Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter once told a journalist that his group’s 23-minute-long song about car travel “Autobahn” was an attempt to answer the question: “What is the sound of the German Bundesrepublik?” The autobahn system is, Uwe Schütte writes in this engaging critical introduction to the band, a “deeply ambivalent German monument” because it was a pet project of Adolf Hitler.
Schütte sees Kraftwerk’s music as “a contribution to the political, cultural and moral rebuilding of Germany” after the second world war. Their records obliquely approach history, and the process of constructing a future-oriented nation, by focusing on the material aspects of its everyday life: roads, nuclear power, trains, computers. The group enthusiastically embraced Germany’s place in the European project, in songs that addressed the continent’s interconnection (“Trans-Europe Express”) and were often recorded in a number of European languages.
Hütter and Florian Schneider, the founding members, were born into affluent families after the war had ended. They met while students in their home city of Düsseldorf, a wealthy centre for fashion in the midst of industrial Rhineland that was bombed by allied forces during the war but became the capital of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1946. Bonn, the new capital of West Germany, lay within the state’s boundaries, a sign that it had become the centre of the nation’s postwar political power.
Kraftwerk formed in 1970 from the ashes of an earlier band, Organisation. Their name translates from German as “power station”, and, although the group initially pursued an industrial aesthetic in their cover art, beginning with the Warhol-style traffic cones that illustrated their first two albums, the industrial slowly worked its way into the whole concept of the band – the songs and, eventually, its self‑presentation as man-machine humanoids. By Autobahn, their fourth album, they had added Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos to their lineup, and by the fifth, Radio-Activity, their instrumentation was entirely electronic. The robots soon followed.
The first, and strongest, half of Schütte’s book traces the cultural context of the band, and their evolution from the art scene in Düsseldorf, where they drew on the idea that artistic practice could help create a better world as developed by Joseph Beuys, who was then based in the city and a friend of the Schneider family. Schütte’s main contention is that, rather than merely being a band, Kraftwerk was in essence a wider art project, “a multimedia combination of sound and image, graphic design and performance”. The group’s career, he argues, is a total artwork along the lines of Wagner’s conception of a Gesamtkunstwerk, one that embraces multiple forms to realise the artist’s vision.
Certainly the band was drawing from the historical avant garde, especially the aesthetics of the Bauhaus, the futurists and German expressionism. The idea of representing its members as robots was drawn in part from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis; their use of music to represent everyday noises recalled the found sounds of musique concrète. (David Bowie called Kraftwerk’s industrially inspired sounds “folk music of the factories”.) Their aesthetic can be characterised as retro-futurism, and their artistic influences modernist – they looked back as they hurtled forwards.
Schütte attempts to trace their influence, but you can see them everywhere: most fascinatingly in hip-hop, most obviously in techno music, but also in the chrome-helmeted anonymity of Daft Punk, in the industrial philosophy of Factory Records and the Haçienda nightclub, and, ultimately, in the general trajectory of pop music ever since Kraftwerk’s run of great albums between 1974 and 1981 – away from traditional rock and towards the electronic.
Their influence grew even as they declined as a creative force. Since 1981’s Computer World a mere two albums of original material have been released, of which only Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) was on a par with their classic work. Instead, for the most part Hütter and Schneider’s attention shifted to digitising their back catalogue and, later, returning to the live arena.
For the most part Schütte eschews a biographical approach, denigrating Flür’s gossipy memoir I Was a Robot. So the reader gets only a limited sense of the personalities behind the band, and it remains unclear whether Kraftwerk’s relative silence post-1981 is due to indolence or a strategy of mystery-building to drive boxset sales. (Here’s Flür on the bike-obsessed Hütter and Schneider: “They would prefer to study cycling catalogues … than think up ideas for new songs.”)
Perhaps it’s best to take Kraftwerk at face value: as a corporation whose business is industrial design, and which is engaged in an ongoing process of perfecting its product. That ambition has recently been realised in their impressive live shows, which have been held in museums, art galleries and airports, complete with the highest-tech 3D visuals.
On tour in the 1970s the band had difficulty reproducing their music in a concert setting. Equipment would break down, and for years they never played live at all. But Kraftwerk kept going and technology finally caught up.
• Kraftwerk by Uwe Schutte (Penguin Books Ltd, £9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.