If there is one band in the world that deserves intellectual exploration, it has to be Kraftwerk. Founded in 1970 in Düsseldorf, the two founding members, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, forever changed the course of popular music with their concept of an industrielle Volksmusik (industrial people’s music) made by machines.
Their electronic future music – take a look at albums such as Die Mensch-Maschine (The Man-Machine, 1978) or Computerwelt (Computer World, 1981) – provided the blueprint for today’s music in all its glory, from chart pop via rap to dance music. Kraftwerk’s future music has indeed become the sound of our present.
Because I’m so convinced by this, I would like to develop a university course on Kraftwerk. It would captivate students to learn about German 20th-century history and culture by studying a band many may not have heard of. Here’s how I would set this out – and why I think it is so worth studying.
History by Kraftwerk
The first sessions would lay the historical and socio-political foundations. German society, after the defeat of the Nazis, carried on as if nothing had happened. But a new generation emerged, looking for a new definition of what it means to be German. They wanted to develop a new national identity, not tainted by the fascist crimes. Entwined with this is the need for a new kind of music that does not just copy Anglo-American models. And so Krautrock emerges – a new type of spaced-out music beyond the parameters of Anglo-American rock.
Kraftwerk, here, is a perfect case to study the process in which cultural change occurs in direct reaction to social shifts.
For their first three albums, published between 1970 and 1973, Kraftwerk sounded not unlike their Krautrock peers. But then, in 1974, the shift happens: with Autobahn Kraftwerk truly give birth to a new kind of music, which they dub “techno pop”.
Students on my Kraftwerk course would be invited to undertake a “close hearing” of the 22-minute epic, analysing its structure and sound components. They would look at the adaptation of avant-garde strategies such as found sounds or the postmodernist mis-en-abyme that occurs when – within the track which simulates a car journey – a car radio is switched on, playing Autobahn.
The 1974 cover image, too, is worth investigating. Why is the autobahn so eerily devoid of cars? And is there any symbolism involved in the fact that the grey Volkswagen Beetle – identical with the model owned by the band at the time – is travelling ahead, towards the future, while the black Mercedes, favoured car model of the ruling elite of West Germany, drives towards the viewer, and hence into the direction of the past?
Back to the future
Over the next few sessions, we would look at the four concept albums from the second half of the 1970s. These constitute the core of their output. They also reflect and represent a chronicle of West German post-war history and politics – the rise of environmentalism as encapsulated in Radio-Aktivität (Radio-Activity, 1975), Germany’s role at the forefront of European unification (Trans-Europe Express, 1977), the confrontation of technology and tradition as explored in Mensch-Maschine (1978) or the digitisation of society as uncannily predicted already in 1981 by Computerwelt.
Computerwelt in particular is a prime example for the prophetic quality that haunts much of Kraftwerk’s music. After all, they anticipated the future in a type of music that was truly futuristic itself. At the same time, their visual representation – album covers and videos, website – is in a clear retro style.
The original cover of Radio-Aktivität, for example, features the 1930s Volksempfänger radio, used by Hitler for propaganda purposes – and the band website is a feast of 1980s pixillated glory. Students on my course would compare it with one of the cutting-edge design websites of current popstars. Why Kraftwerk create that tension between the nostalgic, technologically outdated and the futuristic so often is a puzzling question, and there are so many answers…
The themes of Kraftwerk’s music are clearly not limited to Germany but increasingly reflect key questions of Western civilisation. Accordingly, their last two albums Techno Pop (1986) and Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) feature multi-lingual lyrics in many major European languages. And here we have a topic for another session: what it means to be European. Ralf Hütter, for example, has repeatedly pointed out that Kraftwerk is a European band from Germany.
Germany was initially at the forefront of European integration as the country had learnt its lesson from the destruction wrecked by nationalism. After reunification, this morally motivated attitude changed. Now, under the seemingly never-ending regime of Angela Merkel, the conservative government reverts to Realpolitik, using Germany’s economic strength to impose austerity measures on already impoverished eurozone countries.
Something to discuss: Can Kraftwerk’s music, which emphasises its European dimension, be understood as a comment on current developments? Does popular music, if studied attentively, contribute to our understanding of the world? I would of course plead for a resounding yes – but am eager to find out what others think. And which bands they deem to be important. And in that respect, I can only learn from students.
Which leaves me to find a suitable activity for the last session. Anyone up for a Kraftwerk party?