Formed in 1970 by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk went on to become one of the most innovative, influential and groundbreaking groups in musical history. Kraftwerk have gone on to influence several generation of musicians. Without Kraftwerk, musical history would’ve been very different. However, still, many people struggle to describe Kraftwerk’s music. It’s best described as a fusion of musical genres. Everything from ambient, avant-garde, electronic, experimental, industrial and rock music is combined. However, who are Kraftwerk?
They’re an electronic band, whose sound features strong, prominent and repetitive, rhythms plus infectiously catchy melodies. Their sound has a western style of melody, that is augmented by an array of electronic instruments, producing a minimalist sound. Lyrics are sung through electronic instruments like vocoders, and now speech recognition software. Kraftwerk were innovative, they were pioneers who were way ahead of their time. Kraftwerk were one of the first groups to see the potential in electronic instruments and computers in music. This was the case since their 1974 album Autobahn, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. Before that, I’ll tell you about Kraftwerk.
Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider met whilst studying at the Robert Schmann Academy, in Dusseldorf, during the late 1960s. Both were part of the German experimental art and music seen that was thriving during that time. The Bristish musical press always wanting to categorize music, came up with the name Krautrock for this type of music. This has stuck, and forty years later this term is still in use. During this period, Hutter and Schneider were both part of a group, the Organisation. The Organisation released one album Tone Float, on RCA Records. However, after the album was released the group split up. That was to be a new beginning for Hutter and Schneider, and the start of Kraftwerk.
During the period 1970-1974, the members of Kraftwerk chopped and changed. Around seven different musicians played on the first three albums, and during the group’s live performances. The only members who remained were Ralph Hutter and Florian Schneider. They played an important part in Kraftwerk’s eponymous album.
In 1970 Kraftwerk released a self-titled album Kraftwerk. It has a much more traditional sound. Kraftwerk deploy dual drummers as they fuse art rock, avant-garde, experimental, industrial and rock music. This type of music later, became known as Krautrock. On the release of Kraftwerk in 1970, critics complimented Kraftwerk on releasing such an ambitious and groundbreaking debut. However, it wasn’t a commercial success. Maybe it was a case of the music being too innovative? Kraftwerk, it seemed, were ahead of their time. This wouldn’t be the last time this was said of Kraftwerk.
1972 saw Kraftwerk release their sophomore album Kraftwerk 2. It marked an evolution in Kraftwerk’s music. They didn’t use a drummer on Kraftwerk 2. Instead, they used a drum machine. This was the first Kraftwerk album to feature electronic instruments. Mostly, though, Kraftwerk used traditional instruments, including guitars, bass, violin and flute. Kraftwerk 2 saw Kraftwerk’s music evolving. Whilst critics recognised this was a groundbreaking fusion of traditional and futuristic music, Kraftwerk 2 wasn’t a commercial success. Maybe their third album Ralf Und Florian would see Kraftwerk make a commercial breakthrough?
Ralf Und Florian marked the debut of what became known as the classic lineup of Kraftwerk. The group were now just a duo, featuring Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. Again, Ralf Und Florian showcased Kraftwerk’s fusion of free-form and experimental rock music. This did not feature the discipline and hooks that is found in their later work. Just like their first two albums, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2, Ralf Und Florian features traditional musical instruments. Effects were used to change and distort the sound, in the production stage. On these albums, Kraftwerk’s music was like a free-form jam, with the musicians exploring what their instruments can do. On their fourth album Autobahn, Kraftwerk showcase what became their trademark sound.
Having released three albums, Kraftwerk’s music continued to evolve. Ralf and Florian were beginning to move towards the sound that would bring them commercial success. On their third album Ralf und Florian, Kraftwerk started to usee drum machines and synthesisers. This album is almost entirely, an instrumental album, although vocoders are used sparingly on the album. This is something that Krafwerk would become synonymous with.
One man who was to have a huge influence on Kratwerk, and their sound was Konrad “Conny” Plank, a producer and engineer. he had previously worked with some of Germany’s finest and best known electronic groups, including Neu!, Can, Harmonia and Cluster. He was responsible for shaping the Kraftwerk sound, and teaching Hutter and Schneider about production techniques. The first for albums were co-produced by Plank and Kraftwerk, at his studio near Cologne.
Kraftwerk’s fourth album was Autobahn, which was released in 1974. Autobahn saw Kraftwerk move away from the sound of the first three albums. The group had decided to invest in some of the newer technology that was available at this time. One of the things Kraftwerk invested in, was a Minimoog. This allowed the group to develop a much more innovative and disciplined sound on Autobahn. Konrad “Conny” Plank was brought in to engineer this album, and the resulting success of Autobahn, allowed the group to invest in newer technology for their studio.
In Conny Plank’s studio, Kraftwerk recorded the five tracks that became Autobahn. Ralph and Florian wrote four of these tracks, Kometenmelodie 1 (Comet Melody 1), Kometenmelodie 2 (Comet Melody 2), Mitternacht (Midnight) and Morgenspaziergang (Morning Walk).They also cowrote Autobahn (Motorway) with Emil Schult. When it came to recording Autobahn, Kraftwerk were essentially a two man band. Ralph took charge of vocals, electronics, synths, organ, drum machine, piano and guitar. Florian added vocals, vocoder, electronics, drum machine and flute. The only other musicians were violinist and guitarist Klause Roder and percussionist Wolfgang Flur who added drum machine on Kometenmelodie 1 and 2. Once the five tracks were recorded, Autobahn was released in 1974.
On the release of Autobahn in November 1974, critics hailed the album a classic. It was fourth, not third time lucky for Kraftwerk. They’d just released a groundbreaking, timeless, classic album. Even better, it was a commercial success. Autobahn reached number 140 in the US Billboard 200, number four in the UK and number seven in Germany. Across Europe the album was a hit. So was the title-track. It reached number twenty-five in the US Billboard 100, number eleven in the UK and number nine in Germany. More importantly, it would influence a future generation of producers. However, unlike most bands, Kraftwerk decided to invest the money they made from Autobahn on their future. This paid off.
Due the success of Autobahn, Phonogram their US label, financed a mini-tour of the album. On this tour of the USA, Canada and the UK, Kraftwerk played as a quartet. This was the beginning of a much more stable line-up for Kraftwerk. Both Ralph Hutter and Florian Schneider played keyboards during the tour, using synthesisers to do this. The Mimimoog was joined by the APR Odyssey on the tour. For the first time in their history, the vocals were sung by both Ralph and Florian during a live performance. Another instrument that was to play an important part in the Kraftwerk story, also made an appearance on the tour.
The vocoder was used by Florian and the two new members, Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, contributed to the sound, by using electronic instruments that they had made themselves. Karl Bartos used a Deagan Vibraphone during the performances. An instrument Kraftwerk that Kraftwerk had previously relied heavily upon, the flute, began to play less of a part in their music. This marked a changing of the guard for Kraftwerk, which started with the landmark album Autobahn, which I’ll tell you about.
Autobahn is an album that tells a story. The easiest way to review the album is to tell the story of the music on the album. Autobahn, the title track is meant to capture the feeling one has when on a long journey in a car, traveling through the countryside and urban vistas. On the journey, one must imagine that you are driving a car in the fast lane of the motorway. To pass the time, and relieve the boredom one will experience, whilst driving, the track has the sound and feel of even the driver re-tuning the radio.
This journey is based on driving on the A555 between Koln and Bonn, the first ever Autobahn built, between 1929-1932. Listen carefully to this track, and you will hear various instruments that were new and innovative at this time. Featured on this track, and the rest of the album, are the Minimog, electronic drums, vocoder, the ARP Odyssey and the EMS Synthi AKS. These instruments, and ones that they built themselves, all go towards making this track.
Opening Autobahn, is the title-track. It begins with a car engine being turned on, and a car horn being sounded. Thereafter, the track takes you on an atmospheric and hypnotic journey. This is something that anyone who has ever driven a long and monotonous journey on a motorway. Autobahn, the track, draws you in, you find yourself listening carefully, pondering what will happen next. When I first listened to this album, I found myself entranced, trying to anticipate what would happen next, much like you do when driving down a busy motorway. Like all of Krafwerk’s music, this track has, on it, some glorious and catchy hooks.
The next two tracks Kometenmelodie 1 (Comet Melody 1) and Kometenmelodie 2 (Comet Melody 2), are two parts of the same song. At the start of Kometenmelodie 1, there is the introduction, then comes the main track. These tracks have a theme, and are based upon the theme of the night. With a moody and atmospheric introduction, the track begins quietly and has a minimalist feel to it. The track wanders, with various instruments coming into, and leaving the track. This is what one would hear on a long car journey on the motorway, a multitude of varying sounds entering and exiting your personal space. During the track the tempo and sound increases, as the speed of a car would increase and surrounding noise would increase, for example, moving from the countryside to an urban area.
Kometenmelodie 2 has a different sound to Kometenmelodie 1. The sound on this track is louder and the tempo quicker. Here it really does feel as if you are in a car in the fast lane of the Autobahn, the track makes you feel and think that. Kraftwerk have been creative in the sounds used to make this track. They have succeeded in coming up with a track that, to me, sounds like a good musical representation of what it feels and sounds like to drive a car, at speed, along the fast lane of the motorway, during the night. This to me, is the best track on the album.
Throughout both Kometenmelodie 1 and Kometenmelodie 2, the tracks have the feel of the night, and are a good musical representation of the night. Krafwerk have used their various instruments well, to do this. This was not an easy thing to do back in 1974. Kraftwerk did not have the technology that is available to musicians and producers today.
Many people have said that Mitternacht (Midnight) has an ominous sound and feel to it. I agree with that. There is a darkness to this track, a really broody sound. It’s a track that challenges you, makes you focus, think about what the track is about. To me, this is a track that only Kraftwerk could have produced, only they would have had the imagination and inventiveness to make such a track.
The final track on Autobahn, Morgenspaziergang (Morning Stroll), begins with the sound of the dawn chorus birdsong. Kraftwerk used electronics to recreate this sound. At the end of the track this sound is used again, this time for longer, with the phrase Autobahn heard at the start of the album, repeated time and again, in differing ways. he track plods along, sounds spray out, and there is almost a sinister sound to the start of the track. After the introduction, the track starts to build, and you hear what sounds like birds singing, a flute plays gently and what sounds like water running. This has the effect of holding your attention and is a good way to finish the album.
After Autobahn, Kraftwerk went on to release a number of albums. The Kraftwer albums I would recommend to someone who has not heard their music before, are the albums they released from 1974-1978. These are 1974s Autobahn, 1975s Radio-Activity, 1977s Trans-Europe Express and 1978s The Man-Machin. These feature Kraftwerk at their innovative and pioneering best. Having said that, Kraftwerk released albums throughout the next three decades. They have never been a prolific band, and there is sometimes huge gaps between their releases. For example, they released The Mix in 1991, and then nothing until Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003. Throughout a career spanning nearly five decades, Kraftwerk have only released twelve albums. That backs up my earlier statement that they are not a prolific band. However, what they are, are a band who have released some classic albums, which have gone on to influence generations of new musicians and producers.
The first classic albums Kraftwerk released was 1974s Autobahn. Innovative, inventive and influential, Autobahn epitomises everything that’s good about Kraftwerk. They began the next chapter of their areer as they meant to go on, That’s by creating music that was pioneering and groundbreaking. Autobahn is one of the most important and influential albums in the history of not just Krautrock, but music per se. Quite simply, Autobahn’s importance can’t be underestimated. It went on to influence everyone from Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno right through to Primal Scream and Radiohead. Even forty after the release of Autobahn, it’s still cited as album that influenced the latest generation of musicians and producers.
Kraftwerk have also influenced several generations of electronic and dance music producers. Would dance music have developed without Kraftwerk? Personally, I think not. Many techno producers quote Kraftwerk as a huge influence. It is not only electronic and dance musicians that have been influenced by Kraftwerk. Many other musicians say that Kraftwerk had a huge influence on their musical development. That’s why I said we can’t underestimate Kraftwerk’s influence on music. Their influence began with their 1974 album Autobahn, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. For the newcomer to Kraftwerk’s music Autobahn is essential listening.
If you have never heard either Kraftwerk’s music or Autobahn, I urge you to consider buying this album. Autobahn is one of Kraftwerk’s finest albums. There may only be five tracks on the album, but they are five tracks that demonstrate how Kraftwerk were musical pioneers, leading the way, for future generations of musicians. If you are someone who is a fan of electronic or dance music, and have never heard this album, it is almost part of your musical education to listen to it. This will demonstrate to you, that what many electronic and dance music artists have been doing, is nothing new, this type of music has been around for a long time. Should you wish to explore Kraftwerk’s music further, I would recommend another three of their albums, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine. Standout Tracks: Autobahn, Kometenmelodie and Morgenspaziergang.