The art of the Kraft

There’s life in the old robots yet... For all those who have been asking ‘Whatever happened to Kraftwerk?’ Julian Evans has the answer: the most influential white group in the electronic age are back and they’re heading our way. Well, Luton anyway...

LIKE an indefinitely extended version of John Cage’s notorious composition 4’33", there has been silence from the Kling Klang recording studio in Düsseldorf for the past six years, though we can probably assume that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider continue to turn up at the nondescript building in the city centre, according to a routine established more than two decades ago: every day, six days a week, 5pm until lam.

If Ralf and Florian were like most other pop musicians, they would be forgotten. They might, at best, have collected a few deluded tributes in the manner of one I remember daubed for years on the wall of the Oval - "Whatever Happened To Slade?". But since Ralf and Florian are nothing like Slade, we don’t forget, we grieve instead, in the pop fashion, via rumours. No new LP since a compilation entitled The Mix in 1991. No new songs since 1986 and Electric Café (that poignantly featured the track Musique Non Stop). So, this year, Kraftwerk will tour again. This year Kraftwerk are releasing a new record. And still there’s silence.

Such rumours are the ley-lines of a reverence that goes beyond ordinary star status, amounting practically to denial - like the perennial sightings of Elvis in a mart in Kalamazoo or a parking lot in Las Vegas. Punctually, rumours about Kraftwerk restart because we cannot accept that we’ll never see again, or hear new work from, the electronic sound-architects who, by way of Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express and The Model, became the most influential white group in modern pop. It thus comes as a shock to learn there is truth in the rumour. EMI - which has learnt from long acquaintance not to speak until it is spoken to from Düsseldorf - recently confirmed Kraftwerk’s presence at the rave extravaganza Tribal Gathering 97 on May 24. Start queueing now.

In the hydra-headed world of electronic dance music, no doubt the group will appear to some, in age (Ralf and Florian will both be 50) and style, as a weird revival; others will view the occasion as an airing of the family silver. But in pop-mythical terms, the prospect of their appearance is akin to a musical-ecumenical Second Coming. In the 25 years since Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 were released in Britain on Vertigo, no one else has come close to their position as innovators in construction, instrumentation and sound-generation.

They started in a hairy and cosmic era, their artistic bedfellows King Crimson, Can and Yes; now there is probably not a remix studio in the western hemisphere which doesn’t possess the Kraftwerk catalogue on CD. How a sound that began as head music prog rock in Germany’s industrial heartland ended up as a garage dance beat in the projects of Brooklyn is one of the strangest evolutions in popular music, yet there is no gainsaying the debt owed to their electronic universe of melodic bleeps and squeaks and vocoded vocals that Hütter terms "robot pop".

Part turbine, part seraphic choir - a description that fails to capture fully its purity or its momentum - their sound has been cloned, copied, sampled and psychedelicised from Brussels to Detroit, from Milan to Manchester. And look at the company of those indebted, from the New Romantics to Afrika Bambaataa, Donna Summer to the Pet Shop Boys, David Bowie to Grandmaster Flash; the Shamen, 808 State, KLF, Orbital, LFO, Photek...

Why the extended silence? There are the usual answers: it’s harder to maintain a pop identity as you get older; they have pioneered themselves into paralysis; now that anyone with a synthesiser and portastudio can do what they did, innovation on their own ground is incurring diminishing returns. Likewise their technical perfectionism; the group’s admirable objective stated by Hütter, of "working without respite towards the construction of the perfect pop song for the tribes of the global village", has a worrying tone all the same. It’s too much like Lord Tennyson’s "Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null,/Dead perfection". Perfectionism kills beauty, creativity. They have deflected criticism by pointing out that Kraftwerk is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a "total artwork", in progress. The answer may be that if they haven’t come up with a new record, it may matter more to them than it does to us, because we are still digesting their vision.

There are very few points at which pop contacts with the reality that gives rise to it, the chief principle having always been, as writer John Wilde succinctly nailed it down, "it’s got a good beat, so I’ll be a hit". Kraftwerk’s vision does contact: an indispensable part of their music relates to the affairs of everyday reality An idealised version of reality, because from their first impact with Autobahn in 1975 - that sweeping symphonic montage of found traffic noises and synthesised momentum that vacuums up all breakdowns and bottlenecks ("Wir fahren, fahren, fahren" sung as "We fun, fun, fun") - the Beach Boys from Düsseldorf have placed themselves firmly in the line of the German Romantics, where genius and lunatic hang out together.

Kraftwerk’s motorway was a Yellow Brick Road of technology, mobility and prosperity rolled into one. Their highly engineered pop perfectly represented post-war German Romanticism - a strictly materialistic phenomenon of a nation climbing out of its ruins and making a fortune in the process. If Mozart had designed a Mercedes, it would have sounded like Kraftwerk.

They were accused of coldness. (Very early Kraftwerk did bear a resemblance to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.) The critics who said they were the death of music were generally more afraid of the technology the group boldly embraced, designing and sculpting new low-frequency sounds with it, coercing computer companies into providing more software and new machines no one else had. In 1975 Kraftwerk sounded like the future, and there was techno-angst. Subsequent albums - Radio-Activity, The Man-Machine and Computer World - explored the relation between people and the day-to-day technology that surrounds and serves them. Heard today, there is every variety of warmth in these recordings; behind it, varying degrees of irony. Are our machines human- controlled things, or are the humans controlled by them? And are these pure tinkling melodies that reflect our modern environment helping us come to terms with the spirit of progress, or just triggering a nostalgia at the passing of earlier days?

You can never be quite sure if their irony is studied or not, but therein lay a political position to match the musical one. The group were first with the electronic dance thing. They were also first, musically, with the Green thing, with the computer thing, the robot thing. These were political albums in their manner of treating daily life: castigated for developing those impassive robot doubles in fascist uniforms to take their place on stage, and at press launches, they shrugged and pointed out the philosophical problem: "Everyone can be robotic, controlled... we have exposed the mechanical and robotic attitude of our civilisation... at the same time it’s funny, full of humour."

In fact Kraftwerk’s imagery is deeply unaggressive, Metropolis overlaid by the utopianism of Fernand Léger, very remote from cyber-futurism. They also proved the artistic law that makes critics uncomfortable, namely that if you want to combat a false vision such as the unchecked advance of technology, or fascism, a Point comes when you have to collaborate with it.

Stand the group alone - the core of Hütter and Schneider, plus percussionists/engineers - and the disciplines and purity of their sound has always been belied by something childish. Both melody and lyrics have a naive attraction: the music that results is a kind of industrial folk music. "By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody" (Pocket Calculator): this is the childish joy of playing with any tone-coded gadget and at the same time, perfectly describes the genius of Hütter’s own "little melodies".

They have kept this naive simplicity since their first meeting at an improvisation class at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in 1968. In their earliest experiment, they rushed straight from classical training into making the horrible bruitiste feedback music that was an antidote to the equal horror of the Hotel California peace-and-love sound, then screeched to a halt as soon as they realised that, in order to gratify their boyish fascination with discotheques and girls, they had to be a rock band.

The sons of a doctor and architect respectively, Ralf and Florian are solidly media silent about their personal lives. Ralf is the more communicative, but only about the work. "Devoid of interest. Nothing special," he says of his childhood. Florian’s favourite expression is "what boredom". Nothing more is known about them since Pascal Russy’s 1993 biography reported that neither was married, that Schneider had a girlfriend with whom, recently, he’d had a daughter, and that Ralf Hütter shared a house with his sister’s family, a room of which possessed walls and ceiling covered in mirrors, (Thus "the artist is living in the mirror with the echoes of himself" in the haunting auto-analytical Hall Of Mirrors.)

In an era in which biography has gone feral and narcissism is a theology, their desire for, and control over, their privacy is something to cheer. Details that do escape - their obsession with cycling (the vintage Mercedes collection abandoned for environmental reasons), their un-dying love of clubs - merely reinforce an image of delightful model citizens.

Psychologically, they were both driven by a need to play and to invent, and by a musical strength to resist complexity Externally, there was the advent of the wan 1970s, to make an impact with something new. They were also part of Germany’s "fatherless generation". "We were born after the war," Ralf said. "It was not much of an incentive to respect our fathers." Fuse these elements and you had a freakish act but one that had shrugged off the pack drill of Mozartian heritage and Anglo-American pop (not to mention the highbrow connotations of Stockhausen, John Cage and LaMonte Young surrounding electronic music), and created its own industrial techno-ethnic music.

The crossover into dance was there all along, via the pair’s passion for clubs (they called Düsseldorf "our public living room") and stripped-down rhythms. The breadth of Kraftwerk’s contribution to black urban sounds must also be due to their success in articulating an "ethnicity" which is now, worldwide, more to do with cities than nations, more to do with technology than roots.

If their music seems depersonalised, this is part of a widespread 20th century movement, from the surge of classical music to trance and repetition. At the price of a little immersion in depersonalisation we get the sound of purity, of humour and humanising insights, and a yearning and caress: at heart, a deeply romantic world view. When Electric Café came out in 1986, the New Musical Express described it as sounding like "Wagner in an airport lounge trying to ring an escort service". Eleven years later, when one and three people live on their own, a dance track such as Telephone Call - with the lines: "I give you my affection and I give you my time, Trying to get a connection on the telephone line", plus its wicked coda "The number you have reached has been disconnected" - has all the heart-tug of Unchained Melody.

Does it matter there has been nothing new for so long? They spent much of the eighties transferring Kling Klang - their Elektrospiel-zimmer, the "electric toyroom" - from analog to digital technology, and revising such triumphs as Trans-Europe Express, Pocket Calculator and Computer Love for The Mix. With The Mix they had not only made Radio-Activity more danceable but intensified its black humour to speak out against Chernobyl and Harrisburg.) They have shown how to construct and reconstruct meaning through editing, and they seem not to date. On the contrary, there’s a growing parallelism between their model of reality and the real world, a sense that the world is being re-modelled according to the structure predicted by the Robotmeister from Düsseldorf.

The vision they have produced isn’t just an extended robotics performance; more like a model of the robot culture we inhabit, via which that reality can be experienced by the listener. An artistic vision, in other words, which in a sense is complete. It is up to someone else to take it further. The only recorded answer, incidentally, to why they haven’t released more records is Florian’s rather pastoral one: "There is too much sound pollution."

WHAT have they achieved? They made pop electronic and warm and danceable. No group has made such a ruthless assault on whatever sublimity pop possesses. They remain pop’s DNA, their twin strands of melodic purity and technical perfectionism its double helix, twisting and folding, a source to hundreds of offspring across the planet, encoding whatever essence it possesses.

As artists they remain remote in an exemplary way (even on the Web, bastion of virtual promiscuity, the official Kling Klang site merely shows a green radio transmitter leaning at an angle, emitting concentric circles). Self- styled "workers", not musicians: and not a pop group either - Ralf has denied that too. In a 1991 interview he said: "There’s something more of a scientific approach to how we operate. It’s more like, can we say, symphonic. It’s not really a pop group. Even though our records are pressed and distributed to supermarkets, Kraftwerk would still be existing with the closing of supermarkets."

It’s an unintentionally apocalyptic phrase but, in stripping pop of its pomp and narcissism as they have over their 30-year collaboration, Hütter and Schneider have brought into being a realm of ego-free, timeless, crystalline melodies that sound exactly as if they will still be playing when all the supermarkets are closed, all the motorways grass, all the numbers disconnected: sounds for the end of time.

As for May 24... well, they have retained the ability to surprise. No word, only the usual rumours, as to whether there is a new record. But I for one will be happy to hear the music of the spheres.

Tribal Gathering 97 will take place at the Luton Hoo Estate, Luton, Beds, on Saturday, May 24 from midday to 8.30am. Tickets are £35 plus booking fee.

This is copyright material © Julian Evans 1997, reprinted by permission of the author
From: The Guardian newspaper, G2, pages 10/11, Wednesday 26th February 1997