What The Beatles are to pop/rock and the Velvet Underground are to alternative, Kraftwerk are to electronic music. They are the mainspring, the well of inspiration, the goddamn motherlode. Their run of classic albums is astonishing, up there for consistent creativity and delight with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side-The Wall sequence, or, say, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet-Exile On Main Street series of triumphs. Starting with Autobahn (1974), each album defines and refines their inspiration: from the long form elementary synthesized excursion of Autobahn‘s epic title track (cos ambitious bands had to have side-long epic tracks back then) to Radio Activity (1975) with its shorter thematically-linked pieces to the electro-funk of Trans Europe Express (1977) to the multiple digitized rhythms of the magnificent The Man Machine (1978) and then the warmth, sass and wit of Computer World (1981). (Earlier albums like Kraftwerk I (1971) and Kraftwerk II (1972) are embryonic to say the least, stuck in the Krautrock milieu whence they sprang, while later efforts Electric Cafe (1986) and Tour De France (2003) lack the unbridled inspiration and gleaming intelligence of the classics).
Let’s take a look at each of the classics and praise it. For all albums, I recommend the German language versions as being more… Kraftwerkian, if you will; but I will refer to the English track names for ease of comprehension.
I’ve included this album as one of the greats purely on the basis of “Autobahn”, which remains a classic and a fan favourite (it’s on the 2005 live album Minimum Maximum). The great thing is how one hears the freedom, autonomy and modernity of driving, something so elementary and yet so popular. (Also note that the lyric is not “Fun, fun, fun on the autobahn” but “Fahren, fahren, fahren“, the word being German for “drive”). Musically the song is constructed on elementary Moog synths and (I think) guitar arpeggios, with ancillary flutes and keyboards; compared to later albums, it sounds a bit clunky, but the rhythm keeps it moving, and there’s a freshness and enthusiasm that’s enticing. And of course, as Kraftwerk would repeatedly do, it sounds like what they signing about, with horns and passing cars and all being evoked.
The rest of the album rather pales in comparison, not being thematically linked (the next two tracks being “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2”, which suggests their place as mood pieces rather than extensions of the theme – though the latter does suggest later glories) or having the same daring celebration of the joys of present. “Mitternacht”, in its ambient down-tempo moodiness, was presumably what David Bowie was ripping off when he made the latter half of Low, three years later; while “Morgenspaziergang” is a bit like the worst songs of the studio disc of Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma. Rather like, say, Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, Autobahn is embryonic, enormously influential, and overshadowed by later glories.
This is where the real Kraftwerk comes together. The album is linked via two interconnected themes: radio communications (or transmissions) and radioactive energy. This is made most clear in “The Voice Of Energy”, a track of a single deep distorted electro vocal, “Radio Stars”, a pulsing radiowave transmission over which a voice tonelessly verbalises, and “Transistor”, which similarly pulsates but does so over a pleasant keyboard tune. None have either beat or rhythm (beyond the simple pulse of the radio waves in “Radio Waves” and “Transmission”, like an alpha or sine wave), and yet thematically and conceptually they are perfect. In the more tuneful tracks, “Radioactivity” is an overture to the entire thematic and music scope of the album, and “Airwaves” is a joyful excursion after the static frieze of the preceding “Radioland”. But these tunes, while they link the album, are significantly in the majority; most of the album is short thematic ideas-driven pieces, like “News” (a bunch of newsreaders), the opening “Geiger Counter” (blip… blip… blip.. blip–blip–blip–blipblipblipblipblipblipblip), “Transistor”, the sound of a repeating, echoing simple melody, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, which I think the Chemical Brothers samples for the opening track to their first album Exit Planet Dust. With this album, Kraftwerk truly discover their genius. It remains a wonderful piece of imagination, craft and flair.
Trans Europe Express
It irritates me that this album is the one always mentioned in the “Best Albums Ever”. I guess this is because of two things: the sheer bloody goddamn awesomeness of the title track, and the fact that it was heavily sampled by Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock“, thus inventing hiphop or something. But while the album opener “Europe Endless” is magnificent, the following two tracks “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are to my ears the two weakest tracks in Kraftwerk’s great album sequence. The former sounds like something from a Commodore 64 tape (check this as a C64 version of Tubular Bells – if you grew up in the 80s or had a Commy, you might well enjoy it), while the latter is a dry self-parody but little more. All the same, “Trans Europe Express” has that amazing locomotive rhythm and is endlessly enjoyable, “Metal On Metal” continues the rhythm (it’s really just part two of a side-long suite), and “Europe Endless” a stunning evocation of the glories of the continent, at a time when Europe and cutting-edge modernity were practically synonymous (German cars, Concorde, etc). But with two tracks to which I’m highly indifferent, Trans Europe Express just isn’t all that.
The Man Machine
To my mind the best Kraftwerk album, and contender for best album of the 1970s (which, given the competition, is really saying something). Here, the pulsing rhythms of Trans Europe Express develop to an exciting polyrhythmic approach which, given how white Kraftwerk sound, is almost African in origin and would inspire a lot of electro music in the future, from hiphop to techno. Also, the digitisation of Kraftwerk’s sound takes a great leap here; while substantial parts of Radio Activity is live and unprocessed, and while the synthesizer beats of Trans Europe Express chug along nicely, almost every part of The Man Machine is digitised, processed. (Only the vocals to “Neon Lights” and “The Model” are unaltered, I think). And while the early albums were obviously Moog-synthy, analogue machines creating digital sounds, the entire feel and texture of The Man Machine is modern and synthetic. Take the opening to opening track (Kraftwerk always paid attention to album flow, with opening and closing tracks of significance in the whole piece), “The Robots”: four plosive beats sound before some percussive electronic noises (in time, of course), which is repeated, upon which the marvellous juga-juga-juga-juga riff kicks in, and then a glossily shimmering keyboard ascends before the heavily-processed Vocoder-sung lyrics come in:
We’re charging our battery
And now we’re full of energy
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
We are the robots
(Damn, it’s so much harder to convey the minutiae of electronica compared to rock music!) The whole thing is so robotik, so alien, so unhumanly funky… fucking magnificent. I am also a great fan of the next track, “Spacelab”. It often reminds me of my first semester at uni, when I had really just discovered Kraftwerk thanks to one of my uncles, and listening to this tune as I smoked my first joints. That defamiliarisation and sense of disconnect suited my initial loneliness and homesickness. But this is mere anecdote: what I really like about “Spacelab” is that sense of highflown indifference, as emphasised by the track not coming to any resolution but merely fading out. The best track of all, in my opinion (which is all you get around here) is “Neon Lights”, which is a glorious pulsating ode to the possibilities and progress of urban life. Which is a nice change from the posturing rural sympathies of so much rock music. (I’ll exclude Nick Drake from this, as his music does convey so much countryside scenes, from the swaying yew trees in “Cello Song” to the mysteries of “River Man”). What astonishes me about this album is that even today is sounds fresh: considering how fast electronic music progresses, that is truly incredible.
Building on the polyrhythms of The Man Machine, Computer World is funkier, less distant and far wittier. On occasions it’s actually very funny. It is odd that so few artists celebrate modernity, or what I suppose we should call postmodernity. Most times the past is viewed nostalgically, the present with regret (of love lost, possibilities missed etc etc etc) and the future with trepidation. This, I guess, is what happens when the vast proportion of rock music is made by men in their 20s. But then the same is true of so many writers: the pose of the sophisticated poet despairing of the cheap tawdry urban crowd perhaps began with TS Eliot and continues today, with gimps who don’t have a solitary percentage of Eliot’s learning affecting a disdainful superiority to the masses. As you can guess, I loathe this fuck-knuckle smart-ass disdain. Far better, I reckon, to have the relish and abandon of the Beats, that celebratory joyful vision of Ginsberg and Kerouac. With this 1981 album, Kraftwerk celebrate the wonders of the computer and even foresee the interconnections of the internet age. There is, of course, an occasional wryness – perhaps Kraftwerk’s most characteristic emotional note – but there’s little of the distance of The Man Machine. “Pocket Calculator” must take the prize for Kraftwerk’s most fun song (with Radio Activity‘s “Air Waves” in second), with its kinetic rhythms, cheerily cheesy sound effects (maybe a Fisher Price calculator?) and the tongue-in-cheek simplicity of the lyric:
I’m the operator
With the pocket calculator
By pressing down a special key
It plays a little melody
Glorious. Meanwhile, “Numbers” is more breakbeaty than usual for Kraftwerk, even as it counts in the numbers (mostly in German, though there are different languages and vocal effects for each), “Computer World” is perhaps most akin to a Man Machine track, in its anxiety and simplicity, counting off the knowledge bases of the modern world (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank… FBI and Scotland Yard…”). Throughout, as always, Kraftwerk not only sing about the world of computers, they evoke it musically, with the pulsing “Home Computer” suggesting the data flows of the digital networks, the eponymous pocket calculator jingling away merrily, and the wry sense of urban disconnect in a world of fragmented isolated individuals keenly suggested in the sparse echoing melodies of “Computer World”, like tunes played in empty shopping malls. Yet, considering the 1981 release date, it does not sound dated: of its time, yes, but with Kraftwerk’s keen intelligence, and humane empathy, their disquisitions on modernity, computers and disconnect are timeless.
As I’ve mentioned before, I rate Kraftwerk very highly: basically as one of the best bands of all time, and as the originators of so much of modern music. We are all vastly in their debt. But this does not make them dated, as perhaps Louis Armstrong (well, maybe Jelly Roll Morton) is when compared to Miles Davis or John Coltrane: Kraftwerk remain as fresh and compelling as on their release, and whose, imagination, creativity, intelligence and melodic flair remain undimmed these thirty-odd years.