They are performance artists of self-parody—four stiff Teutonic robots (sometimes played by actual robots), standing behind drum machines and sequencers, pushing buttons and singing things like “Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn” and “it’s more fun to compute.” As if the Beach Boys had been reimagined from broken memory by German androids thousands of years in the future. Onstage, they match or exceed the commitment of later musical-theatrical acts they inspired like the Blue Man Group. Kraftwerk may be the most German of contributions to popular culture since Wagner.
For all their computerized industrial campiness, they really did come from the future, or they either anticipated or invented it, depending on your point of view. Kraftwerk (meaning “power station”) “essentially created the sonic blueprint from which the British new romantic and techno-pop movements arose, and provided the essential technology for much of hip-hop,” writes the Trouser Press Record Guide.
In addition to birthing Depeche Mode and Soft Cell’s synth pop and the smooth robo-funk of Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal “Planet Rock,” the band built the architecture of post-punk, techno, acid house, and Britpop with their experiments throughout the 70s and 80s, including the infamous “Autobahn.”
Kraftwerk began as two long-haired students, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, who met in Dusseldorf in 1969, playing experimental music with electric, acoustic, and electronic instruments and with a variety of musicians, including guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger. In Dinger’s pounding, repetitive drumming, they found their mekanik sound as early as 1970 (above), but had not yet transitioned into pop, or the clean-cut suit and tie look, until fully absorbing the influence of British artists Gilbert and George and receiving the guidance of superproducer Conny Plank. The early incarnation of Kraftwerk—along with other so-called early “Krautrock” groups like Can, and especially Rother and Dinger’s hugely influential, if obscure, NEU!—created the scaffolding for bands from Joy Division to Suicide to Sonic Youth to Stereolab (and the hundreds and hundreds of bands those bands inspired).
The driving “motorik” beat played by Dinger, and later by a drum machine, has been described by Brian Eno as one of the three great beats of the 70s, next to Clyde Stubblefield’s funk and Tony Allen’s Afrobeat. But the band’s other, song-oriented elements are just as influential for different reasons. In “Autobahn,” they use a more typical beat, slowed to a leisurely cruise. Their deadpan sprechgesang over an entirely synthesized pop composition set the template for generations. “They were the first band to embrace modern technology—not only in the instruments they played, but in the subject matter of their songs,” William Cook writes at The Spectator, who argues that the “po-faced kraut-rockers have become the most influential pop group of all time.”
While “today urban alienation is a common theme in pop music… back in the 1970s they seemed so avant-garde, it was almost impossible to take them seriously.” Those who know little of their legacy may still find this to be the case. A stiff satirical joke playing with German stereotypes as much as Monty Python telegraphed broadly hilarious versions of Englishness. But they are not soulless pranksters, but brilliant musicians whose finest work—like 1981’s “Computer Love,” from the album of the same name—is “cold, clean and clear—and wonderfully harmonious.” These haunting songs contain all of the ennui of the internet-dating age, before the internet (“I call this number / For a data date.”), the musical forebear of Her.
Cook argues that Kraftwerk did “more to shape modern music than anything since the Beatles,” an idea he shares with many other critics, such as the L.A. Times’ Randall Roberts, who names 1977’s “Trans Europe Express” as “the most important pop album of the last 40 years” and the “first high-art electronic pop record.” Looking on the album’s cover like computer programmers on their way to the prom, Kraftwerk, Roberts insists, was as influential as the experiments of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak around the same time. Dismiss these seemingly hyperbolic comparisons if you will, but consider the fish who do not know what water is. If you were born in the mid-seventies or later, there’s never been a time in your life when you haven’t heard the elements of Kraftwerk’s alienated, ultra-modern, and—at its best, a little tongue-in-cheek—sound coming from car, home, dance club, or shopping mall speakers.
So much more than a novelty act, the band created the gorgeous sounds of European electronic pop that defined the 80s, especially with singles like “Computer Love” and “Tour de France.” Their stylish revolution never stopped, though they withdrew for a few years only to return in the 90s and 2000s with fully updated sounds, and always with a perfectly synchronous vision. When Schnieder briefly left to pursue a solo career, The Independent remarked, “it has apparently taken Schneider and his musical partner Ralf Hütter, four decades to discover musical differences.” They have continued to tour, now in light-up, neoprene bodysuits, like robot surfers, who might be mistaken for Daft Punk or any number of other similar major dance music superstars…. Except that Kraftwerk got there first, and, many a die-hard fan would argue, did it best.