Years ago, around the time that Kraftwerk’s 1991 remix compilation, The Mix, hit record shops, I was having a conversation with a coworker regarding the pros and cons of the Düsseldorf, Germany electronic-music combo. My point was that the quartet, led by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, was one of music’s pioneering outfits, perhaps the most groundbreaking electronic act to ever exist; his retort was that this was like calling Edison Studios the greatest film production company ever, simply because ol’ Thomas A. and his pals created the technologies and got there first. He did have a point: Kraftwerk had to make much of its own machinery—electronic drum kits, sequencers and vocoders among them—in the band’s Kling Klang Studio, and they certainly beat pretty much everyone else to the punch in introducing electronic music to the masses. But there’s a lot more behind the band’s enduring impact; while we’d certainly be listening to popular and not-so-popular machine-tooled sounds today even if Kraftwerk never existed, the development of electro, synth-pop, techno, house, IDM and pretty much any other vaguely rhythmic brand of electronic music would likely have proceeded very differently. (For one thing, there wouldn’t have been a “Planet Rock,” nor any other of the hundreds of songs that directly quote from Kraftwerk’s decades-old discography.) What’s more, the band foreshadowed—by a full three decades—the kind the laboratory-clean superpop that dominates the charts today.
As anyone reading this far probably knows, the Museum of Modern Art is hosting “Kraftwerk—Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8” from Tuesday, April 10 through Tuesday, April 17, featuring live performances from Hütter and whichever other members he decides to bring along (no Schneider—he left the band in 2008). Did you get a ticket to any of the dates? We just found one online for a mere $942. Even if you’re not attending, it’s a good time to revisit the eight albums the series is focusing on, from 1974’s Autobahn through 2003’s Tour de France. (While you’re at it, you may want to check out the band’s early non-electronic albums, 1970’s Kraftwerk and 1972’s Kraftwerk 2, as well as 1973’s transitional Ralf und Florian.)
“Autobahn” (full version)
Kraftwerk wasn’t the first entity to fuse electronic experimentation to pop-music traditions; synthesizer composers such as Suzanne Ciani and Raymond Scott had already been working the territory for years. Nor was the combo the first electronic act to have enjoyed popular success; Walter (later, after a sex change, Wendy) Carlos managed to sell half a million copies of Switched-On Bach in 1968. But for your average music fan, it was the title track from Kraftwerk’s Autobahn that served as an introduction to electronic pop. I can remember sitting in my family’s car as a young teen while my mother was doing the grocery shopping, with the AM radio on at full blast. Amid “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Rock the Boat” and the like, an utterly alien-sounding song entered the mix; it sounded like a Beach Boys song as transmitted from a future universe full of flying cars driven by cyborgs. A young mind was blown, and a lifelong affinity for electronic music was born. That track, of course, was “Autobahn.” Whittled down to a radio-friendly four minutes from the original’s 23, the album’s title track became an unlikely worldwide hit for the band, which at this point consisted of Hütter, Schneider, Klaus Röder and Wolfgang Flür. (In what was effectively organic instrumentation’s last hurrah in the Kraftwerk canon, Röder is credited with violin and guitar.) The song was meant to evoke the vibe of a long drive on the open highway, signalling Kraftwerk’s ongoing fascination with the relationship between man and machine. Say, there’s a snappy song title in there somewhere.…
Radio-Activity, titled Radio-Aktivität for its German release, refers both to ionizing radiation and to activity on the radio. Despite a deadpan wit and sense of playfulness that runs through Kraftwerk’s music, that’s as overtly jokey as the boys get. (Okay, we’ll give them credit in the yuks department for the name of album closer, “Ohm Sweet Ohm.”) Though the rhythmic structure of side-two leadoff “The Voice of Energy” mirrors that of “Autobahn,” the album didn’t spin any AM-radio gold for the boys this time around. That’s no knock, though—Radio-Activity is the most gentle—and arguably the prettiest—of Kraftwerk’s electronic albums. It features both lilting, lullabyesque tunes (the title track and “Radioland”) and abstract cuts that border on musique concrète (the bleep-and-vocoder workout “Antenna”), as well as what might be Kraftwerk’s most straightforward nod to classical music (the aforementioned “Ohm Sweet Ohm”). This was also the first album to feature what became the best-known Kraftwerk lineup: Hütter, Schneider and Flür, plus Karl Bartos.
“Trans-Europe Express” (long version)
Trans-Europe Express (1977)
It may have been Autobahn that brought Kraftwerk a degree of recognition in the pop charts, but it was Trans-Europe Express that cemented its cultural significance. The album only made it to 119 on the U.S charts, but the title track’s refrain—basically a processed, repeated chant of “Trans-Europe Express” over a train-chug rhythm—became ubiquitous enough that the brothers at my friend’s Rutgers frat would ape that chorus ad nauseam whenever beer and bongs were on hand. Of somewhat greater import, the song became a touchstone of B-boy culture, culminating in producer Arthur Baker’s inspired use of its instantly familiar, Eastern-tinged synth line on Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 classic, “Planet Rock.” The track, which also utilized the electro beats of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” (from Computer World) is an early example of the kind of uptown-meets-downtown club-culture mix that came to fruition in the early ’80s at clubs like the Roxy—and specifically, at a scene-defining live show at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) in the summer of 1981. But as seminal as “Trans-Europe Express” is, it’s not the only highlight the album has to offer: Witness the floating, cyclical glory of “Franz Schubert,” for instance, or the overt synth-pop appeal of the relatively stripped-down “Showroom Dummies,” which contains the lyric “We are standing here, exposing ourselves / We are showroom dummies.” Was Kraftwerk beginning to have second thoughts about its burgeoning fame? Perhaps—but it’s more likely that the band members just liked to think of themselves as mannequins.
“Neon Lights” (2009 Remastered Version)
The Man-Machine (1978)
By 1978, Kraftwerk had proven that it knew its way around a hook—that’s one of the reasons why “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express” made such an impact. But before The Man-Machine, the boys had rarely condensed that proclivity into such crystalline pop gems; this is the album that transformed Kraftwerk from a group of electronic-music oddballs into something resembling the modern notion of an electropop combo. With an emphasis on simple melodies, the album’s six songs total just over 30 minutes in running time—but there are few more satisfying half-hours of listening to be had. The synths, to borrow a term from the LP’s “Neon Lights,” are shimmering; in striking contrast, the rhythms are pared down to the bone, with only a few percussive elements per song. That rhythmic spareness makes one of Kraftwerk’s best tricks readily apparent: The tonal quality of the beats is paper-thin (like flies bouncing off a window screen), yet that very fragility serves to draw the listener in. It makes you aware of just how damn bumping those beats can be; just listen to the magnificent second half of “Neon Lights” for a lesson in minimalist funk. “The Model” (“She’s posing for consumer products now and then / For every camera she gives the best she can”) scored yet more gold for the boys, reaching No 1 on the U.K. singles charts.
Computer World (1981)
Kraftwerk’s eighth album sees the band’s concerns progress from cars, radios and robots to the home computer, which in 1981 was still an exotic, exciting technology. (Of course, home computing was still in its infancy, as lyrics such “I am adding and subtracting,” from “Pocket Calculator,” attest.) For perhaps the first time, the ever-optimistic combo seemed to let a sliver of anxiety slip into the music: The title track slips vocodered lines such as “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard / business, numbers, money, people” into its percolating acoustic environment, which—while not exactly signaling an overt paranoia—does seem to express some concern with the speed of technological change. But what makes Computer World stand out is that, in the minds of many, it marks the birth of pure electro. Of course, Kraftwerk had hinted at electro before via its syncopated drum-machine beats and futuristic slant, but on tracks like “Home Computer,” “It’s More Fun to Compute” and most of all, “Numbers,” the sound is, for the first time, distilled to its essence.
Techno Pop (1986)
It’s been said by critics and fans alike that 1986 is the year that Kraftwerk began to coast a bit (and that’s not a reference to the band’s 1983 single, “Tour de France,” which was remixed a year later by François Kevorkian). While it’s true that Techno Pop—originally released as Electric Café and produced under the working title Technicolor—doesn’t break much new ground and can come off as a bit dry, most electronic acts would kill to have an entry like it on their discographies. The first side, basically one long passage separated into three movements—“Boing Boom Tschak,” “Techno Pop” and the first single off the album, “Musique Non-Stop”—is real-deal electrofunk, the kind with a rhythm that can provoke an autonomic dance response in just about anyone, no matter their taste in music. (I remember spinning “Musique Non-Stop” in an unsavory East Village dive soon after its release; even the bar’s resident drug dealer, a hard-core Sabbath fan, was grooving along.) The Rebecca Allen–produced video for “Musique Non-Stop”, which has served as Kraftwerk’s closing song at concerts for years, was cutting-edge at the time; nowadays, its Max Headroom–style animation comes off as, well, kinda cute. We think this album might mark the first use of the term “technopop”—if we’re wrong, let us know!
“Metal on Metal”
The Mix (1991)
It was another half decade before Kraftwerk would release another album—and when it finally did, some fans were disappointed: The Mix wasn’t a set of new songs, but instead a double-disc release of reworked versions of the group’s old material. But in truth, it’s a great album. Not only does The Mix feature some beautifully stripped-down and beefed-up versions—sometimes bordering on out-and-out house music—of favorites like “Autobahn,” “Radioactivity” and “The Robots,” but it contains some of the coolest synthesized percussion workouts the boys ever committed to vinyl. (Check out “Metal on Metal” for a prime example.) Nevertheless, in many people’s minds, The Mix signalled the end of Kraftwerk’s status as a truly innovative force in electronic pop.
Tour de France (2003)
Fun fact: The original 1983 release of “Tour de France” featured artwork representing Hütter, Schneider and Flür and Bartos cruising along on their racing bikes. (Hütter was, and remains, an avid cyclist.) But when the single was rereleased in ’99, Flür and Bartos’s faces were gone, replaced by new members Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz. (Intra-band cattiness exists even in the rarefied realm of trailblazing electronic music, it seems.) Tour de France, originally called Tour de France Soundtracks, was released in the midst of the band’s Minimum-Maximum tour, which saw Kraftwerk making its first NYC appearance in eons at Hammerstein Ballroom. Though it had been 17 years since the release of Techno Pop, there was no denying that tracks like “Aerodynamik” and “Chrono”—not to mention a rerecorded version of the original “Tour de France” single—had that classic Kraftwerk sound. Sure, there was nothing envelope-pushing about Tour de France, but after three decades as one of the most important pop-music entities on earth, we’re certainly willing to give Kraftwerk a break.