What The Beatles are to pop and rock, Kraftwerk are to electronic music.
They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-Wish You Were Here-Animals-The Wall sequence or the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Let It Bleed-Sticky Fingers-Exile on Main Street triumphs.
All subsequent electronic music owes an enormous debt to Kraftwerk. From them we get their direct progeny, like Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, New Order, and Erasure, as well as the New Romantic movement. Afrika Bambaataa famously used “Trans Europe Express” and “Numbers” in his pioneering early hip-hop track “Planet Rock”. And from there Kraftwerk’s influence has been entirely diffused into the culture: everyone from Bjork to Coldplay to Daft Punk to Madonna to David Bowie to U2 to Lady Gaga has been influenced by them.
Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971), Kraftwerk II (1972) and Ralf and Florian (1973) have not been re-released and thus have been essentially expunged from the group’s discography. This is a little odd: they are embryonic and less acutely focused, sure, but they are still very listenable. Later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) meanwhile lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics. But the great five albums remain simply unsurpassable.
This is one of the greatest albums mostly on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren”, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and vocoder vocals, with ancillary guitar, flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they are singing about, with horns and passing cars all being evoked. Heavily reduced for release as a single, it reached #25 on the US Billboard chart and #11 in the UK.
The rest of the album slightly pales in comparison. The next two tracks are “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2” (“Kometenmelodie = “Comet Melody”), the former a rather dull atmospheric evocation, the latter an utter delight: a surging, majestic melodic piece that anticipates future glories. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs on Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, but still overshadowed by later glories.
This is where Kraftwerk’s integration of vision and technique comes together. The album is linked via two connected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radio wave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), yet thematically they hold up perfectly.
In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album (ripped off by Simple Minds!), and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these songs, while they link the album, are in the majority; most of the album is short thematic pieces, like “News” (newsreaders multitracked over each other), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blip… blip… blip…blip–blip–blip–blipblipblipblipblipblipblip). “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which the Chemical Brothers sampled for the opening to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.
Trans Europe Express
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It slightly irritates me that this is the album that’s always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever” listicles. This is probably down to two things: the sheer goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the influence of Afrika Bambaataa’s sampling of it. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are, to my ears, the two weakest in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds unusually amateurish, like the sound effects from a 1980 Commodore 64 game; while the latter is a dry self-parody, stuck on a rhythm that never changes or progresses.
All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the beat more kinetically, and “Europe Endless” is a stunning, stirring evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous. Trans Europe Express is a wonderful album, of course, it is just that Kraftwerk did several that were even better.
The Man Machine
To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s, which, given the competition, is really saying something. Here, the rhythms take on a greater gloss and sheen: the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is fantastically modern and synthetic, considering its age. Take the opening to opening track “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:
We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
The whole thing is so robotic, so alien, so inhumanly funky. It is electronic music at its most refined, elementary, and exquisite.
I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”, whose sense of high-flown indifference is emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. “The Model” is perhaps the best-known track in Kraftwerk’s catalogue, though it’s something of an outlier, with a wry character sketch lyric and more typically structured music. (It reached #1 in the UK in 1982, making Kraftwerk the first German group to top the British charts).
The best track of all is “Neon Lights”, a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. It reminds me of summer evenings in my first year as a student, approaching the lights of the student halls of residence, from where you could hear all manner of life and hope and youth. It is so great to hear modern life being celebrated for once! But what astonishes about The Man Machine is that even today, forty-two years later, it still sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.
Adding polyrhythms and breakbeats to The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, warmer and even at times genuinely funny. With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” takes the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with “Air Waves” from Radio Activity in second place), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (from a Casio FX-501P programmable calculator) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:
I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator
By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody
Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world; “Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”
Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolation; keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, none of this sounds dated. Home computers were a rarity in 1981, but Kraftwerk clearly understood the implications of technology right from the outset. We’re just living in their world now.
Kraftwerk are the originators of so much of modern music that we are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, in the way perhaps Louis Armstrong is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane, or Chuck Berry when compared to The Beatles; Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release. Their imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed after forty-odd years.