By MIKE RUBINPublished: December 4, 2009
IT was at a party in 1970 that Ralf Hütter first glimpsed the potential power of the Man Machine. Kraftwerk, the avant-garde musical group he had founded that year with Florian Schneider in Düsseldorf, Germany, was playing a concert at the opening of an art gallery, a typical gig at the time. Trying to channel the energy of the Detroit bands it admired, like the Stooges and MC5, the duo had augmented its usual arsenal of Mr. Schneider’s flute and Mr. Hütter’s electric organ with a tape recorder and a little drum machine, and they were whipping the crowd into a frenzy with loops of feedback and a flurry of synthetic beats.
As the show climaxed, Mr. Hütter recalled: “I pressed some keys down on my keyboard, putting some weight down on the keys, and we left the stage. The audience at the party was so wild, they kept dancing to the machine.”
Thus began a careerlong obsession with the fusion of man and technology. It would take four more years (and three largely instrumental records of electro-acoustic improvisation) before Kraftwerk heralded the coming of electronic pop on its landmark 1974 album “Autobahn,” and another four years before the members proclaimed themselves automatons on “The Robots,” the band’s de facto theme song from 1978’s “The Man-Machine” album. But even in 1970 the hum of what Mr. Hütter calls electrodynamics was buzzing in his veins.
“This rhythm, industrial rhythm, that’s what inspires me,” Mr. Hütter, 63, said. “It’s in the nature of the machines. Machines are funky.”
Few bands have done more to promote that once incongruous concept than Kraftwerk. Though its image shifted over the years from conservatory longhairs to Weimar-era dandies to stylized mannequin machines, it consistently provided a blueprint for the circuitry of modern pop music. David Bowie, an early adapter, channeled the band’s chilly vibes for his late ’70s “Berlin Trilogy,” and in the early 1980s synth pop groups like Human League and Depeche Mode followed suit.
Kraftwerk also became the unlikely godfather of American hip-hop and black electronic dance music, inspiring pioneers in the South Bronx and Detroit. Today Kraftwerk’s resonance can be heard in works as varied as Radiohead and the Auto-Tuned hip-hop of Kanye West and T-Pain.
“Kraftwerk were a huge influence on the early hip-hop scene, and they basically invented electro, which has had a huge influence on contemporary R&B and pop,” the techno artist Moby said. “Kraftwerk are to contemporary electronic music what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are to contemporary rock music.”
Yet 35 years after “Autobahn” Kraftwerk remains relatively anonymous, thanks largely to a carefully crafted cloak of secrecy, one that an hourlong phone conversation last month with Mr. Hütter from Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang Studio outside Düsseldorf failed to penetrate significantly. On topics ranging from the band’s creative hibernation of the last quarter-century (only two albums of new material since 1981’s “Computer World”) to Mr. Schneider’s departure from the group late last year, Mr. Hütter was pleasant but revealed little. “It’s important for me that the music speak for itself,” he said.
This month the music should do just that with the release of “The Catalogue” (Astralwerks/EMI), a boxed set of newly remastered versions of the band’s last eight albums, beginning with “Autobahn” and including all of the records with the so-called classic Kraftwerk lineup: Mr. Hütter, Mr. Schneider and the electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos. (Five of the remastered albums are also available individually.) Like Mr. Hütter’s infrequent interviews, “The Catalogue” doesn’t divulge much that fans don’t already know. There are no liner notes, no unreleased tracks, no digital mini-documentaries, just some additional photos and revised album graphics.
The music, however, is much more generous. The remasters render Kraftwerk’s glistening, icy textures even more shimmering and crystalline, the repetition more entrancing. “Autobahn,” for example, welds a bouncy Beach Boys harmony to the hypnotic 4/4 motorik beat pioneered by the German band Neu! (whose Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were part of an early Kraftwerk lineup) to create a 22-minute synthesizer symphony evoking a pleasant highway drive. (A three-minute edit of the song reached No. 25 on Billboard’s singles chart in 1975, the group’s only hit in the United States.)
“For the first time, I think the music sounds the way we always heard it and produced it in our Kling Klang Studio,” Mr. Hütter said.
After “Autobahn,” albums like “Radio-Activity” (1976) and “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) further refined the group’s experimental pop sensibility. Borrowing from the German tradition of sprechgesang, or spoken singing, Mr. Hütter’s flat, affectless voice — sometimes treated with a vocoder to further dehumanize it — is an odd match for the band’s lilting music-box melodies. “What I try to do on the synthesizers,” Mr. Hütter said, “is sing with my fingers.”
But for some critics the group’s synthetic songs just didn’t compute. “Fun plus dinky doesn’t make funky no matter who’s dancing to what program,” Robert Christgau wrote of “Computer World” in The Village Voice. “Funk has blood in it.”
Such distinctions didn’t seem to matter to club crowds: New York’s downtown scene embraced the group. François Kevorkian, a D.J. at underground clubs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, would use Kraftwerk to blend tracks by Fela Kuti and Babatunde Olatunji into his sets. “What was really remarkable was that their music was getting played just as much at Paradise Garage as it was getting played at the Mudd Club, and there were very, very few records that had that ability to cross over between all the different scenes,” said Mr. Kevorkian, who would later work with the band on its “Electric Cafe” album. “Kraftwerk was, like, universal.”
Kraftwerk had long been a staple of the D.J. sets of Afrika Bambaataa in the South Bronx, and in 1982 he and the producer Arthur Baker decided to combine the melody from “Trans-Europe Express” (which Mr. Baker had noticed kids playing on boom boxes in a Long Island City, Queens, park) and the rhythm pattern of “Numbers” (which Mr. Baker had seen wow customers at a Brooklyn record store). The result was the pioneering 12-inch single “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force.
“I’m trying to remember a record that created that much mayhem on the dance floor when it first came out, and I can’t,” Mr. Kevorkian said of the reaction to “Planet Rock.” Most early hip-hop songs were slow, “from 90 beats per minute to 110,” Mr. Bambaataa said. “We went to 130 beats per minute, and from that came Latin freestyle, Miami bass and all that.”
“All that” encompassed an entirely new genre, electro, which paved an alternate route for hip-hop. It’s hard to imagine the productions of Timbaland or the Neptunes without the innovations of “Planet Rock,” and its repercussions can still be heard the world over, from Bay Area hyphy to Brazilian baile funk.
The roots of techno wind their way back to Düsseldorf too. In Detroit the radio D.J. Charles Johnson — better known as the Electrifying Mojo — built a fervent following on the urban contemporary station WGPR-FM in the late ’70s and early ’80s by ignoring the rigid formatting of other local stations. He had fished a copy of “Autobahn” out of the discard bin at a previous station and soon acquired a copy of “Trans-Europe Express.” “It was the most hypnotic, funkiest, electronic fusion energy I’d ever heard,” Mr. Johnson said. Kraftwerk became a staple of Mojo’s show “The Midnight Funk Association.” When “Computer World” came out, Mr. Johnson played almost every song on the album each night, making a lasting impression on a generation of musicians.
“Before I heard ‘The Robots’ I wasn’t really using sequencers and I was playing everything by hand, so it sounded really organic, really flowing, really loose,” the Detroit D.J. and producer Juan Atkins said. “That really made me research getting into sequencing, to give everything that real tight robotic feel.”
Over the next several years Mr. Atkins, along with his high school friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, would become the pioneers of techno, which Mr. May once famously described as being “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”
Techno would eventually explode internationally in 1988, with raves in London and trance in Goa, India. Back in Detroit, “Computer World” would assume the status of a sacred text. Kraftwerk was “considered like gods,” said Carl Craig, a Detroit techno producer. “Black people could relate to it because it was like James Brown. It was just this kind of relentless groove.” Mad Mike Banks, founder of the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance, said he considered the song “Numbers,” from “Computer World,” the “secret code of electronic funk.”
“That track hit home in Detroit so hard,” Mr. Banks said. “They had just created the perfect urban music because it was controlled chaos, and that’s exactly what we live in.”
For Kraftwerk it’s a civic connection that has come full circle. In the last decade Mr. Hütter has developed relationships with some Detroit artists he inspired, including Mr. Banks. It seems to be a kind of “brotherhood, like Düsseldorf and Detroit,” Mr. Hütter said, saying he’s fascinated “that this music from two industrial centers of the world, with different cultures and different history, suddenly there’s an inspiration and a flow going back and forth. It’s fantastic.
“All this positive energy, this feedback coming back to me, is charging our battery, and now we’re full of energy. It keeps my Ralf robot going.”
Indeed, compared with Kraftwerk’s near invisibility throughout most of the ’80s and ’90s, the last few years have seen a relative flurry of Kraftwerk activity. Laptops have allowed the group to take its Kling Klang Studio on the road, so it has been touring regularly, adding 3-D graphics to the live show this year. Now that “The Catalogue” is completed, Mr. Hütter has promised a new Kraftwerk album soon, which would mark the band’s first recording without Mr. Schneider. If Mr. Hütter has any reservations about working without his musical partner of four decades, he kept them to himself; perhaps robots are incapable of showing emotion?
“There’s so much to do,” Mr. Hütter said. “I feel like we are just starting.”