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Members include Wolfgang Flur (replaced by Fritz Hijbert, 1990); Ralf Hutter (born in 1946 in Krefeld, Germany; attended Dusseldorf Conservatory, late 1960s); Klaus Roeder (joined group, 1974; replaced by Karl Bartos, 1975, who was replaced by Fernando Abrantes, 1991); Florian Schneider (born in 1947 in Dusseldorf, Germany; attended Dusseldorf Conservatory, late 1960s). Addresses: Record company--Astralwerks Records, 104 West 29th St., Fl. 4, New York, NY 10001, phone: (212) 886-8500, e-mail email@example.com. Website--Kraftwerk Official Website: http://www.kraftwerk.de.
Out of the historical and spiritual vacuum created in Germany after World War II, and set against the gray spires of factory smokestacks filling the landscape a generation later, a new musical approach and sound appeared. Inspired by the German Bauhaus movement---an influential avant-garde art and design movement of the 1920s---the group Kraftwerk melded man and machine into a singular unit, creating music that reflected man's existential freedom in the modern, mechanized world. Despite major commercial successes---despite the group's numerous recording hiatuses and lack of significant tours in support of its work---Kraftwerk's real musical legacy has been its great influence on such established artists as David Bowie and Neil Young, on disco artists of the late 1970s, and on electronic pop groups of the 1980s such as the Human League and Ultravox.
The two founding members of Kraftwerk, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, met in the late 1960s while both were studying classical music at the Dusseldorf Conservatory. Both increasingly found that traditional medium inadequate as a means of expressing their personal musical vision. "After the war," Hutter explained to Lester Bangs in Creem, "German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where ... to feel ourselves."
Hutter and Schneider found a musical identity in their surroundings: the mechanized sounds of the German factories and language. They acquired electronic keyboards and amplifiers, and in 1970 set up their own recording studio, Kling Klang, ("ringing tone" in English), in an oil refinery. That same year they joined a five-piece band, Organisation, and released an album, Tone Float, but quickly left to form their own group, Kraftwerk ("power plant" in English).
"Kraftwerk is not a band," Schneider told Townley. "It's a concept. We call it 'Die Menschmaschine,' which means 'the human machine.' We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. And Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas." As Bangs noted, the relationship between the band members and their machine concept is an organic, symbiotic one: "The machines not merely overpower and play the human beings but absorb them, until the scientist and his technology, having developed a higher consciousness of its own, are one and the same."
After a few limited releases in their native Germany, Hutter and Schneider added Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder to Kraftwerk in 1974 and released Autobahn, the group's seminal work. Side one of the LP contains the title track, a twenty-two-and-a-half-minute paean to driving on the Autobahn, Germany's super highway, delivered not as a human response to the experience but as a machine-like statement about it---clean, precise, hypnotic, endless. The album reached number five on the Billboard charts. An edited version of the title cut, "Wir farh'n farh'n farh'n auf der Autobahn" ("We're driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn"), was also a popular success, peaking on the singles charts at number 25.
Although not quite equaling the commercial acclaim of Autobahn, subsequent works solidified Kraftwerk's standing through their impact on other artists and musical mediums. Musician David Bowie credited Kraftwerk's 1976 Radio-Activity with influencing some of the arrangements on his album Low, while Neil Young significantly patterned his Trans release on 1981's Computer World.
The disco craze of the late 1970s also latched onto the Kraftwerk beat. Extended versions of "Trans-Europe Express" and "Showroom Dummies"---both from the 1977 album Trans-Europe Express---were heard in discos worldwide. Hip-hop deejay Afrika Bambaataa reworked "Trans-Europe Express" into the 1982 hit "Planet Rock," which, as Mark Dery pointed out in the New York Times, "helped spawn 'electro-boogie,' a rap subgenre characterized by video arcade bleeps, cartoon sound effects, and locomotive rhythms. Electro-boogie is a forerunner of the Detroit 'techno' school of house music, and house deejays continue to incorporate Kraftwerk records in their live mixes."
Dismissing its danceable rhythms, some critics found the music of Kraftwerk to be severely devoid of human emotional involvement. "Kraftwerk strikingly creates a sound so antiseptic that germs would die there," Mitchell Schneider wrote in a review of 1978's The Man Machine for Rolling Stone. And Mark Peel, reviewing the 1986 release Electric Cafe for Stereo Review, suggested that there may have been no human input even in the act of creation: "Maybe it's some kind of neo-Expressionist statement about the domination of technology, or maybe the group's machines really did take over the recording session."
Throughout the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, even when electronic music was beginning to flourish worldwide, Kraftwerk remained largely quiet. The year 1991 saw the release of The Mix, a remix compilation of the group's key tracks, but it would be eight years before they returned to the studio. When they did, Kraftwerk emerged with the single "Expo 2000" and the announcement of a world tour.
To celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their classic Tour de France album, the band released 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks. While the first few tracks on the disc reprised the 1983 release, the rest of the album was a completely original work, with titles that only marginally referred to the disc's cycling theme. Nevertheless, they still managed to pay homage to the record's inspiration. The Boston Globe's B. Christopher Muther commented that "much of Soundtracks feels like a late-night party in Berlin circa 1981. The band's 30-year theme of man and machine holding hands (or whatever parts man and machine would hold) in a hermetically sealed utopia has not been shaken."
Kraftwerk went back on tour in 2004, and from those shows they released a live recording, Minimum-Maximum, the following year. In a review of one of Kraftwerk's 2005 peformances, Jon Pareles of the New York Times stated, "There's something mildly hilarious in the fact that Kraftwerk, the pioneering German electronic group, is about to release a live album. ... Playing songs from [their] live album, Kraftwerk tried, as usual, to appear as un-live as possible." However, Bill Murphy of Remix wrote, "There may be an array of Sony Vaio laptops onstage, but moments like these remind you that there are still four guys behind them."
It is exactly this predilection toward technology in the face of human emotions that has given Kraftwerk its lasting value. Through their intermingling of man and machine, they have perhaps helped create a new species, a jump in the evolution of music. It is not their own music but the sound and approach they have spawned that marks Kraftwerk as a significant event in the development of popular music. "Certainly they're capable of moments of exceptional, accessible beauty," Paul Lester of Melody Maker noted, adding that "Kraftwerk have long been content to let people---from the [Human] League to the hip hoppers---run away with their inventions. Maybe that's their greatness."
by Rob Nagel and Ken Taylor
Group formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, 1970; before forming Kraftwerk, Hutter and Schneider founded Kling-Klang Studio, then joined five-piece band Organisation; released Tone Float, 1970; signed with Vertigo Records and released debut album Var, 1971; released landmark albums Autobahn, 1974; Trans-Europe Express, 1977; Computer World, 1981; Electric Café, 1986; released Tour de France Soundtracks, 2003; released Minimum-Maximum (live), 2005.
Album of the year in France, for Radio-Activity, 1976.
- Selected discography
- Var Vertigo, 1971.
- Kraftwerk Vertigo, 1972.
- Ralf and Florian Vertigo, 1973.
- Autobahn Vertigo/Mercury, 1974; reissued, Elektra, 1988.
- Radioactivity Capitol, 1976; reissued, Elektra, 1986.
- Exceller 8 Vertigo, 1976.
- Trans-Europe Express Capitol, 1977.
- The Man Machine Capitol, 1978.
- Computer World Warner Bros., 1981; reissued, Elektra, 1988.
- Techno Pop EMI (British import), 1983.
- Electric Cafe EMI, 1986; reissued, Elektra, 1988.
- The Mix Elektra, 1991.
- Showroom Dummie 1992.
- The Model (The Best of) Cleopatra, 1992.
- The Best of Kraftwerk EMI, 1999.
- Tour de France Soundtracks Astralwerks, 2003.
- Minimum-Maximum Astralwerks, 2005.
- Art in America, March 1988.
- Billboard, October 22, 1977; August 22, 1981.
- Boston Globe, September 19, 2003.
- Creem, June 1975; September 1975.
- Down Beat, June 3, 1976.
- Melody Maker, September 13, 1975; June 20, 1981; November 8, 1986; June 15, 1991; July 20, 1991.
- New York Times, June 16, 1991; June 3, 2005.
- People, September 28, 1981.
- Remix, July 2005.
- Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975; May 18, 1978.
- Stereo Review, September 1981; March 1987.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, October 1991.
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