Sound Screen’s Spotify Sunday: Die Mensch-Machine
Kraftwerk are the very definition of pioneers. Denying Kraftwerk their achievements in the wider scope of modern music would be a travesty.
Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider are the pair who set down the building blocks of what is arguably Germany’s most famous band. Based in Düsseldorf and beginning in earnest with the self-titled Kraftwerk album in 1970, the pair worked through Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian in ’72 and ’73 respectively before finding their feet. Indeed, the pair don’t consider their three early works to be part of the classic Kraftwerk canon.
Their real breakthrough came with Autobahn in 1974, an album featuring their longest track – the unsurprisingly-named ‘Autobahn’ – that lasts for the best part of 23 minutes. It documents a journey made the country’s first motorway between Cologne and Bonn and plays heavily on the band’s obsession with technology.
In it, the pair address the car’s horn, the radio tuning, the movement between the lanes and, in particular, the monotony of the voyage. It’s a stunning piece of work that you could give to pretty much anyone and they’d be able to interpret most of what Kraftwerk aim to achieve in the first listen.
From there, the only way was up for the band. After the popular and tongue-in-cheek Radio-Activity hit the shelves in 1975, the biggest coup de grace for Kraftwerk was to come in the form of Trans-Europe Express in 1977. It involved the accepted (and best) line-up in the band’s history as both Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür worked with Ralf and Florian at the now-famous Kling Klang Studios. With bulletproof top-score reviews, it’s probably the most celebrated work of the band and needs exploring.
It was around this time in the 70s that Kling Klang became a centre of reclusiveness for the group. A cracking and well-documented story involves Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who later went on to work with Karl Bartos as a session guitarist. He explained in an interview that if you got in touch with Kraftwerk at Kling Klang, it had to be done at a specific time when Ralf would answer without hesitation. The theory was that phones caused noise pollution, so they had turned the ringer off. They also refused to work with him. Fair enough.
Perhaps the highlight of Kraftwerk’s career came in 1978 with The Man Machine, known as Die Mensch Machine in Germany and receiving both German- and English-language treatment. Perhaps the strangest thing is that it seems to be stronger without its mother tongue, though that point can be argued forever.
Nonetheless, it spawned some amazing songs and is perhaps the only album of theirs that’s faultless from start to finish. The most famous tune is ‘The Model’, which went on to be covered by bands as diverse as Rammstein, The Cardigans, The Divine Comedy and Seu Jorge. ‘The Robots’ is remarkably intimidating and is perhaps backed up in that sense with a creepy (yet excellent) video. ‘Neon Lights’, the longest song on the album, was later destroyed unceremoniously by Bono and U2 but probably stands as one of the most relaxed offerings to date from Kraftwerk.
Computer World (1981) spawned the top-notch ‘Computer Love’ (which would later be sampled on Coldplay‘s ‘Talk’), as well as the frightening ‘Numbers’ and the hilarious ‘Pocket Calculator’. What makes it better is they likely recorded the latter with straight faces, and that makes it funnier.
Techno Pop/Electric Cafe saw the beginning of the end for the four-piece as they were known and loved. It wouldn’t be until 2003, with the help of Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz, that Ralf and Florian would complete the Tour de France Soundtracks, featuring a rehash of their original 1983 single simply entitled ‘Tour de France’, finishing the offering on a high.
Since then, nothing’s really happened. Aside from a few compilations and the wonderful live effort through Minimum-Maximum, there are no plans for the future. Florian has since left too, meaning only Ralf remains from the original outfit. The much younger Stefan Pfaffe, who’s only 31, bears the torch on his predecessor’s behalf.
While the likes of Gary Numan, The Human League, Depeche Mode, New Order and Joy Division have openly stated that they’ve profited from the architecture laid down by the German four-piece, there’s much more to their work than that.
Without them, the electro movement would have been stunted at best. A world without Kraftwerk would have also likely hit the hip-hop and sampling movements as we knew them in the 1980s, given they either created or inspired the creation of some of the greatest songs of the period.
Afrika Bambaataa‘s epic ‘Planet Rock’ is perhaps the best example of direct sampling, using ‘Trans Europe Express’ to its fullest. Other artists of the period, and even now, have taken the tiniest of samples to give the biggest injections into their songs.
It’s hard not to see why they’ve done this. Kraftwerk are brilliant and will likely outlive any other name in German music well after the apocalypse wipes us all out. If it’s a robot takeover akin to The Matrix, it might work out quite nicely; Kraftwerk would give a cracking soundtrack to it. It may make the mutilation and wanton death almost worth it.
By Matt Gardner
Full track listing:
The Man Machine
Tour de France
Trans Europe Express