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Audio Rewind: How Kraftwerk Changed Music Forever

Audio Rewind: How Kraftwerk Changed Music Forever

Any discussion of the most era-defining, paradigm-shifting figures in contemporary music would be incomplete without Kraftwerk. The German krautrock band was the first act to popularize electronic music, and if you’ve listened to any piece of music in the new millennium, you’ve likely borne witness to the near-profligate dissemination of electronic sounds. Much to the chagrin of dogmatic roots rock and folk lovers, electronics are here to stay—and all for the better, I think! Art should be driven to challenge its audiences; envelope pushing doesn’t detract from any of the existing styles, it simply adds another color to the palette. And would we have that without Kraftwerk? Almost certainly not. They’re so integral to the fabric of music culture that, three years ago this week, they received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in the same year it was given to a band called the Beatles. That alone should speak to the essentialism of their craft and the work that they’ve put forth. This is Kraftwerk.

In the late ’60s, Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, violin) and Ralf Hütter (organ, synthesizers) met as students at the Robert Schumann Hochschule in Düsseldorf. They were already active participants in the incipient German experimental scene—then still a fringe arena with next to no gravity. Soon, though, they would help conceive a genre that challenged its obscurity.

Krautrock, (or komische music, aka cosmic music), is a combination of psychedelic rock, avant-garde electronica, funk, minimalism, jazz, world music, improvisation…basically, it’s anything goes. At that time, ‘kraut’ was a derogative word for both German soldiers in the World Wars and drugs. “Krautrock,” coined by English-speaking journalists in Melody Maker magazine, was a pejorative epithet for these beastly combinations of sounds. Beastly, at least, until krautrock exceeded expectations, attracted an audience, and became popular in Europe’s music mecca: Britain.

Kraftwerk, of course, were krautrock trailblazers. Trails don’t just blaze overnight, though. The band’s first three albums were freeform explorations that depicted the band’s search for footing. The first two, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk II, were entirely instrumental, pairing real instruments with simple electronics like audio tape manipulations and beat-box drum machines. But the third, Ralf unt Florian, captures on tape the shaping of the iconic Kraftwerk sound. Heavier synths and drum machines bore more conviction as they settled into their groove. Another, even more integral addition to the record was the vocoder, the signature of the Kraftwerk legacy.

Kraftwerk popularized the vocoder, which was initially used as a military tool for scrambling voice IDs, as a musical instrument (though there is some contention about who first used the vocoder as an instrument, an argument you can see in the New Yorker’s excellent video below). Through the digitized mechanism, Kraftwerk relayed robotic lyrics about post-war Europe, technology, and urban life—each item electric in its own way.

Subsequent albums, Autobahn (1974) and Radio-Activity (1975), were accompanied by equipment upgrades and a cleaner sound. The crisp vibe of the latter LP won them an international audience—the album peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Amongst their new fan base was none other than David Bowie. After hearing Radio-Activity, Starman invited the band to tour with him in support of Station to Station. Kraftwerk declined, though, and despite repeated rumors of collaboration, one never came to fruition. Still, the band continued to impress Bowie, and their style was one of the most notable influences on his storied, Brian Eno-produced Berlin trilogy.

At this point in their run, the famous Kling Klang studio was operating at full capacity. The studio was a secret place that was both holistic musical instrument and sound lab—a reflection of the Bauhaus aesthetic that inspired the band’s style. Throughout their career, the band would continue to upgrade Kling Klang, buying new equipment, making their own, and even converting some of their instruments to hand-held controllers. Eventually it was so optimized that it became portable. After the arrival of Computer World (1981), the studio was brought on tour and implemented into live performance. The vocoder was given a larger role and, to better reflect their mechanistic sound, Kraftwerk replaced themselves on stage with mannequin replicas—typically for their hit song, “The Robots.”

Two years later, after recording the single “Tour de France,” Hütter was involved in a serious bicycling accident and went into a coma. He would recover but, following the band’s 1986 record, Electric Café, Kraftwerk became a less stable group. Their lineup would become increasingly variable over the next several years and they wouldn’t release any new material until 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks.

By then, Kraftwerk was already a legend whose influence was readily palpable. Depeche Mode, Aphex Twin, Bjork, Daft Punk, Prodigy, Joy Division/New Order, Blondie, and LCD Soundsystem are amongst the hundreds of artists that cite Kraftwerk as a major influence. Each of these artists, in turn, have become seminal influences for generations of artists. Moreover, the Kraftwerk sound helped shape New York’s electro movement (Afrika Bambaataa) and, in Detroit, their melodies were fused with funk rhythms to form techno. The far-reaching applications of their music is extraordinary; it’s difficult to imagine a world without any of these things in it.

Perhaps most salient about Kraftwerk’s style was that it marked a divergence from the canonized and much revered blues-rock genre. In discovering their sound, the band merged loose ends—those strands of erudite experimentalism, errant noise, and other niche styles—and then consolidated them into a more accessible package. Kraftwerk shed light on the avant-garde without abandoning the lay listener, and that is probably their hallmark achievement. It’s certainly one of the primary reasons they’re so celebrated. The Observer once wrote that “no other band since the Beatles has given so much to pop culture.” And NME went one step further, declaring that the Beatles and Kraftwerk exist on equal footing, sharing the title of most important band in music history.

It’s fitting, then, that the two acts should have been honored on the same day. For as much as music owes the Beatles, perhaps even more is owed to Kraftwerk, because the implications of their pioneering spirit are tangible still today. All around the world, producers, beat-makers, would-be robots, and cosmic sound enthusiasts continue to plumb music’s outer regions. Defining eras. Shifting paradigms. Painstakingly molding their craft.

Image: Andriy Makukha

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