralf and Florian have completely disavowed all three of their earliest, rock-based records. And all three of them are landmark, rock ‘n’ roll classics — classics you’ll have to root for like a pig rooting for truffles, but classics nevertheless.

The debut, simply titled Kraftwerk 1 (1971 Philips) is a hard-driving joy — even the flute parts rock. It maps the band’s agenda of looping, reverberating minimalism, with electronics wherever possible, but it doesn’t shy away from standard instrumentation when necessary, including fuzzed-out electric guitar. Kraftwerk 2 (1972 Philips) is a very similar affair, rising in a series of gradual, layered crescendos. As with the contemporaneous LPs by Neu!, there is liberal twisting of the varispeed knob.

The third record is billed as Ralf and Florian (1973 Philips); it meanders a bit, but is generally excellent. Better yet is Kraftwerk 4 (2007 bootleg), a recently released live concert from 1970 that predates Kraftwerk 1 and is the only available recording of the band with Rother and Dinger. It’s anomalous and highly recommended — think the motorik of Neu! with a dollop of Black Sabbath. Seriously. It’s great stuff.

It’s almost impossible to even explain the context into which Autobahn (1974 Philips) dropped. Electronic music was still in its infancy, enough so that it was considered a gimmick. The top-selling acts of 1974 were Bob Denver, Elton John, and (ugh) Wings. We can take it for granted in 2008 that a pop band can be influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Not so in 1974. In the era of bell-bottoms and back-to-the-country Jesus Freaking, Autobahn was as alien as a ride in a flying saucer. It’s a vivid, disorienting masterpiece.

Autobahn is an abrupt departure for Kraftwerk as well. It’s their first all-electronic outing, and the first of several concept albums, as it simulates a long-form drive on Germany’s infamous highways, replete right down to the swoosh of passing vehicles and the honking of horns. It’s a sharply focused effort — dense, layered, lustrous, and gorgeous. Autobahn was a hit throughout Europe, and even got some FM play in America, albeit in a truncated version. Superficial novelty may have played a role in the original interest, but a quarter century later, Autobahn remains a classic of both Krautrock and electronica.

Radio-Activity (1975 Capitol) offers various takes on transmissions and radio communication as its conceptual conceit, with shorter, song-based tracks; with the addition of Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, the band had a line-up that would last for nearly a decade. Pushing a Weimar vibe, Kraftwerk cut their hair and adopted an arch, silent-film-era look for the elegant, glossy Trans-Europe Express (1977 Capitol). By this point, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Gary Numan, and Joy Division/New Order were all furiously taking notes. The Man Machine (1978 Capitol) even scored a Top-40 hit on the US disco charts with “The Robots.” This time it was George Clinton and Grandmaster Flash taking notes.

If Autobahn is Kraftwerk’s Exile on Main Street, Computer World (1982 Capitol) is its Goat’s Head Soup. It’s got a couple of great songs, but you can hear that the band is slipping, and inadvertently entering the territory of self-parody. The track “Pocket Calculator” is completely awesome, a Speak ‘n’ Spell booty call, totally engaging. But elsewhere, they seem to have lost some of the organic underpinnings that made Autobahn so thrilling. You can tell they’re paying too much attention to the technology.

Kraftwerk may have some records after Computer World, but they’re not worth discussing. Go out and find the early stuff, plus the LPs by Neu! as well as the two or three releases by Harmonia, which is Rother’s Krautrock “supergroup” with the dudes from Cluster and sometimes Brian Eno. They’ll get you by for years.

The first three Kraftwerk LPs are straight-up rock ‘n’ roll classics, and sound fresh and invigorated well into the 21st century. Autobahn is a pan-genre masterpiece of 20th century art. The next couple of records totally bop and roll, and Computer World is, at least, an awful lot of fun. Come on, Lester. Pry yourself away from that rehearsal with Tupac and shake your ass to a song called “Pocket Calculator.” Improbability is a blast.

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