How Kraftwerk Made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The word “sem­i­nal” does a lot of work in expres­sions like “sem­i­nal band/album/track, etc.” Yes, it’s an adjec­tive denot­ing “major­ly influ­en­tial,” even “essen­tial.” It’s also an adjec­tive relat­ing direct­ly to the male repro­duc­tive sys­tem. The con­cep­tu­al use of the term does not nec­es­sar­i­ly exclude women, who can per­fect­ly well be said to “seed” artis­tic move­ments. But it does sug­gest that cre­ativ­i­ty is an inher­ent­ly mas­cu­line act. To take a broad­er view, we could say that art is non-bina­ry; it includes all of the gen­er­a­tive prin­ci­ples involved in the act of cre­ation, includ­ing ges­ta­tion, birthing, and nur­tur­ing new art forms.

In this vein, we might call Ger­man elec­tron­ic pio­neers Kraftwerk a “sem­i­nal matrix” of musi­cal activ­i­ty, an econ­o­my of cre­ative work led by two fathers — Flo­ri­an Schnei­der and Ralf Hüt­ter  — who mid­wived a techno/electro rev­o­lu­tion, and — indi­rect­ly — through ear­ly spin-off projects like NEU!, an exper­i­men­tal post-punk/New Wave rev­o­lu­tion.

The best known of the “Krautrock” bands to emerge in the 1970s, ear­ly ver­sions of Kraftwerk includ­ed in its ranks Ger­man pro­duc­er Con­ny Plank (unof­fi­cial­ly) as well as drum­mer Klaus Dinger, and gui­tarist Michael Rother, both of whom went on to play in the afore­men­tioned NEU! and “sem­i­nal” avant-garde bands like Har­mo­nia and La Düs­sel­dorf.

In its ear­ly, anar­chic phase, “Kraftwerk’s music nei­ther ref­er­enced nor evoked the robot­ic,” writes Simon Reynolds at NPR. “They start­ed, in the final years of the 1960s, as post-psy­che­del­ic pro­gres­sives — long hair and all. (Watch their first record­ed gig in 1970 here.) In 1968, Hüt­ter and Schnei­der met at the Acad­e­my of Arts in Rem­scheid, near Düs­sel­dorf, where they stud­ied piano and flute, respec­tive­ly. Shar­ing an inter­est in impro­vi­sa­tion and avant-garde elec­tron­ics, as well as a fond­ness for The Vel­vet Under­ground, the Doors and the mul­ti­me­dia provo­ca­tions of Fluxus, they joined with three oth­er musi­cians and record­ed the album Tone Float under the name Organ­i­sa­tion.”

This ear­ly avant-garde phase con­tin­ued for a time, but once Dinger and Rother left and were replaced by Wolf­gang Flür and Karl Bar­tos, Kraftwerk began its unlike­ly climb up the charts, and into the hands of remix­ers and DJs every­where, with 1975’s Auto­bahn. “That is the point at which they went from a krautrock curio to a world-his­tor­i­cal force,” Reynolds writes, “when the sin­gle edit of the 24-minute title track became an inter­na­tion­al hit in 1975.” The song retains some instru­men­tal ele­ments from the band’s pre­vi­ous incar­na­tions — “twin­kling gui­tar and waft­ing flute fea­ture along­side synth puls­es and drum machine.”

But the meld­ing of man and machine was well under­way. “Cru­cial­ly, it was music stripped of indi­vid­u­al­ized inflec­tion and per­son­al­i­ty” — not only were Kraftwerk beyond 70s gen­der stereo­types, they were chart­ing the course for the post-human before the term had any cur­ren­cy. “We go beyond the indi­vid­ual feel,” Schnei­der told Sounds mag­a­zine. “We are more like vehi­cles, a part of our men­sch machine, our man-machine. Some­times we play the music, some­times the music plays us, some­times… it plays.” Kraftwerk may have played Ger­man stereo­types for humor in music videos and live per­for­mances, but their detach­ment was no act — their approach from the late 1970’s onward was entire­ly the oppo­site of rock and rol­l’s self (indulgent)-expression.

Why, then, does Kraftwerk belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Just induct­ed this year, their pres­ence is tru­ly indis­putable. It’s not much of an exag­ger­a­tion to say, as the Hall of Fame does, that they “are the foun­da­tion upon which all syn­the­siz­er-based rock and elec­tron­ic dance music is built.… Kraftwerk’s influ­ence can be heard in the work of David Bowie and Bri­an Eno, the synth-pop of Depeche Mode, the elec­tron­ic-rock inte­gra­tion of U2, the ‘robot rock’ of Daft Punk, the pro­duc­tion tech­niques of Kanye West, and in count­less EDM and dub­step artists.”

This is just to name a tiny sam­pling of the musi­cians influ­enced by the per­fec­tion­is­tic Ger­man four­some. The case can and has been made that for the sheer breadth of their influ­ence, Kraftwerk is more impor­tant than even the Bea­t­les to the his­to­ry of pop­u­lar music, for rather than mas­ter­ing and trans­form­ing the music of the 20th cen­tu­ry’s first half, they invent­ed the rock and roll of the future. See many more clas­sic Kraftwerk videos at this YouTube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Psy­che­del­ic Ani­mat­ed Video for Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” from 1979

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

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

Watch Kraftwerk Per­form a Real-Time Duet with a Ger­man Astro­naut Liv­ing on the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion

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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