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Kraftwerk And Our Computer World

Jun 2, 2021
Originally published on June 2, 2021 7:42 pm

In the early-to-mid-'70s, the four members of Kraftwerk were still under-the-radar music experimentalists from the art-leaning city of Düsseldorf – a path they never really diverged from. After all, the band's U.S. breakthrough was accomplished with a 22-minute electronic ode to driving, "Autobahn."

Now, Kraftwerk is considered inarguably foundational to electronic music, as well as to the early construction of hip-hop. In his book Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany, writer Uwe Schütte looks closely at the cultural and social contexts that incubated the band, and what its work gave rise to in turn.


Audie Cornish, All Things Considered: You're writing about the idea that Kraftwerk represented an effort at rebuilding Germany, culturally. How does a pop act do that?

Uwe Schütte: The band members all belonged to the first generation of Germans being born after the Nazi period – after 1945. They were Germans grew up in the rubble, who saw the destruction of German cities and inherited the trauma of being born into a collective of perpetrators, of mass murderers, of people who attempted a genocide.

And they try and define this identity through art, culture and technology.

But harking back to a previous age ... to the great age of German culture and art, cinema, expressionism – the Weimar [Republic], the inter-war period. So they had to look back to find German traditions they could associate with. Not something that was tainted by Nazism.

So they embraced the European project.

Absolutely. Of course, being German meant being European from then on – nationalism was too close to racism, and so a new German identity could only be developed in the European framework.

You talk about their way of looking to the future – their 1981 album was called Computer World. In it, they talk about the widespread future use of personal computers... were they reflecting the broader thinking at the time?

Yes, but broader thinking at the time in the German context – for example, use of computers by the equivalent of the FBI in Germany to track down left-wing terrorists.

As it happens, Dusseldorf was also home to the headquarters of IBM, so they arranged a factory visit to try and find out about these new machines that were coming. Interestingly, Computer World is ninety-five percent devoid of computers, it's all analog. Only the vocals had an electronic treatment to them.

How does the music make the leap? For instance, to the U.S. and its burgeoning electronic music movements? Does Kraftwerk and its music inspire and spread to other kinds of music?

Obviously there are too many routes and avenues of exchange to list, but most important I think, because it happened to early, was "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa. You can clearly hear the two Kraftwerk samples – "Numbers" being one of them and the other is the melody from "Trans-Europe Express."

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Also in Detroit, Kraftwerk are considered godfathers of [the music] there.

And the music is still sampled – Frank Ocean, Dr. Dre. I've been surprised by the artists who reach for those albums.

The big discussion of course, "Would techno have emerged without Kraftwerk?" Yes, of course it would – but perhaps it would've sounded differently. These ideas float around, and it's the times that produce these ideas, particularly the influence on Detroit techno music, demonstrates that you shouldn't consider music in terms of national constraints. Kraftwerk demonstrates that music is international ... that it emerges.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today Germans are quite proud of the band Kraftwerk.

UWE SCHUTTE: They're now kind of paraded as the best of Germany. And look how we influenced the entirety of popular music across the globe. There are only two important influential bands in the world of pop music. That's The Beatles and Kraftwerk.

CORNISH: That's writer Uwe Schutte.

SCHUTTE: I think it's true (laughter). But, of course, I'm supposed to say this (laughter).

CORNISH: His new book is called "Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany." And yes, he argues the band helped bring about the rise of hip-hop and electronic dance music, and theirs was an unlikely success. Their U.S. breakthrough was a 22-minute electronic ode to driving called "Autobahn."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AUTOBAHN")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn. Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.

CORNISH: Kraftwerk is now considered a pioneering electronic band, but Schutte says that wasn't quite how things started. In the '70s, they were just experimental artists from Germany's art capital, Dusseldorf.

SCHUTTE: They had this idea to use machines and to work with everyday sounds, you know, with the noises of driving on the motorway, with the noises of car engines, of car horns. So this was electronically simulated, though ultimately, it turned out at the end, they just took some library records. And so they took the sound effects of that. In a sense, Kraftwerk weren't that electronic in the beginning. This was also experimental in the sense of, how do you build a drum kit if there are no such things as a drum kit? You go to the scrapyard, and you buy various other things, knitting needles. And then you try to build something out of these sort of odds and ends of this debris, of this stuff from the scrapyard. You try to build an electronic music machine.

CORNISH: You know, you're writing about the idea of Kraftwerk representing an effort at the kind of rebuilding of Germany in a way, culturally.

SCHUTTE: Yeah.

CORNISH: And I think you even say, to quote, "a political, cultural and moral rebuilding of Germany."

SCHUTTE: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: What do you mean by that? How does a pop act do that?

SCHUTTE: The band members all belonged to the first generation of Germans being born after the Nazi period, after the Second World War had ended in 1945. So they were Germans who grew up in the rubble, who saw the destruction of German cities. They inherited the trauma of being born into a collective of perpetrators, of mass murderers, of people who attempted a genocide.

CORNISH: And they try and define this identity, it sounds like, through art, culture and technology.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ROBOTS")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) Wir sind die Roboter.

SCHUTTE: Technology, art, culture but harking back to a previous age to an age before the Nazis, to the great age of German culture and art and cinema expressionism - the Weimar period, the interwar period. So they have to look back to find German traditions they could associate with, not something that was tainted by Nazism.

CORNISH: Right. And they embraced the European project, right? They sort of embraced the idea of Europe.

SCHUTTE: Absolutely. Of course, being German meant to be a European from then on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TECHNO POP")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) La musica ideas portara y siempre continuara.

SCHUTTE: Nationalism was obviously too close to racism, and so a new German identity could also only be developed in the European framework.

CORNISH: You talk about their way of looking to the future, and their 1981 album was called "Computer World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPUTER WORLD")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) Computer world.

CORNISH: And in the music, they actually even talk about people - like, basically the widespread future use - right? - of personal computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME COMPUTER")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) I program my home computer.

CORNISH: Was that part of this kind of futurist mindset? Were they reflecting broader thinking at the time?

SCHUTTE: Yes, but broader thinking at the time in the German context in, for example, the use of computers by the equivalent of the FBI in Germany to track down left-wing terrorists. As it happens, Duesseldorf was also home to the headquarters of IBM, so they arranged a meeting or a factory visit at IBM headquarters to try to find out about these new machines that were coming up on the market. Interestingly, "Computer World" is an album made 95% devoid of computers. It's all analog. Only the vocals - there was some electronic or digital treatment to them. But "Computer World," as prophetic as it turned out to be, is still an analog record.

CORNISH: How does the music make the leap, meaning - for instance, two U.S. burgeoning electronic movements - I mean, does Kraftwerk and their music inspire and spread other kinds of electronic movements that we're familiar with but may not realize their influence?

SCHUTTE: Obviously, there are too many routes and avenues of exchange to list them, really. But the most important, I think, because it happened so early, was "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET ROCK")

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: (Singing) Yeah, just hit me. It's time to chase your dreams, up out the seats, make your body sway.

SCHUTTE: ...Where you can clearly hear the two Kraftwerk samples - "Numbers" being one of them, and the other is the melody from "Trans-Europe Express."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET ROCK")

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: (Singing) Come play the game. Our world is free. Do what you want, but scream.

SCHUTTE: In Detroit, Kraftwerk are considered kind of godfathers of Detroit music and are treated like, well, German gods who, every time they visit...

CORNISH: It's funny because the music is still sampled, right? Like Frank Ocean, Dr. Dre - I've been surprised at the artists who reach for those albums in particular...

SCHUTTE: Yeah. I was going to say, yes.

CORNISH: ...Because it doesn't seem like a natural point of reference, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHUTTE: It's true. It's true. I mean, the big discussion, of course, is would techno have emerged without Kraftwerk? And that's, in a way, also a silly discussion because, yes, of course it would but maybe would have sounded differently because someone had to - Kraftwerk were the first to kind of realize this, to put it to tape, if you like. But, of course, these ideas float around. And it's the times that produce these ideas, particularly the influence on Detroit techno music, which is so close, demonstrates that you cannot really and should not really consider music in national - terms of national constraints or national definitions.

CORNISH: Right. But you're saying that there's a kind of cross-pollination that was happening.

SCHUTTE: So we don't really know, but the point is that Kraftwerk demonstrates that music is international...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUR DE FRANCE")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) L'enfer du Nord Paris-Roubaix, Tour de France, Tour de France. La Cote d'Azur et Saint-Tropez, Tour de France, Tour de France.

SCHUTTE: ...Or that music is not, strictly speaking, the product of a specific national or cultural background but that it emerges and that pop music is a global language. And, indeed, music is the global language, despite the differences in vocals, of course. The sound of music is something that can be understood globally.

CORNISH: Well, Uwe Schutte, thank you so much for speaking with us. This was a really fun conversation.

SCHUTTE: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CORNISH: Uwe Schutte - his new book is called "Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUR DE FRANCE")

KRAFTWERK: (Singing) Galibier et Tourmalet, Tour de France, Tour de France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.