Are Kraftwerk more influential than the Beatles? It’s a difficult question to decide – for obvious reasons. The Beatles were brilliant, groundbreaking and influential. But after a mere seven years of glory and genius, the band was spent – and they split. Kraftwerk, on the other hand, are still going strong in their 47th year of existence. And they have a new record out now – or actually eight new records, as well as their first UK tour in 14 years.
Rewind to 1974. Late November of that year, saw the release of Kraftwerk’s fourth album, Autobahn. The entire A-side was taken up by the title track, a 22-minute electronic composition about driving on the German motorway. While the album was largely met with disinterest in their native country at the time, as we now know, Autobahn would end up forever changing the course of 20th century popular music.
After Elvis’s move, as a white man, to sing the songs of black America, Kraftwerk initiated the second paradigm shift in popular music: to do away with drums and guitars by replacing them with synthesizers and music machines.
For a long time, it was believed that Autobahn was the first bona-fide piece of purely electronic pop music. But that wasn’t quite true – founder member Florian Schneider plays his flute on the track and, if you listen carefully, you can also hear a bit of guitar playing. Still, the Germans from Düsseldorf opened a new pathway to a future dominated by electronic pop music. The very future, that has become so much a hallmark of music’s here and now.
When a radio friendly three-minute version of Autobahn began to climb up the US charts, the band embarked on their blazing tour of the US and used a very curious poster to advertise their concert dates – dominated by a retro-futuristic image of an urban cityscape, it was strongly reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s expressionist film classic Metropolis. It proudly introduced the band, in German, as “Kraftwerk – Die Mensch Maschine” (Man Machine).
What at first glance only seems to anticipate their 1978 album title Mensch-Maschine (released as Man Machine for English-speaking territories) is also proof that from the moment Kraftwerk reinvented themselves as pioneers of electronic pop music, they also devised an overarching, all-encompassing aesthetic, based on the artistic concept of the man-machine. Step by step, album by album Kraftwerk would construct what is called a “Gesamtkunstwerk” in German: a total work of art as first devised by Richard Wagner in an attempt to combine all aspects of the arts into a new fusion.
A century after Wagner, Kraftwerk set out to do the same thing – as founding member Ralf Hütter explained to an interviewer in 2015:
We come from the late ‘60s, from the art scene in Düsseldorf, and we have always been a combination of visual arts, music, sound, poetry […] Our music has always been a living performance.
How Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk panned out artistically can be seen at the annual festival performances of the Ring des Nibelungen opera cycle at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The vision which inspired Kraftwerk’s futuristic take on an immersive “living performance” may be experienced at leading museums, opera houses and symphony halls across the globe, including the MoMA in New York, London’s Tate Modern, the Neue Nationalgallerie Berlin or the Burgtheater in Vienna.
Look back in 3D
Following the departure of Florian Schneider in 2009, Hütter has taken Kraftwerk on a seemingly neverending tour to stage retrospectives of their catalogue of albums since Autobahn.
Each evening is devoted to one of their eight albums, and the shows are breathtaking and spectacular. The music, delivered by a 40-channel cutting-edge sound system based on wave field synthesis technology (which creates virtual sound sources that can move freely through the auditorium) is loud and crisp, while the latest 3D technology is used for the visuals that are closely synchronised with the music.
Audience members will experience, among other things, musical notes emanating out of a car radio during Autobahn which seemingly fly right into one’s face, or hear the Trans Europe Express rattling around the concert venue. During Tour de France, cyclists seem to whizz by right and left through the auditorium.
On stage, meanwhile, 70-year-old Hütter and his three bandmates in their uniform outfits stand mostly motionless behind their four uniform consoles like laboratory operators – making it hard for the audience to discern who is playing what on which piece of electronic equipment. Contrary to persistent rumours, Kraftwerk do indeed play live as the occasional, all-too-human mistakes prove.
Kraftwerk delivers a famously minimalist stage show, although there is an appearance by four robot dummies – identical to the band members on stage – for the song The Robots. This overwhelming fusion of sound and vision as experienced by the audience is the fully-developed embodiment of the man-machine concept introduced in the mid-1970s.
Tickets for the UK and Ireland tour, which begins on June 2 in Dublin, were sold out within minutes. But for those without tickets there is the box set, which was released on May 26. This comprises the band’s major albums from Autobahn to their most recent studio offering, 2004’s Tour de France – in live versions recorded from 2012 to 2016.
Challenging the very notion of “original album version”, these live re-recordings enable us to listen to their groundbreaking tracks in the way they were always meant to sound: as contemporary music of the future. The new box set also acts as an apt reminder that while other bands, such as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, were undoubtedly huge in terms of sales, they were just doing better what everyone else was doing at the time.
Kraftwerk, on the other hand, established an entirely new way to think about how popular music should sound to make it a dominant art form for the 21st century. But make no mistake – you have to see (and hear) Kraftwerk on stage to believe that they are the greatest sounding band on earth.