The Case for Why Kraftwerk May Be the Most Influential Band Since the Beatles

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kraftwerk’s First Con­cert: The Begin­ning of the End­less­ly Influ­en­tial Band (1970)

Kraftwerk Plays a Live 40-Minute Ver­sion of their Sig­na­ture Song “Auto­bahn:” A Sound­track for a Long Road Trip (1974)

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Per­formed by Ger­man First Graders in Adorable Card­board Robot Out­fits

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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