Ahead of Kraftwerk’s residency at Tate Modern, ShortList’s Mark Beaumont explores the birth of electronica and the early years that shaped a robotic rock phenomenon...
When American electrical engineer Elisha Gray accidentally noticed, one afternoon in 1876, that by (deep breath) wiring up a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit to form a one-note oscillator amplified through a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field, he could make spaceship noises that made his dog dance, he had no idea of the synthetic storm he was unleashing.
Almost 100 years later, Robert Moog launched the first modern synthesiser in 1965, allowing any Tom, Dick or Monkee to recreate the electronic drones that church organists, radio show theme writers, university boffins and avant-garde composers had been fiddling with since 1935.
It wouldn’t be long, however, before a band would successfully mate with one.
MEN OF INDUSTRY
Düsseldorf, Germany, early 1970, and the cranks, crashes and hydraulic whooshes rose from the furnaces, drifting towards the studio where a band were improvising their debut album, scrabbling around for a fresh, modern Teutonic sound.
“The studio was in the middle of an oil refinery,” recalled Ralf Hütter of his first recordings with Florian Schneider-Esleben, his eventual partner in Kraftwerk – the robo-godfathers of modern electronica. “When we came out of the door we could hear the sound of those big flames burning off the fumes – all kinds of industrial noises.”
The refinery clatter and stark aesthetics bled into the album Hütter and Schneider – both children of Germany’s post-Second World War ‘fatherless generation’ – were recording with their band Organisation, and into their identity.
Their debut Tone Float was a psychedelic freeform instrumental album full of glockenspiel pile-ups, bulbous bass and florid flutes. But at its core were relentless crashing, mechanical – almost danceable beats – which, despite there being no synthesiser, sounded like machines punching holes in the ore of electronica.
BIRTH OF KRAUTROCK
Hütter (the only founding member remaining) and Schneider met as music students at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie art school, bonding over an interest in electronic music and controversial composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.
On forming Organisation, they slipped into the burgeoning intellectual scene of young, electronic-leaning German musicians opposed to vacuous ‘flower power’. A collective – who considered themselves as performance artists rather than ‘bands’ – would play lengthy improvised shows in universities and art galleries.
Krautrock, as it would soon be tagged, had sprung that year from the 1968 Essen rock festival, where the inventions of Frank Zappa clashed with German acts such as Tangerine Dream and Amon Düül. They were politically-minded art commune outfits merging Sixties psychedelia with the surrealism of Dali and the technological innovations of the Fifties minimalist avant-garde composers such as Terry Riley and Steve Reich.
“We were very lucky,” said Hütter in Pascal Bussy’s seminal book Kraftwerk: Man, Machine & Music. “At the time, there were electronic music concerts, happenings, the Fluxus group [a neo-Dadaist experimental movement involving John Cage and Yoko Ono]. We were engaged in the artistic world. We played on the same circuit.”
It was at one such chin-stroking event that Organisation accidentally helped kick-start Can, the jazz-inflected prog wing of krautrock.
Michael Karoli of Can has spoken about these fledgling years. “I met them in the summer of 1968,” he said. “Ralf was very communicative, but Florian didn’t speak much. We were to play at the preview of a painting exhibition. We had not brought many instruments, so we played one long piece on their instruments for about 15 minutes. As far as I can remember, this was Can’s first public appearance.”
And among Organisation’s last. With the 20-minute sound collages of Tone Float failing to float the world’s, um, tone, the band split. Hütter and Schneider formed a band with two drummers, Klaus Dinger and Andreas Hohmann, and began creating a German sound rooted in the aesthetics of industry and technology.
They holed up in a studio base hidden below Düsseldorf’s red light district and began making music as Kraftwerk – German for ‘power station’.
“We didn’t have a strategy,” said Hütter, recalling this period. “We rushed into making industrial music, abandoning all other activities – our education, our classical background. It was a total rapture.”
Kraftwerk’s eponymous debut album in 1970 was synth-free, but built on repetitive psych-rock beat, doped jams and the electronic manipulation of Schneider’s flute. Replete with Doppler effects akin to falling bombs, ambient drone wobbles and crazed art freak-outs, it enthralled the krautrock scene, but ultimately embarrassed the band. At the height of their success they refused to acknowledge it existed.
During the following year the Kraftwerk line-up was fluid: Hütter left for a few months to study architecture, and Dingler and new guitarist Michael Rother absconded to form the psychedelic drone-merchants Neu!. By 1971 Kraftwerk was just Hütter and Schneider again, in need of a circuit-board saviour.
“In 1971, Kraftwerk was still without a drummer,” recalled Hütter, “so I bought a cheap drum machine [with] some preset dance rhythms. By changing the basic sounds with tape echo and filtering we made the rhythm tracks for our second album.”
With the likes of Faust, Can and Tangerine Dream forging the ‘kosmische musik’ style using synthesisers, Kraftwerk’s heads were turned tech-ward. “I found the flute was too limiting,” explained Schneider. “I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesiser. Much later, I threw the flute away.”
“Technology is no enemy to us,” said Hütter in 1975, hinting at the changes to come. “You cannot say technology is any better or worse than nature.”
If 1972’s Kraftwerk 2 inched the band to their trademark sound – “You can define it as you want,” claimed Hütter, infamously. “Sci-fi music, techno-disco, cybernetic rock, but the term I prefer is robot pop,” – 1973’s Ralf Und Florian saw them embrace prototype vocoders, trancey beats and Minimoog synths. Also, in 1973 Kraftwerk met electric violinist Emil Schult, who created rudimentary slide shows to project at gigs and help develop hydraulic visuals.
During the Seventies, Kraftwerk developed into the perfect man/machine hybrid. Following their 1974 breakthrough album Autobahn, they disappeared behind their android guises, posing robot mannequins onstage during their most famous hit The Model, refusing to do photoshoots post-1978, insisting the press print pictures of the Kraft-droids instead.
Kraftwerk’s merging of synthetic melodies, industrial pop beats and cyborg vocals would invent modern electronica and inspire everyone from Bowie to New Order, Björk to Daft Punk. But it was their dedication to splicing their DNA with diode oil and becoming the embodiment of electronic art that would see their legend and enigma downloaded throughout the decades.
‘Kraftwerk – The Catalogue’ is at Tate Modern, London from 6-14 February