Monday, April 20, 2009
Few bands command a genuinely multi-cultural following; none do so on the same scale as Kraftwerk.
The name was once synonymous with a kind of Teutonic caricature: robotic, efficiently industrial, and nicely ironic to an English-speaking audience who would hear it and imagine patchwork quilts, sec it and come face to face with the chimneys of the Ruhr valley.
The vapid automata suggested by this caricature represented the very antithesis of soul, and yet the name Kraftwerk is now revered among house, rap and funk aficionados from Chicago to Sheffield.
The key word in unravelling this conundrum is, of course, technology. Anyone who shares an interest in its musical applications ultimately is led back to the pioneering ideas of Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, heirs to the Stockhausen legacy and co-founders in 1968 of Organisation – an electronic music duo later to evolve into Kraftwerk.
British pop groups of the late '70s and early' '80s could thus draw on seminal albums like Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977) and The Man Machine (1978), as economic changes brought synthesisers within their reach, while the more syncopated rhythms of the single 'Tour de France' (1983) and the album Electric Cafe (1986) served a similar purpose for a new generation of dance acts. Whatever the style, in using musical technology it always seemed that Kraftwerk provided the model.
But there is a consistency to their music which also explains their wide appeal.
Unlike contemporaries Tangerine Dream, they write melodies – 'ditties' even – they program strong beats, and they always have done.
The shuffling beat of 'Autobahn' offers an early hint; and it was a track from as early an album as Trans-Europe Express that Afrika Bambaataa used to such historic effect on 'Planet Rock'.
Meanwhile, any no-nonsense pop audience in the world can appreciate the lilting tunes and lyrical simplicity of songs like 'Neon Lights' and 'The Model'.
Through it all, Kraftwerk have stuck to their task. From analogue synthesis to digital (and back again); from tape loops to sampling; from CV/gate to MIDI; through progressive rock, new wave, new romantics, hip-hop, house, techno and ambient new age – these enigmatic German geezers dressed as lab technicians have quietly twiddled their way through the years unfettered, safely ensconced in their Dusseldorf 'Kling-Klang' studio.
The single-mindedness of their vision is, as ever, the stuff of true originality.
PW - Tech Mag.