a while it really looked like the Numans and Ultravoxes could gull History
into believing that their music represented the zenith of electronic pop.
As for those ham-fisted third generation imitators, Les Romantiques Nouvelles,
they must be shrivelling under the glare of the light of pure revelation
emanating from the current vinyl and live renaissance of Kraftwerk. After
this tour, anyone who can look at a Futurist without bursting into hysterical
laughter should consult a psychiatrist. Glib that may sound, but the viewpoint
was only reached after a certain personal re-education, and then a frustrating
search to locate the heart of the machine. While not being difficult, Kraftwerk
prefer to retain an aloof but polite formality and distance. Paparazzo Phillips
and I were banished to separate hotels from the band, warned not to take
them ‘out of context’ and, at one point, forced to lurk in the
stairwell of a venue, waiting to ambush the more reticent members. Conversely,
spokesperson Ralf Hütter is warm and gentle, with a naïve boyish
glee about him; the two most abiding images from this assignment are of
him dancing unselfconsciously to his own music when we went nightclubbing
after each show, and of his enthusiastic way of demonstrating the ‘Pocket
Calculator’ theme on a tiny musical calculator. Hovering on the periphery
of the tour for 48 hours, and having re-assessed their seven-album canon,
the two most striking aspects to emerge are the improvisational basis of
their music, both live and on vinyl, and the wealth of humour, personality,
cross-references, soul, complexity and depth of thought lying below the
deceptively simple surface of their music. A few years ago I could (in fact,
did) dismiss them as four clowns playing toy piano music for the dregs of
the glam generation. I’d now go as far as saying they’re possibly
the most complete, total, perfect pop group, living a Zen And The Art Of…
relationship with their machines, music and environment. Nowhere is this
better exampled than live, modern living reduced to the mundane or boosted
into the metaphysical, the bones of society’s structure probed and
prodded to the accompaniment of nigh-on two hours of fizzy, seductive, gloriously
happy dance music. Cybernetics, communications, social control systems,
technology, toys, romance, style, entertainment, are all laughed at, commented
on, put into perspective and then cunningly communicated to the audience
over an irresistible electronic beat. It's the development of the current
set – which goes back to and includes a full-length version of ‘Autobahn’
– which has kept them out of the public eye for almost three years.
The stage setting, a V-shaped battery of power-station-style consoles, is
not a Numan-style prop. It’s their studio, Kling Klang, minus the
walls and (…). The flashing lights, working synthesisers and computers.
It’s taken them three years to re-design Kling Klang into a transportable
shape. At first I suspected that, at best, it was a duplicate.
Ralf says, sitting in a tiny backstage room of the Edinburgh Playhouse,
waiting to go on. “It is Kling Klang. We only
have this one, so if the truck driver isn’t careful we would be
out of action”.
the technology available it seems very bulky. Microchip technology, has,
for instance, enabled our own TG to take their instrumentation onto a plane
as hand luggage.
is the newest, latest thing we could do,” he
says. “They are the most recent developments.
Most of the components are digital, some analog. I think the next step will
be using micro-electronics.That is why we recorded 'Pocket Calculator',
which was one of the last songs we recorded. We found those toys in a department
store, and it’s very liberating. Normally we stand in one certain
position with the equipment, being part of it, being connected at all points
to this equipment. With this we can move about, it’s more flexible”.
from the ubiquitous pocket calculator those 'toys' also include a stylophone-type
affair, and various electronic, noise-emitting hand-held games. Although
not wishing to give anything away, they indulge in a little audience participation
during their set, so have your index finger ready if you’re off to
see them. The larger machines have been designed so that they can be operated
'on all the different levels of automation'; they can play manually, feeding
synths and sound-sources through the PA, or accompany their own computer
programmes or let the shiny little buggers take it away by themselves. An
upcoming addition to this army of machines is a computer-controlled synth,
which can be programmed to sing in the human voice. It has 'synthetic components
of speech; vowels, consonants' and so on, but has its own distinct 'technical'
voice. The fact that it doesn’t fake a human voice is important to
their relationship with the machines.
what we like about these systems,” he says.
“It shows its own nature. We don’t like
to use the machines to imitate something. That’s what they do in bourgeois
studios, like American studios where they have all the latest, state-of-the-art
technology, and they put wooden panels on it. They do this to make you feel
comfortable (in the presence of the machines), which is ridiculous. We like
to do all these things naked. When there’s a machine speaking, we
should know it’s a machine speaking. It shouldn’t be hidden”.
asked why they chose this particularly honest approach to the machines,
taking it on its own terms rather than tarting it up as some ersatz ‘respectable’
instruments he says, “Well, just look around
yourself. You see it and you adapt yourself to what’s there”.
simple that, for over a decade, they’ve been the only ones doing it?
people just close their eyes to it. We believe we have to establish a working
relationship with our environment. We have gone on from there. It’s
not like we have a friendship with our machines. You saw this afternoon
at our soundcheck, we played (as in games) with our machines. They are very
nice to us. They also play new music, we find new music in this dialogue
with our machines. Instead of saying ‘Now we must repeat this song,’
which sometimes we do but normally we improvise, sometimes we find new things
by opening ourselves up, experimenting and listening to the machines, hearing
what they have to say. Too many people are obsessed – especially in
the West, in Western philosophy – with dominating the machines, or
factories. Whereas we try to be friendly with the machines to see what comes
out of that kind of relationship”.
also implies trust – can they trust their machines?
he says. “We must”.
the machine honour that trust? Will they allow it to do what it wants?
he says. “We don’t like the opposite either.
We don’t want to submit ourselves to it and put it on some kind of
pedestal, which is also ridiculous. What is needed is a form of innocence,
like children sometimes have. They sometimes have a good relationship with
their toys… we just try to be friendly, and by treating the machines
nicely, they treat us nicely also”.
a classically-trained musician (as is the other mainman, Florian Schneider),
he finds the synthesiser and ideal instrument, playing 'very relaxed yet
also tense', unlike most manual musicians, whose performance technique he
of the music played manually, physically by people, seems to be a product
of aggression or nervousness”. His own experience
of classical training, where the student is driven to greater heights of
technical perfection at the expense of spirit, confirms this. “I
was always very nervous. My fingers were moving but I couldn’t play
it the way I should have”.
dismisses the hoary old jibe that machines take responsibility away from
the musician/composer with a succinct “I couldn’t
do it without them. They couldn’t do it without me”.
he says, is why they call it the Man Machine. 'Computer World', he adds,
sees a new stage in their communication with the machine, the introduction
of 1physical contact', portability, personalisation and all the other implications
of a widely available toy that can give them all-day/anywhere access to
or perhaps modestly, he says they have yet to find the ideal relationship
between man and machine. “We are far from that,
but we try to get nearer. I think the ideal is the moment when you play
and you don’t actually know what is happening, it plays through you
and with you, in some state of mind where you don’t even remember
afterwards how you did it. Sometimes I don’t know how I did something.
Did I have another hand? Did I actually make it myself or what?”
well aware that many people still fear computers, and is also rather wary
of the McLuhanish claim that the computer can act as a limitless extension
of the mind.
can broaden and limit,” he says. “Because
it also changes your attitude. We had to completely change our attitude
to music, we had to learn again how to do certain things”.
centuries it’s been said that Science and the Arts could never mix
(and I’m not talking about Da Vinci or Valery, but an actual marriage
of the two). Kraftwerk have developed an 'analytical form of composition…
putting numbers to notes', but have lost none of the Art, Romance, Poetry,
Lyricism or any other Sensitive Person’s Definition of Music. Was
that a risk, and if so, were they bothered?
it was a risk,” he says, “we
were ready to take it. There’s a certain myth about the composer being
inspired. But now we know our limitations, where it really comes down to.
We became more self-critical”.
if to drop the cherry on top of his theoretical cake, he adds, “I
think if Bach had a computer in his time, he would definitely have used
it. I think now it’s better to use your own mind and activate certain
cells, rather than impose a written score on other people and say, you play
that note at that point and you play this note at that point. That just
establishes the whole hierarchy of the orchestra“.
machine had by now definitely picked up our conversation on its sensors,
for as he said that someone walked by in the corridor outside, whistling
a snippet of Mussorgsky.
and people who think that, they should all quit and start social work or
thatput down, he was off for the show. El Paparazzo and I positioned ourselves
in a recess on the stairs, waiting to leap out as the elusive Florian, Karl
and Wolfgang walked by with Ralf. The other were fine, Ralf even stopped
for a brief chat, but on catching sight of us Florian, horror-stricken,
bolted past, the slipstream ruffling our clothes. Ralf kept talking, as
though nothing unusual had happened. After the sow (which had one unscheduled
appearance – in the audience; a young US sailor we met in the bar
who is part of the elite Firing Corps on American nuke subs in Holy Loch.
He’ll be operating the computers - apt! – when the balloon goes
up. He’s also, er, M.A.D. on Kraftwerk) we lured Ralf backed to the
small room backstage. Ralf doesn’t seem prepared to name any specific
inspiration. The Systems composers are 'academic' whereas Kraftwerk are
'more environmental'. Ligeti (admittedly a long shot), he has just 'heard
door' to their home Düsseldorf, is Cologne’s West Deutscher Rundfunk
radio station, famed for its support of all things tinklybonk and Stockhausen's
second home. WDR, apparently, acted as a guidance beacon for the German
Fluxus events of the sixties, mixed-media happenings presided over by the
likes of Cage.
was more than combination of visual art and music,”
Ralf says, “I think that’s a lot of where
we came from”.
Ralf, the Fluxus artists weren’t exactly noted for their addiction
to disco rhythms.
that was basically what we did when we came out with electronics. In the
beginning we started with switching on amplifiers, and feedback and that
stuff. But it’s now thirteen years later, and we now go for the mechanistic
type of sound”.
how Kraftwerk went from a debut (double) album of avant-garde music to dance
music, he says “It has a lot to do with our
dynamic… it also has something to do with our environment. If you
live in Dusseldorf you have to be on your toes all the time”.
a mere 30 or so kilometers down the road live Can, who went a completely
they’re also very dynamic,” he responds.
“If you consider their more rock things. They
are also very mechanistic; they have this mechanistic, very heavy beat.
We are not so heavy, nor are we so ‘rock'”.
move into dance was inspired, quite simply, by the inhibition he noticed
in his friends whenever they were in a disco or, for American readers, dance
situation. Watching their nervous, twitchy paranoid actions in discos, Ralf
composed ‘Showroom Dummies’ – in 'about ten minutes' –
perhaps to shame, more likely to liberate, people from their dance inhibitions.
at that time would never dance. It was very taboo. And we are about breaking
certain taboos. That’s what interested us”.
Kraftwerk were also intentionally flouting the rule that electronic music
had to be cerebral rather than physical.
electronics you tend to turn to thoughts only, and neglect your body, and
the way you look and the physical aspects. We found that that was not the
direction we wanted to take, so we recycled ourselves into body functions
also. We were drawn into this whole thing, but the one aspect we didn’t
like was that music was taken away from everyday situations into a concert
situation. 'You have to watch them – they are super-important people!'
Which isn’t the case, it’s all rubbish. Musicians are not important
baulks at any suggestion that the Kraftwerk image might have been thought
up/out, let alone manufactured.
think the image has always been there. Everything we do is a result of what
we call our electronic lifestyle. So it’s not imposed (on the group),
it comes from what we really do”.
their lyrical themes and ideas.
of the ideas we have come through themselves. We don’t travel much,
mostly we are in the studio, surrounded by machinery, and most of the ideas
come through that. We are like mediums”.
is your lifestyle that bound by technology?
yes, yes. We don’t go like, say a poet, who might make a long journey,
go to South America and write about his travels and inspiration. We just
find everything we do on the streets. The pocket calculator we find in the
department stores. The autobahn we find in the first five years of our existence,
when we travelled 200,000 kilometers on the autobahn in a grey Volkswagen.
So everything is like a semi-documentary. ‘Autobahn’ we made
with the image that one day our music would come out of the car radio. ‘Radioactivity’
came about from the combination of radiation and radio. ‘Trans-Europe
Express’, we went more into our European identity”.
there is something specifically European, even further German, about them?
about us, definitely. It’s part of our programming; I think we are
being programmed in that way. Through our education, our mother language”.
I think so. That’s what we are into, behaviour, and how people behave
the way they do”.
feels that below the European identity, there are subsections of national
identity distinguishing each country. But...
must say it is not in a nationalistic sense, like 'We have a flag.' We do
not care for flags or for passports. It’s just part of the situation
we are living in, and I think it has a lot to do with the educational system,
although maybe it is just so early in our lives that we cannot see it fully”.
asked if they’d join Can, DAF and others at the cultural barricades,
fending off Americanisation, and he replies “No,
but you have to remember we are living in the British sector. Kraftwerk
is the group from the British sector”.
for a minute I take that as meaning the cake-slice of post-war Berlin handed
to Britain when the Allies divvied-up the spoils. For what revelation is
worth, it shows you that even someone with a slight knowledge or recent
German history can overlook the fact that the invading victors left their
guard dogs there. There are hundreds of thousands of them in Germany still,
and they wear army uniforms, Britain is still keeping a watch on the Rhine.
But what effect has this on Kraftwerk?
very quiet. The militaristic approach of the British is not like that of
the Americans. It’s very relaxed, calm. Also, this area is super-productive;
it’s the most productive area of Germany. Dusseldorf is the centre
of that even, and even Cologne is already a bit removed. We just reflect
that in our music”.
takes a few days for that to strike me as the words of someone living with
a constant reminder of the war on his doorstep. 36 years on ad, the references
to German Industry apart, he could be talking about the attitude of the
regime imposed by the invading British. But in cultural terms (we are not
talking in terms of armed aggression here) he’s still a partisan activist.
I wonder aloud if Kraftwerk are symptoms or a reflection on that post-war
cultural vacuum in Germany.
we are cultural vacuum cleaners,” he chuckles,
but means it.
clean that vacuum?
Because there were also some roots surviving after the war which we had
nothing to do with. There was also rubbish, like the beer house chants”.
there are definite fragments of Teutonic/Romantic classicism in Kraftwerk’s
think that’s our Germanic background, because we feel a lot of strength
in this melodic richness, even though we use very few tones. But we have
come up with a lot of harmonic melodies in a lot of electronic music, there
is a taboo about harmonics, so we try to bring certain things into harmony”.
he say that people usually gloss over the romantic aspects of Kraftwerk
in favour of the Fritz Lang machinerama?
I can remember one time, about six years ago, we used the term ‘Romantic
Realism’ to describe certain aspects of our music. And now you read
in the British papers about the New Romantics, we feel we anticipated certain
combinations of sorts between technology and romanticism, even though romantic
is a much-overused word. It’s just that certain things filter through
then we went to a disco and danced to Kraftwerk. (No, not together, he’s
a solo dancer). The legions of Futurists dropped their cool completely and
mobbed the group for autographs. The Authority of that filtration 'Medium'
can by now be indisputable. Hard against tomorrow, unafraid and happy, Kraftwerk
shine in a complete pulsing eco-system plugged straight into the Now, as
natural as Robert Pirsig and his bike. It’s sound hippyish if they
weren’t so damn sharp. Although Ralf freely admits they’ve yet
to find the ideal balance, Kraftwerk can make a kind of sense out of he
cultural polar forces; man and machine, art and science, reaction and revolution,
romance and modernism, violence and passivity, the innocent and the sinister
(examples of this abound in ‘Computer World’) – in general,
a solution to those old contracts/enmities. And that knowledge informs the
music with such impetus that I feel like I’ve just discovered them
all over again. Welcome to the heart of the soft machine.
to John Gill
by Louise Bell - USA