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 pulseby Jude Rogers / March 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
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.