Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Kraftwerk: a postmodern consensual hallucination

Kraftwerk are the most important music group since The Beatles and no other band has had as much influence on pop culture since. This sentiment is echoed in an article in The Observer, which declared, ‘no other band since The Beatles has given so much to pop culture.’ According to Barr (1998:2), the story of Kraftwerk ‘began just as pop culture was beginning to take shape.’ It was through self-awareness and clever control and manipulation of their image, artistic strategy, and the circumstances of this cultural milieu, which enabled Kraftwerk to provoke ‘a paradigm shift in modern music that has been unparalleled since The Beatles’ (Barr 1998: 3). Remarkably, whilst most people may not have even heard of the band, or heard their music,

without Kraftwerk, the experience of urban youth in the 90s would be radically different. There would be no contemporary dance music as we know it; and thus none of the clubs which provide our gateway into a world of synthetic melodies and machine beats every weekend; our approach to technology…would be subtly but radically reshaped and the whole fabric of futurism – both utopian and dystopian – in contemporary media would be irrevocably altered (Barr 1998: 3).

Kraftwerk are often referred to as ‘the godfathers of electronic music’ and were pioneers in the genre, but they have also had considerable influence on disco, rap, electro, synth pop – and all the varieties of pop hybrids that have since developed from these scenes. From their home in Düsseldorf, Germany, they have created a lasting legacy that has had enduring effect and has informed the development of pop culture over the last forty years or more.

The two founding members Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider met at a music improvisation course in 1968 in their home of Düsseldorf – a city closer to Belgium, Holland and France than the divided West and East Berlins. They played together in their first band Organisation; instead of playing guitars they played organ and flute. Their music was styled ‘on a heavily improvisational, sometimes chaotic, methodology which referenced jazz, high-brow avante-garde theory and the broad seam of sonic experimentalism that Aphex Twin and Squarepusher would mine more than two decades later’ (Barr, 1998: 49).

By 1970, Hütter and Schneider had set up their famous Kling Klang studio in an industrial estate in Düsseldorf ; it was this event which Hütter marks as the real beginning of Kraftwerk. According to Pattie (2011: 9), it was a fitting location for the band because, ‘in the midst of the soundscapes of the most technologically advanced area in Germany, the band created music which reflected, not the role of technology in the as-yet-unrealized future, but the integration of technology and human life in the present’ – an idea that would be properly articulated in their later concept of the Menschmaschine (man-machine). Furthermore, Pattie (2011: 9) notes, ‘Kraftwerk’s relationship to technology is bound up in their relation to their immediate environment; rather than using technology to map out an escape route towards the further reaches of the cosmos, it is used to recreate the mechanized soundscapes of the modern, industrialized city.’ This philosophy is reflected in the group’s name ‘Kraftwerk’ which means power station; the Kling Klang studio was set up almost opposite Düsseldorf ’s power station.

In the early 70s, Düsseldorf  was becoming an important hub of contemporary culture in Germany, and by the time the classic Kraftwerk line-up of Ralph Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür  was established, the group

wasn’t dissimilar to that which existed around the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Factory. Painters, writers, performance artists, musicians and designers…were all part of the loose circle which orbited the band (Barr 1998: 7).

It was because of this artistic and creative environment that Kraftwerk were able to move ahead of other groups ‘in terms of conceptuals, musical structures and imagery’ (Barr1998: 7). This was also a particularly important time in the post-war experience of Germany, and ‘an immensely exciting period of psychological change in [the nation] as the first post-war generations struggled to imprint their own identity on mainstream culture.’

Throughout Kraftwerk’s rise to prominence, music journalists were preoccupied with their German identity and discussions generally focused on two factors – that they were from West Germany and they played electronic music. According to Albiez and Lindvig (2011: 15), ‘[t]hey picked up on and amplified the links between the band’s national status – or associated Germanic or Teutonic historical stereotypes – and their use of electronic technologies’. In discussing, Autobahn, music critic Lester Bangs (1975) argued, ‘Autobahn is more than just the latest evidence in support of the case for Teutonic raillery…It is an indictment of all those who would resist the bloodless iron will and order of the ineluctable dawn of the Machine Age.’ In this way, Kraftwerk and the music they played was positioned essentially as German.

According to Barr (1998: 90), Kraftwerk were well aware of how they were being represented and suggests that they ‘deliberately [played] up to the deadly serious, straight-laced stereotypical image of Germans’. In doing so, they also played on other clichéd stereoptypes ‘by referring to how they manipulated and controlled people through technology, to the mechanical nature of the German language and by mentioning the German mentality as being “more advanced”’ (Bangs 1975). This self-awareness and irony can be seen in the following quote in which Hütter and Schneider are clearly toying with widely held Nazi-related German stereotypes concerning technological control and mastery:

When you are aware that music is a process of brainwashing and manipulation, you realise it can go also in the direction of damage. We have the power to push the knobs on our machines this way or that and cause damage…It can be like doctors with patients (cited in Albiez and Lindvig 2011: 21).

However, Kraftwerk’s satire was lost on many media commentators and one critic went so far as to invoke Nazi-era clichés suggesting the band’s so-called ‘masterplan’ for ‘world domination’ (Goldstein in Albiez and Lindvig 2011: 21).

According to Albiez and Lindvig (2011: 25), Kraftwerk ‘knowingly addressed German identity through a self-reflexive and playful representation of clichéd stereotypes.’ This attitude is perhaps most apparent in their Autobahn album which they released in 1974. Hütter and Schneider were big fans of The Beach Boys and were ‘fascinated by their ability to encapsulate an entire slice of American life inside a three-minute single’ (Barr 1998: 82). They were interested in how they could make a German equivalent and ‘[b]y using their music to celebrate German culture they would simultaneously be re-appropriating it for their own generation’ (Barr 1998: 82-83). At ths time, the autobahn was the most visible symbol and a key signifier of modern Germany.

By the 1970s, the autobahn had become a ‘potent symbol’ of Germany’s ‘economic and industrial power, but [it] also conjured up connotations of the Nazi era’ (Albiez and Lindvig (2011: 27). When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he initiated the autobahn project. Not only was it to provide better road links between cities (and later enable faster deployment of troops), but it was also an effort to bring Germany into full employment following the depression years and high unemployment of the Weimar Republic. In this way, the autobahn lent itself as the perfect cultural symbol, which for the post-war generation ‘needed to be stripped of its past associations’ and celebrated instead (Barr 1998: 83).

The lead track off the album, ‘Autobahn’, can be read as a ‘sonic representation of a journey on the autobahn’ (Albiez and Lindvig 2011: 32). At just over twenty-two minutes in length, the track moves through two distinct tempos and through the hypnotic groove and use of sound effects, mimetically represents the experience of driving along and passing other cars on the autobahn. According to Barr (1998: 84), the ‘track combined the groups experimental past with their emerging commercial sensibilities.’ The influence of The Beach Boys is also evident in the lyrics and harmonies of the song, with the chorus “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” echoing the American group’s “Fun, Fun, Fun”, although Hütter would no doubt suggest a more open interpretation.

Whilst most of their output happened between 1970-81, Kraftwerk still manage to attract sell-out shows whenever they perform. Following on from their appearance last year at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, where they played an eight show exhibition “Kraftwerk – Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8”, when it was announced they would be playing the same show at the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, the demand was so strong it crashed the ticketing system resulting in a hordes of angry fans.

Recently, as part of Sydney’s Vivid LIVE, a 10-day celebration of popular music alongside the city’s annual festival of light (Vivid LIGHT) and ideas (Vivid IDEAS), Australian fans were invited to ‘explore one of the richest histories in global sound, image culture and popular music’ with Kraftwerk performing at the iconic Opera House (Vivid website). In a rare interview, Ralph Hütter, the 66-year-old and last remaining original member (Florian Schneider departed in 2008), described the concert as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a concept also used by Wagner, which translates as ‘a total work of art’ or ‘synthesis of the arts’. ‘[It is] a whole combination,’ he said. ‘We do all of this ourselves, programming videos and programming graphics, the lettering, all the lights, and we play the individual desks…where we play different instruments and computers…It is basically a living sculpture’ (cited in Miller 2013). The idea of combining audio and visual in their art isn’t new to Kraftwerk. Back in their early touring days they were already experimenting with different aspects of performance and were projecting the slide-shows of Emil Schult ‘to add visual interest and reinforce the idea of their concerts as artistic events’ (Barr 1998: 106). Schult has been a long-term collaborator with Kraftwerk, he co-wrote some of the lyrics and is responsible for creating most of their sleeve designs since 1973, including the iconic Autobahn sleeve, and it is his artwork that is being used in the concert.

Whilst the roll call of members has changed over the years, the same basic configuration of four control desks arrayed horizontally in line across the stage remains. In order of appearance on stage from left to right the current members include: Ralph Hütter (lead vocals, vocoder, synthesizers and keyboards); Fritz Hilpert (electronic percussion, sound engineering); Henning Schmitz (electronic percussion, live keyboards, sound engineering); and Falk Grieffenhagen (live video technician).

To avoid the ticketing issues that had plagued the London gig, fans had to participate in a ballot where tickets were granted by allocation only, which according to the organisers would ‘minimise the congestion through sales channels and…fairly distribute tickets to fans across time zones, states and countries’ (Vivid website). Similarly to the Düsseldorf , New York, London and Tokyo gigs (they only played a single show elsewhere), the band would present three decades of their most innovative music in a 3D audiovisual exhibition, which ‘has redefined traditional concert motifs.’ With two shows per night, the band would present eight shows across four nights celebrating their masterworks: Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe-Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981), Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991) and Tour de France (2003). In the words of Fergus Linehan, festival director of Vivid LIVE, the ‘eight concerts are a mind-melting feast for the eyes and ears’ (Faster Louder).

As a dedicated fan of Kraftwerk, and having been involved in the electronic dance music scene for almost twenty years, I was quick to submit an application for the ticket ballot and was lucky to secure tickets for three shows: Trans-Europe-Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World. As we entered the Joan Sutherland theatre for the first show of the night we were given 3D glasses and directed to our seats in the loge which gave us an angled view down to the stage. At 7pm, the curtains were raised and the concert was efficiently underway; pity to those who were late. The four members led by Hütter and dressed in their iconic ‘Tron-esque’ suits stand in front of their respective control desks, which are outlined by neon lighting which changes colour in time with the music. At time, against the 3D backdrop of visuals the four members seem to be suspended in space.

From the first bars of ‘Trans-Europe Express’, the audience is swept away in a state of hypnotic machine-made synaesthesia and drawn into Kraftwerk’s ‘consensual hallucination’. Through the use of synthesised sound and ‘the combination of the repetition of simple motifs with new and interesting percussive elements and differing timbres and sonic effects’, the song propels the listener on a progressive journey through continental Europe (Toltz 2011: 184). Along with Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, ‘Trans-Europe Express was one of the biggest disco hits of the time (Barr 1998: 126).

It was also partly responsible for Afrika Bambaata and the Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’, which helped kick off the electro funk scene and cement rap, which would go on to inform the development and production techniques hip hop and electronic dance music. In 1982, Bambaata, who was one of the Bronx’s most influential and original DJs and who was already playing Kraftwerk’s records in his sets teamed up with Arthur Baker who had a reputation in the rap scene. Together they sampled ‘Trans-Europe Express’ from which they took the melody and put a rap over it, and with the help of a programmer, on a rented Roland drum machine, they copied the beat of ‘Numbers’. The record label was later sued for $100,000 for copyright infringement, which was simply absorbed by raising the price of the record (Barr 1998: 165-166).

Returning to the idea of a consensual hallucination, in his seminal work Neuromancer (1984), William Gibson prophetically coined the term ‘cyberspace’ well before the invention of the world wide web, which he described as a

consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators in every nation…A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding… (67).

This quote perfectly captures Kraftwerk’s futurist aesthetic and modus operandi. As self-described ‘operators’ or ‘workers’ Kraftwerk masterfully manipulate their machines to produce a shared hallucination. In an interview with Lester Bangs, Hütter said, ‘We are manipulating the audience…That’s what it’s all about. When you play electronic music you have the control of the imagination of the people in the room and it can go to the extent where it’s almost physical’ (cited in Barr 1998: 91). This sentiment is further echoed in another interview in which Hütter suggested, Kraftwerk ‘find some energy in the environment of people who come to see us and who make us play in another dimension at a higher psychological level’ (cited in Barr 1998: 195).

The Menschmaschine, or man-machine, is a philosophical and acoustic concept with Kraftwerk functioning as the ‘power plant’ (Barr 1998: 90). As Hütter has claimed, ‘The machines are part of us and we are part of the machines…They play with us and we play with them. We are brothers. They are not our slaves’ (cited in Barr 1998: 136). The concept is also implicitly political which can be seen in ‘the Russian Constructivist sleeve imagery, the group’s uniform, their insistence on their role as “music workers” and their abhorrence of the star system coalesced into a kind of utopian urban communism’ (Barr 1998: 138). These ideas were given concrete form in The Man Machine album of 1978, which was the group’s ‘most determinedly futuristic album to date’ and ‘a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that Kraftwerk were indeed the band of the future’ (Barr 1998: 134).

The album of 1981, Computer World, was the album that established the ‘blueprint for Detroit Techno’ and helped create the ‘template that was extrapolated into the future by a handful of black musicians and subsequently transmitted on to the dancefloors of the world by those they inspired’ (Barr 1998: 151). According to Sicko (1999: 24), ‘[m]any Chicago house pioneers cite the track ‘Home Computer’ as an early reference point. Likewise, electro and pre-techno artists in Detroit drew inspiration from the bizarre portamento riffs and lyrical minimalism of ‘Numbers’’, also off the album. Techno legend, Carl Craig, suggests that in Detroit the album was considered ‘a masterpiece, a work of art…Maybe it was the complexity of rhythms that made it so interesting but it worked. I think it was so stiff it was funky’ (cited in Barr 1998: 152).

Whilst the marketing pitch of the tour was that the band would be playing chronologically through each of the albums, the reality was quite different. Each show was only focused on a selection of the tracks from each respective album, with the remainder of the show taken up by greatest hits. Included in the greatest hits section of each show were tracks such as: ‘Autobahn’, ‘Radio-activity’, ‘The Robots’, ‘Man Machine’, ‘Space Lab’, ‘The Model’, ‘Neon Lights’, ‘Computer World’, ‘Numbers’, ‘Home Computer’, ‘Computer Love’, ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ and ‘Music Non-Stop’. Each show finished after each member played a solo, and left the stage one-by-one. Hütter was always the last leave, with the beat still running he would wish the audience “Good night, Auf Weidersehen”, then he too would walk to the end of the stage, bow deeply and stand with his hand across his heart as the audience continued it’s rapturous applause until the lights came on signalling the end of the trip. Over the three shows, inevitably there were repeats, but seeing Kraftwerk three times in one weekend, well who would complain?

The last word must go to Hütter which neatly sums up the democratic force of electronic dance music: ‘Electronics is beyond nations and colours,’ he said. ‘It speaks a language everyone can understand. It expresses more than just stories the way most conventional songs do. With electronics, everything is possible. The only limit is with the composer.’ Finally, ‘in front of the loudspeakers everyone is equal’ (Barr 1998: 126).

Note: this article was originally written for Plane Tree, the magazine published by the University of Melbourne's Graduate Student Association. You can view a shorter edited version of this essay herehttp://www.gsa.unimelb.edu.au/planetree/2013_Plane_Tree_No_2.shtml

Albiez, S. and Lindvig, K.T. (2011) ‘Autobahn and Heimatklänge: Soundtracking the FRG’ in S. Albiez and D. Pattie (eds) Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop. New York and London: Continuum.

Bangs, L. (1975) ‘Kraftwerkfeature’, http://www.technopop-archive.com/interview_97.php, accessed 4 June 2013.

Barr, C. (1998) From Düsseldorf to the Future (with Love). London: Ebury Press.

Faster Louder (2013) ‘Kraftwerk to headline Sydney’s Vivid LIVE’, 20 February, http://www.fasterlouder.com.au/news/local/34965/Kraftwerk-to-headline-Sydneys-Vivid-LIVE, accessed 4 June 2013.

Gibson, W. (1993) Neuromancer. London: HarperCollins.

Miller, N. (2013) ‘Kraftwerk bring 3D electropop wizardry Down Under’, 20 February,

Pattie, D. (2011) ‘Introduction: The (Ger)man Machines’ in S. Albiez and D. Pattie (eds) Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop. New York and London: Continuum.

Sicko, D. (1999) Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk. New York: Billboard Books.

The Observer (2013) ‘Why Kraftwerk are still the world’s most influential band’, 27 Jan, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jan/27/kraftwerk-most-influential-electronic-band-tate, accessed 4 June 2013.

Toltz, J. (2011) ‘Dragged into the Dance  - the Role of Kraftwerk in the Development of Electro-Funk’ in S. Albiez and D. Pattie (eds) Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop. New York and London: Continuum.

Vivid website (2013) ‘Kraftwerk – The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’, http://www.vividsydney.com/events/kraftwerk-the-catalogue-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8/, accessed 4 June 2013.

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