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--John Lennon, 1963
John Lennon's statement was far more humble than he could have imagined at the time. For another seven years, The Beatles would record the most inventive and timeless popular music the world had ever heard.
But now there is a new generation of music listeners that views The Beatles as symbols of yesterday. Sure, pop harmonies and chiming guitars will never die, but at least half of the music produced today is, to some degree, electronic. Electronica has been described as the music of today and tomorrow, and the only thing that The Beatles have in common with the techno scene is a fondness for LSD. Synthetic electronic sounds and industrial rhythms are all around us, but John, Paul, George and Ringo have nothing to do with such assimilation. Instead, another European quartet is looked upon as the innovator of this movement: the German group called Kraftwerk.
Some might respond with a "who?" but Kraftwerk's international influence and importance makes up for its lack of popularity. Kraftwerk's 30-year history virtually explains the evolution of today's electronic age. Without question, Kraftwerk's electronic emissions gave birth to techno and house music--most of what you hear is just a computer chip off the old block. The group's DNA can also be found in hip-hop, New Wave synth pop, funk, and even disco. Many musicians shaped (or reshaped) their music according to Kraftwerk's new world order: Bernard Sumner, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Grandmaster Flash, Orbital, disco producer Georgio Moroder, post-Station to Station David Bowie, and, of course, Devo. Even Neil Young, with his computer-informed 1983 album Trans, bowed before the great German synth masters. In retrospect, it was Kraftwerk, not Afrika Bambaataa, that made the planet rock.
Within a 10-album career, Kraftwerk introduced voice synthesis--quickly adopted by funksters like Roger Troutman--and designed and built its own sequencers (a device that barely existed at the time, but is now essential for techno and hip-hop). The band also foresaw the 12-inch dance single as commonplace, and in 1990 remixed many of its own best-known songs before the dawning of today's remixing rage.
As it turns out, that remix album was more than a nod to nostalgia. In response to its ever-growing myth, Kraftwerk has recently assumed a higher profile. The band headlined last year's Tribal Gathering in England before a raving crowd of 40,000, and last month invaded the U.S. for an all-too-brief six-city tour. The tour was a fascinating gathering of obsessive fans, and a reminder of the massive change that this group has wrought over the years.
Kraftwerk, which is German for "power plant," is the product of a postwar industrialized Germany, a setting that would forever shape the band's aesthetic. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the Lennon and McCartney of the group, met in 1968. Although classically trained, they both resisted musical complexity. Behind a railway station in the industrial city of Dusseldorf, the duo began experimenting with an old tape recorder, some oscillators, and a small echo box. Their studio, known as Kling Klang (German for "sound"), was actually a transistorized private laboratory filled with custom machines that they built themselves.
Hutter and Schneider's devotion to technology was tantamount to a way of life. Even in a general sense, they were (and remain) very close to machines. They do not believe in the idea that a machine's operator is the sole master. They describe such alienation as an increasing danger. Hutter has said, "There will soon be a machine revolution because man has made them out to be slaves. Already you can see it. The pollution, the waste that surrounds us may be the machines' way of revolting against their mistreatment." He also views the electric guitar as "an instrument left over from the Middle Ages. We have no traditional instruments to hide behind. Our machines respond directly to us and we to the machines."
In the early '70s, Hutter and Schneider produced three Kraftwerk albums, but they now dismiss these Tangerine Dream-like artifacts as "hippie improvisations." Consequently, the group moved away from the rock-band look and opted to appear as well-dressed, clean-cut scientists. They also started checking out the dance music emanating from the discos around Dusseldorf. After the release of "Autobahn" in 1974, Kraftwerk was pleased to find that others were dancing to its music. It was the first song in German to break into the American Top 40.
But unlike America, Germany offered very little live music, and young music buyers rarely got to see artists perform. The postwar doctrines still echoed Hitler's command for anonymous uniformity. Hutter has said, "We are taught in school that the idea of 'stars' is wrong." As a result, record buyers developed a relationship with records and sounds, not performers, and the popularity of disco in Europe can be attributed to this. Apparently, Kraftwerk (now including percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos) decided to become rather faceless. The quartet also became increasingly enigmatic, rarely granting interviews, and by 1981 refusing to be photographed. Instead, the group fashioned four mannequins in their likenesses, used them for photo shoots, and actually sent them to perform a concert in which most of the audience had no clue.
On June 8, when Kraftwerk filled the L.A. Palladium to its balconied rims with an eclectic crowd of diehards, the real band members thankfully showed up. No opening act was scheduled, and no preshow music played through the PA. At least 30 or so fans were seen wearing the red shirts and thin black ties in homage to 1978's The Man-Machine. Ironically, the rave generation that Kraftwerk so influenced was virtually not in attendance. The somewhat older crowd, consisting of Internet browsers, industrial-music fans, gothics, and others of a more "musically educated persuasion," was greeted by a computerized voice that was largely unintelligible except for the letters "L.A."
Curtains opened to reveal the illustrious (now all-digital) Kling Klang studio: four modular racks of computers and electronics placed together in a long, crescent-shaped configuration. In front of these racks and monitors (placed at a 45-degree angle for ease of adjustments) were four custom synthlike podiums. Behind the equipment, four identical video screens stood just as symmetrically as the rest of the gear. You got the feeling that the whole thing might take off like star fleet command later in the show. It didn't. What was evident was the fact that Kraftwerk's principal stars are the machines themselves, as they were introduced first.
This has always been true. Kraftwerk lives for Kling Klang alone (they've turned down offers to collaborate with Michael Jackson, Elton John and Bowie), and touring has been secondary to their works in the studio, which includes film and video production and electro-mechanical robotics. Kraftwerk has literally created a virtual reality that goes far beyond their brilliant binary pop and subsequently, only in terms of album releases, would the group seem less than prolific. But as Schneider has said, "There is too much sound pollution."
Dressed in matching black zippered turtleneck uniforms, the Kraftwerk members made their L.A. entrance looking a lot like "The Sprockets" from the old Saturday Night Live skits. Each member walked to his designated power station with an almost programmed seriousness. Hutter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz (Flur and Bartos left the group because things moved too slowly for them) and Schneider stood virtually motionless and expressionless for what would be a synchronized span of precisely two hours.
Hutter and Schneider are both 50, but somehow their statuesque performance style is more exciting than the similarly aging Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they still moved more than Bill Wyman. Kraftwerk did not speak amongst each other or with the crowd. The only communications were done lyrically with a lone headset mike worn by Hutter.
The Kraftwerk show served as an electronic biography of the group--every song exemplifying its foresight and contribution to our present premillennium culture was performed. The first blips and beats came from "Numbers," a cut from 1981's Computer World that garnered Kraftwerk urban-radio airplay in Detroit prior to the arrival of hip-hop and techno. The four screens presented a colorful but dizzying array of digital digits that seemed to reflect how numbers have become a technical necessity in everyday life. The computer as a pedestrian prominence highlighted the show's beginning as the band performed the title track and "It's More Fun to Compute," while "Speak and Spell" spoken words such as "medicine," "entertainment" and "time" flashed on screen.
The aforementioned principles of unity between electronics and their operators are the subject of "The Man-Machine," the title track of an album that many fans believe is Kraftwerk's best. But one of Kraftwerk's favorite machines is not at all electronic. The group's fondness for the bicycle inspired them to produce "Tour De France." Performed with synchronous black-and-white footage of the famous French bicycle competition, the concert version of the song offered a reminder that it is arguably one of the most important 12-inch dance singles of our time. It defines Kraftwerk's international aesthetic with heavy breathing, harps, oriental-like melodies, and French lyrics, but this 1983 single, complete with B-side remix, still can't be found on a CD.
Then there was "Autobahn," the driving beat that bought Kraftwerk an American map. Synthetic sounds of cars and buses passing on the world's fastest motorway this side of the Indy 500 were brought to life on the big screens. Vintage Mercedes and family sedan advertisements added a sense of humor to their facial expressions that were as dark as an oil pan. The members of Kraftwerk were never really fans of The Beatles, but oddly enough, they loved the Beach Boys. Perhaps the refrain "Wir Fahr'N Fahr'N Fahr'N Auf Der Autobahn" is borrowed from "Fun, fun, fun 'til her daddy takes the T-bird away."
"The Model," also from 1978's The Man-Machine, is about as '90s as you can get: a model's manipulation by the camera, which in turn manipulates the consumer. Hutter sings simplistically under black-and-white runway footage, "She's a model and she's looking good/I'd like to take her home, that's understood, she plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time/It only takes a camera to change her mind."
Films of mass European transit were played during "Trans Europe Express," one of Kraftwerk's most recognizable works. In 1977, it won a disco award in New York for its metal-to-metal synthesis of train physics. The unmistakable Egyptianlike melody has been sampled by many, and Dr. Dre lifted a portion of the metallic percussion for his 1996 song "Been There Done That." Not to mention "Planet Rock," an old-school classic defined by the "T.E.E." melody. The rather ordinary techno of the new, untitled song played afterward merely showcased "T.E.E." as a far superior track.
In the one display of any sort of political stance, Kraftwerk performed the 1991 remix version of 1976's "Radioactivity." Speaking out (electronically) against nuclear power plants such as Chernobyl, Sellafield and Harrisburg, Kraftwerk warned of a potential Hiroshima and a "terminated population." The flashing radioactive symbols were an indication that there were actually four human beings onstage.
But by the time the encore rolled around, Kraftwerk returned and loosened up a bit. Standing in front of their stations, unobstructed, the scientists performed "Pocket Calculator" with a sense of humor and four pocket keyboards. Although a far cry from donning silly flowerpot hats, the foursome was simply comical and hammed it up like an old radio. The almost childish verse "By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody" was an antidote to the usual discipline of the Kraftwerk machine.
The next encore revealed the lonesome Kling Klang once again, but everyone was anticipating the fabricated four's arrival onstage. Halfway through "The Robots," Kraftwerk's mechanical self-portraits were lowered to perform upper torso dancing in the intermittence of strobe lighting. Afterward, the legless impostors were turned over to their groupies: Dr. Evil's Fembots. Kraftwerk returned once more and offered yet another untitled new track--this one was also pure techno and you could feel the "current" running right through it. With glowing neon-green grid-pattern suits, the band looked like something out of the movie Tron.
On the screens, four computer-designed busts from the cover of the 1986 album Electric Cafe came to life. "Boing Boom Tschak" as the faces would repeat, along with random "pings" and "ticks," was the first half of the finale, "Musique Non Stop." The house lights (in the Palladium's case, chandeliers) were on and people were filing out, but the robotic refrain "music, non stop" would repeat for at least another 10 minutes--Kraftwerk is very much aware of its endless influence.
But history also repeats. Lennon was quoted as saying that The Beatles were more important than Jesus, and the questionable statement caused a backlash. For more than 30 years, the Fab Four has been immortalized with an unmatched reverence, and so today, it is almost as controversial to say that Kraftwerk is more important than The Beatles. Controversial, yes, but for the countless DJs, producers and listeners whose tastes were shaped by electronic music, this assertion is unquestionable.