Last week I trawled through the YouTube and found a few clips that in no way shed a wide light on the subgenre of music that folks like me call, Krautrock. I left off clips from one band, a band that I assume anybody who hears the term Krautrock would think of: Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk, in the original German, means “power plant.” What do you think of when you think of a power plant? I think of the Board of Water & Light in downtown Lansing. Tall, made of brick and glass, looming over the Grand River. I also think of the famed Battersea Power Plant in London, which I have never seen, but famously lent its image to the cover of Pink Floyd’s LP Animals. This plant too stood ominous in the twilight, towering over the River Thames. What else do you think of when you think of a power plant? I think of an intense humming, right or wrong. Across the parking lot where I work there is a substation, steel girders and coils fenced off. On the playground you hear the lines, you hear the humming. That is what I think of when I think of a power plant.
Now flip the question. What do you think of when you hear the name Kraftwerk?
In 1995 working at Wherehouse Records I remember seeing a box set on Cleopatra Records of the three “big’ Kraftwerk LPs. My buddy Jim, a club DJ, pointed the set out to me and told me of their work and influence. I retained only the initial conversation. I never bought the set. A few years later Capitol released the discs individually and I bought a few of them. I seem to remember a loop at my apartment of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express CD and Lust for Life by Iggy Pop. This has to be from 1996, this loop. I had gotten into Bowie’s German trilogy and Iggy Pop which then led me to Kraftwerk due to some random documentary footage I had seen as well as the circular name check of Iggy and Bowie on the title track from Trans-Europe Express.
Thinking back on my discovery of Kraftwerk what drew me to the music was the chug of Trans-Europe Express. The way Bammbaataa sampled the band for “Planet Rock” and just the whole feel around that LP. The other LP of Kraftwerk that got and held my attention (and it still does to this day) was 1991’s The Mix, which saw the two founders of the band revisit their well known numbers using new, DIGITAL technology. There are melodies and sounds on The Mix that are tremendous and I always used to love that CD at the expense of their other works. That is until I heard Autobahn.
Autobahn was released in 1974 and contained the band’s first “hit’, the title track. On The Mix, and in subsequent concerts, the group shortened the length and focused on the robotic barbershop sounds of the hook. On the LP the “song” took up one side of the LP, the first side. This was not a strange concept for the band, they had been making long, long songs since the late 60s (more on that later, I promise), but the ability to turn that into a hit was. Side two contained if not more of the same then the last music link of the “old” Kraftwerk. Songs like “Kometenmelodie” (Comet Melody) and “Mitternacht” (midnight) were atmospheric, spacey pieces of music that drew you in with their fragile prettiness. When the edited version of “Autobahn” climbed the charts and was called, a “hit” it must have been earth shaking. The fact that new sounds were to be had made you question what the band were playing, to create such concrete yet lovely sounds.
The next two records released by the band were compiled in that boxed set I first laid eyes on, Radioactivity and Trans-Europe Express. Both were concept records, one about radiation and one about the railways. Not too decadent when you think about it, yet both LPs are stone classics. Of the two I now lean towards Radioactivity as a favorite. TEE is well documented and frankly a bit burned out for my tastes. The LP is brief but as a whole it is extraordinary and is such a leap in terms of being a musical statement, miles away from Autobahn.
The band’s LPs became increasingly song driven, at least within a traditional song structure. 1978’s The Man-Machine featured one of music’s prettiest songs yet it is a song that is haunting and full of wonder; “Neon Lights.” This song, as much as any song dedicated to the night, packs a sense of emotional wallop due to the synth melody and the simple, yet effective singing. Night time very rarely feels still. It does where I live, thousands of miles away from nighttime Germany, but in the presence of neon there is never silence. These lights, that hum, this song celebrates them. You stop and think about the vantage point of the song’s protagonist. Who is out at night, admiring the lights? What is their story, why are they doing so?
1981’s Computer World sounded increasingly new—newer technology, newer ways to use that technology. “Pocket Calculator”? Awesome, especially when the band would “play” the calculators in tandem with audiences in the early 80s. As club culture was growing out of the ashes of disco, the band (avid cycling freaks) released an ode to the grandpappy of bikes races, the Tour De France. The LP sounded like 1983, mimicking the pacing and breathing of an elite cyclist. It ranks high in their canon as yet another catchy, haunting melody. Plus the only words on English on the song is the title, everything else is in French. Or German, I can’t really tell.
1986’s Electric Café didn’t sound fresh in the time of it’s release and apart from The Mix the band was quiet until 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks, a whole disc’s worth of music to celebrate the Tour. Somehow the new millennium provided the group (group, who are we kidding: Ralph und Florian) with a glimmering sense of the new. The CD flows and contains some beautiful, beautiful music disguised as songs about vitamins and Elektrocardiograms. Has there ever been another band, German or not, who created such wonderful music about such mundane things?
I did not intend for this post to be about Kraftwerk, not in the sense that I am writing about now. My prior post containing German YouTube videos was a search that yielded a fair number of Kraftwerk videos. Not surprising. What was surprising to me was the in those videos I found a few that I had never seen before, from 1971, which come to think of it I might have on a bootleg LP that I’ve never listened to.
Next week, I’ll delve a bit into Kraftwerk’s formative days. See you then!