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Music

Tracing Kraftwerk's enduring influence

You could call them the most German of German bands. Kraftwerk's innovative approach to music has allowed their sound to branch throughout many genres and trends that came after the band's first releases in the 1970s.

Perhaps unlike any other band the country has produced, Kraftwerk embodies the positive and negative sides of Germany's image abroad. The electronic pioneers from Düsseldorf are famous for innovation, exactitude and perfectionism, but equally for coldness and aloofness. The individual members of the band see themselves less as musicians and more so as technicians, sound engineers and machinists. At concerts, they like to play up their robotic image and have even put self-designed robotic puppets on stage to "play" while the band members themselves slipped unnoticed into the audience.

The electronic group has exercised worldwide influence on fellow musicians and artists: David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Moby all call themselves fans. Even Detroit's techno scene or the French electro duo Daft Punk have been and continue to be influenced by Kraftwerk's electronic experiments.

"It was clear to us that we neither grew up in the Mississippi Delta nor in Liverpool," said ex-Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos, reflecting on the group's beginnings. "If you want to develop your own sound, you have to go down new paths or at least change your perspective."

For Kraftwerk, it was the idea of machinery that opened the way to that path. And after all, the band members were never big on guitars.

A Minimoog, a monophonic synthesizer. (c) picture-alliance / Jan-Martin Altgeld

The minimoog synthesizer - one source of Kraftwerk's sound

Orchestrated noise

With synthesizers, distorters and reverberators designed partly by the group itself, Kraftwerk drew influence from the ideas of musique concrète, Italian bruitism or German composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, pushing such approaches further. Industrial noise and everyday sounds from the city or from natural environments were recorded for use in certain songs. Sometimes, the band generated them with prepared instruments and then manipulated in the studio. On Kraftwerk's debut album, crickets' chirps sound out, and the noise of tires on the road and car horns punctuate their international hit single, "Autobahn." They also used the synthesized sounds from their minimoog to imitate the sound of one car passing another.

Composer Karl Bartos has said that Kraftwerk was to music what director Rainer-Werner Fassbinder was to film: They create something novel without denying their own cultural heritage. Instead, they incorporate it in ways that are playful, humorous and ironic. One can hear aerial artillery in the song "Himmel hoch," for example - still a bold statement for German artists to make in the early 1970s.

Kraftwerk on stage in Munich Photo: Lennart Preiss/dapd

Kraftwerk on stage in Munich

With their three albums "Autobahn" (1974), "Radioaktivität" (1975) and "Trans-Europa-Express" (1977), the group rose to international acclaim. When hip-hop later emerged, some of its early proponents showed clear influence from Kaftwerk. A classic of the genre, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock," makes reference to "Trans-Europa-Express."

Kraftwerk goes pop

Kraftwerk's electro soundscapes don't just lend themselves to sampling. They also offered blueprints for the aesthetics of many of the new genres that have emerged in the last 30 years. The synth pop of the New Romantics in early 1980s Great Britain with bands like Depeche Mode, Ultravox, early Simple Minds or Human League modeled themselves in part after Kraftwerk. For Marc Almond of Soft Cell, the German musicians are the most important representatives of electro pop.

Dave Gahan Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa

Singer Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, who cite Kraftwerk as an influence

Their cold and sterile orchestrations, the distorted, robotic voices and the often terse lyrics create a unique atmosphere - a basis for the cool, hard sounds of the genre dubbed electronic body music, embodied by Belgian bands like Front 424 or Laibach from Slovenia, whose frontman Ivan Novak views Kraftwerk as the most important band of all time. Andy McCluskey of the British duo Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark goes almost as far in his praise. For him, it was a revelation when he first heard Kraftwerk's songs in the 1970s. And OMD's second album is named after the predecessor project to Kraftwerk, called "Organisation."

In the 80s, Kraftwerk achieved pop star status in Germany. Every new trickle of sound from the band brought about long articles in youth and music magazines like "Bravo" and "Feuilleton." On their album "Computerwelt" (1981), the band was already taking up the now very current theme of data protection with lyrics like, "Interpol und Deutsche Bank, FBI und Scotland Yard / Flensburg und das BKA / haben unsere Daten da" (Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard / Flensburg and the Federal Criminal Police Office / have our data there). Their work at the time also helped lay the groundwork for the minimalist sound of the techno movement that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s in Detroit.

Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark on stage (c) picture-alliance/Jazzarchiv

Andy McCluskey of OMD: "Kraftwerk was a revelation."

For Moby, who could be credited in part with turning techno into a mass phenomenon, Kraftwerk's body of work is essential. The electro and techno pioneer Karl Hyde of Underworld goes so far as to say that there is no electro band out there that isn't indebted to the musical combo from Düsseldorf.

Bauhaus philosophy

Kraftwerk's world of sound is not just shaped by minimalism and abstraction but also by visual artistry and videos. Art critics have dubbed their style retro-futurism, and it's even taken Kraftwerk into acclaimed art museums. They played eight consecutive concerts respectively at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London's Tate Gallery and the NRW Kunstsammlung in hometown Düsseldorf. The performances were accompanied by exhibitions of their videos or 3-D stage installations from their concerts, which often recall art world role models like the Russian constructivist Ei Lissitzky or the pre-war avant-garde of Kandinsky. Their use of visual technology represents a further way in which the Bauhaus philosophy of melding art and technology is making its way into the new millennium.

And the band's influence seems as palpable as ever today. The French electro duo Daft Punk, whose hit single "Get Lucky" and new album "Random Access Memories" charted all over the world, hide in public and on their album cover behind futuristic motorcycle helmets that immediately recall elements of Kraftwerk's own self-portrayals. Kraftwerk went so far as to use their robot-like puppets for press appearances and in interviews on British TV. A pop band as a system and machine - that is founding member Ralf Hütter's basic concept. Or as krautrock legend Holger Czukay once put it: the principle of foregoing the traditional band apparatus in favor of sound design.

Tips for tracing Kraftwerk's wide-ranging influence on the artists that came after the band:

Rammstein: "Das Model"
Senor Coconut: "The Robots"
Fatboy Slim: "Radioactivity"
Erdmöbel: "Das Model"
New Order: "Blue Monday"
Westbam: "Monkey say monkey do"
Depeche Mode: "Dream On"
Jay-Z: "It's Alright"
R.E.M.: "King of Comedy"

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