I would have called this article “Kraftwerk were the greatest band of the 70s”, but I’ve already passed that accolade onto someone else. Fair enough as well – still, being the penultimate musical outfit of an entire decade is pretty cool. And Kraftwerk deserve it as well.
Let’s get the basic bio shite out of the way: Florian and Ralf met in Dusseldorf in the late 60s, and the two decided to form a band together. They were highly influenced by the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and wanted to incorporate Stockhausen’s ideas about synthesised instruments in a classical context within the burgeoning rock culture. What the two students came up with remains one of the most influential collaborations in the history of music. They had relatively instant success as well: their first song with vocals, “Autobahn”, got to number 11 in the UK and number 25 in the US in 1975, which given how alien it sounded from every other record made in 1975, is pretty amazing.
That’s the thing about most Kraftwerk songs: they sound way ahead of their time. This is in part a backward echo – they were the single biggest, by a country mile, influence on 80s British pop as well as 90s dance music. Essentially the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” is just another step down the commercial road from Kraftwerk’s output; in other words, you could draw a straight line between the Human League’s number one in 1981 and Stockhausen’s “Gesang Der Junglinge”, and Kraftwerk’s 70s output would sit very comfortably right in the middle. You can hear the link between Stockhausen and Kraftwerk, as well as Kraftwerk and Human League, and yet the British 80s pop act and Burg Modrath’s finest sound nothing like each other. Kraftwerk are like the missing link – without them, nothing makes sense.
They were, as I said, a huge influence on both 80s and 90s dance pop – and thus by association, all music made in this genre since. The idea that a West German group that wished to advance the ideas of one of the strangest composers of 20th century music could be the mould for most commercial music made post-1980 is a charming one. A group that thought so little of the vocal contribution to their oeuvre, they didn’t bother to get a lead singer, despite the fact that neither Florian nor Ralf can really sing.
The best thing about Kraftwerk, however, is that despite being able to hear their huge footprint on all subsequent electronic pop, they don’t really sound like anyone else, ever. It’s the great paradox about the band. Within them you hear every subsequent dance act – and yet, when you hear one of their songs, you can instantly tell it is them and no one else.
Their best album is either “Trans Europe Express” or “Man Machine”, I can’t decide which – either is a good starting point should you wish to understand what they were all about. But all of their albums from the 70s are great.
I wanted to close on some profound political point to either tie everything together, or to excuse the fact that I’ve written this on holiday and need a break from the Westminster grind. Something about the EU referendum, the Greeks v the Germans, Angela Merkel, Nigel Farage and how it all relates back to “Showroom Dummies”. But I can’t, so here we are. Kraftwerk were brilliant – that’s it really.
David Dalley says
Some old 1970s Doctor Who episodes are currently being shown on an obscure Freeview channel. The sound effects used in those episodes put me in mind of Kraftwerk. So which came first… Kraftwerk… or Doctor Who? They used showroom dummies in Doctor Who too.