Like many German bands of the early 1970s, Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk aimed to create a new music apart from American rock ‘n’ roll. Influenced by British psychedelic and progressive scenes but also by free jazz and classical avant-garde composers, Kraftwerk’s initial fluctuating lineup jammed like most bands of its era, yet its efforts to disassociate itself from blues-based American forms set it in search of outer and inner space. Every astronaut needs technology, and core Kraftwerkers Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter found it in the form of synthesizers. Adding Wolfgang Flur, who helped build the group’s Kling Klang studio and its pioneering electronic drums, and second percussionist Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk arrived at its quintessential form and sound — an emphatically conceptual synth-pop that’s just as much about presentation as it is about music. By dropping the traditional drum kit, replacing it with machines, cutting their hair, and presenting themselves as resolutely stiff and quintessentially Germanic sonic scientists on the 1975 American tour for their surprise international hit Autobahn, these truly revolutionary radicals freaked out the ordinarily un-freak-able hippies: Kraftwerk became performance art.
This idea and ideal of Kraftwerk — the humanoid robot, the ultimate computer, the Uber-Mensch-Maschine — snowballed with every release until 1981′s Computer World, when Kraftwerk took its entire Kling Klang studio onstage, framed itself with screens that projected synchronized slides and films, and for “The Robots,” actually replaced itself with automatons designed to resemble a different musician. The effect was akin to the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time with their mop-tops and matching suits; that rare and utterly magical moment when an audience is presented with something almost unprecedented that literally changes the course of history. Even more than the Beatles, Kraftwerk, its sound, and image were willed into one coherent entity, and countless acts from Madonna to Daft Punk have endeavored to follow this paradigm of the perfectly realized Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.
In honor of Kraftwerk’s performance of their catalogue — from 1974′s Autobahn to 2003′s Tour de France — at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, here is a chronological examination of their key eight albums.
Kraftwerk's fourth German album and groundbreaking first international release combines the prog-rock mindset of 1974 with synth-played pop and self-built electronic percussion. Lacking the chops of Pink Floyd and Yes, Kraftwerk compensate with tunes, beats and concept. Autobahn's 23-minute title track is Hutter, Schneider and sleeve artist/lyricist Emil Schult's impression of a lengthy journey on Germany's famous speed-limit-free motorway. The tempo fluctuates to suggest differing pressures on the gas pedal while generating impressions of passing cars, wind in the hair, overhead birds and the warmth of a shimmering sun. Reverb-drenched surf guitar and sonically treated flute surface fleetingly, but the overall feel is synthetic because Kraftwerk's vision of man's machine-enabled journey through nature is dreamlike, otherworldly.
"Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn," Hutter and Schneider repeatedly sing, and when they turn on the radio, they hear their own vocoder-treated voices repeat the same words that translate to "We're drivin' drivin' drivin' on the Autobahn," but sound like "We're fun, fun, fun on the auto bun," an unconscious and apparently accidental allusion to the Beach Boys' 1964 ode to teenage driving, "Fun, Fun Fun." Even on the highway of their own imaginations, these German separatists cannot escape American culture, and the history of popular music is all the better for it.
The puns exist on so many levels. Kraftwerk's 1975 follow-up to its surprise international hit Autobahn is a concept album about both radioactivity and activity on the radio. After years in the German underground, these Dusseldorf experimentalists were now actually on the radio; a drastic edit of its 23-minute "Autobahn" received bona fide Top 40 airplay even in the United States, from which the quartet strove to stylistically distance itself. And so Radio-Activity features songs and noise snippets that reveal in code — at one point, actual Morse code — Kraftwerk's new ambivalence toward radio while the band generates more foreboding impressions of radiation.
The title track ingeniously drifts between the two: "Radioactivity is in the air for you and meâ€¦tune in to a melody," Ralf Hutter croons quietly and remotely, never once revealing if he thinks radioactivity — or even radio-activity — is a good or a bad thing. With a slight change in pronunciation, he slides into German, but remains elusive and allusive. All traces of Autobahn's fleeting acoustic instrumentation have been dropped, and the result is much more severe. "Antenna" offers another masterstroke, a love song between an antenna and his transmitter. The lyrics are nothing more than factual ("I'm the antenna catching vibration/ You're the transmitter, give information"), but the arrangement implies sensuality through a liberal dose of echo on Hutter's vocal, an undulating bass riff, and boing-ing sounds that suggest robot orgasms two years before Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." The roles reverse; suddenly Hutter is the transmitter, and his beloved is the antenna. Don't judge; that's just the way these men-machines roll.
Autobahn is split between a milestone title track and a less memorable flipside. Radio-Activity pads a knockout single ("Radioactivity"/"Antenna") with conceptually savvy window dressing. 1977's Trans-Europe Express, however, marks the beginning of an artistic peak that brings Kraftwerk to the dancefloor as it substantially expands the quartet's influence. Its sumptuous textures, jagged beats and retro-futurist style would be revisited, sampled, and imitated by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Donna Summer, the Human League, Afrika Bambaataa and just about anyone who's ever programmed a synthesizer to shake its groove thing.
Trans-Europe Express is an album about identity in which Kraftwerk situates itself between the European classical composers of the past and the future musicians of the world: The melodies are as rich and romantic as its rhythms are stark and skeletal. While its octave-jumping bassline and strict pulse links disco and marching music, the violin-like synths of "Europe Endless" reach back to 19th-century Romantics like Franz Schubert (who has a song named after him here), Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and many others. "The Hall of Mirrors" pushes the narcissism of Romanticism to Expressionistic extremes. "The artist is living in the mirror with the echoes of himself," Ralf Hutter declares as the sounds of feet walking through an echo-drenched hallway keep time. "Showroom Dummies" twists a criticism of Kraftwerk's anti-stage presence into a badge of pride: We are mannequins; we will dance, and so will you.
All of this is abundantly clear on the title track and its continuing medley cuts "Metal on Metal" and "Abzug." Here the effect is much more ominous; had they been played in a traditional disco arrangement of symphonic soul, these horror-evoking synth riffs would probably clear the floor. Instead, they're both cool and hot like synthetic James Brown; a combination Kraftwerk takes to greater extremes in its next album, 1978's The Man-Machine.
Even more so than Kraftwerk's other albums, 1978's The Man-Machine is both of its time and several years ahead. It's not incidental that group leaders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider here share their songwriting credits with their electronic percussionist Karl Bartos. Following the cutting-edge club success of 1977's Trans-Europe Express, this successor released at disco's peak features six tracks, all of them danceable. Here is where Kraftwerk's lingering progressive rock consciousness completely vanishes, and where these electronic conceptualists consummate their transition into full-fledged dance band.
"Spacelab" and "Metropolis" acknowledge the smooth, synthesized Eurodisco that the Dusseldorf quartet helped pioneer but could not yet crack commercially: Donna Summer, her producer Giorgio Moroder, and others like France's Cerrone and Space were at this point far more club-savvy. "The Robots" and the concluding title track downplay the European classicism of "Trans-Europe Express" while emphasizing its syncopation: That sinuous bassline at the forefront of "The Robot" is pure funk, and the synth line animating "The Man-Machine" would be replayed for one of hip-hop's first electro hits in 1982, the Fearless Four's "Rockin' It."
The remaining tracks bare the hallmarks of what would soon be synth-pop. "Neon Lights" provides a blueprint for nocturnal, distinctly urban, and typically melancholy beat ballads like Gary Numan's 1979 UK chart-topper "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and Ultravox's massively melodramatic 1981 single "Vienna." "The Model" didn't click beyond Germany when initially released, but its abundant glamour and Weimar Republic-evoking melody eventually made it a natural on London's New Romantic scene. When reprised as the B-side for 1981's "Computer Love" single, savvy UK DJs flipped it, and Kraftwerk's record label rereleased it. Nearly four years after The Man-Machine's initial appearance, the jaunty tune became in England one of 1982's biggest hits, and Kraftwerk's sole No. 1 single.
More than rock and its hard-to-budge sense of history, African-American popular music typically concentrates on the present — probably because the past wasn't such a great place to live in if your skin wasn't the right shade. Kraftwerk had ranked among the palest dance bands on the planet (a fact accentuated by 1978's Man-Machine artwork), but on the cover of 1981's Computer World, the quartet's faces were as black as a computer screen, and their R&B profile rose exponentially. Nothing but electronic rhythms, multi-lingual counting and ricocheting sound effects, "Numbers" wasn't even released as a single, but it became a massive hit on WBLS, New York's pioneering and hugely popular black-owned urban contemporary station. There was rarely a moment during the summer of 1981 when someone wasn't breakdancing to a boombox blasting "Numbers" and "Computer World." By the following year, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his collaborators combined the Dusseldorf foursome's earlier "Trans-Europe Express" with "Numbers" and came up with "Planet Rock," one of hip-hop's most influential early records. Within a few months, R&B and rap alike was synonymous with synths and drum machines.
But if Computer World shaped future R&B, it also suggested Kraftwerk listened to Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and other early black synth adapters. Out went overt references to European classical melodies that shaped albums like Trans-Europe Express, and in came jazzier chords and streamlined melodies. "Computer World," "Home Computer" and "It's More Fun to Compute" all evoke the spy movie themes of John Barry and Quincy Jones, while the tricky syncopations and spry contrapuntal synth lines of "Pocket Calculator" nearly swing. "Computer Love," though, is where Kraftwerk shows its newfound emotional depth. Assisted by spearheading touch-sensitive keyboards, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider make their synths positively sing while percussionist Karl Bartos builds his rhythms in kind. If there was any doubt that synthesized music could have soul, Kraftwerk beautifully refuted it here.
Whereas 1981's Computer World coincided with a huge escalation in the new wave, R&B, post-disco and hip-hop worlds for synthesized grooves, late 1986's Electric Cafe arrived when much of popular music was already electronic. The German quartet started working on Computer World's successor in 1982, but when key member Ralf Hutter suffered a serious injury while practicing his newfound cycling hobby, its successor was delayed and repeatedly reworked. When Electric Cafe finally appeared, its largely digital sounds were no longer cutting edge; hip-hop, Latin freestyle, hi-NRG and synth-pop were all heard regularly on Top 40 radio while house music raged in the underground.
Aside from the slower, more skeletal and aggressive rhythms of Run-D.M.C.-era hip-hop that dominate its nearly non-stop first side, the album barely reflects or acknowledges any of this. Mostly, it picks up where Computer World left off with percussive vocal samples taking the place of most sung vocal lines and telephone sounds where pocket calculator noises once buzzed. Returning to the symphonic classicism of Trans-Europe Express, "Sex Object" is the most startling track. Whereas early Kraftwerk cuts like "Antenna" danced around sexuality and 1983's "Tour de France" single sang about cycling while its heavy breathing implied a journey to orgasm, this atypically frank track features Ralf Hutter in the role of a reluctant lover who craves for emotion and respect; he's human, after all.
Released five years after 1986's Electric Cafe, The Mix answers criticisms that its predecessor didn't keep up with dance trends. Essentially a replayed greatest-hits collection released in conjunction with the group's return to live performance, the album presents Kraftwerk's most enduring tracks in digital form. Rather than playing most of their synth lines and electronic percussion by hand, many elements here were created through sequencers, and the result is smoother, more automated. Reflecting then-popular club tempos, several cuts are considerably faster than their typically analog originals, and many pound with the four-to-the-floor bass drum thump of house music while suggesting the iciness of Depeche Mode, the synth-pop successors particularly evoked on a rewritten rendition of "Radioactivity." Whereas the original spun puns of radio waves and radioactivity, this far more forceful remake cites nuclear disasters. "Chain reaction and mutation/ Contaminated population/ Stop radioactivity," Ralf Hutter warns without a shred of his earlier ambivalence.
When your biggest song on what was the biggest station in the world is nothing but beats, counting and sound effects, you probably think you can get away with anything. That was Kraftwerk on its 1981 Computer World track "Numbers," which was championed by New York's WBLS at the height of its trendsetting R&B powers and immediately became a breakdancing anthem along with its similarly minimal 1983 single "Tour de France," the soundtrack for a key dance in the 1984 b-boy film Breakin'. So when the Dusseldorf quartet two decades later built a new album around that standalone '83 track, writing substantial new melodies probably didn't rank high on its artistic agenda: Several cuts are compositionally nothing more than accelerated, modernized or merely rerecorded versions on "Tour de France," and most of the rest are melodically minimal variations on each other. But the sound of the band's 2003 album — its only studio disc since 1986, and the first crafted on software synths — is distinctly and extraordinarily visceral; it feels like a cycling journey through Kraftwerk's digitized Europe.