When American rock music spread across Europe in the late 1950s, it was integrated with the countries’ own cultural heritage. In the UK, the road to rock’n’roll went via skiffle, fast folk music on the banjo and washboard. In 1956, John Lennon formed a slate group, the Quarrymen, of which Paul McCartney and George Harrison became members.
When the Beatles found their identity, they also weaved in influences from the music hall, distinctly British theatrical entertainment with roots in the 19th century. In Sweden, the first artist to introduce rock’n’roll, Owe Thörnqvist, was clearly inspired by revue music from the 1940s. Groups such as Hootenanny Singers fused rock music with Swedish songs and poets such as Dan Andersson and Gustaf Fröding. But with the young in Germany, such cross-fertilizations were impossible. After World War II, all German culture was contaminated. Especially music and lyrics that could in some way be associated with national romance.
Two young people in the ruins of Germany, Ralf Hütter was born in 1946 and Florian Schneider in 1947, realized that the only chance to do something of their own was to create a cultural year zero. All they had to start from – the only thing that pointed forward – were technical achievements. Instead of singing about nostalgia and sunny days, they made songs about transportation. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider invented “industrial folk music”.
In the United States, Beach Boys sang “fun fun fun” about depicting life on California beaches. Kraftwerk instead sang “fahren fahren fahren” – to the same tune – and announced that their happy days were spent on the autobahn.
They did not call themselves artists but music workers.
After being constantly misunderstood for the first 20 years, Kraftwerk today appears as the most influential group in music history after the Beatles. All music heard on the radio today bears traces of Kraftwerk’s electronic sounds.
Kraftwerk was formed in Düsseldorf, a city known for machine manufacturing, the electronics industry and telecommunications. At the same time, Düsseldorf was and is a leading art city with one of Europe’s foremost art schools, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. From a pop historical perspective, Kraftwerk came from nowhere, but they were shaped by the art scene in Düsseldorf.
Joseph Beuys, one of the most influential German artists of the post-war period, studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of the Arts. Installation artwork like the one Beuys clad in an entire room of thick layers of felt, with a black grand piano in the middle, is in the same spirit as Kraftwerk. Florian Schneider has even played music with Joseph Beuys. Florian Schneider was a 21-year-old flute student when he got to jam with the 25-year-old Beuys in an avant-garde ensemble called Pissoff.
The second greatest German artist of the post-war period, Gerhard Richter, often called the world’s foremost living painter, was also part of the Düsseldorf scene. Gerhard Richter also talked about creating a year zero. He wanted to get as far away from German romance as possible, an art he called poisoned.
In the same generation as Kraftwerk, there were other young German rock musicians who were inspired by American artists but were determined to do something of their own. In Cologne Can was formed, in West Berlin there was Tangerine Dream, in the forests of Wümme Faust was formed, in Munich there was Amon Düül II, in Düsseldorf musicians broke away from an early edition of Kraftwerk and formed Neu !. All of these musicians were long-haired hippies who inspired the 1968 revolts to break with German history and play experimental and often groove-based music.
The English music press named the genre krautrock,
a nickname for Germans with allusions to sauerkraut.
The English music press named the genre krautrock, a nickname for Germans with allusions to sauerkraut. Kraftwerk and the other bands disapproved of the name but it has remained to this day. The music style krautrock has had a renaissance in the 2010s. Among those who danced freely at the concerts with Amon Düül II in Munich were other long-haired Germans who wanted to take the ideas of a historic fresh start several steps further, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof and their revolution army Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF).
Future German filmmakers also moved in kraut rock circles: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, all three born during World War II. When David Bowie was to play in Stockholm in the spring of 1976, he took the road via Helsinki, where he arrived from Moscow. David Bowie had traveled the Trans-Siberian Railway through the Soviet Union with his friend Iggy Pop. The Swedish tabloid Expressen’s seconded reporter Mats Olsson was on site at Helsinki train station. The headline from April 26 reads “A man got off the train”.
David Bowie, 28, is asked what music he now listens to and answers: “Rock is nothing to me. Right now I am most interested in German groups like Neu and Kraftwerk.” The final destination for Bowie was obvious already on the title track of the album he toured with. On “Station to station” he sang “the European cannon is here”.
Later that year, David Bowie and Iggy Pop moved to West Berlin and wrote music history with four iconic albums (two each) recorded in a studio a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall. In their shared apartment, David Bowie and Iggy Pop constantly listened to Kraftwerk, especially the album “Radio-Aktiviät”. Iggy Pop has said that he used to fall asleep to the restful sound of “Geiger counter”.
The influences went in both directions. In his song “Trans Europe express” Kraftwerk sings: “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city, meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”.
When I interviewed David Bowie in 1996, he could not stop talking when the conversation lead to Kraftwerk:
I will never forget the first time I met Florian. We started talking music and he said, “For us, there are two kinds of emotion. There is warm emotion. And there is cold emotion. We play cold emotion. ”
One should neither underestimate nor overestimate Florian Schneider’s significance for Kraftwerk. At first, Kraftwerk was as long-haired as the other kraut rock bands. On the cover of the third album, “Ralf und Florian” from 1973, something happens. Ralf Hütter is still long-haired while Florian Schneider has cut himself neatly short, wears a suit and smiles subtly. A year later, Ralf Hütter and the rest of the band performed exactly like that. The ambition to depersonalize reached its perfection when they became robots.
At the same time, it is not possible to hear any musical difference at Kraftwerk’s concerts after Florian Schneider left the band in 2008. When Ralf Hütter is the sole bandleader.
I have seen Kraftwerk in all incarnations since the first concert in Sweden at Solnahallen in 1991 which is difficult to beat but all tours have been of the same class.
In the spring of 2012, Kraftwerk began a series of guest appearances at an art museum. It started with the group performing one album at a time for eight nights at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I have never in my life worked so hard for a ticket, and was on site the night they performed “Radio Activity”.
Kraftwerk played inside the gallery at the museum, surrounded by works signed by the 20th century’s leading artists. It was in that company that they belonged.
Written by Jan Gradvall
Originally published in the Swedish newspaper Expressen
Added photos and music by me.