How Kraftwerk changed the course of modern music

When the band first started out in 1970, electronic music in pop was in its infancy—now, in 2020, they've given modern music its primitive pulse
March 29, 2020
This summer—if by any miracle the virus permits—a septuagenarian man will headline a major English music festival. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, in a business where Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger constantly perform their back catalogues. But this artist is different. Since 1974, he’s had no truck with guitars, bass and drums. He’ll be playing music whose influence on club culture, hip-hop and electronica cannot be underestimated. He’ll be wearing an all-in-one neoprene suit. And the other three members of his band, Kraftwerk, will be standing alongside him in a straight line, dressed exactly the same.  

Kraftwerk, formed in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in Düsseldorf, West Germany, celebrates its 50th birthday this year. It does so without Schneider, who left the band in 2008, and Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, members from the band’s most productive years. The mysterious Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen complete the line-up today.  

But Hütter remains the band’s spokesperson. Yet on the rare occasions he speaks, he remains enigmatic, issuing statements that belong to the world of conceptual art rather than pop’s soundbite culture. “In our society, everything is in motion,” he said in 1992. “Music is a flowing art-form.” Kraftwerk now play only their old albums live—despite promising new material, they haven’t delivered any since 2003. This might seem curious from a band whose albums use electronic music to conceptualise modernity and ideas of the future. 

Their breakthrough album, 1974’s Autobahn, begins with a 22-minute track replicating the experience of driving on a motorway. Three years later Trans-Europe Express was a hymn to the high-speed, border-crossing train. The prescient Computer World, from 1981, explored the constant flow of information and the potential of online dating. Images relating to these albums appear in Kraftwerk’s stage shows in retro-fashioned 3D, viewed through cardboard glasses. I saw the UK debut of these audiovisual sets at Kraftwerk’s 2013 residency at Tate Modern. The premise felt oddly nostalgic: trains, cars and radiowaves zooming past our eyes. I had also seen the band before, in a more thrilling context, at the 1997 Tribal Gathering festival, playing before contemporary bands they inspired, like Daft Punk and Orbital, in front of hundreds of ecstatic ravers.  


But I’ve often wondered whether their musical repetition of recent years suggests that the Man-Machine—as their 1978 album title describes them—have lost their way. Then I read Uwe Schütte’s fascinating new book, and became convinced again of their peculiar genius. 

When Kraftwerk began in 1970, electronic music in pop was in its infancy. Indeed, Hütter and Schneider made music that was much closer to progressive rock. Both were involved in Düsseldorf’s art scene, which Schütte dips into revealingly. The artist Joseph Beuys, who talked of art as “social sculpture” with the potential to transform society, worked at the Kunstacademie in the city. Beuys also reconfigured for the post-war world the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk—a work of art that combines many forms of art—away from its origins in Wagner’s operas and the use the Nazis made of them. One of Beuys’s protégés, Emil Schult, also became the man responsible for Kraftwerk’s visual identity.  

Hütter and Schneider were trying to create a new Germany. Born in 1946 and 1947 respectively, both to upper-middle-class parents, they were post-war West Germans, an important detail that Schütte unravels well. Kraftwerk tried to reboot a pre-war German avant-garde culture that was cut off in its prime by the Nazis, he explains; the band then used the tools of a rapidly modernising world to realise the utopian possibilities of Weimar culture.  

To prover his point, Schütte quotes filmmaker Chris Petit’s paraphrasing of several interviews Hütter did in the late 1970s: “We are the children of Fritz Lang [the German Expressionist director of Metropolis] and Werner von Braun [the engineer forced to work on the V2 bomb]. We are the link between the 1920s and 1980s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesisers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.” 

It took a while for Kraftwerk’s conceptual framework to coalesce. They have excised their first three albums—1970’s Kraftwerk 1, 1971’s Kraftwerk 2, and 1973’s Ralf and Florian—from their narrative. But they are worth seeking out as they reveal the gnarlier roots of their later work. Take the 1970 track “Von Himmel Hoch,” its title referring to the Martin Luther nativity text, famously set by Bach. In Kraftwerk’s composition, bombs descend from the heavens, as they did throughout Germany in the war, recreated through synthesisers and Doppler effects. Kraftwerk 2 has “Kling Klang,” an onomatopoeic description of mechanical sound, and “Atem,” which explores the musical possibilities of exhalation. They would revisit this idea on the 1983 single “Tour de France,” and 2003’s “Elektro Kardiogramm.” 


Kraftwerk were also inspired by the anonymity and universality that more conceptual inspirations could provide. Their first two albums had traffic cones on their white covers that looked like Warhol pop art paintings. The iconic sleeve of Autobahn, copying the German motorway sign, has a striking simplicity. Hütter has denied being influenced by the quirkily dapper English artists Gilbert and George, whom he saw in Düsseldorf in the early 1970s. But look at any press shots of the band after 1974—over-polished in their pristine suits, robotically deadpan—and you can see the connection. 

Schütte’s knowledge of German and Germany’s cultural history helps to uncover fascinating details. He reveals that Kraftwerk’s name—in German it means “power plant”—was chosen in the midst of feverish protests against the building of a nuclear power station an hour from Düsseldorf. (It never went online; it’s now the site of a theme park). His translation of the original lyrics of “Autobahn” are also revealing. He highlights a verse that begins by celebrating a beautiful landscape, before telling us what has been dropped in the middle of it: “Ahead of us a valley wide/The sun shines with sparkling light/The lane is a grey concrete strip/White stripes, green ditch.” 

Kraftwerk’s albums do not celebrate modernity without question, Schütte argues, but present its thrills as ambivalent. Their 1975 album Radio-Activity—their best, to the mind of this committed fan—is a case in point. The title suggests both nuclear terror and the potential of radio communication. The image of a Volksempfänger radio on its cover (a cheap model promoted by Joseph Goebbels) also shows how technology is open to abuse. Beautiful songs like “Radio Stars” examine the cult of celebrity and the discovery of pulsars. Kraftwerk revealed the sublime wonder and terror in the modern world. 

The band’s flirtations with the past came with risks. The 1978 cover of Man-Machine is dedicated to Russian artist El Lissitzky, who inspired the Bauhaus movement. But the black and red imagery, as Schütte points out, was dangerous at a time when punks were also flirting with swastikas. The UK and US music press also indulged in racist interpretations of Kraftwerk’s ideas. Gonzo journalist Lester Bangs famously asked Hütter whether electronics were the “final solution” for music in 1975. His NME piece was accompanied by a picture of Kraftwerk superimposed on an image of the Nuremberg rally. 

Later, Hütter would make his political position clearer. In interviews, he said his generation felt lost knowing their parents were responsible for Nazism. The lyrics on the title track of Computer World worried about the possibilities of data surveillance (this in a decade where the Stasi were operating just beyond the Iron Curtain). Live versions today also mention the CIA’s “control of data and memory.” “Radio-Activity” has been reworked several times over the years. On the 1991 remix album The Mix, the words “Chernobyl,” “Harrisburg,” “Sellafield” and “Hiroshima” were added to the song, read out by a robotic voice. Since the 2011 Japanese tsunami, Hiroshima has been replaced by Fukushima. 

Schütte doesn’t flinch from how their musical output declined in the 1980s. Hütter had a cycling accident in 1982, which reportedly left him in a coma. (He denies this.) Their subsequent album, 1986’s Electric Café, felt out of step with the times, although its final track, “Musique Non-Stop,” became a fixture on MTV. Then Flür and Bartos left the ranks. Even 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks wasn’t completely new, given the 1983 single that had inspired it in the first place. 

But something else happened in that decade: other artists took Kraftwerk’s example and ran with it. Schütte compares Düsseldorf to Detroit in the US—industrial towns that both produced assembly-line music. Schütte might have devoted more space to Kraftwerk’s influence on dance music, however. He does mention Afrika Bambaataa’s landmark hip hop track, “Planet Rock,” which brings together elements of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express”—but, in a rare error, gets its release date wrong. (It was 1982, not 1988.) This mistake matters because electronic music morphed rapidly during that time. In 1982, early electro music was still the preserve of underground clubs. By 1988, acid house—one of its many variants—was mainstream in Britain.  


One question remains unanswered: why have Kraftwerk not grappled more with the 21st-century world in new music? Schütte doesn’t suggest that Hütter may have run out of ideas, although he does imply that he may be very difficult to work with. He has other theories. One is Hütter’s distrust of our new world. “I am not a fan of the internet,” Hütter is quoted as saying. “I think it is overrated. Intelligent information is still intelligent information and an overflow of nonsense does not really help. In German, it’s called Datenmüll: data rubbish.” Online data is obviously not as inspiring a subject for him as the motorway or the radio.   

Schütte also suggests that Kraftwerk’s release of eight albums presents a pleasing conceptual symmetry. “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8” are the numbers spoken, in a regular rhythm, in “Numbers”; a ninth album would also “wreck the Gesamtkunstwerk,” he says.  

Perhaps Kraftwerk remain so minimalist and repetitive because Hütter still intends their music to be a template for the future. Our world is one of increasing noise where utopian ideas continue to bubble within the soundwaves. Kraftwerk’s exquisite, elegant music suggests a simple framework for new artists to build on. You certainly hear this in the output of labels like Kompakt, Monika and Ostgut Ton, and the electronica of female artists like Helena Hauff and Umfang. Perhaps this is why Kraftwerk keep playing in places like Detroit and Berlin, where techno is still at the forefront of experimental music. Perhaps this is why they play concerts hosted by popular DJs like Sven Väth, and are allowing their art to be part of a retrospective on electronic music at London’s Design Museum planned for this summer.  

Hütter is not getting younger. There has been a sense of urgency in his gig schedule until now. This is a man who wants to make sure his legacy lingers. 

Kraftwerk remain revolutionary because they have given modern music its primitive pulse. They know it is important to remind ourselves of the advances in modern life, despite the chaos, and how those can ripple out to change the lives of many people in many different corners of the world. Kraftwerk have kept the avant-garde flowing, from the past to the present and the future. Non-stop.