--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.