Somnambule - Writing About Music

Kraftwerk, An Overview

My father, fascinated by the novel electronic sounds he heard on the radio one day went out and bought an lp. He still has it, the cover is patched with a little brown tape to protect the dog-eared corners but the highly stylised image of the white motorway crossed by a bridge against a blue background retains its power. The cover was chosen recently by Peter Saville as his favourite musical design in The Wire magazine. I was eight years old when Kraftwerk's Autobahn was released. What fascinated me was the sound, immediately recognisable, of the synthesized woosh of vehicles passing. In headphones that sound passes straight through the middle of your head - a sonic trick but a loveable, entrancing one which I loved to play to my friends.

Kraftwerk were born afresh out of their own personally declared year zero at the end of the 1960s. They rejected their forefathers’ nationalism and the awful recent history of their country. Instead they wanted to begin again and did so initially by exploring the possibilities of rock improvisation in a style which came to be known as krautrock. The early albums (Kraftwerk 1 and 2 and Ralf and Florian) are a world away from the style inaugurated with Autobahn and are not the focus of this essay, for more detail on this predawn era it's worth visiting ‘Kraftwerk, The Early Years’.

Autobahn was a surprise hit. Although an edited 7” single was released, it was the 22’39” album version which caused the sharpest inhalation of breath. Each side of the long player presents sonic trompe l’oeil effects which are almost gauche in their immediacy. The ‘A’ side is a 22 minute musical prose poem to the open road inaugurated by the sound of an engine ignition and the friendly beep-beep of a car horn. Very quickly though the great power and danger of vehicles passing at high speed impacts upon the listener. The experience is alternately carefree, menacing, threatening, exhausted and overpowering. Autobahn navigates a succession of passages which mirror the traversing of a long journey, throughout though it's a singularly industrial experience. There are lighter moments of optimism and pleasure, but the business of travel is treated as a serious issue. Despite the length of the piece, there's no hint of monotony, the electronic percussion and the ceaseless rhythmic impetus of the music continuously engages. Autobahn is also a symbolically endless journey: there is no silencing of the engine started up at the beginning.

“We are driving on the Autobahn
In front of us is a wide valley
The sun is shining with glittering rays
The driving strip is a grey track
White lines, green border
We turn the radio on
From the speaker it sounds:
We are driving on the Autobahn”

The ‘B’ side offers a musical portrait of day fading into night and through to dawn complete with a spooky, betwitching Mitternacht (whose eery effects I used to hide from behind the sofa with my friends) and a twittering synthetic dawn chorus. In interviews Kraftwerk affirmed their engagement with popular culture by speaking enthusiastically of The Beach Boys. This might have surprised their previous audience given that earlier recordings and Autobahn’s length and conceptual underpinning, might have led the group to be mistaken for avant-garde 'high' artists. There really had been nothing like Autobahn before or, it could be argued, since with the exception of the group’s own output.

A year later in 1975, Radioactivity followed with songs as beguiling in their simplicity as children’s nursery rhymes or lullabies, but whose subject matter was modern and intensely lyrical. The titles speak volumes: Airwaves, News, Transistor, Ohm Sweet Ohm. The sonic evocation of matter and experience initiated on Autobahn is further crystalised – for example The Voice Of Energy reifies its poetic conceit by employing a wonderfully grainy vocoder to speak the lines:

“This is the Voice of Energy
I am a giant electrical generator
I supply you with light and power
And I enable you to receive speech,
Music and image through the ether
I am your servant and lord at the same time
Therefore guard me well
Me, the Genius of Energy”

The sounds composed and deployed on Radioactivity are marvellously tactile, but they are used sparingly with a lack of embellishment that allows each element to be appreciated fully. There is a strong sense of the conscious construction of a sonic architecture to create an overarching tone-poem throughout.

A relic of Kraftwerk’s rejected forefathers was depicted on the front cover – a radio set issued to the civilian population by the Nazis and deliberately manufactured to broadcast only the official party radio station. This is entirely puzzling if not understood in a wider context: its inclusion may be interpreted as a warning that belies the almost naïve enthusiasm of the album as a whole: energy is a latent force, control of which bestows great power which it is all too easy to misuse.

The inner sleeve depicts the group smartly dressed in suits and ties in distinct contradiction of the longhaired fashions of the day: their appearance is much more closely aligned to that of respectable radio broadcasters than pop stars. For the first time the group are playing a theatrical part that by mimicking the bourgeois achieves a greater subtlety than many of their contemporaries. On the reverse of the inner sleeve is a gorgeous art deco rendering of a radio antenna sending signals out into the night.

Many of Kraftwerk’s signature characteristics first appear on Radioactivity:

All of these elements are combined by the group to create a richly resonant and complex set of interlinked messages communicated with great clarity, a modern-day gesamtkunstwerk.

Trans-Europe Express departed in 1977. Instead of depicting the TEE locomotive itself the cover carries a photograph of the group again dressed smartly in suits and ties in what might be a respectable portrait of the members of the company’s board of executives circa 1956.

The album begins with Europe Endless whose echoing motif lovingly hymns Europe’s “parks, hotels and palaces”. This assertion of a distinctive European and cosmopolitan, rather than American sensibility is an ongoing theme that could easily be added to the list of characteristics above. The song’s melody is redolent of a romanticised, civilising spirit threading its way through the ages. The Hall Of Mirrors and Showroom Dummies may be read as explicit attempts to address the psychological problems of fame: “Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass”. Showroom Dummies signals the arrival of perhaps the group’s most famous leitmotif – the robot. The two songs together represent a clear articulation of the debilitating impact of fame on the group and their psychological/emotional response to it:

“We’re standing here, exposing ourselves.
We’re being watched and we feel our pulse.
We look around and change our pose.
We start to move and we break the glass.
We step out and take a walk through the city.
We go into a club and there we start to dance.
We are showroom dummies.”

The group are literally metamorphosing into something other at this point and a large part of the album may be viewed as a threnody to the corporeal. This duality and the resultant farewell to a singular existence would reappear in The Model, The Man-Machine and Sex Object.

Side two offers a further exploration of the theme of travel first undertaken on Autobahn. It is hard to separate pop’s restless rhythms from the ceaseless movement of the 20th century and although there may be many stops and detours between, there is a rhythmic line from the sonic evocations of the railroad by delta blues guitarists to Kraftwerk’s TEE and thence via Afrika Bambaata's Planet Rock into the delta forms of contemporary dance and art musics. The linkage between technological innovation, organised movement and popular culture is nowhere more clearly stated or assiduously explored than in Kraftwerk’s oeuvre.

The locomotive depicted in the accompany video is diesel powered, but the arpeggiating rhythm is pure steam, the vocoder is the sound of white heat hissing from a firebox.

“Rendevouz on the Champs-Elysee,
leave Paris in the morning with TEE.
In Vienna we sit in a late night café,
straight connection with TEE.”

What could be more romantic? This epic sings about a golden, timeless age of rail travel and it does so with irresistible rhythmic force. At times it feels as though the listener is standing beside the tracks as an express races past, lights ablaze in the darkness. At 3’49” the first clatter of points crossing is rendered in a brief, thoroughly composed electronic percussion solo which presages Metal On Metal’s lengthier exploration of electronic rhythm. Each lyrical interjection marks a stage upon a journey, but the music centres the listener upon the sensation of travelling itself. Trans Europe Express is a hymn to power, rhythm, repetition and ceaseless motion which builds significantly upon the foundations laid by Autobahn.

The album closes with Franz Schubert which reprises the beginning of Europe Endless and lays over it a wistful, breathy melody before Endless Endless’s vocoder echoes down the halls into silence.

The Man Machine like almost all of Kraftwerk's signature work continues to sound modern today 25 years after its release in 1978. Here is the chatter of servo-motors, the slow whine of monorails, of control signals manipulating remote machines, of the sound of abstracted production. There is a purposefulness allied to a sense of mourning and at times wonder about each of the six tracks.

The Robots signals a further sublimation of the emotional into the mechanical. The employment of robotic imagery may be connected to the group’s aforementioned ‘new beginning’. A robot is an object made in the likeness of a man, but at the moment of production one lacking internalised memory or experiential history: as well as being a playful act, a robot is a tabula rasa, a liberating release from the horror of memory and a safe target to project the ego upon. The word 'robot' is also pronounced in Russian where it takes on a wider meaning signifying worker:

“We’re charging our battery,
now we’re full of energy.
We’re functioning automatic,
we’re dancing mechanic.
We are the robots.”

The Robots forms one of a pair of songs whose subject matter effectively frame the album, the other being the title track itself. To reduce the robotic solely to the psychological is entirely too limiting - two other observations are important. Firstly, Kraftwerk embody the mechanisation of the world in their art. They epitomise the hyperspeed technological civilisation of the past century by recognising the automation inherent in the dance rhythms of popular music. These ideas have been expressed elsewhere, for example by Giorgio Moroder with Donna Summer and much other popular music, but it has never executed with such consistency, elegance or absolute deliberation. The analysis and exploration of the possibilities of rhythm (electronic percussionists have ongoingly formed a key part of the group) allied to the group’s sonic and conceptual futurism was what later made such sense for artists like Afrika Bambaata and the Detroit techno innovators. In doing this the group deserve to be called seminal, articulating as they do fertile possibilities which successive generations of artists have explored and adapted to their own experiences up to the present day.

Kraftwerk are innocent of the oft-leveled criticism that they compose unadulterated anthems to technology, the group are at once technologised seers and lamenters after the loss of a fragile humanity which may be spied in their work by implication like a negative shape around the principal (machinic) subject. Each lyric – even the single, repeated words of Spacelab and Metropolis - is sung with great pathos and mirrored melodically to the same end.

Side 2 of The Man Machine opens with The Model, a glossy synthpop template which Kraftwerk’s electropop disciples have been unable to improve upon (the elegance of the composition is particularly notable in the string quartet arrangement recorded by the Balanescu Quartet). It is followed by what is arguably Kraftwerk’s single most beautiful piece of music:

“Neon lights, shimmering neon lights
And at the fall of night, this city’s made of light.”

Neon Lights is a hymn to the unintended beauty of modern life. Its rhythms are crisp, the synthesizer lines irridescent, glittering, an angelic vocoder choir evokes the overarching neon glow of the city: once again the music is utterly consistent with the lyrical subject. The song’s extended spaces of melodic development serve to conjure the night-time activity of the city seen from a distance, unpeopled. The Man Machine ends with its title track in a rattled, haunted otherness which recalls the eeriness of Tarkovsky's Solaris or Kubrick's 2001 – gliding, syncopated activity for an undisclosed purpose.

The marriage of Karl Klefisch’s abstracted artwork and cyrillic typography (quoting from El Lissitzky’s children’s story ‘Suprematist story of two squares in six constructions’ and acknowledging the debt on the back cover), together with the group’s appearance as if they are performers at the cabaret voltaire and the reference to Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece provide a rich set of parallel, associative ideas.

1981 is a long time ago in computer terms, certainly before the dawn of the present age of personal computing. Thus Computer World stands as a predictive masterpiece and signals a shift in focus away from the retro-futurism and nostalgia of the group’s previous work. The title track’s mantra succinctly identifies matrices of digital connectivity:

“Interpol and Deutsche Bank,
FBI and Scotland Yard.
Business, numbers,
Money, people.
Time, travel,
Communication, entertainment.
Computer world.”

At the time of release only the military, large institutions and corporations were significantly computerised, but Pocket Calculator predicts the miniaturisation of function and its concommitant portability by focusing on an already widely available example of the digital age:

“I’m controlling and composing.
By pressing down a special key,
It plays a little melody.”

By the end of the song, the calculator appears to be happily singing independently from its operators. At the time of writing, the similarly sized mobile phone contains much greater functionality, however Kraftwerk identified and expressed a fundamental idea and wrapped it up in a concise pop masterpiece. At their concert in London in 1981 when the group played the song as a finale, they carried small calculators to the front of the stage to solo and invited members of the audience to join in. The song Numbers follows with a vision of streams of endlessly changing numbers whispered by an overlapping choir of electronic voices.

As avowed pop practitioners, it took the group rather a long time to write an overt love song, but they finally did so with Computer Love. The song descibes a lonely protagonist who in desperation calls for a “data date” causing the line between human and computer to begin to blur. Ralf Hutter addresses Pop’s perennial concern in an untreated voice and produces a touching, tender song delivered (again) in a perfect synthesis of sentiment, plangent melody and rhythm. Computer Love may also be seen as another example of the group’s dry humour: the lonely male reduced to dependency upon a computer for emotional fulfilment carries a certain ridiculous charge.

For the first time, the group are replaced entirely by their robot alter egos on the cover. They stand before a bank of machinery, the rear panels of which sport large industrial cabling. The robots appear to be plugged directly into a mainframe, playing their music into the power grid. Home Computer projects the listener into a matrix of information and might be the soundtrack to the Neuromancer’s travels in hyperspace three years before William Gibson’s novel was published:

“I programme my own computer
Beam myself into the future.”

It’s More Fun To Compute heralds the return of the vocoder and of Computer World’s motif which is treated in an ethereal, sinister way as if to question the attractiveness of this vision of the future.

Electric Café appears to build upon the possibilities of Computer World by hinting at a global village connected by leisure, music, sex, although it is a community beset by age-old problems:

“I give you my affection, I give you my time,
I try to get a connection on the telephone line.
You’re so close, but far away
I call you up all night and day.
The number you have reached has been disconnected.”

The cover art shows that the robots have been virtualised, rendered in digital space by polygonal webs traced over the group’s heads. The A side forms a suite of three songs: Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop and Musique Non Stop. Rhythm takes precedence over melody to such an extent that it is the songs’ central focus and in so doing joined the floodtide of electronic dance music breaking over the charts at that time. On Boing Boom Tschak and Music Non Stop the robots effectively merge and become the music by speaking percussive phonemes integral to each track. Techno Pop celebrates the arrival of a musical era long forecast by the group:

“Music non stop, technopop
Synthetic electronic sounds
Industrial rhythms all around
Electronic sound
Synthetic decibel
And will continue forever
Music will bring new ideas
Music... synthetic

The sound of Electric Café manages to avoid sounding dated despite a certain shiny harshness symptomatic of the decade. The album arrived in 1986 after the aborted 1983 near-release of an album called Techno Pop. Sex Object and Telephone Call seem too rooted in the personal experience of the group to be easily related to and the initial suite of songs verges conceptually on solipsism in its celebration of itself. Electric Café ultimately lacks the unifying conceit possessed by each of its predecessors or if one is intended it is not clear what exactly it is. The album would represent the last release of original material for 14 years.

Kraftwerk had manufactured a large number of durable, future-proofed mechanisms by the time of Electric Café, however their analogue coding was deemed by the group to be in need of upgrade to a digital version. As a result in 1991 Kraftwerk released The Mix which contained remixes of The Robots, Computer Love, Pocket Calculator, Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans Europe Express, Home Computer and Music Non Stop. The sonic colours of each track are brighter, the rhythms crisper, more sprightly and the rhythms are overtly house-oriented. Some tweaking was also applied to the messages of Radioactivity which included an imperative “Stop!” before the title and the chilling roll call of “Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima” and of Autobahn whose musical tatoo sounded upon car horns more clearly implies the increasing stress of car travel. The collection is a pleasurable one which through the art of remixing avoids the painful predictability of a greatest hits collection. The tour in support of the release introduced a set of functioning robots which took the place of the group at one point and danced to The Robots. Their dramatic presence was heightened by white spotlights casting the robots’ shadows on screens at the rear of the stage.

Nine years later Expo 2000 appeared as a cd single release. Although the sponsored rendition of a corporate anthem, the song subverts the commercially-focused banality of the original soundbite in its execution by communicating traces of horror and alienation in its repeated enunciation of the words “Planet of Visions”. The millenial concern of the theme is entirely suited to the essentialist concerns of the group. When the lossmaking exhibition is long forgotten, the theme is likely to remain a key part of Kraftwerk’s output standing as it does as a summation of their oeuvre:

“Man. Nature. Technology.
Planet of Visions.”

Once assimilated, 2003's Tour De France Soundtracks appears conceptually inevitable: the cyclist as the ultimate man-machine, the human body mechanised. It is as if a full circle has been navigated from the outward experience of travel on the Autobahn to the internal experience of travel effected directly by the effort of the body:

“The human being and the machine joining for unity. The human being moving with its own strength, in cooperation with a machine. More interesting, in the last week of the Tour the France the media announced terms like "Ullrich, the Man Machine" or "Ullrich, a Kraftwerk with 4 wheels".
(Ralf Hütter in Sonntagszeitung Newspaper, August 2003)

In this subject matter, paired with the updated messages of The Mix and Expo 2000’s sombre mantra can be observed a greater, less ambiguous concern for the planet’s ecology and the effects of industrialisation.

The house-like rhythms employed by the group since The Mix present a lingua franca whose regularity and thematic variations are clearly equated to the rhythms of the body. The sound of Tour De France Soundtracks and particularly the stages of the title track (Etape 1 to 3) convey the abstracted sounds of the cyclist’s organs, the surging of the blood, the pounding of the heart, the sweat percolating through pores, the sensation of air on skin on a downward slope. This is Kraftwerk’s most profoundly sensate music. The heat and physical punishment, the pain and near mania of the Tour is woven into the songs in a way that could only be written by those who have ridden the race and who are intimate with the idea of a man-machine. The album culminates in a retooled version of the original single, but it is a crown balanced by the immersive, driving music which precedes it. Tour de France is a tour de force (sic) which sustains the consistency of the group’s very best work.

Kraftwerk recognised early on the potential of pop music as a folk form for the industrial age and saw its very availability as a democratising advantage: their original works could be purchased at a fraction of the cost of a fine art piece by an audience several magnitudes larger in size. Marriage of the avante-garde and populism could be achieved. The price they have paid for their populism is perhaps the lack of serious critical appraisal of their work published to date.

The media fetishisation of their pivotal cultural role and pressure for new product is symptomatic of the corporate manipulation of the production/consumption cycle for the maximisation of profit. Kraftwerk have always appeared uneasy with this mechanism although uneasy is perhaps expressing it too strongly, in fact they appear outwardly oblivous to such pressure, working as they do in their own time:

“Sometimes you must look backwards, to see forwards. This enduring pressure for novelty which rules our society doesn't suit us. We prefer the essence.”
(Ralf Hütter in Sonntagszeitung Newspaper, August 2003)

They have remained resolutely non-corporate by retaining control of their product within the core of the group (Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider). There have been no box sets, anniversary editions, sacd remasterings or dvd video releases – even reissue of their albums in cd format has been patchy. (Update: May 2004 sees digital remasters finally issued by the group.) The group are popularly and all too easily perceived as robotic futurists keen to shed their humanity but it is their focus upon humanity which ultimately sets them apart - as well as an incredible talent for distilling the zeitgeist within novel forms and sounds.

The momentum of their best work, grounded in the rhythms of the age, continues to set an agenda which it is impossible to rival. They have soundtracked the advance of the industrial nations, but their commentary has remained an ambiguous one which predominantly refuses to condone or condemn. That ambiguity - essential to great art - has opened the group up to casual charges of uncritically praising technological progress. Much of their caution can be traced to a pre-holocaust modernism which was abruptly terminated by the rise of National-Socialism:

“The living culture of Central Europe was cut in the ‘30s, and all the intellectuals went to the U.S. or to France, or they were eliminated. We take back that culture of the ‘30s at the point where it was left, and this on a spiritual level...”
(Ralf Hütter in Rock & Folk magazine, 1976)

The novelty of Kraftwerk’s synthetic soundworlds evoke modernism’s optimism and hunger for new worlds. The aforementioned ambiguity is signalled by a variety of devices: frequently by pathos, but also by the inclusion of the National Socialist radio set on Radioactivity’s cover, the intermittent menace of Autobahn’s soundworlds or the lugubrious enunciation of the Man-Machine’s chorus. This serves to belie the romantic aspects of the assimilationist tendencies and voracious technological appetite for change at any cost of middle/late-capitalism.

An essential element which cannot go unremarked by any attentive listener is the sheer aesthetic pleasure - almost child-like in its delight – with which each concept is expressed sonically, musically and dramatically. This aspect is located in the group’s desire to codify and express the essence of things, a desire which has the effect at times of rendering Kraftwerk almost transparent, turning them into a lens through which the modern world may be viewed more clearly, perhaps even objectively. The clear optimism of Tour De France can be interpreted as both sign of personal pleasure (the group are avid cyclists) and of a workable route out of an industrialised cul-de-sac.

Kraftwerk is an ongoing project whose themes are universal ones of humanity’s negotiation with technological development and the impact of that progress upon our very natures. Using a robotic arm they raise a mirror to that most important product of the ongoing technological revolution – our selves.

Epilogue. A few weeks after completing this piece my five year old daughter broke the silence from the back seat of our (German) car and completed a circle by saying: “Dad, do you know the music of yours which I really really like? It’s that one that goes ‘We are the robots’”. I grinned like a cheshire cat.

Thanks to Dad, Isobel and online sources, particularly Aktivitat and Technopop.

Colin Buttimer
August 2003
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