The word “unique” is over-used in music, but Kraftwerk have a stronger claim than most to the tag.
Organist Ralf Hütter and woodwind student Florian Schneider-Esleben met while they were studying improvised music in Dusseldorf, Germany.
They drew on the influence of experimental electronic forces such as composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream to create minimalist music on synthesizers, drum machines and tape recorders.
Having previously recorded an album in 1970 with Organisation (Tone Float), Hütter and Schneider formed Kraftwerk and recorded their debut album with drummers Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger. Guitarist Michael Rother and bass player Eberhard Krahnemann were subsequently recruited for live performances at art galleries.
Hütter briefly left the line-up but returned in time for the recording of a second self-titled album. During the recording of Kraftwerk 2, Dinger and Rother left to form Neu!. Produced by Conny Plank (later to work with Ultravox and Eurythmics), the bleak, Spartan music provoked little response.
After releasing a duo set, Ralf Und Florian, Hütter and Schneider-Esleben were joined by Wolfgang Flür (electronic drums) and Klaus Roeder (guitar/violin/keyboards).
Although it is their fourth album, Autobahn (1974) marked Kraftwerk’s breakthrough and established them as purveyors of hi-tech, computerised music. The title track, running at more than 22 minutes, was an attempt to relate the monotony and tedium of a long road journey on the German motorway system. An edited version reached the Top 10 in the US and UK charts.
In 1975, Roeder was replaced by Karl Bartos, who played on Radioactivity, a concept album based on the sounds to be found on the airwaves. Kraftwerk spent three years building their own Kling Klang studios in the late 70’s, complete with, inevitably, scores of computers.
Trans Europe Express (1977) and The Man-Machine (1978) were pioneering electronic works which strongly influenced a generation of English new wave acts like The Human League, Gary Numan/Tubeway Army, Depeche Mode and OMD, while David Bowie claimed to have long been an admirer.
The NME said of The Man-Machine: “It is the only completely successful visual/aural fusion rock has produced so far”.
A futuristic vision of humanity fused with technology informed both the funky title track and The Robots, another hilarious commentary on the band’s android-like image.
For the album’s launch, the band even replaced themselves with lookalike robots that ultimately became a fixture of their live shows.
The single from the album, The Model, gave the band a surprise hit when it topped the UK charts in 1982, and it led to a trio of hits, including Showroom Dummies and Tour De France, a song that was featured in the movie Breakdance (1984) and became the theme for the cycling event of the same name in 1983.
Electric Cafe was a disappointment, but Kraftwerk were now cited as a major influence on a host of electro artists from Afrika Bambaataa to the respected producer Arthur Baker.
Bambaataa and Baker’s pioneering 1982 Planet Rock single was built around samples of both Trans Europe Express and Numbers (from 1981’s Computer World).
Hütter and Schneider-Esleben remained enigmatically quiet following the release of Electric Cafe. In 1990, a frustrated Flür departed to be replaced by Fritz Hijbert (Flür later collaborated with Mouse On Mars under the name of Yamo).
Kraftwerk’s best-known songs were collected together in 1991 on the double, The Mix, aimed chiefly at the dance music market by EMI Records. “I think our music has to do with emotions. Technology and emotion can join hands . . .” said Hütter in 1991.
Kraftwerk made a surprise return to live performance with a headline appearance at the UK’s Tribal Gathering in the summer of 1997.
In December 1999, Hütter and Schneider-Esleben recorded a new single, Expo 2000, to promote the Expo 2000 European Business Conference in Hannover.
The duo’s renewed creativity bore further fruit in the new millennium when they completed their first studio album in over 15 years, Tour De France 03.
Former Kraftwerk drummer Klaus Dinger died of heart failure on 21 March 2008.
Florian Schneider passed away from a short cancer disease in April 2020 just a few days after his 73rd birthday.
Flute, violin, guitar, synthesizer