Kraftwerk The Beat Goes On

The German electronic music band Kraftwerk has influenced generations of musicians. But 40 years after their first hit, their work still seems both contemporary and futuristic.

Kraftwerk didn’t have it easy when they first arrived on the electronic music scene in Germany. When their first hit song "Autobahn" was released 40 years ago, a TV show host told them that, sure, the music was nice and all, but whd didn't they mention the accidents that happened frequently on the high-speed motorway network?

Founding band member Ralf Hütter responded at the time with the subtle humor that has become Kraftwerk’s trademark: “We try to avoid accidents, both while driving and with music.”

Kraftwerk's reception outside Germany was more welcoming. Autobahn was the first German single to make it into the top 25 of the U.S. Billboard Chart and the group went on to play in more than 50 cities across the United States. The Americans loved their mix of electronic sounds, the foreign German language and the humor expressed in the willfully naïve lyrics.

And one night in 1977 on the dance floor of an illegal club in New York, the group's members experienced first hand how they had changed the course of pop music.

The members of Kraftwerk had no idea what an afterhours club was but went along with staff from their U.S. record label. Once inside, they saw a young, unknown DJ called Afrika Bambaataa playing a wild mix never heard before in Germany.

Then suddenly he put on their song "Trans Europa Express" and Kraftwerk danced to Kraftwerk – until they realized that the track was far longer than the version they had recorded. It turned out that Bambaataa had two turntables and was mixing "Trans Europa Express" with another Kraftwerk song, "Metall auf Metall."

The impact of the moment would only hit them much later. The music – a mix with out breaks – didn’t even have a proper name at the time. The first hip-hop record would only appear two years later. And only in 1982 did Afrika Bambaataa release his epic song "Planet Rock," based largely on Trans Europa Express.

The tune was the Big Bang of modern DJ music. And as a result, Kraftwerk influenced almost every new genre of pop music in the following decades: hip-hop, electro, Miami bass, house, techno, dubstep.

Kraftwerk is for modern electronic music what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were to modern rock music Moby, DJ and singer

Legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder listened to Kraftwerk while he was working on a Donna Summer record, David Bowie’s Berlin years were influenced by them and he even named a song on his Heroes album after Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider.

Depeche Mode, New Order, Aphex Twin, Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z, even softrock bands like Coldplay, all have a litle bit of Kraftwerk in their music. And French duo Daft Punk have even taken on the guise of robots as Kraftwerk once did.

“Kraftwerk is for modern electronic music what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were to modern rock music,” says the U.S. musician Moby.

Now almost four decades after that night out in New York, Ralf Hütter is preparing for a series of concerts in Berlin’s New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgallerie). Kraftwerk will play eight shows with each evening showcasing a different album: Autobahn (1974), Radio-Aktivität (1975), Trans Europa Express (1977), Die Mensch-Maschine (1978), Computerwelt (1981), Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991) and Tour de France (2003).

The performances will be an audio and visual 3-D spectacle to cap a remarkable career. Since Kraftwerk’s founding in 1970, the band’s line-up has changed many times, although Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, its masterminds, remained a constant.

But after Mr. Schneider decided five years ago that he no longer wanted to go on tour, the 68-year-old Mr. Hütter is now the band’s sole boss.

He lives in anonymity in his hometown of Düsseldorf, never making appearances aside from concerts and rarely giving interviews.

Despite their age, Kraftwerk’s music and lyrics remain remarkably modern and surprisingly prophetic: “Sitting here at my home computer / and I’m programming my future.” It’s hard to believe that was written in 1981. It’s our digital present in 2014 that’s being described, the world of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple, of smartphones and apps.

And who doesn’t immediately think of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden when listening to the English version of “Computerwelt” from 1981: “FBI, Scotland Yard / CIA and KGB / Control the Data Memory.”

It’s all the more extraordinary that Kraftwerk’s music wasn’t made digitally. Computers were far too expensive back then and so they had only analog methods of production available. To make up for it, the band members fantasized about a time when computers would dominate our lives – as they do now.

“I’m alone, alone once again / Stare at the screen, stare at the screen / Have nothing to do tonight, nothing to do tonight / I need a rendezvous, I need a rendezvous / I dial the number, I dial the number / Call up the text on the screen, call up the text on the screen.”

The lyrics to “Computerliebe” (Computer love), also from 1981, could be the mantra of today’s generation of digital natives using the app Tinder to organize their love lives.

Why was Kraftwerk so ahead of the times? Out of pure necessity. Mr. Hütter explained in an interview with the magazine Sounds in 1979 that the band was blocked from looking backwards for inspiration as American or British musicians could because of Germany’s dark Nazi past.

“Starting over from all the rubble of the postwar era. We had nothing. It was a huge shock, but also a big chance,” he said.

Video: Kraftwerk in full flow performing Autobahn at a concert at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.


This article is an abridged version of a story that originally appeared in Zeit Magazin. To contact the author: [email protected]