Neil Young is often cited as the grandfather of grunge. To credit Kraftwerk as the grandfather of techno would be to humanize a band that likes to be thought of as part machine. Besides, Kraftwerk’s legacy encompasses a lot more than techno. Think of the band as a lab technician synthesizing the DNA that provided the code for rap, disco, electro-funk, new wave, industrial and techno — basically everything that has shifted the spotlight from guitars to studio technology in the last 20 years. Giorgio Moroder was listening to Kraftwerk when he made Donna Summer the queen of disco; David Bowie fell under the influence of the band when recording his studio-savvy late-70’s albums in Berlin; Afrika Bambaataa constructed one of rap’s first hits, ”Planet Rock,” out of two Kraftwerk songs. At the same time, British groups like Depeche Mode and New Order were adding a romantic glide to Kraftwerk songs to come up with synth pop. Even today, groups like Kraftwelt and the Elecktroids exist solely as homage to Kraftwerk.
Techno musicians are often accused of being reclusive and faceless, but as Kraftwerk’s performance at the Tribal Gathering demonstrated, it is the original faceless band. It performed its song ”We Are the Robots” without even being on stage. Instead, four legless robot bodies were lowered from a lighting rig and programmed to make mechanical movements to the music.
As with any artwork that appears years ahead of its time, the most nagging question about Kraftwerk is, Where did the music come from? The group’s albums in the mid-70’s seem to have emerged from a vacuum: no one else was doing anything similar. Unlike, say, Elvis Presley or the Beatles, who initially gained popularity playing their versions of black American rhythm-and-blues, Kraftwerk wasn’t playing its version of any musical style. Though the group seems to have been influenced by the city-as-symphony philosophy of the Italian Futurists, the studio craft of the Beach Boys and the electro-acoustic compositions of German composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel, Kraftwerk was essentially playing its version of a conceptual idea.
When the group formed as the Organisation in the late 60’s, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider (the dominant duo behind Kraftwerk) were escapees from a classical conservatory playing the progressive rock that was sweeping Germany at the time, resulting in long, spacey, psychedelic improvisations by bands like Can, Tangerine Dream and Neu!, whose members belonged to an early incarnation of Kraftwerk. The band now disavows the first three albums it recorded as Kraftwerk, which are available today only as bootlegs, and prefers to begin its history with the 1974 ”Autobahn” album, when its roots in hippie improvisation gave way to meticulous technology.
IN THE EARLY 70’s, SOPHISTICATED electronic instruments were prohibitively expensive and often the size of a bedroom closet. So Kraftwerk was forced to build its own electronic drum pads, design synthesizers and commission the construction of a sequencer, which enabled the group to meticulously program, coordinate and repeat progressions of notes and rhythms. The band consisted of Mr. Hutter, Mr. Schneider and, later, the drummers Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur, who were all living communally with Mr. Schult, the unofficial fifth member of the band.
”We built one of the first sequencers, a small one that we could use on stage,” remembers Mr. Flur. ”And that was the first step for techno music. Without sequencers, it isn’t possible. From the sequencer on, the music became more cold and more cold and more technical.”
And so did Kraftwerk. The ultimate aim of the new Kraftwerk was to become one with its technology, to stop playing its instruments and let the instruments play it. Often the band would compose its music by just letting its equipment run for hours and seeing what came out. Mr. Hutter even dreamed of a day when he could stay home and send robots on tour and to interviews instead. Suddenly, as ”Autobahn” became a surprise hit in America, the original image of Kraftwerk as bearded, mustachioed hippies gave way to one of clean-cut, impeccably dressed scientists.
”When we went to America in 1974, we bought fitted suits and things to be different from the sweating guitar bands,” Mr. Flur remembers. ”We thought the image fit better with our music: it’s very constructed and cold. It doesn’t come from a practice cellar. It comes from a laboratory.”
With its 1977 album, ”Trans-Europe Express,” Kraftwerk created one of laboratory pop’s masterpieces, a prescient album full of romantic synthesizer melodies over metronome beats conceived around a train ride through a borderless Europe. The album was released the same year as the Sex Pistols’ watershed punk album, ”Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.” But as punk rock was telling young people that they could form their own rock band without technical skill, Kraftwerk was sending out the same do-it-yourself message. But not only were skilled musicians no longer needed, neither were bands: just machines.
On the band’s next brainstorm, the album ”Man Machine,” with visuals borrowed from Soviet art that glorified the automaton worker, it completed its conceptual evolution. The catch phrase of the ”Trans-Europe Express” album, ”We are showroom dummies,” became, on this album, ”We are the robots.” The band started refusing to be photographed. From then until now, Kraftwerk has only allowed its homemade robotlike replicas of themselves to be used for press photos.
But Kraftwerk’s conceptual high-water mark as human machines was also the catalyst for the band’s undoing. Unlike Mr. Hutter and Mr. Schneider, the rest of the band wasn’t ready to become machines. They were frustrated: the pair constantly turned down attractive offers for collaborations with, among others, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Mr. Bowie, and the band began working at a tediously slow pace.
”We developed in the end that we were the robots, and I didn’t want to be a robot any longer because I had changed my personality over those years,” said Mr. Flur, who now leads his own minimal electronic band, Yamo. ”And I could not wait always six or eight years for the next album or tour. If robots stand still, then they get rusty. They always have to work.”
The more Kraftwerk realized how influential it was, the more it became afraid of damaging that reputation. Meanwhile, with the themes of miniaturization and cheap, ubiquitous electronics on its 1981 album, ”Computer World,” coming true, anyone could have access to the technology that was once Kraftwerk’s exclusive domain. Since ”Computer World,” the band has only released one album of new songs, ”Electric Cafe,” which, despite the title, was more an attempt to keep up with club music than a prediction of the rise of the Internet.
Last month, Mr. Hutter and Mr. Schneider turned in the first songs for a forthcoming Kraftwerk album to their label, EMI. Many fans are wondering if the pair can keep up their conceptual steam. Although now is the time for Kraftwerk to be appreciated, it is no longer, however, the time for the band to be inventive. By turning itself into technology incarnate, Kraftwerk destined itself to becoming outmoded, replaceable by new, updated models in the form of younger studio musicians.
”Now is a rebirth of the whole movement that Kraftwerk started,” said Mr. Schult. ”It’s like a cycle in time. And it comes back because it’s necessary to come back — because something was left unfinished the first time.”