Historically, socially and politically, and despite the vast amount of research, information, statistics and personal recollections, mid-twentieth century Germany is an aeon that remains unreservedly incomprehensible. Aside from severe political strife that left a city divided and leftover Nazism still prominent, there was also the mourning of millions murdered, a country stripped of civility and the on-going post-shock of a war that destroyed everything around its inhabitants. One of the many forgotten tragedies of the second World War is the mass and often repeated raping of German women committed largely – but not exclusively – by Soviet servicemen. Estimations of the number of victims range from tens of thousands to a possible two million, the devastating results of which lead to an inescapable presence and effect felt throughout the post-war years, even giving birth to a proportion of the next generation and cementing the horror of the 1940s forever more, creating a branded inability to forget. Put plainly, 1945 may have marked the end of the war but the end of suffering for German people it did not.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius of cult ’70s kraut bands Cluster and Harmonia recalls growing up both through the war and in a post-war Germany. “I grew up as a child in Nazi Germany (Berlin) after I was born in October 1934, and I had a hard time after the war started in 1939,” he says. “Then I had a hard time again in the Russian Zone until I crossed the border to the West (in 1960 to West Berlin ) where I found myself first amidst the so called Wirtschaftswunder (German for ‘economic miracle’, referring to West Germany’s economic post-war boom) and later on in those most turbulent movements of the late sixties. I didn’t participate actively in the political part of it, not that I wasn’t interested at all, I was just a burned child from what I had to bear in Berlin during the bombings of World War II and afterwards as a soldier and prisoner in the so called DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or German Democratic Republic, in English).”
Roedelius’ bandmate Dieter Moebius rather succinctly, captures the cold alienation felt by many when he says: “In a way it was something like a nobodyland for the young generation.”
“It was not so funny to be German fifteen years after the war,” he says. “There were still old Nazis in key positions, so mostly in Berlin there was lots of demonstrations against the government. Culturally we had no real national identity, a mix of the past and American culture.”
“All that I can say is that for me it was the most interesting period of my life,” says Roedelius, spinning a positive line, “because I learned a lot about how to become an artist. This period was my university.”
By 1971 Roedelius and Moebius had formed Cluster, by which time Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk had already spent a year as a new band making music that sounded like “the future”. The children of post-war Germany had had enough of looking back.
From 1970 there marked a new era in German culture, one born out of a desire to progress, forget and create, the seismic effects of which can still be heard shuddering through the sound waves of popular music even today, some forty plus years later. Dean Wareham – of Galaxie 500 and later Luna, who went on to cover Kraftwerk’s ‘Neon Lights’ – recalls: “I saw Talking Heads at a theatre in New Jersey while I was a high school student; this was perhaps 1980. The pre-show music that night was [Kraftwerk’s 1977 album] ‘Trans-Europe Express’. I confess I had smoked some horrid weed and ‘Hall of Mirrors’ made me feel paranoid.”
For Stephan Plank – son of Conny Plank, the revered producer to Neu!, CAN, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and many others – his introduction to the band was a little more personal. “I remember watching television, a German news magazine called Kennzeichen D, they used the song ‘Ruckzuck’ as an intro and I remember my mother telling me that this is Kraftwerk, a song my Dad worked on.”
“The first song I heard was ‘The Model’, because it was a hit and I used to tape the Sunday charts,” says Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Beak>. “But as a kid I just thought it was a song, I didn’t think of it in band terms and I of course didn’t realise its production genius.
“The first time I was aware of Kraftwerk properly was the song ‘Tour de France’ from the film Breakdance (a 1984 movie about breakdancing). If you ask most blokes my age, they encountered Kraftwerk from this one breakdance scene in that film. Quite honestly, if I asked all my friends I think this is where they would have first heard Kraftwerk.”
For the band’s forthcoming retrospective (8 albums performed in full over as many nights at Tate Modern’s suitably industrial Turbine Hall) Kraftwerk have marked their 1974 album, ‘Autobahn’, as year zero, disregarding their preceding three albums, ‘Kraftwerk’, ‘Kraftwerk 2’ and ‘Ralf und Florian’. But many, like Robert Hampson of late eighties alt. rock band Loop, still feel that these notably different albums (containing the soon-to-be alien sounds of guitar, flute and violin) are of considerable worth.
“It’s always troubled me they have been so ignored,” he says. “For me, it’s those first three albums. I actually prefer those dramatically, compared to the later albums. They have so much to them. Along with what else was going on in the German music scene at that time – what we now know as Krautrock – I think they are still orbiting a completely different planet to most of the other bands, with the exception of Faust.”
Michael Rother was a member of Kraftwerk during this period, before he and drummer Klaus Dinger left to form the extraordinary Neu!. “We had excellent concerts but also some personal problems, especially with Florian Schneider,” he recalls. “I guess he had mixed emotions about where the music was heading, and I don’t want to speculate too much about his personality but he was always a spiky character.”
These problems continued as Rother and Dinger attempted to leave their recorded mark on this particular incarnation of the group, then temporarily without founding member Ralf Hütter. “We tried to record the second Kraftwerk album but then it was over, as that failed. We went in to the studio in Hamburg with Conny Plank and recorded about twenty minutes and then it was clear that it didn’t work. It was clear we couldn’t capture the excitement of what sometimes happened on stage, which was very rough, brutal, very strong and powerful music. It was so strong that I could be blown away on stage, although less successful nights were very painful because it was a lot of spontaneous music. We didn’t have structured material, we just took a very basic idea – for example, we would say: ‘it’s in A’, and off we go.”
1975 saw the unlikely hit of ‘Autobahn’, a single taken from their 1974 album of the same name; a near 23-minute journey hurtling at breakneck speed into the vast, dark unknown; an extended foot pressed to the floor, screeching into the future. Many have compared it to The Beach Boys – and particularly their song ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ – and depending on what interview you read with Ralf or Florian; they either somewhat accept or refute the influence. However, while comparisons in some instances can be drawn sonically, the reality is that the two bands existed and were born out of contrapositive worlds.
The Beach Boys’ carefree hit encapsulated a bourgeois teenage rebellion, taking daddy’s car, racing fast in the California sun with the radio blasting out, going to a hamburger stand and the drive-in movies instead of working at the library, “til her daddy takes the t-bird away”. The music itself is coastal, elemental, the sun gleaming down, glistening and sparkling on the ocean as luscious waves lap gently on the golden beaches. It captured a time in which the youth were still young in America; the safety net of clean-cut, wholesome 1950s America still trickled into the mindset of early 1960’s culture before the Vietnam war escalation and the draft was imposed. Teenagers were still allowed to be teenagers then, and it was seemingly a good, blithe and prosperous time to live in the U.S.A. ‘Autobahn’ was born out of a period in which there was still a residing sense of guilt and shame unfairly inflicted upon the German people, simply for being that, German. ‘Autobahn’ did something miraculous in that it reinstated and embraced a lost sense of national identity. Even the open road, the Autobahn itself, was steeped in unforgettable history. It had been largely expanded and embraced under Nazi-occupation and ‘Autobahn’ went some way to claiming it back to the ubiquitous right of passage it should be. It shunned the American and Anglo influences found in popular music of that time and instead spoke in its own language, something David Buckley, author of Kraftwerk: Publikation felt magnetised towards as a child, saying: “I simply had never heard anything so strange, and it was the first time I think that I had heard German being sung.”
‘Autobahn’ recaptured the flair, beauty and dynamism of pre-war German expressionism while embracing and revolutionising modern technology with a feeling of forward propulsion and momentum that moved so expeditiously there was no telling where it would end up.
Devo’s Gerald Casale recalls the impact of the song. “I think [Devo guitarist] Bob Mothersbaugh came home to the apartment we shared with a copy of the 12-inch of ‘Autobahn’. I was inspired and almost jealous at how pure and classically pristine the electronic sounds were.”
It even had an eleven-year-old Robert Hampson utterly hypnotised.
“I first heard Kraftwerk on a British TV show called Tomorrow’s World around the time of ‘Autobahn’,” he says. “I believe it was their first TV appearance on British television. I must have been around 11 years old. Immediately, I was transfixed.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like that song,” says Dean Wareham. “It is mesmerising.”
The beauty of ‘Autobahn’ is that it has no end destination; it’s a journey that takes you through time, even space, but it’s not finite. The turning of the keys in the ignition and the quiet roar of the engine suggests possibilities, a surge of momentum and entrapped immersion in the vehicle of Kraftwerk. Yet by the end of the song as the Klaus Dinger-infused motorik spits out like the turbo just kicked in, the possibilities are open yet again, the road opens up and the song ends with greater scope and prospect than it began with. Even the end of ‘Autobahn’ is fundamentally a beginning. The motrik sails out of the song like a boat heading for the horizon, sailing long into the undetermined future. As John Doran of The Quietus described it back in a 2010 article, “This beat was the war drum of modernity”.
While many Germans plunged themselves into Anglo/American cultural reference points – perhaps as a means to offset the burden and stigma placed upon them, or just to look outward, at something new, fresh, different and something that didn’t remind them of what lay directly in front of their eyes – Kraftwerk instead looked inward, refuting derivativeness before it was even largely considered derivative.
Founder and now longest-serving band member Ralf Hütter said in 1991: “When we started it was like, shock, silence. Where do we stand? Nothing. Classical music was of the 19th century, but in the 20th century, nothing. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the ’50s and ’60s everything was Americanised, directed towards consumer behaviour.”
“Kraftwerk were the antitheses of the sentimentality and testosterone driven rock music,” says Gerald Casale. “They stimulated another part of the beast – namely the brain. We lived [in the U.S.A] in an anti-intellectual, mentally and physically ugly environment. We [Devo] used the industrial pain to forge an aesthetic as a cultural antidote. Kraftwerk did that in their own Germanic way.”
When speaking with Martin Rev of Suicide, he too compares the vastly different cultural environments that shared a desire to move forward. “I certainly believed in the future,” he says, “and the present was not an environment I could yet navigate in with much artistic interest or involvement in terms of acceptance. I was always looking for a fresh frontier to work in, wherever it might lead.
“The cultural impact or differences appeared to be that I was playing out of my childhood rock’n’roll and R&B roots from growing up in New York and the European groups had a contrasting past and environment to reflect on. And their reliance on technology as more part of the emotional expression, at least as it seemed to me at the time, was not, I guess, as instinctive for me.”
Dean Wareham agrees, too, particularly with Rev, stating: “I think there are two bands from the 70s that now appear light years ahead of everyone else – Kraftwerk and Suicide.”
As Kraftwerk released the ensuing ‘Radioactivity’ and ‘Trans-Europe Express’ the true pseudomorph of the group had not simply become fully realised, it had transcended expectation, convention and comprehensibility. The band absorbed a sense of experimentation with electronic instruments and technology that Ralf Hütter described to Pitchfork in 2009 as, “kind of a concept of making my fingers sing”. In essence, the human touch to the keys and the sound to radiate from them became one.
Kraftwerk’s relationship with technology and machines was blossoming at a pace so rapid that technological advances couldn’t keep up. It was a brave new lesson in the marrying of man and machine, the brain and the internal wiring, the hand and the key, all to create one amalgamated perfect union. Early in his visions, Lester Bangs was keen to point this out back in 1975. “In the beginning there was feedback: the machines speaking on their own, answering their supposed masters with shrieks of misalliance,” he wrote. “Gradually, the humans learned to control the feedback, or thought they did, and the next step was the introduction of more highly refined forms of distortion and artificial sound, in the form of the synthesizer, which the human beings also sought to control. In the music of Kraftwerk, and bands like them present and to come, we see at last the fitting culmination of this revolution, as the machines don’t merely overpower and play the human beings but absorb them, until the scientist and his technology, having developed a higher consciousness of its own, are one and the same.”
What continued in Kraftwerk’s music was a process that Michael Rother refers to as “reduction” – a boiling down of the superfluous, a trimming of the fat that left a sleek, sculptural-like essence to music that radiated a sense of scope, design and stark, minimal beauty that David Buckley too links to pre-war German art. “In essence Kraftwerk completed the Modernist programme Nazism wrecked,” says Buckley. “Their music is the architectural equivalent of a Bauhaus-styled house – sleek, minimalist, contemporary, cold.”
This ‘coldness’ was a turning point for some; for others, a time to turn their back on the band. While many praised their full realisation and completion of precise, immaculate electronic music that strove further and further to seek refined, musical perfection, other’s viewed it as the technology taking over, and taking with it a sense of emotion and soul, a pounding human heart ripped ruthlessly from the chest and replaced by a pre-programmed machine. Hans-Joachim Roedelius, while respectful of their work, admits, “Designed music of that kind cannot touch my soul”. Say this to Geoff Barrow and he beams with opposition, bubbling, “It’s hugely emotive! It’s classically based. I don’t know where your brain has to be to not get emotion from it. It’s starkness, and starkness itself is a real, proper emotion.”
Miki Yui, artist and widow of Klaus Dinger offered me her insight into this element of the group too. “Kraftwerk made beautiful music,” she said, “however, since their use of drum machines, their music cannot grow anymore. Their music became rather a conceptual art, with a different kind of soul.”
Like Yui, Robert Hampson can diplomatically see both sides also. “I don’t think the real coldness appeared until ‘Trans-Europe Express’, but seriously, don’t people also hear there is also humour in that? In the lyrics, there is some lovely little shades of fun. By the time of ‘The Man Machine’  it had become positively Antarctica in the emotional context, but it was all part of the story. It would have been odd any other way.”
Gerald Casale discards the discussion somewhat, batting away the subjective futility of the topic. “I think such discussions about ‘soul’ and ‘feelings’ are misguided and divisive.”
Irrespective of this, by 1977’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘The Man Machine’ from the following year, Kraftwerk had honed a sound crafted with such meticulous brilliance and tact that they had not simply set a template for electronic music, but rather they had created a world for it to exist in. They took synthesisers and refracted them, they bounced and shone through those records, glowing with a hubris hum and, somewhat ironically, almost went as far as to replace the tone, physical texture and presence of the flute and violin found in early Kraftwerk, giving birth not only to electronic music as we know it today but to a form of modern classical music, created by empowering the synthesiser with as much clout and prominence as the strings would have in traditional classical music. But one enormously important, overlooked aspect to this period, is that it was all still analogue – it required human control and persistence, making live performances almost dangerous. The safer, pre-programmed world of computers was still a decade away. Kraftwerk created balance and perfect, oscillating restraint in a time when it had never been more difficult and unpredictable to control electronic music.
The opening song to ‘The Man Machine’, ‘The Robots’, declares, “We are the Robots”. The cover of said album is the last to ever feature a picture of a human version of Kraftwerk. Here, the transformation had taken place. By shedding their human skin and all the conventions associated with image and identity, they created an image and personality that transcended fashion, fads and taste by removing the idea of human identity, thus creating a force beyond human capability. Kraftwerk had become the first avatars of pop culture, and they simultaneously gave life and a voice to technology whilst becoming the voice of technology. It was this balance and dichotomy that allowed their concept to become complete. As Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo tells me: “I always was impressed by their purity of concept, which made them a true art band”.
In 1976 Kraftwerk turned down David Bowie’s offer to tour with him on his ‘Station to Station’ tour, something that would have most likely made them world-wide superstars but at the time interfered with their immediate plans. It began a pattern of saying ‘no’ to things (including an interview for this), which was yet another part of their distinctly unique approach to carving out their own path. Speaking with David Buckley, author on books about both Bowie and Kraftwerk, I had to enquire the extent of the artistic link, especially as later on Bowie shrugged off his fondness for the band stating, “Much has been made of Kraftwerk’s influence on our Berlin albums. Most of it lazy analyses, I believe.”
“You can either view David Bowie as having a selective memory, a myth-making revisionist, or simply someone with a good memory but with black holes in there (caused by his astronomic drug use),” says Buckley. “Bowie was indeed a fan of the band. He is extremely knowledgeable about music in general and would have listened to all the earliest Kraftwerk albums. I know he enjoyed the early ’70s incarnation of Kraftwerk with Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, and I also know he listened extensively to ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Radio-Activity’ when he was in LA before the 1976 world tour. He also met Ralf and Florian on several occasions and in contemporary interviews Ralf claims they did plan to work together. Bowie would have discovered them earlier than most of his contemporaries and would have been able to grasp their essence more successfully. The reason? He’s cleverer. He’s able to take the essence of an idea without actually stealing it or making it obvious. I don’t think any of Bowie’s songs sound directly like Kraftwerk songs. In fact, a much bigger influence comes from Neu! The motorik beat is in songs such as ‘Move On’, ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Look Back In Anger’ (all three off ‘Lodger’, 1979). That said, I can’t help noticing that there’s something Kraftwerkian about ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes’. ‘Sound And Vision’, for example, with that metronomic synth crash must owe something to Kraftwerk.”
One beautiful thing about Kraftwerk is that they made the incomprehensible seem utterly normal. They re-recorded songs and entire albums in different languages in a bordering-on brusque manner, as though to ask ‘why wouldn’t we record these albums bilingually?’. A level of implicit trust had been reached and fans allowed the group to take them where they wanted to, because what reason would they have for doubting them?
From 1974 to 1981 Kraftwerk released five albums that stretched galaxies, let alone decades. Interestingly, the first instances in which the band could possibly be accused of dropping the ball is on 1986’s ‘Electric Café’ and 1991’s remix compilation ‘The Mix’, both of which witnessed the group’s transformation and, by the latter, full immersion into digital technology and recording methods. By the time technology had caught up with them and their visions, Kraftwerk had – especially in the sense of ‘The Mix’ – temporarily lost momentum.
For a band so frequently affiliated with the future, it seems a large chunk of their accomplishments have in fact relied on their ability to extract magic from the primitive and antiquated – once the unimaginable became imaginable via technological advancements, Kraftwerk had outlived its use to some mild extent – they had done the work without its aid. Although live on stage it seems to be a different matter.
“I have seen Kraftwerk four times between 1981 and the present,” says Gerald Casale. “Their undistorted electronic purity only benefits from the added decibels of state of the art PA systems. I fall asleep peacefully.”
Likewise, Dean Wareham recalls later period live performances, telling me, “I have seen them twice in New York, I think the first time was 1998 at the Hammerstein Ballroom and it was one of the best shows I have ever seen, not like a rock concert but more like a mixed media art show. I remember thinking it was as if they had invented the future and everyone else was playing catch up.”
It’s this shift in focus and dynamic that keeps the group so burnished and relevant. Electronic music, recording techniques and technology caught up with them (albeit twenty years later), so their concentration swung and they reinvented the live show with the aid of modern technology and emerging, shifting environments. Reinventions that have involved everything from robots playing in place of humans on stage to cyclists circling the band at Manchester’s Velodrome, to expansive 3D operations, to an 8-night stand at Tate Modern, cyclically returning to the kind of environment where they first started and perhaps are most suited – an art gallery.
In the hands of many, a retrospective may seem trite, cheap and commonplace, but for Kraftwerk it somehow breaks new ground by the fact that looking back is indeed a first for them. In the world of Kraftwerk there is never an end, only ever a beginning.