Electronic music over the years, in its many forms has been significant to the music industry and music culture as a whole. In recent years, several subgenres have sprouted from all over the globe from various bands and musicians. All of these acts of today can be traced back to one of the most, if not the most important band in Electronic music, Kraftwerk.
Formed in Dusseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, West Germany, Kraftwerk began when Florian Schenider and Ralf Hutter met in the late 1960s at a local college for aspiring musicians called the Robert Schuman Hochschule. It was around this time that the two musicians were participants in Germany’s new “Krautrock” scene. Krautrock, the name itself, was based around a combination of the word “kraut” which was an offensive slur used during World War 1 and World War 2 towards German soldiers and of course the term and genre of “rock” music. The genre was a sound of rock, progressive rock elements, jazz and electronics. This sound exploded in Germany and was very popular in the country’s underground music scene. Bands such as Faust, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel were early acts of the genre but Kratwerk were soon to follow. It was also around this time that Schenider and Hutter were part of the band Organisation. The band operated under the Krautrock genre and released only one album, 1969’s Tone Float. After being dropped from RCA, the two musicians went on to form Kraftwerk.
In November 1970, Ralf and Florian along with producer Conny Plank, produced the debut self titled album, Kraftwerk. an all instrumental effort, was filled with the characteristics of Krautrock but the sound was all Kraftwerk. Schenider’s instrument of choice the flute, was not played ordinarily. With the use of modulation, tape echo effects and a pitch converter to give it a bass sounding effect.
Other members of the band, Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger departed the group after this album and went on to form another seminal band in the Krautrock genre, Neu!
1974 saw the release of Kraftwerk’s fourth studio album Autobahn. Based on the experience of driving along an autobahn (a German freeway without a federal instituted speed limit), Kraftwerk’s Autobahn was an album that had the signature style of the band’s previous works but the sound overall for the album was fuller. Ambience, funk and catchy synths were part of the record. The title track, which had a length of 22 minutes, was also one of the first tracks where the band used sung vocals, plus they were used with vocoder processing, which is what some refer to today, as Autotune. Ralf Hutter spoke of the track’s catchiness being influenced by American pop/surf rock act, The Beach Boys. The song proved to be a top-hit worldwide and in the states on the Billboard 200.
After the newfound success and attention the band received from Autobahn, guitarist Klaus Roder departed the group and the rest of the members began work on 1975’s Radio-Activity. Joined by new electronic musician, Karl Bartos, the band along with Wolfgang Flur, recorded the album in Kling Klang studios. The studio was owned by the band themselves, was constructed with well placed insulation and full of gear that would make most electronic musicians green with envy. The Moog Micromoog being one of the instruments that was used a lot for the record.
Released in the fall of that year, Radio-Activity, produced soley by Ralf and Florian, is a concept album that is based on radio communication, quasars, space and human relation to the aforementioned futuristic elements. Radio-Activity was more darker if you will, and the sound was more spacey and futuristic. The krautrock sound the band was responsible for ushering in years prior to this album was scaled back for a more experimental and proggy approach. Radio-Activity was received fairly well from fans and critics but some felt the band should have went back to the catchy sound of Autobahn.
In 1977, two years after the release of the highly conceptual and experimental Radio-Activity, the band recorded and released one of the most acclaimed efforts in their catalog, Trans-Europe Express. Continuing with the approach of something themed and conceptual the album was based on two things: the championing and celebration of European culture and the differences of human reality and image. Trans-Europe Express marked another notable departure from the band’s Krautrock roots and was more electronic, hooky and accessible. Known for their dry and sometimes sarcastic humor, the cover for the album had the band dressed in tailored suits and with expressions that were made to mimic mannequins. The title track for the record, with robotic processed vocals, dramatic strings and an uptempo groove was based on the rail system in Europe and technology in general. Ralf Hutter spoke of meeting David Bowie during the making of the record and being inspired.
The Man Machine was the next daring and complex gem in Kraftwerk’s discography and is also one of the band’s most famous records. Moving forward with the lineup from Trans-Europe Express, the band worked in their Kling Klang studio for the recording and production of the album and released it in 1978. With the electronic elements from the last two records, the catchiness and mainstream appeal of New wave as well as Synth-pop was all throughout the album. The themes of technology and human relation to technology recurred on this album but the sound was overall dancey and less darker. This album was also well received and his considered to be among some of the best of the band’s material.
Three years later, after The Man Machine, Kraftwerk dropped Computer World.
The 1981 album continued with the bands tongue-in cheek view of technology but this album was more about the world they prophesized on Radio-Activity coming to fruition. The 80s launched in the decade where computers were becoming very prevalent in society. Even though music in the 70s’ was based around synthesizers, the synths were more amplified and popular arund this time with Hair/Glam bands and Progressive rock bands also. Drum machines were also even more in use around this time. Computer World featured track such as Computer World, Computer Love, Numbers and It’s More Fun To Compute, the sound of The Man Machine was shown on the record but the sound was more…computerized. The synthpop sounds and consistent theme of technology’s place in society made this another hit album with fans and critics alike and is hailed as one of the best from the group.
I remember reading an article on Industrial music and Electronic music many years ago, sometime around 2005 or 2006 I believe, and a journalist spoke of how, if there was no Kraftwerk, there would be no Nine Inch Nails. This of course, made me do my research and seek out material from Kraftwerk, as I was and am a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails. My study of the group assured me that they are definitely influential in electronic music as a whole. UK artist Gary Numan’s 1979 hit Cars was directly influenced by the German pioneers, and that song would later be covered by the industrial metal band Fear Factory. Fear Factory, a Los Angeles metal band whose influences were electronic, industrial rock and metal, took Kraftwerk’s view of humans and technology and twisted it into something very dark, sci-fi and fierce on albums such as, Demanufacture, Digimortal, and Obsolete. Nine Inch Nails was another act influenced by the experimental nature of the band, but there was another band in particular who drew great influence from Kraftwerk. Berlin, Germany metal/industrial/darkpop act Ramsmstein are more musically influenced by metal and industrial music but their uniform-like stage presence along with the band’s sarcastic and often dry and sometimes offensive humor can, in my opinion, be traced back to the Krautrock pioneers. Depeche Mode and Daft Punk are also acts that were inspired by the band’s synthpop and new wave sounds.
As a huge fan of electronic music, whether it be industrial, trip-hop, house or dubstep, I always welcome the sound of acts that I’ve never known about and I give them my full attention and I listen. I have to give major credit due to Kraftwerk and what they’ve done for the entire genre of electronic music as a whole and experimentation along with electronic hooks and grooves is something I live for and I give credit to Kraftwerk for that. In these current times musically, it’s easy for people to forget where all of these creative subgenres come from, but with proper research and study of the music, one should be able to see where the revolutionary sound was launched and Kraftwerk were definitely part of it.