An introduction to Kraftwerk

May 4 2021, by Kamran Akhavan

Dubbed the “most influential group in pop history” by music journalist Neil McCormick, granted the Lifetime Achievement Award, a Grammy and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kraftwerk was a German band founded in 1970 by Rulf Hütter and Florian Schneider. They set up their electronic Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf, where they wrote, recorded and produced all of their albums. Their compositions, using innovative techniques and synthetic sounds paired with computerised rhythms, were revolutionary for the time, and went on to majorly influence genres such as Electro, Hip Hop, Techno and Synthpop.

Hütter and Schneider met while studying classical music at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in the late 60s. They began their early work in a five-piece band called the Organisation. Subsequently adopting the name Kraftwerk, meaning “power station,” Hütter, Schneider, and a series of collaborators created a unique sound pallet as part of a small but highly influential cult of German bands who experimented with electronic instruments long before it was fashionable in a movement known as Krautrock.

Their first major breakthrough was their 22-minute title track of the album Autobahn released in 1974. Being labelled repetitious, monotonous, peculiar and entrancing, Autobahn became an unlikely hit in Europe and the United States, playing on commercial radio stations in its severely abridged form. Their subsequent albums featured similar repetitive electronic music and explored subjects that the band felt related to their outlook on the world. One of their most famous songs, We are the Robots, for example, conveyed their outlook on the music industry as the band felt like robots, working without emotion or rest.

The band went on to challenge the idea of how a tour should look and sound, appearing in the United States in the guise of identical robot mannequins who performed their music exclusively on keyboards, enforcing their central concept of “robot-pop”. The title of their album The Man-Machine (1978) epitomized the concept. The band however, rarely recorded in the following decades and virtually stopped touring in the ‘80s and ’90s entirely. Its music however was still a huge influence on New York hip-hop, going on to inspire artists such as Neil Young’s album Trans, techno dance music, David Bowie and Brian Eno’s collaborations and set the stage for the synth-pop music of artists such as Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and several others.

The group resumed their touring schedule in the early 2000s and released Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003, their first original album in 17 years. Minimum-Maximum, their first live album, subsequently came out in 2005. Schneider’s departure from Kraftwerk was announced in 2009, however the band continued to tour. In 2012, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art presented “Kraftwerk—Retrospective 12345678” in which the band performed eight of its most popular studio albums over the course of eight evenings, beginning with Autobahn. The exhibition later travelled to other museums, including London’s Tate Modern, and various venues around the world. A live recording made from several of the performances, 3-D: The Catalogue, won the Grammy for best dance/electronic album. The band received a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2014.

In a foreign country with a partial resentment for Germany, and with an unusual and highly repetitive musical style, Kraftwerk became popular against all the odds. Today, they are regarded by many as one of the central pioneers of electronic music, influencing sub-genres of electronic music such as hip-hop, house and drum and bass. Their style was revolutionary for the time, incorporating vocoders, synthesizers and drum machines into otherwise conventional pop music; their signature repetitive electronic backing tracks and automated voices are highly prevalent in modern day music and commonly used today. The band has indirectly influenced countless modern-day artists, with their work being built on by composers who, in turn, inspire the next generation of songwriters. With its profound influence on the modern-day pop scene, Kraftwerk has undoubtedly earned the title of one of the most influential groups in pop history.

Kamran Akhavan, L6

Further reading: