The same year the world said goodbye to its favourite pop band, The Beatles, a band called Kraftwerk, from Germany, released its debut self-titled album, followed a few years later by their breakthrough record Autobahn. This album’s title track – a 22+ minute electronic opener – begins with a dark, otherworldly, synthesised voice that repeats the title in an almost menacing way. The contrast with ‘Let It Be’ could not be more stark.
Though you could argue that electronic music had earlier progenitors than Kraftwerk, there is no doubt that their 1974 release ushered in a new era and set the wheels in motion for electronic music’s development over the following decades. That’s why, when founding member Florian Schneider passed away from cancer in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the tributes flooded in from far and wide. There is a reason critics have called Kraftwerk the second most influential pop group of all time, second only to The Fab Four.
Much like The Beatles, Kraftwerk a) had four members, b) always pushed production boundaries in the studio, and c) broke acres of new musical ground in a very short space of time. Starting out as an experimental rock group, the band was part of Germany’s burgeoning ‘krautrock’ scene, which, through music and art, sought to forge a new cultural identity following the Second World War. They quickly embraced technology as part of their setup, often hand-making their own drum pads, samplers and other electronic instruments. But Schneider and co’s background as classically trained musicians didn’t go to waste; the group took orchestral music, combined it with their love of rock and pop, and channelled them through computers. The result was a cutting-edge style of music that, thanks to its timeless pop hooks, managed to sound both futuristic and strangely familiar, resulting in the popularisation of electronic music from the late 1970s into the ‘80s.
While the guitar-obsessed British music press initially rejected Kraftwerk, declaring “keep the robots out of music,” there were plenty of musicians taking note. David Bowie, whose affinity for space-themed glam rock wasn’t too dissimilar, channelled the ‘machine rock’ sound on his Low album. Hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa sampled them on ‘Planet Rock’, forever adjusting the DNA of hip-hop in the process. And Gary Numan’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ was pure Kraftwerk, paving the way for a slew of synth-based new wave bands like The Human League and Depeche Mode.
10 Essential Kraftwerk Tracks
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 102, Pages 66-68.