02 Apr 2006
Wired For Sound
From their origins in the art student bohemia of Dusseldorf nearly 40 years ago to their iconic status today as pioneers of Techno, Kraftwerk have never compromised their singular aesthetic. Ralf Hütter talked to Michael Bracewell
On the week of 10th May, 1975, a single entered the UK charts by the German electronic music ensemble, Kraftwerk. It was ‘Autobahn’; its B side was ‘Kometenmelodie 1’ (Comet Melody 1). Released in Britain on the old Vertigo label the song was as infectiously melodic as it was conceptually perplexing. During a month when the UK singles chart was dominated by Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’, and the excruciating ‘Oh Boy’, by Mud, what were British audiences to make of a record titled after motorways by a group whose name translated as ‘Power Plant’? Musically, ‘Autobahn’ sounded as though the sublime harmonizing of The Beach Boys had been re-routed via the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop – a comparison that was immediately clinched by the phonetic similarity between the Beach Boys’ iconic hook line, ‘fun, fun, fun’, and ‘Autobahn’s’ electronically carolled observation, ‘wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der autobahn’ (‘we’re driving, driving, driving on the motorway’).
Regarded in part as a novelty record – it was compared to the relentlessly perky hit ‘Popcorn’ by Hot Butter – ‘Autobahn’ nonetheless became a Top 20 hit in Britain and the US. The track has a vivid, utterly distinctive and instantly engaging momentum; the electronic rhythm is thrillingly assured and filled with the rolling romance of the road. And then there is its European coolness – a quality both aloof and charming, but given a further edge by a pleasing tingle of faintly sinister, robotic ultra-modernity. The album version of the song, fans discovered, ran to just under 23 minutes.
By the time they made their first tour outside of Germany in 1975, Kraftwerk’s appearance compounded their originality: the quartet appeared neat, be-suited and bourgeois. During an era of dope, denim, glitter and shoulder-length hair, they looked like a quartet of university librarians who had got together to form an academic cabaret act. With their impassive expressions and lounge suits the group’s demeanour made a statement of resolute social conformity and intent conservatism – but within pop and rock music where precisely the reverse was expected, their conservatism was transformed into a radical gesture.
And there you had it. When, in his ‘Kraftwerkfeature’ for Creem magazine, published in September 1975, the rock journalist Lester Bangs described ‘Autobahn’ as ‘more than just a record – it is an indictment!’ declaring Kraftwerk had recorded one of the most radical songs in western popular music since Elvis Presley recorded ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ for RCA in 1956. For just as Elvis had turned rock and roll music inside out to create a three-minute soundtrack for white teenage alienation – ‘a psychodrama’, as Albert Goldman would later describe it – so Kraftwerk had recorded a near-perfect, genre-defining, culturally iconic pop song by reversing every technical, emotional, thematic and stylistic quality that pop and rock as a form, up until that point, had been seen to comprise: the less they moved, the more they swung.
Since then, Kraftwerk has become recognized as one of the most influential and iconic groups within the canon of modern music. Now resembling both a venerable institution and a secret facility for advanced research (every aspect of the group’s creative activities is kept strictly off-limits to outsiders – even to their record company) Kraftwerk have also maintained their reputation for timeless modernity – their releases and live performances are beyond the reach of mere fashion. Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) was followed by a sold-out world tour, which was recorded and documented on the Grammy nominated DVD and live CD, Minimum-Maximum.
Referenced by stadium-filling acts from Kylie Minogue to U2, repeatedly cited as the inventors of techno and the godfathers of electroclash, and with their music sampled across a thousand DJ-release dance tracks, Kraftwerk have never compromised either their singular aesthetic or apparent secrecy. Their professional existence and meticulous control of their product is closer to that of a senior visual artist than a musical group. They also rarely grant interviews: all that is currently known about Kraftwerk is that electronic sound engineers Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz have cooperated for more than 20 years with the group’s founders, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in their recording activities and live performances.
Meeting Hütter at the offices of Parlophone Records in west London – an interview with frieze having been proposed by one of his oldest friends, who is now a gallery owner – I was courteously greeted by a man who is neither formal nor casual, confiding or secretive. ‘We had been touring continuously, from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, from university to university, from art gallery to art gallery’ he recounts, referring to his initial musical collaborations with Schneider, and their eventual discovery of their mature artistic signature; ‘we would rest sometimes at the houses of friends, and then travel home during the night, say from Frankfurt to Dusseldorf, on the autobahn. Then one day the ultimate formula occurred to us, like Einstein’s e= mc2: Autobahn!’ Immediately we knew the whole work. It took some months of pre-recording and rehearsing in the studio. Then we engaged the engineer Connie Plank to bring in his equipment, and the two of us recorded all the tracks. With our friend, the painter Emil Schult, we wrote the lyrics and made the artwork. We were fantasizing that maybe one day the track would come on the car radio, because in Germany this sort of music was not played on the radio at all. And so later in the track you hear our song coming out of the car radio! A friend asked why it didn’t continue on the second side of the record, because it could go on forever: it’s the ultimate road music, perhaps.’
‘Autobahn’ was the track which brought into crystalline harmony the ideas that Hütter and Schneider had been exploring for nearly seven years, and across three earlier albums: Kraftwerk (1970), Kraftwerk 2 (1971) and Ralf and Florian (1973). As such, particularly in its album version, it was a total work – a Gesamtkunstwerk – its concept, vision, composition, styling, artwork, instrumentation and lyric all combining to create and intensify not just the musical presence of the song, but what the track expressed as a statement about art making in the modern world. In this sense, Kraftwerk, after ‘Autobahn’, became Germany’s Andy Warhol: artists dedicated to expressing the quotidian landscape of a Mass Cultural age, and doing so in a manner which was itself a further expression of mass cultural technology.
But as Hütter suggests, the road to ‘Autobahn’ was a long one, beginning in the art student bohemia of Dusseldorf at a time when the ethos of politicized student protest was spilling over to inform approaches to creativity. ‘Florian and myself met at the Conservatoire just outside of Dusseldorf, where there were courses for improvised music. I had my keyboards, he had his flutes; it was in the summer of 1968 – everything happened in 1968! People were forming their own informal improvisational groups, and a couple of days later we had our first performance in the Cream Cheese club in Dusseldorf. Then we played occasionally – of course, this was before Kraftwerk – at parties, in art galleries, museums, at openings. In the normal music circuit there was no space for us. I was studying architecture and Florian was finishing school, so our friends were at the art school. It was a very ‘open’ situation culturally – it was probably the same in England or Holland; things weren’t so categorized or specialized. We knew about all sorts of music from records and the radio; right next to the club I mentioned was Konrad Fischer’s gallery. He was showing artists like Sigmar Polke and Gilbert & George, and around the corner Joseph Beuys had his office. It was like a little village in this one district of Dusseldorf. There was not so much musical influence, but a lot of curiosity – everything was new! The idea was to get away from the old classical situations; for us this was through happenings, or Fluxus; everything was possible. Florian and I called ourselves The Organization at this point, and we organized gigs and concerts for a group of musicians. But this was not what is known as Kraftwerk today. This was improvisation: found sounds, contact microphones; I worked with rubbing the microphone against my beard; Florian breathing on his flute, using echo chambers. It was very amateurish. We played gigs in Cologne at places like Photokina, and in Dusseldorf there was something called In Between – which was between art shows at the Kunsthalle when artists and performers could use the space. We played there with one laser beam.’
It has been suggested that Hütter and Schneider were inspired by witnessing Gilbert & George’s The Singing Sculpture, which was performed in Dusseldorf in 1970. However, although Hütter and Schneider were exploring their creativity within a far broader cultural context, their music was also as stereotypically and, in some ways, as romantically German as The Doors or Simon and Garfunkel were steeped in the iconic cosmography of America. Kraftwerk also played with ideas of stereotypically Germanic characteristics and stances. Their music and artistic identity proposed the notion of worker-technicians intent more with efficiency than rocking out, and dressed in suits or uniforms rather than leather jackets. But even within this singular demonstration of hyper-Germanism lay such a meticulously poised series of musical and imagistic statements, that the band’s robotic formality delivered an elan closer to the glamour of Country & Western music than the stern rigidity of technocrats.
By the late 1970s, having appeared on the cover of their album ‘Man Machine’ (1978) dressed in red shirts and black ties with their faces made-up like shop window dummies in a gentlemen’s outfitters of the 1920s, Kraftwerk appeared to have sealed themselves into the circuitry of their own image – but they exploded their own formality. Famously, on their ‘Computer World’ tour of 1981, the uniformed group would emerge from behind their shining banks of technology during their performance of ‘Pocket Calculator’ to ‘jam’ on little pocket calculators – rather like Status Quo’s rocking during ‘Sweet Caroline’, but transposed to the automata movements of a dance mechanique. It brought the house down. No further evidence of their ideologies was required.
At the beginning of 1970, Hütter and Schneider had acquired what can only be described as their secret headquarters: the enduringly private and outwardly anonymous Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf, where they still work, and which gives its name to both the corporate totality of their activities as Kraftwerk, as well as to the abstract inner mysticism of their modus operandi. (In a semi-facetious nod to the yin and yang duality of Eastern philosophy, Ralf has been described as the ‘Kling’ to Florian’s ‘Klang’.) Hütter: ‘We saw The Singing Sculpture of Gilbert & George in Dusseldorf, of course. It was not particularly influential on us, but they came to the club with Konrad Fischer. The idea of a holistic, non-specialized art form was in the air – from Warhol and Gilbert & George and Joseph Beuys – art as politics or social sculpture. Our friend Emil Schult (who made the painting for the cover of 'Autobahn') was a pupil of Beuys. Germany has no single cultural centre; there was the Rhine/Ruhr industrial scene around Dusseldorf, and the Cologne scene, with Can; in Munich there was guitar-oriented music, like Amon Duul, in Frankfurt rock, and in Berlin a more electronic scene. And all of these little scenes were working in parallel. Everything was political within the universities – it was no longer a case of sitting and listening to the professor, it was to do with self-realization and a coming to life: a re-birth within German society, which had gone through the war, and the post-war bourgeois materialism of the 1950s. And this same process was happening in film and art as well. When we started Kraftwerk in early 1970, we rented our first Kling Klang studio, which was like a work place, fairly small. We’re still there today, only we have more rooms. But we got in there and closed the doors, and started to work with cassette recorders, tape recorders, cutting tape: very simple. In Berlin, electronic music was considered more cosmic; ours was known as electronic rock, German rock or underground rock. But really it had no name, because the music wasn’t finished – it was being developed. Our task was to find a language for our work. And maybe that’s the basis of Kraftwerk; our early compositions were working with the very basics of German language, then transforming that into very rudimentary sounds.’
In many ways, Kling Klang is in the lineage of Warhol’s Factory or Gilbert & George’s house in Fournier Street, in East London. There is the same sense in which the studio/workplace has become the ceremonial template on which the fundamental philosophy and aesthetic of the art is based. In the case of Kraftwerk, from 1975 onwards, Hütter and Schneider’s work in studio Kling Klang would refine their marriage of concept and technical process that doubled as a seemingly celebratory vision of the industrialized service mechanisms of the modern world. Since 1975, Kraftwerk have created electronic music exploring such themes as trains, robots, home computing, neon, fashion models and long distance cycling. At the heart of their total musical product, their mensch maschine (people machine) Kling Klang vision, so to speak, is an ambiguous, but at times almost luxuriant romanticism – The Sims tutored by Robert Schumann.
‘We call it Alltagsmusik – which means ‘everyday music’ says Hütter, ‘we work with everyday themes – not cosmic ones! It has taken us so many years to achieve; there were nights of uncertainty when we didn’t know where we were going, or what we should do or what was even possible. What was our sound? With Kling Klang we set about finding that sound.’
Lyrically and graphically, Kraftwerk present a vision of modern society which is pared down to the functionalism of an instruction manual; at the same time, their choice of imagery and public identity – notably the Paris ‘photo salon’ portrait of themselves on the cover Trans Europe Express (1977), or their robotic appearance on the cover of Man Machine (1978) – references a nostalgia for what could be described as archaic visions of the future, or a ‘retro-futurism’. They achieve this by selecting images of modern, mass cultural phenomena from the period of their first newness – by re-animating the shock of the new. In this, Kraftwerk’s electronic journeys through the classic anthropology of the modern landscape has sharpened their musical language to an intensity which would find as much favour with art school Punks as it would later with the inventors of Techno in Detroit and Hip-Hop in New York. In one sense, they have created a musical Esperanto to articulate our experience of the modern world.
Hütter: ‘When we travel, we go to clubs to dance – we have our mechanical dance, you know; and of course we have played all over the world, and so we meet people. There is also the affinity of the two cities whose names begin with a D – Dusseldorf and Detroit. ‘Autobahn’ is the ultimate car track and so perhaps that’s why it was best understood in Detroit. There are long lists of where of where our music has been sampled – mostly club records, so that’s fantastic. But if it’s a more mainstream record, then that becomes a publishing matter – we could make ourselves our redundant. Our music is not about values but just about everyday situations. We define ourselves as sound-scientists, or as musical workers. Every day we go to the studio, work on the instruments, talk to the engineers – it’s not a musician’s existence, in the way of rehearsing with instruments. I did that as a young boy, learning to play the piano, and I found it very boring because I wanted to write my own notes. There is not one music but many musics. Music comes out of everyday situations. We dislike muzak in public places. The engineer who used to travel with us had cable scissors, which he would use in America in airports, hotels and elevators because we wanted to hear the airports, hotels, elevators, planes and cars – the sounds of the original technological society. I even complained in planes when they put on Mozart, because I wanted to hear the engines starting. We knew of course about Futurist music and Musique Concrete, but ours is a non-academic music; in Germany you call it electronische volksmusik (electronic folk music). We have no epic, and we don’t tell stories. ‘The Model’ is possibly the only one, but even that has a certain irony, or nuance of social observation. I use only human speech; Florian has all these machines which make synthetic voices – female voices, language computers, artificial personalities, singing typewriters, things like that. We use different languages. The words are like film scripts; they are not meant to be stimulating. They are more like statements; some are even like sound poetry: boing boom tscack! Also, it’s not really singing that I do – it’s speech singing. With technicians, engineers, cameramen and so on, we work on our Kling Klang product and concept. We have called ourselves ‘music workers’ since 1970 and our music has been called ‘Electronic Paintings’.
With the assistance of Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, Michael Bracewell is currently writing a biography of Roxy Music.
A catalogue on the oeuvre of Kraftwerk entitled 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 THE CATALOGUE / DER KATALOG will be published in summer, 2006.
With thanks to Monika Sprüth and Philomene Magers for their help with this article.
First published in Issue 98