Postwar Germany was quickly rising from the ashes and their industry was booming. In the 1960s North Rhine-Westphalia was a densely populated and prosperous area, with Düsseldorf as its capital. The enormous area of the Ruhr, with its heavy industry nearby, had an impact on the population both economically and culturally, while all the logistics operations and headquarters lay in Düsseldorf.
At that time, popular culture was imported from the US and Great Britain, which meant their pop music and contemporary art and brash attitude. As with everywhere else in Europe, the German youth tried to emulate their Anglo-American idols and re-create the whole hippie movement.
The cultural atmosphere of the city was buzzing and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf was the epicentre of avant-garde art and attitudes. A quick roll call of its students and staff then reveals such prominent names as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. It was also attended by the photographers/artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, famous for their photographs of industrial plants; they are also recognised for starting the Düsseldorf School of Photography movement, which produced such talents as Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer.
Ralf und Florian
Ralf Hütter (b. 1946) and Florian Schneider (b. 1947) met at the Robert Schumann Hochschule in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s, where they were studying music and experimenting with improvisation. They were the sons of a physician and architect respectively and typical examples of middle-class Düsseldorfers. Being interested in music they participated in various bands and ensembles and were part of the German experimental music scene that was trying to move away from the heavy Anglo-American influence. Hütter played keyboards and Schneider transverse flute, and they were both very keen on freeform and exploring rhythms and sounds. They had a quiet and thoughtful attitude that has followed them throughout their careers and more or less became their trademark.
Teaming up with people from other groups, they created some early improvisational music pieces, hooking their instruments up electronically. Releasing early recordings that had an almost-ambient style, though always quite rhythmic, they sounded like the other experimental bands around them.
The percussion and their idea of rhythm – continuous, repetitive and driving – has been a common thread running from their first effort together on the album Tone Float, which they recorded under the name Organisation, right up until the latest Kraftwerk work.
When they first made music together there was a need to make a break from the conformity and find a new attitude. Using their strong focus they started to refine their music, to dismantle it, make it more minimalistic. They began to explore the electronic devices at hand and found them inferior, which forced them to build their own with help from specialists.
The rhythmic section was of importance, as they were moving away from all ordinary instruments. Electronic percussion pads were forever a Kraftwerk device. The song Autobahn was a good start for the band, but it was still too long and peculiar. They started to get a foothold in the music scene with their album Trans-Europe Express (1977), which contained both longer pieces but also short pop tunes, such as Showroom Dummies, which put them on the right track.
Kraftwerk was now also assisted by two percussionists, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. Having controlled everything up until then, Hütter and Schneider finally decided to let Bartos participate in the composing, too. This was a sensible move, as their next album, The Man-Machine (1978), was a hit, with tracks including The Model and The Robots. With Bartos’s help, they had finally understood how to make commercial pop tunes. This continued on their next album, Computer World (1981).
Then came a period when they reaped the fruits of their success and enjoyed themselves, becoming cycling enthusiasts in the process. After five years of troublesome recordings they were no longer really motivated to work as a group. Their 1986 release, Electric Café, was received well, but the music market was by then flooded with electronic-music acts. In fact, the competition was great, as many bands were quick to harness the ever-evolving technology and were working more swiftly than Kraftwerk.
By the end of 1990 both Flür and Bartos had left the group, the electronic percussion had been replaced by drum machines and the main work consisted of programming. They were replaced by new members who were technicians from the band’s private music studio, Kling Klang. Hütter and Schneider stagnated in their composing and just issued remixed songs and a handful of more repetitive pieces.
Always interested in art, Hütter and Schneider were intent on making good album-cover designs for the band, as can be seen from the early albums Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2, with their colourful traffic cones and the photographic work by Bernd and Hilla Becher on their gatefold sleeves, to the huge influence of the artist Emil Schult. Indeed, it was almost as though Schult was another band member, as he was involved in most of the Kraftwerk album-cover designs and was also a songwriter on some of their major hits. With Trans-Europe Express, the design concept was complete, the band standing like touched-up movie heroes from the German film studio Ufa. The artist duo Gilbert and George also seem to have been a big inspiration for their look, with many citing the artists’ performance pieces as influence, including The Singing Sculpture and Bend It, for which they appeared in impeccable suits. For the artwork for The Man-Machine, they created a mock Russian 1920s constructivist cover using the bold colours red, black and white, which gave it a slightly totalitarian feel. The late Russian artist El Lissitzky was its inspiration.
And we must not forget the Plexiglas boxes that had the band members’ names written in neon that Hütter and Schneider used in their early concerts. In 1976 Bartos and Flür’s names were included, too.
For their latest work, Kraftwerk Der Katalog 12345678, they went with a stylised version of each original album cover – simple and functional but without the artistic quality and wit of the original cover art.
The group understood that after Autobahn was a hit they could not continue to look like they did inside the gatefold sleeve of the album. They got rid of the hippie-krautrock look and started to look like their parents, which meant a slight retro feel with nice suits and short hair. They wanted to be Germans, or rather Europeans, but with a hint of the 1930s. They embraced the efficient side of Germans with a rational attitude. The image of them standing at the Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof when they launched Trans-Europe Express – wearing smart suits, white powdered faces and red lipstick – certainly shows that they had a style of their own. They were showroom dummies as opposed to the long-haired, raunchy rock bands they were surrounded by. Even the name Kraftwerk was very concrete and German. They sang in German but also in English because they wanted to sell more records.
There seemed to be a good humour to their style, which they combined with a deadpan attitude, toneless singing voices and a generally dry wit. The next step was to become robots, evidently. With The Man-Machine, the step was taken. For the song The Robots, in addition to dressing in red shirts and black ties and having short black hair, white faces and red lipstick, they also made a set of four robots. The effect set ablaze a whole youth movement, which would be labelled post-punk and synth. Even today the big fashion houses are inspired by Kraftwerk’s strict and minimal style: Versace men’s ready-to-wear “cyberpunk” collection for AW10 was a big nod to Kraftwerk’s style, and Prada has always been a fan. After this the band more or less dressed in all black, which became a trademark for the genre.
There has never been any discussion about the band members’ sex lives, probably because there is nothing to talk about. They prefer not to write about their private lives; instead, they again act as showroom dummies, showing little emotion, completely asexual. The step to becoming a robot was an even clearer message to the general public that they are machines, not human. The sexual aspect is more a fetish thing. Dressing up in uniforms and make-up and looking blasé is a classic look in clubs and fetish circles.
Of course this is purely the band’s image. The question of homosexuality has never been raised, really; in addition, it is said that Schneider has a daughter and had a girlfriend. The real story is probably that they lead quite normal lives like the rest of us, they just don’t want to flaunt their personal details in the same way American and British rock bands do. “I don’t want to be your sex object. Show some feeling and respect,” sings Hütter on Sex Object, from the album Electric Café, and I guess we have to accept that.
Ralf the Emperor
Hütter has more or less always been the leader of Kraftwerk, the one that has decided on the band’s direction, with Schneider by his side. Hütter was the one who imposed the drug and drinking ban in 1975 in order to achieve perfect performances. He was also the instigator of the cycling obsession, which took up a large part of the band’s time.
By the 2000s Kraftwerk had entered a new era of high activity, releasing Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003 (more or less variations on the single from 1983) and launching extensive world tours with new visuals for every song and digital-tech effects. The touring continued and the band participated in several festivals. This forced longtime partner Schneider to quit the band, a sad day for the hardcore fans. However, for Hütter, there was no problem – Schneider was replaced by another Kling Klang technician.
Hütter had really understood the impact that Kraftwerk had made on the music industry, that they were responsible for the whole evolution of electro and techno music. A catalogue was released with remastered albums and made available for the Spotify generation: that streamlined package called Kraftwerk Der Katalog 12345678, with 1 being Autobahn and 8 Tour de France Soundtracks. It was a smart move, probably brought on by the realisation that the possibilities to create high-quality Kraftwerk material in the future could be limited.
When Klaus Biesenbach became Chief Curator at Large at the Museum of Modern Art in New York he already had a big idea in his head: he wanted to exhibit Kraftwerk. He had been in contact with the group when he was the director at Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin and the Berlin Biennale. The show was called Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 and ran April 10–17, 2012, in The Donald B and Catherine C Marron Atrium on MoMA’s second floor.
Kraftwerk performed all of their albums in order, one each night, starting of course with Autobahn. The performances now also had a 3-D effect, which made the whole experience more powerful, with the images and numbers flying into the audience. The series was a complete success and all tickets sold out within minutes of going on sale. Indeed, this exhibition confirmed the group’s status as a conceptual-art collective, which they had always been. They had now reached a new level of immortality and Hütter, the driving force of the group, should be pleased.
More exhibitions followed at Tate Modern, London, and of course, at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, among others. The new video-installation works were displayed at Galerie Sprüth-Magers in Berlin last year – stylised music videos in 3-D. These are the works that are currently being shown in the exhibition at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. It follows the catalogue from 1 to 8, showcasing one song from each album. The band have also played four 3-D concerts at a nearby venue in Stockholm to accompany the exhibition.
The only original band member now is Hütter; the others are Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen. Maybe Kraftwerk will continue endlessly exchanging members like android robots or invent the Kraftwerk perpetuum mobile to allow audiences of the next millennium to enjoy a Kraftwerk performance. Meanwhile, you should definitely go to the Moderna Museet and sit down in the Kraftwerk room and become one with their art.
“So what did the band do while they were in Stockholm?” I asked a museum spokesperson. “Oh, they went ice-skating every day!” came the obvious answer.
Dance Machines – From Léger to Kraftwerk; until 27th April, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Apart from the Kraftwerk Der Katalog 12345678, you should listen to the original recordings of Kraftwerk before they started to alter and modify their tracks, and especially the first three albums: Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf und Florian.
Music that inspired Kraftwerk
The Velvet Underground & Nico and White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Karlheinz Stockhausen, The Stooges, Franz Schubert, Pink Floyd, Giorgio Moroder
Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Giorgio Moroder, Yellow Magic Orchestra
Words by Axel Mörner
Artwork by Josh Hight
Special thanks to Warner Music Group