From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Kraftwerk - I don't think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in 1977 when they came out with 'Trans Europe Express'. When that came out I thought that was one of the best and weirdest damn records I ever heard in my life ..That's an amazing group to see -jus' to see what computers and all that can do."--Afrika Bambaataa, 1984, Face Magazine
Kraftwerk, German for "power station") is a German musical group from Düsseldorf that has made key contributions to the development of improvisational rock and electronic music. Early musical templates formed within the industrial and hip hop music communities have also been credited to the group.
The Kraftwerk sound combines a driving rhythm section with catchy, synthesized melodies and harmony; mainly following a classical style of arrangement accompanied by simple lyrics which are sometimes sung through a vocoder or generated by computer speech software. The Moog synthesizer is heavily present in the majority of the group's works, adding to their signature sound creations. In the mid to late 1970s and the early 1980s, the Kraftwerk sound was revolutionary for its time, and it has had a lasting impact across nearly all genres of modern popular music.
The group's breakthrough, both critically and commercially, came in 1974 with the Autobahn album and its 22-minute title track, featuring the Motorik beat, which was a worldwide hit and demonstrated its increasing reliance on synthesizers and electronics. This preceded a quintet of recorded works that would exert a huge influence on popular music—Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and the single, Tour de France (1983).
Influence on other genres
Kraftwerk’s releases in the 1970s and early 1980s, most significantly Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), and Computer World (1981), directly influenced and continues to inspire many popular artists from many diverse genres of music.
One of the first major recording artists to claim a direct influence from Kraftwerk's music was David Bowie. Part of this can be heard in a series of albums that start with Station To Station and continue with the Berlin Trilogy—Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. Iggy Pop's association with Bowie during this period would result in the classic albums Lust For Life and The Idiot. Kraftwerk's members were mutual fans of both artists, name-dropping them in the lyrics of its 1977 single "Trans-Europe Express."
Following this were the artists in the new rock and dance-music scenes that were developing. A large number of them borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk not only musically but also in terms of image and ideas. This can be seen and heard in a wide variety of artists such as Gary Numan, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Human League, Depeche Mode, Devo, Joy Division, Telex, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Giorgio Moroder, New Order, Front 242, Cabaret Voltaire, Art of Noise, Yello, Ultravox, Visage, and Thomas Dolby.
Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock (1982) was a major defining hit for hip-hop and the birth of electro music, which contains elements of '"Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers." Legal action was pursued against Bambaataa and won for the blatant use of these particular sounds and melodies without giving proper credit to the group. Since the lawsuit, proper credit is now given on the song’s writing credits. Numerous artists have continued to sample and pilfer various elements from Kraftwerk's catalog.
The influence of Kraftwerk’s distinctive use of synthesizers, drum machine rhythms, and heavily effected vocals can also be heard on early Detroit techno records. Detroit techno artists Derrick May and Juan Atkins tried to replicate Kraftwerk’s sound on early techno records such as Cybotron’s Clear (1983), Model 500’s No UFOs (1985), and Derrick May’s Nude Photo (1986).
Kraftwerk was also a major influence in the genre of Chicago house Music. Keith Farley's (Farley "Jackmaster" Funk of the Hot Mix 5) recording '"Funkin With the Drums Again" pays homage to Kraftwerk's "Home Computer" and "It's More Fun to Compute," which are cult classics in Chicago's house-music history.
While touring after the release of Astronaut in 2005, Duran Duran would signify its arrival on stage by playing "The Robots." This track appeared on the album Nick Rhodes and John Taylor present Only after Dark (2006). When Duran Duran played Broadway in November 2007, and the Lyceum in London in December 2007, it performed "Showroom Dummies" as part of its electro set. Each band member used electronic instruments—Nick and John used a Korg Radias and Simon used a microKorg.
The band has also had an influence on celtic fusion, most notably in the use of electronic sounds to complement traditional instruments in the music of bands such as the Peatbog Faeries; its fourth album was called Croftwork and featured the track "Trans-Island Express."
A petition for the induction of Kraftwerk into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was recently created through PetitionOnline. It has been eligible for induction since 1996. However, there has been no formal consideration by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's ruling committee.
Kraftwerk was founded in 1970 by Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesizers, electro-violin) and Ralf Hütter (electronic organ, synthesizers). The two had met as students at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in the late 1960s, participating in the German experimental music scene of the time, which the British music press dubbed "Krautrock".
The duo had originally performed together in a quintet known as Organisation. This ensemble released one album, titled Tone Float for RCA Records in the UK. The unit split shortly thereafter. The two began setting up their own private studio in a rented loft in Düsseldorf, which later became known as Kling Klang. Early Kraftwerk line-ups from 1970–1974 fluctuated, as Hütter and Schneider worked with around a half-dozen other musicians over the course of recording three albums and sporadic live appearances; most notably guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, who left to form Neu! The input, expertise, and influence of producer/engineer Konrad "Conny" Plank was significant as well. Plank worked with many other leading German acts, including members of Can, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia. As a result of his work with Kraftwerk, Plank's studio near Köln became one of the most sought-after studios in the late 1970s. Plank produced the first four Kraftwerk albums, but ceased working with the band after the commercial success of "Autobahn", apparently over a dispute about contracts. Painter and graphic artist Emil Schult became a regular collaborator with the band starting in 1973, playing bass guitar and electro-violin. Schult then went on to design artwork in addition to writing lyrics and accompanying the group on tour.
What is generally regarded as the classic Kraftwerk line-up was formed in 1975, for the Autobahn tour. During this time, the band was presented as a quartet, with Hütter and Schneider joined by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos as electronic percussionists. This quartet would be the band's public persona for its renowned output of the latter 1970s and early 1980s. Flür had joined the band in 1973, in preparation for a television appearance to promote its third album. The group's striking custom-made electronic percussion pads, played by Flür, made their debut as well. Bartos also helped to write many of the band's most memorable songs.
The band is notoriously reclusive; providing rare and enigmatic interviews, using life size mannequins and robots to conduct official photo shoots, refusing to accept mail and not allowing visitors at the Kling Klang Studio. Another notable example of this eccentric behavior was reported to Johnny Marr of The Smiths by Karl Bartos, who explained that anyone trying to contact the band for collaboration would be told the studio telephone did not have a ringer, since during recording, the band did not like to hear any kind of noise pollution. Instead, callers were instructed to phone the studio precisely at a certain time, whereupon the phone would be answered by Ralf Hütter, despite never hearing the phone ring. Chris Martin, lead singer of UK group Coldplay, anecdotally recalled, in a late 2007 article in Q about Kraftwerk, the process of requesting permission to sample the melody from the track "Computer Love" in its 2005 release "Talk" from its album X&Y. He recalled writing them a letter and sending it through the lawyers of the respective parties and several weeks later receiving an envelope containing a handwritten reply that simply said 'yes'.
In 1990 after years of withdrawal from live performance, Kraftwerk began to tour Europe again regularly. In 1998 the group made its first appearances in the United States and Japan since the completion of the Computer World tour in 1981. Hütter had wanted to play more shows over the years, but the cost and time involved in shipping all of the group's huge analog equipment hindered world tours and travel outside of Europe. During this decade, the band often stated that it was working on new material—though speculation about release dates fell through several times. The growing time between recordings, the rarity of live performances, Hütter and Schneider's alleged obsession with cycling, and the increasingly perfectionist nature of the recording process were the major reasons behind the departure of Flür and soon after Bartos, whose improvisations and song-writing capabilities were an essential part of Kraftwerk's later recordings. Following the departure of Flür and Bartos, Kling Klang studio personnel Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz appeared in what some have called the second classic line-up of Kraftwerk, which has been active since late 1991.
In July 1999 the single "Tour de France" was reissued in Europe after it had been out of print for several years. It was released for the first time on CD in addition to a repressing of the twelve inch vinyl single. Both versions feature slightly altered artwork that removed the faces of Flür and Bartos from the four man cycling paceline depicted on the original cover. Also at this time, the group signed a new contract with Sony-ATV Music Publishing. The single "Expo 2000", the group's first new song in 13 years, was released in December 1999 and subsequently remixed by contemporary techno musicians such as Underground Resistance and Orbital. This version was released as "Expo Remix" in November 2000. Before this time, the only artists allowed to remix the band's recordings were François Kevorkian and William Orbit.
In 2000 ex-member Flür published his autobiography in Germany, Ich war ein Roboter. Later English-language editions of the book were titled Kraftwerk: I Was a Robot. The text revealed many previously unreported details about life in the band. This book met with hostility and litigation from Hütter and Schneider, who disputed several of its claims (e.g., that Flür had built the band's first electronic drum pads) and objected to the public disclosure of personal information.
In August 2003 the band released Tour de France Soundtracks, its first album of new material since 1986's Electric Café. In 2004 a box set titled The Catalogue was planned for release. It was to feature remastered editions of the group's albums from 1974's Autobahn to 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks. The item was soon withdrawn from Kraftwerk and EMI's album release schedule. It was only released as a promotional item on CD, which has become a much-wanted item that has often appeared on internet auction sites such as eBay. In 2007, the group showed a renewed interest in releasing the collection, although an official street date was not given.
In June 2005 the band's first-ever official live album, Minimum-Maximum, which was compiled from the shows during the band's tour of spring 2004, received extremely positive reviews. Most of the tracks featured had been heavily reworked and remodeled from the existing studio versions. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album. In December, the Minimum-Maximum two-DVD set was released to accompany the album, featuring live footage of the band performing the Minimum-Maximum tracks in various venues all over the world.
April 2008 saw the band back on tour in the United States leading up to its previously announced show at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Florian Schneider was absent from the lineup. The quartet currently consists of Ralf Hütter, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Stefan Pfaffe. In September, the group played five dates in Ireland, Poland and Ukraine. In November, four dates were played in Australia and New Zealand.
On the 22nd of November Kraftwerk were scheduled to headline the Global Gathering Festival in Melbourne Australia but had to cancel at the last minute due to a heart problem from Fritz Hilpert. In December, the quartet played in Singapore and Hong Kong.
On the 6th of January 2009 a post on the official fan website announced that Florian Schneider was to leave the group, "Florian Schneider leaves Kraftwerk after a 40 years (sic) partnership with Ralph Hutter," the message reads. "This partnership has generated an incredible music (sic) and huge advances in music technology."
Schneider had apparently already left Kraftwerk on the 21st of November 2008.
- Ralf Hütter – synthesizers, organ, lead vocals; bass guitar, drums, percussion (early period)
- Fritz Hilpert – sound engineering, electronic percussion
- Henning Schmitz – sound engineering, electronic percussion, live keyboards.
- Stefan Pfaffe – video technician
- Karl Bartos – electronic percussion (1975–1991), live vibraphone (1975), keyboards on Computer World tour (1981)
- Klaus Dinger – drums (1970-1971)
- Wolfgang Flür – electronic percussion (1973–1987)
- Andreas Hohmann – drums (1970)
- Klaus Röder – guitar, electro-violin (1974)
- Michael Rother – guitar (1971)
- Florian Schneider – synthesizers, background vocals, computer-generated vocals; flutes, guitar, percussion, violin (early period) (1970-2008)
Michael Rother was never featured on any official Kraftwerk recordings. However, he has been featured on several bootleg recordings and seen in several TV performances. An unreleased studio recording session produced by Konrad "Conny" Plank, featuring the trio of Florian Schneider, Dinger, and Rother, is rumoured to have taken place. Apparently, these plans were scrapped when Ralf Hütter returned to the group in 1971, before starting the recording sessions for Kraftwerk 2.
Musicians who have played in live performances with the group include:
- Fernando Abrantes – electronic percussion
- Emil Schult – guitar, electro-violin (later employed as a painter/graphic designer and lyricist)
- Plato Kostic (a.k.a. Plato Riviera) – bass guitar.
- Peter Schmidt – drums
- Houschäng Néjadepour – guitar
- Charly Weiss – drums
- Thomas Lohmann - drums
- Eberhard Kranemann – bass guitar
- 1970: Tone Float (as Organisation)
- 1970: Kraftwerk
- 1972: Kraftwerk 2
- 1973: Ralf und Florian
- 1974: Autobahn
- 1975: Radio-Activity (German version: Radio-Aktivität)
- 1977: Trans-Europe Express (German version: Trans-Europa Express)
- 1978: The Man-Machine (German version: Die Mensch-Maschine)
- 1981: Computer World (German version: Computerwelt)
- 1986: Electric Café (German version: Electric Café [Deutsche Version])
- 1991: The Mix (album of re-recorded back-catalogue - German version: The Mix [Deutsche Version])
- 2003: Tour de France Soundtracks
- 2004: The Catalogue (German version: Der Katalog) Promotionally issued, remastered box set of albums from 1974 to 2003. Official release TBA.
- 2005: Minimum-Maximum (live album – 2 CDs/4 LPs, 2 DVDs, also available as a special edition Notebook with an 88-page book)
The only difference between the Radio-Activity and Radio-Aktivität albums is the packaging. The music on both albums is identical.
Tour de France Soundtracks was only released in French.