There are few bands whose influence was such that it could be said unequivocally that modern music would sound different without them. One example is Kraftwerk, co-founded by Florian Schneider, whose recent death at the age of 73 was announced on May 6. The band left an indelible mark on the sound of popular music by bringing synthesized instruments to the fore and electronics into the mainstream.
Schneider trained as a flautist at the Düsseldorf Conservatory, which may seem like a strange journey for a musician whose work did so much to shape the synth-pop and electronic dance music of the 1980s and beyond. But he and bandmate Ralf Hütter – an alumnus of the same music school – exemplified an exploratory approach to music-making that cuts across musical realms.
Initially coming from an experimental background, their first albums were free-form improvisations mixing electronic and traditional instruments. Along with other German electronic groups, including Can and Neu!, they came to represent “krautrock” (as English critics dubbed it) or “Kosmische Musik” (“cosmic music”, a term used by German musicians).
Kraftwerk’s (the name means “powerhouse”) big breakthrough came with the 1974 release of their fourth album Autobahn. The title track was a sonic representation of the modernity of long-distance autobahn travel in their native Germany. Steeped in the sound effects of cars and car horns, you might find distant echoes in the lyrics of catchy songs by the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry. The album was a Top 10 hit, in Germany, the US and the UK, with a radio edit of the title track – 21 minutes on the album – confusing expectations by charting as a single in the UK, USA, Australia and the Netherlands. .
Although some acoustic instruments could still be heard, Autobahn saw the band’s line-up stabilize around Schneider, Rutter and percussionists Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. His sound crystallized into something precise, evocative, human and yet strange at the same time, laid over rhythmic grooves created with custom electronic instruments.
While subsequent albums, including Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine, performed respectably – if not earth-shatteringly – in the commercial realm, Kraftwerk’s real impact was not so much in forging its way through the charts than expanding the parameters of popular music. music and open the ears of a generation of innovators to new possibilities. David Bowie’s late 1970s Berlin-recorded albums were heavily indebted to Kraftwerk, and he verified 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 commerce, of soundtrack artists in the more rarefied surroundings of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, or as something of a novelty. Their presence in rock music was tolerated, but rarely celebrated or centralized until Kraftwerk.
Schneider and Rütter paved the way for pop that used electronics as a base rather than a garnish, and paved the way for Gary Numan, Depeche Mode and the Human League in the 1980s.
But their shadow was cast much wider than the straight line of synthesized pop. The accuracy of their tracks and sonic distinctiveness 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 at the roots of hip-hop roots. Likewise, techno pioneer Derrick May has been explicit about their far-reaching influence in shaping the genre. He would recall their popularity with Detroit’s techno initiators: “They were doing this thing that was from another planet…everyone was hanging on to Kraftwerk.”
Enrich the sound vocabulary of pop
Key to their impact and their work was that they operated on the fringes of the pop world, as they had with the classical music world. Their robotic stage act allowed them to avoid the celebrity game, and the band, Schneider in particular, tended to be reluctant to give interviews in later years. Managing their own studio: Kling Klang – their “electronic garden” as they called it – as well as mastering their 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 can do what we want, we are independent, we don’t advertise cola, even if we were flattered by such proposals, we never accepted.
Their focus was on building sound, first and foremost, with an omnivorous approach to sources and subjects. “We make compositions out of everything,” Hütter told journalist Sylvain Gire. “Everything is permitted, there is no operating principle, there is no system.” Mass appeal, it turned out, was a byproduct.
There is an element of irony in a group so tangentially preoccupied with pop that is definitely reshaping it. Their singular approach has yet to be replicated, though its echoes resonate in pop, rock and dance music.
What sets them apart is that they were not content to stand at the crossroads of different generic approaches, but discovered these paths, expanding the sound vocabulary of popular music and revealing its limitless capacity to incorporate new ideas.
Adam Behr, Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.