Kraftwerk: the early days
When we look back at Kraftwerk it is easy to have no knowledge of the early days of the band, before they really were “Kraftwerk.” Springing from the formative West Germany in the 60s Ralf Hutter and Florian Schnieder worked together as far back as 1967. Their first band was called Organization and released a record in 1970. One of the YouTube clips I found was of Organization playing the Essener Pop Und Blues Festival in 1970, playing the song “Ruckzuck.” This would become the first song on Kraftwerk’s self-titled late 1970 release. The translated title is “Quickly,” and the version with the full Organization band did just that. When I saw this clip it wasn’t as shocking as the footage I will describe, but the clip did really make me think of Santana at Woodstock. Not due to anything more than the size of the band and the groove they are all laying down. The cut in clips of young Germans is also very interesting to see…watch any old WDR clips and the audiences always seem so bored with what they are seeing. Maybe perplexed is more accurate.
Kraftwerk and the follow up, the cleverly titled Kraftwerk 2 fit into a mold of musical pieces rather than songs, and my by “pieces” I mean in the classical sense of the world. Big C Classical, that is. Many of the songs on these LPs take time to build to a peak or a progression. They feel composed of many different sections that don’t really seem to interconnect. Some are refreshing and intriguing, some are not. 2 feels much darker in tone and texture than 1 yet both are surpassed by 1972’s Ralf und Florian. What a title and what an album cover! The music on this LP, side one in particular, seem to owe to the darker sounds on the previous LPs. Side Two contains the song “Tansmusik” (dance music), a light and airy song, as well as very danceable; and the track entitled “Ananas Symphonie” that breaks down in the translation to “Pineapple Symphony.” I love Hawaiian music and this, to me, is a strange amalgam of avant-garde German music with the feeling in the air of Hawaii. Slack key computer if you will. This track directly points towards the aforementioned Autobahn and the road to where we find the band today.
What I did not know or had forgotten was the period in the early 70s when Hutter left the band that the group mutated into a trio. The footage, recorded once again on German TV, just slays me and shocks me. I am still shocked, SHOCKED, that I had never seen these clips before. The footage is of a trio. Florian Schneider is playing flute on the clip, but that wasn’t what I was shocked to see. The guitar player and the drummer, just taken aback by their skill and what they added to the band, startled me. Every clip of footage I have seen of the group have been fairly similar: two to four men, Germans, standing over banks of machines playing flutes or pads the stimulate the sounds. (Look at the black and white footage of “Ruckzuck” compared to the Organization version; the B&W footage shows that Kraftwerk haven’t changed their performing habits in over 40 years) A bit of digging uncovered that this music was recorded during a time that Ralf had left the band and the band slogged on with Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger of Neu! Well, of course the sound was different, Schneider basically joined another band while keeping the band’s name; sort of like marrying your sister-in-law. But the clips did more than that; the video clips changed my schema of what Kraftwerk is. Before I had a vision of the band as a group that owed more to avant-garde classical music than to the blues or traditional rock sounds. This clip changed that thinking. The song “Kahkteen, Wuste, Sonne” (cactus, water, sun) sounds and feels like a Kraftwerk song from the era of performance. The song feels textured and propulsive without feeling over dependent on an American musical influence for easy access. Another period clip is of the song, “Reuckstoss Gondoliere,” which feels like something you would find on the first side of the first LP. Those songs, yeah, they feel like Kraftwerk in one form or fashion. The clip entitled “Koln 1971” is the song that tipped me onto my own head. It smokes, just smokes.
Even now, having re-listened to all of Kraftwerk’s music, even without detecting more of what I heard in that clip, my definition of what Kraftwerk is and was is changed. Perhaps it was more that seeing the band doing something new validated a thought in my mind that they COULD do something new and outside the realm of what I was familiar with. Many bands undergo metamorphoses that leave you looking but not recognizing what they are. Sure the footage really is of Neu! with Florian Schneider, but even that changed my vantage point. I didn’t know, no, I didn’t think he was capable of keeping up and adding something to that type of music, to the tunes. I thought of the music in such a mechanical, rigid way that seeing this long-haired German hippies totally wailing changed my own vantage points and approach to thinking about music. What this footage also did was give me fresh ears for listening to the LPs from that time frame. Midway through the song “Stratovarius” on Kraftwerk there is a churn I hadn’t heard or paid attention to before, the churn of a rhythm section, a churn I heard on the meeting of Kraftwerk and Neu!.
When I think of Kraftwerk I think of a standard bearer and an easy symbol, for Krautrock and beyond. I know that there were hundred of bands that you can label with that terminology. But I think Kraftwerk is the one people think of first yet I bet this music, is the last thing they would associate with the band.