Following the death of Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider, Getintothis’ Keith Ainsworth reflects on the influence of the band.
Few bands have had more impact on modern jusic than Kraftwerk.
Starting from a the same pool of Düsseldorf musicians that would go on to form Neu!, the early Kraftwerk were determindedly experimental.
But with 1974’s Autobahn their music evolved to a beautiful, pristine electronic sound. This was ground zero for electronic music. This wasn’t electronics added to live musicians for novelty. This was a an exacting approach, an ethos, a paradigm shift.
Their influence on 80’s music is hard to exagerate. Kraftwerk led to the early electronica being made by the likes of Human League and OMD. Then to bands such as Gary Numan and Visage. Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, Eurythmics would follow.
Whereas punk burned itself out quickly as a musical dead end, Kraftwerk’s influence spread far and wide.
Many of those UK bands above brought a second British Invasion to American in the mid 80’s.
Even someone of the stature of David Bowie was drawn to Kraftwerk. His 1977 Heroes album had a side of chilly synthetic atmosphere, even a track named V-2 Schneider. The band returned the compliment by name checking him on their Trans Europe Express album. Where Bowie went others would follow and thus Kraftwerk’s influence spread out.
Laterin the US, first Africa Bambaataa and then Detroit’s Techno pioneers like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, used Kraftwerk‘s beats and approach to further their own music.
It is 2002. I had spent the last few years acquiring the Kraftwerk back catalogue on CD (ironic as I’d spent the last few years getting it on vinyl).
The band haven’t released an album of new material since 1986. In 1991 the band had re-recorded their best tracks as an album named The Mix. One new song (Expo 2000) was quietly released in December 1999.
Live dates were sporadic at best. A festival here and secret gig there. There had been no live dates since 1998.
The life of a Kraftwerk fan was one of speculation.
Their Kling Klang studio was said to have no phone. No doorbell. Their record company would not know about any new music until it arrived.
Even then projects (the proposed album Technopop) could be cancelled at the last moment. There were unconfirmed stories about cycling accidents and health troubles.
Would they ever emerge or were they caught in an endless loop?
Then a friend heard they were playing three dates in Paris. Would they play a theatre? A stadium. No they would play Cité de la Musique. This was a concert hall dedicated to classical music.
The venue also housed a fine collection of valuable musical instruments. There was a cabinet I saw there that contained violins made by Antonio Stradivari. Three of them.
Time was short. I found a ticket up for auction on eBay and placed bid. I bought a plane ticket to France and booked the cheapest accommodation I could find by the Gare Du Nord. I still hadn’t won the auction yet.
If I was outbid or the ticket failed to arrive then I would be having a short holiday in Paris. But things went my way and ticket in hand, I landed in Paris on time.
Kraftwerk are the only band I’ve travelled to another country to see.
Inside Cité de la Musique, the auditorium was standing that evening. Upstairs there was seating on a curved balcony.
An usher told me I could sit anywhere but not too far to the right. He confided with me that the band didn’t want people to see exactly what they were doing on stage.
I chose to mix with the crowd below. I worked myself to the right of the stage as the lights went down and The Robots started.
The four members of the band where in a row behind lecterns in silhouette. This look is now so much part of culture that whenever there are politicians in row behind lecterns someone usually quips they look like the worst Kraftwerk cover band ever.
By 2002 the classic line up of the band was down to Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür having left frustrated by seemingly unproductive years in the studio.
Even in silhouette I could tell Florian Schneider was my side of the stage. My brother once described him as ‘bullet headed’. Yep that was him.
In this acoustically perfect concert hall the sound was crisp, clear and very loud.
They stood in front of projections on a rectangular screen. They were simple colourful graphics compared to today and certainly no 3D. But it was perfect to view as the music washed over you.
The set flew by. I remember a few select things;
The local crowd was full of cheers for Tour De France.
There was a little comedy at the start of Autobahn. You may remember the track begins with a car starting. Well the car didn’t start first time. These old cars you know? Once it did we were up and running for a glorious full length rendition of that classic.
Pocket Calculator was sung in French to more partisan cheers.
Boarding the Metro train back home with Musique Non-Stop ringing in my ears I was all smiles having done the impossible and seen Kraftwerk live.
The band would release their last album of new material the following year and start touring more often. But much of their mystique remained.
Florian Schneider would quietly leave in 2008.
Since that gig 18 years ago, Kraftwerk are have stayed more in the puyblic eye. They recently played a series of eight sell out gigs in London at the Tate Modern art gallery.
They are sampled by Madonna and Jay-Z so we can tick off their influence on contemporary pop and R&B. Their melodies have been used to such an extent by Coldplay on the track Talk that they are credited as co-writers.
Would Daft Punk be robots without the parentage of the original four robots?
It is no understatement to say huge swathes of music has been brought into being thanks to the influence of that other fab four, Kraftwerk.