A review of the new box set of 8 of Kraftwerk’s proto-techno pop classics, all remastered by Ralf Hutter himself. There are some mixed reviews on this reissue series, partly due to the mixes themselves, but also 2 of the albums being renamed and with different covers than on some of the originals.
This is taken from The Quietus, Oct. 13, 2009 and was written by Jude Rogers…
The first time I heard Kraftwerk it was like a scorch of hot metal, a bolt of white light to the mind. I was 16, an indie girl from an industrial town, an unlikely target for machine music made by four men from Düsseldorf. Chris, my best friend and partner-in-crime in small-town escapism, had come round as usual on a damp Friday night, with four cans of Fosters that would go straight to our heads, and some dusty CDs he had bought with his pocket money. Usually we’d listen to Teenage Fanclub, Blur, or some dull, cut-price grunge, but this album looked different. An indigo-blue and luminous yellow cover; a monochrome robot with wild, widening eyes; a title, The Mix, set in Ceefax-style building blocks. I was scared of it, somehow, genuinely puzzled by its strangeness. And then its first track whirred, sputtered, shot into life, filling the corners of my mum’s old front room – a dark hole full of bibles and commemorative plates to old collieries – with something bright, clear, and incredibly modern. It sharpened the room’s old-fashioned edges; it set my synapses alight. And slowly but surely, Kraftwerk became mine.
In the years that followed, my obsession kept building, like a line of charge on a battery. I scoured old second-hand shops for their LPs on cassette – the correct medium of the future for them, I thought geekily – and wrote essays about them in my media studies class. In 1997, I joined a gang of pilled-up halfwits on a coach to Tribal Gathering, keeping myself cleanly awake with strong coffee and egg butties not to miss the band I loved live. I still remember going in their tent with good old Chris at my side two hours early, joined only by a few, anoraked middle-aged Germans. But Christ, it was worth it. That gig remains the greatest thing I have ever seen – a life-changing explosion of neon lights and numbers, colours and sounds, feelings and sensations.
And now it is 2009. This girl from Wales and these men from North Rhine-Westphalia have been together for 15 long years. Listening to The Catalogue, eight remastered versions of the bulk of Kraftwerk’s output – 1975’s Autobahn to 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks being the band’s pristine parameters – I now understand why we have so much in common. Their music still sounds masterful, sure, if a little too shiny, but it also sounds innocent, wide-eyed and searching, qualities to which I have always related.
This is because Kraftwerk make folk music for the first generation brought up with technology – not as a distant phenomenon, but a tangible and incoming reality in our homes and our lives. It’s all there in their sounds on their records – the whoosh of the car and the train-track, the clang of metal on metal, the bleep and beep of the terminal. It’s all there in their name, too – the German term for power plant, which carries the ghost of old-fashioned manufacture in its two, sweet syllables. For a girl who remembered her father buying a Spectrum ZX81 as a tiny child, and the same man marvelling over the arrival of the pocket calculator, no wonder this combination of homeliness and strangeness in Kraftwerk’s music – the heimlich and the unheimlich – had a lightning effect.
After their early progressive and florid early albums – 1973’s Ralf and Florian being a particular gem – 1974’s Autobahn and 1976’s Radio-Activity redefined Kraftwerk’s identity. Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos were now on board, giving the group a four-man format that nodded towards pop and rock and roll mythology, while subverting it gorgeously, and rather robotically.
These albums also flirted with the idea of Germany, some would say rather dangerously. For instance, the Autobahn was embraced in Hitler’s grand plans for his country; the original front cover of Radio-Activity presents a distinctive 1938 transistor radio, which became popularly known as “Goebbels’ snout”; and the decision to call the opening track of Trans Europe Express ‘Europe Endless’ did seem rather questionable. But then we find out that the Autobahn album is based on the very first road that was opened in 1932, a year before Hitler’s succession to the Chancellorship; that this particular transistor radio allowed Germans to hear the world beyond National Socialism for the first time; and that the Trans-Europe Express stood for freedom of movement in an European mainland still frozen by the Cold War, then you get a sense of what Kraftwerk were trying to do. They were creating a new identity for their country by embracing the healthy advances of their past, while placing their hopes in the present, and the gleam of the future. In effect, these men born just after the end of the Second World War were starting again.
That said, Kraftwerk’s music obviously came with warnings, too – real achtungs, baby – although they were similarly conveyed in innocent voices. Heard now, ‘Radio-Activity’ still sounds like a terrifyingly lovely thing, a substance floating around the set of a children’s TV programme – “in the air for you and me” – before we take in the terror of the quickening Geiger Counter, and the lines about “chain reaction and mutation/Contaminated population”. There is black humour in their early work, too, most tellingly in the title of ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ and the shop-window rave-up of ‘Showroom Dummies’.
1978’s The Man Machine and 1981’s Computer World move on, and sum up the conflicting sensations that emerge in the interface between human and hi-tech – both the excitement that can bubble and blister in those connections, as well as the numbness it produces that can soothe and dull the cells. Looking back, what’s most striking now is how prescient Kraftwerk were in capturing these awkward emotions, making it hardly surprising that their sound took a while to catch on. But after ‘The Model’ became a no. 1 hit in 1982, four years after it was recorded, the whole fabric of pop was quickly restitched. Synth-pop, hip hop, electro, house and techno were all weaved from this pattern, creating something that glowed with a whole new kind of being.
Sadly, the later Kraftwerk recordings – The Mix aside, of course, mainly for reasons of sentimentality – never quite packed the same punch for me. Perhaps it was because Kraftwerk worked best as chroniclers of the fast-paced present, capturing it on tape before its shimmered into the world on its own. Ralf Hütter’s cycling accident in the early 1980s couldn’t have helped productivity either, and the fact that 1986’s patchy Electric Cafe has been renamed Technopop for this release, suggested all was not well at KlingKlang at the time. Nevertheless, the band still should have credit for the way that their sounds still moved on. ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ from Technopop, for instance, still sounds shockingly, mesmerisingly alien after 23 years; while ‘Dentaku’ from The Mix reveals the band’s fabulous commitment to turning international languages into musical instruments. Even the pitchshifting wondrousness of 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks – an album that should have sounded as dated as a muddy BMX, given that it was made by men in their late 50s– managed to sound entirely fresh, but still entirely them.
In recent years, however, this wide-eyed woman-machine has grown apart from Kraftwerk in their present-day incarnation. It doesn’t help that my beloved Florian Schneider has gone, that the band’s line-up changes are starting to rival those of the Sugababes, nor that their 2003 and 2009 British gigs were simple re-runs of the show I adored back in 1997. There’s also been a cleaning-up of the sound on these albums that diminishes their potency a little – I miss my cassette hiss, obviously, and the background ping of the beer-can ring-pulls. But these are minor fusses. When I take this catalogue in its entirety, Kraftwerk’s magic still astonishes . After all, they did something phenomenal: reconfiguring the promises and horrors of the 20th century through the prism of the innocent, imperial future. They also took us somewhere sublime by using the language of our everyday lives. Full of reminders and markers of our immovable modernity, Kraftwerk gave us our folk music.