Kraftwerk

autobahn

Kraftwerk (German: ‘power plant’ or ‘power station’) is an influential electronic music band from Germany. The group was formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970, and was fronted by them until Schneider’s departure in 2008. The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western Classical style of harmony, with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation.

The group’s simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. Kraftwerk were one of the first groups to popularize electronic music and are considered pioneers in the field. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk’s distinctive sound was revolutionary, and has had a lasting effect across many genres of modern music.

Schneider and Hütter met as students in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s, participating in the German experimental music and art 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,’ but the group split shortly thereafter.

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 only constant figure in these line-ups was Schneider, whose main instrument at the time was the flute; at times also playing violin and guitar, all processed through a varied array of electronic effects. Hütter, who left the band for six months in 1971 to pursue studies in architecture, played synthesiser keyboards (including Farfisa organ and electric piano).

Their first three albums were free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined strong structure of later work. ‘Kraftwerk,’ released in 1970, and ‘Kraftwerk 2,’ released in 1972, were mostly exploratory jam music, played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, electric organ, flute and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both albums are purely instrumental.

Live performances from 1972–73 were made as a duo, using a simple beat-box-type electronic drum machine, with preset rhythms taken from an electric organ. These shows were mainly in Germany, and occasionally France. Later in 1973, Wolfgang Flür joined the group for rehearsals, and the unit performed as a trio.

With ‘Ralf und Florian,’ released in 1973, the band began to move closer to its classic sound, relying more heavily on synthesisers and drum machines. Although almost entirely instrumental, the album marks Kraftwerk’s first use of the vocoder, which would, in time, become one of its musical signatures.

The input, expertise, and influence of producer and engineer Konrad ‘Conny’ Plank was highly significant in the early years of Kraftwerk and Plank also worked with many of the other leading German electronic acts of the period, including members of Can, Neu!, Cluster, and Harmonia. As a result of his work with Kraftwerk, Plank’s studio near Cologne became one of the most sought-after studios in the late 1970s. Plank co-produced the first four Kraftwerk albums.

The release of ‘Autobahn’ in 1974 saw the band moving away from the sound of its earlier albums. The members had invested in newer technology such as the Minimoog, helping give the group a newer, disciplined sound. Autobahn would also be the last album that Conny Plank would engineer. After the commercial success of ‘Autobahn,’ the band members invested money into updating their studio. This meant they no longer had to rely on outside producers. At this time the painter and graphic artist Emil Schult became a regular collaborator with the band, working alongside the band. Schult designed artwork in addition to later co-writing lyrics and accompanying the group on tour.

The year 1975 saw a turning point in Kraftwerk’s live shows. With financial support from Phonogram in the US, it was able to undertake a multi-date tour to promote the ‘Autobahn’ album. This tour took them to the US, Canada and the UK for the first time. The tour also saw a new, stable, live line-up in the form of a quartet. Hütter and Schneider both mainly played keyboard parts on synthesizers such as the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey, with Schneider’s use of flute diminishing. The pair also sang vocals on stage for the first time, with Schneider also using a vocoder live. Wolfgang Flür and new recruit Karl Bartos performed live on self-made electronic percussions. Bartos also used a Deagan Vibraphone on stage. The Hütter-Schneider-Bartos-Flür formation is now regarded as the classic line-up of Kraftwerk, which remained in place until the late 1980s. Emil Schult generally fulfilled the role of tour manager.

After the 1975 Autobahn tour, Kraftwerk began work on a follow up album, ‘Radio-Activity.’ After further investment in new equipment, the Kling Klang Studio became a fully working recording studio. It was decided that the new album would have a central theme. This theme came from the band members’ shared interest in radio communication, which had become enhanced on their last tour of the United States. While Emil Schult began working on artwork and lyrics for the new album, the band began to work on the music. With the release of ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Radio-Activity,’ Kraftwerk left behind its avant-garde experimentations and had moved forward toward electronic pop tunes.

After having finished the ‘Radio-Activity tour’ Kraftwerk began recording ‘Trans-Europe Express’ at Kling Klang Studio. The album was mixed at the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles. It was around this time that Hütter and Schneider met David Bowie at Kling Klang Studio. A collaboration was mentioned in an interview with Hütter, but it never materialized. Kraftwerk had previously been offered a support slot on Bowie’s ‘Station to Station tour,’ but they turned it down.

In 1978 Kraftwerk released ‘The Man-Machine,’ recorded at the Kling Klang Studio. Due to the complexity of the recording the album was mixed at Studio Rudas in Düsseldorf. The band hired sound engineer Leanard Jackson from Detroit to work together with Joschko Rudas on the final mix of the record. The cover to the new album was produced in black, white and red, the artwork was inspired by Russian artist El Lissitzky and the Suprematism movement. The image of the band on the front cover was photographed by Gunther Frohling. This showed the band dressed in red shirts and black ties.

In 1981 Kraftwerk released ‘Computer World.’ A lot of time was spent modifying the Kling Klang Studio so the band could take it on tour with them. Some of the electronic vocals on ‘Computer World’ were created using a Texas Instruments Language Translator. The band’s live set focused increasingly on song-based material, with greater use of vocals and the use of sequencing equipment for percussion and musical lines. The approach taken by the group was to use the sequencing equipment interactively, thus allowing room for improvisation. Ironically Kraftwerk did not own a computer at the time of recording ‘Computer World.’

The band also developed an increasing use of visual elements in the live shows during this period. This included back-projected slides and films, increasingly synchronized with the music, the use of hand-held miniaturized instruments during the set (for example, during ‘Pocket Calculator’), and, perhaps most famously, the use of replica mannequins of themselves to perform onstage during the song ‘The Robots.’

In 1982 Kraftwerk began to work on ‘Techno Pop,’ which would be released as ‘Electric Café.’ One of the songs from these recording sessions was ‘Tour de France,’ which was released as a single in 1983. This song was a reflection of the band’s new found obsession for cycling. After the physically demanding ‘Computer World’ tour, Ralf Hütter had been looking for forms of exercises that fit in with the image of Kraftwerk, subsequently he encouraged the group to become vegetarians and taking up cycling. ‘Tour de France’ included sounds that followed this theme including bicycle chains, gear mechanisms and the breathing of the cyclist. At the time of the single’s release Ralf Hütter tried to persuade the rest of the band that they should record a whole album based around cycling. The other members of the band were not convinced, and the theme was left to the single alone. The song was featured in the 1984 film ‘Breakin” showing the influence that Kraftwerk had on black American dance music.

During the recording of ‘Tour de France’ Ralf Hütter was involved in a serious cycling accident. He suffered head injuries and was left in a coma for a few days. During 1983 Wolfgang Flür was beginning to spend less time in the studio. Since the band began using sequencers his role as a drummer was becoming less frequent; he left the band in 1987 and was replaced by Fritz Hilpert.

Like many other so-called Krautrock bands Kraftwerk was heavily influenced by the pioneering compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Hütter has also listed ‘The Beach Boys’ as a major influence. Kraftwerk’s lyrics deal with post-war European urban life and technology—traveling by car on the Autobahn, traveling by train, using home computers, and the like. Usually, the lyrics are very minimal but reveal both an innocent celebration of, and a knowing caution about, the modern world, as well as playing an integral role in the rhythmic structure of the songs. Many of Kraftwerk’s songs express the paradoxical nature of modern urban life—a strong sense of alienation existing side-by-side with a celebration of the joys of modern technology.

Live performance has always played an important part in Kraftwerk’s activities. Also, despite its live shows generally being based around formal songs and compositions, live improvisation often plays a noticeable role in its performances. This trait can be traced back to the group’s roots in the first experimental Krautrock scene of the late 1960s, but, significantly, it has continued to be a part of its playing even as it makes ever greater use of digital and computer-controlled sequencing in its performances. Some of the band’s familiar compositions have been observed to have developed from live improvisations at its concerts or sound-checks.

Throughout their career, Kraftwerk has pushed the limits of music technology with some notable innovations, such as self-made instruments and custom built devices. The group has always perceived their Kling Klang Studio as a complex music instrument as well as a sound laboratory. Florian Schneider in particular, developed a fascination for music technology, with the result that the technical aspects of sound generation and recording gradually became his main fields of activity within the band.

Kraftwerk used a custom built vocoder on their albums ‘Ralf und Florian’ and ‘Autobahn.’ Hütter and Schneider hold a patent for an electronic drum kit with sensor pads. It has to be hit with metal sticks which are connected to the device to complete a circuit that triggers analog synthetic percussion sounds. In 1976, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider commissioned Bonn-based Synthesizerstudio Bonn, Matten & Wiechers to design and build the Synthanorma Sequenzer with Intervallomat, a step-sequencer system with some features that commercial products couldn’t provide at that time. The music sequencer was used by the band for the first time to control the electronic sources creating the rhythmic sound of the album ‘Trans Europe Express.’

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 Kling Klang Studio, whose precise location they used to keep secret. 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.

Kraftwerk’s musical style and image can be heard and seen in later electronic music successes such as Gary Numan, Ultravox, John Foxx, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Human League, Depeche Mode, Visage, and Soft Cell, to name a few. Kraftwerk would also go on to influence other forms of music such as hip hop, house, and drum and bass, and they are also regarded as pioneers of the electro genre. Most notably, ‘Trans Europe Express’ and ‘Numbers’ were interpolated into ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force, one of the earliest hip-hop/electro hits. Techno was created by three musicians from Detroit, often referred to as the ‘Belleville three’ (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson & Derrick May), who fused the repetitive melodies of Kraftwerk with funk rhythms.

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