There are few bands whose influence was such that one can unequivocally say that modern music would sound any different without them. Kraftwerk, co-founded by Florian Schneider, whose recent death at the age of 73 was announced on May 6, was one such act. The group has left an indelible mark on the sound of popular music by bringing synthesized instruments to the fore and electronics to the mainstream.
Schneider trained as a flautist at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, which may seem like an odd journey for a musician whose work was so instrumental in shaping synth-pop and electronic dance music of the 1980s and beyond. But he and his bandmate Ralf Hütter – a former student of the same music school – illustrated an exploratory approach to musical creation that crosses musical fields.
Originally emerging from an experimental environment, their first albums were free-form improvisations that mixed electronic and traditional instruments. Along with other German electronic groups, including Can and Neu !, they came to represent “krautrock” (as English critics called it) or “Kosmische Musik” (“cosmic music”, a term used by German musicians. ).
The big breakthrough for Kraftwerk (the name means “powerhouse”) came with the 1974 release of their fourth album Autobahn. The title song was a sound representation of the modernity of long-distance motorway travel in their native Germany. Imbued with the sound effects of cars and horns, you could find distant echoes in the lyrics of the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry driving songs. The album was a Top 10 hit in Germany, the US and the UK, with a radio edit of the title track – lasting 21 minutes on the album – confusing expectations in ranking as a single in UK, US, Australia and the Netherlands. .
Although some acoustic instruments can still be heard, Autobahn sees the formation of the group stabilize around Schneider, Hütter and percussionists Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. His sound crystallized into something precise, evocative, human and yet at the same time strange, set on rhythmic grooves created with personalized electronic instruments.
While subsequent albums including Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine performed respectably – if not mind-boggling – in the commercial realm, Kraftwerk’s real impact was not so much to make its way into charts than to expand the parameters of popular music. music and opening the ears of a generation of innovators to new possibilities. David Bowie’s late 1970s albums recorded in Berlin were heavily indebted to Kraftwerk, and he checked his co-founder’s name on Heroes’ V-2 Schneider.
Electronically synthesized instruments were not new, but had often been seen as the preserve of experimenters on the fringes of the trade, soundtrack artists in the more rarefied surroundings of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or some sort of novelty. Their presence in rock music was tolerated, but rarely celebrated or centralized until Kraftwerk.
Schneider and Hütter paved the way for pop that used electronics as a base rather than a garnish, and paved the way for people like Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, and the Human League in the 1980s.
But their shadow was much wider than the straight line of synthesized pop. The accuracy of their tracks and their sonic uniqueness made them ideal fodder for the sampling that was emerging as a recording practice. Their songs Numbers and Trans-Europe Express served as the backbone of Afrika Bambaata’s Planet Rock with hip-hop roots. Likewise, techno pioneer Derrick May has been explicit about their considerable influence in shaping the genre. He will recall their popularity with the techno initiators in Detroit: “They were doing this stuff that came from another planet… everyone got hooked on Kraftwerk.
Enrich the sound vocabulary of pop
The key to their impact, and their work, was that they operated tangentially to the world of pop, as they did with the world of classical music. Their robotic stage act allowed them to avoid the celebrity game and the group, Schneider in particular, tended to be reluctant to give interviews in the following years. Running their own studio: Kling Klang – their “electronic garden” as they called it – as well as control of their business affairs allowed them to exercise aesthetic autonomy. As they told biographer Pascal Bussy in 2004:
We have invested in our machines, we have enough money to live on, that’s all. We do what we want, we are independent, we do not do coke ads, even if we could have been flattered by such proposals, we never accepted.
Their emphasis was on building sound, first and foremost, with an omnivorous approach to source materials and subjects. “We make compositions from everything,” Hütter told journalist Sylvain Gire. “Everything is permitted, there is no principle of operation, there is no system.” The mass appeal, it turned out, was a by-product.
There’s a certain degree of irony in a band so tangentially concerned with pop that is definitely reshaping it. Their singular approach has yet to be reproduced, although its echoes resonate through pop, rock and dance music.
What makes them distinctive is that they not only found themselves at the crossroads between different generic approaches, but discovered these paths, expanding the sound vocabulary of popular music and revealing its limitless ability to incorporate new ideas.