Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music, Pascal Bussy

When musicologists divide up the history of classical music they almost always describe the Romantic period (e.g., Liszt, Mendelssohn, Chopin and later, Tchaikovsky and Verdi) as kraftwerk bookfollowing after the Classical period (e.g., Mozart, Haydn and C.P.E. Bach).  The problem is what to do with Beethoven.  Some describe him as a classical musician, some as a Romantic, and some as a transitional figure, while others note that his talents were so immense and his music was so groundbreaking that Beethoven needs to be placed in a category all his own.  In other words, they recognize that Beethoven was what (another towering musical figure) Duke Ellington called “beyond category”.  Those who study current forms of popular music have the same type of categorization problem with Kraftwerk.  Their work was so visionary and so influential that many music analysts arrive at the Beethoven solution and place Kraftwerk beyond category.

If you tuned in to Kraftwerk at any time during the past 20 years or so, you might wonder why people think they’re such a big deal because they sound like lots of other groups.  Well, the sound similarities are there but it isn’t that they sound like others, it’s that others sound like them.  Check out the dates.  From 1974 to 1977  the best selling albums of the year according to Billboard were Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1974), and “Greatest Hits” (1975), Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive” (1976) and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” (1977).  Over those same four years, Kraftwerk released the albums “Autobahn”, “Radioactivity” and the monumentally influential “Trans-Europe Express”.  With these three albums they laid the groundwork for large and important segments of Detroit techno, House, and early Hip-Hop (Afririka Bambaataa’s epochal track “Planet Rock” (1982) flat out ripped off the melody from the track “Trans-Europe Express”).  Before the major record companies had even discovered or figured out how to market disco (the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack wasn’t the year’s best selling album until 1978) Kraftwerk had laid the basis for the next several iterations of dance music beyond disco.  In a different musical vein, the synth-pop movement of bands like the Human League, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Simple Minds looked back to Kraftwerk as a fundamental influence.  Virtually every creator working in any of the myriad subspecies of electronica looks back to the same source.  Kraftwerk.

In 1981 Kraftwerk released Computer World (Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” coupled “Trans-Europe Express’s” melody with the drum line from “Numbers”, one of the tracks on “Computer World”.)  The press release for “Computer World” stated “The concept of the album is that this is the Computer World.  Every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology and our language has become the language of computer software.”  Well, d’oh!  right?  Except this was 1981, the year the IBM PC and the DOS operating system where first unleashed on the world.  The PC had an 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHz, 16 or a “huge” 64 kilobytes of RAM, and no hard drive.  When people talked about word processors, they were talking about Wordstar (remember that?).  Apple’s Mac didn’t appear until 1984 and Microsoft’s Windows showed up in 1985.  Visionary?  You bet.

Given their importance, not much has been written about Kraftwerk.  There’s a good reason for that – not much is known about them.  They are extremely secretive about their lives and their work.  Kraftwerk is essentially Ralf Hutter (with an umlaud over the “u”) and Florian Schneider.  Independently wealthy they were never in it for the money and they built their own recording studio, the Kling Klang studio, in Dusseldorf very early on so they were never dependent on the record industry for either promotion or production facilities.  When they appear on stage, they all stand behind small keyboard-like interface devices and it is impossible to tell who is doing what or what is prerecorded and what is being manipulated live during the show.  They’ve never let it be known how they make their recorded sounds (much of their equipment is self-made or self-designed) or who does what on the records.  They don’t appear to do all this because they are trying to use “mysterious” as a marketing gimmick.  Hutter and Schneider are often quoted as saying things like, we play the machines and the machines play us.  Kraftwerk’s music is concept driven and a central element of their concept is captured by Bussy’s subtitle, Man, Machine and Music.  For Kraftwerk the humans, the machines, and the music are interacting parts of a single coherent entity.  If you think like this, focusing on the musicians is failing to understand what is going on.

So how do you write a book about a group that isn’t interested in self-promotion and won’t tell anybody anything about what they do?  Bussy takes the straightforward, time consuming, and difficult path of assiduously poring over every scrap of reliable info that the band, or those closely associated with the band, have given out and constructs a descriptive narrative about where they’ve been and what they’ve done.  He points out their obvious desire not to be known and is careful to differentiate when he is speculating from when he is reporting what is in the public record.  The book is sober, informative and eschews any kind of sensationalism.  With music as interesting and influential and a band as shrouded in mystery as Kraftwerk, Bussy’s book inevitably raises more questions than it answers but you also get the sense reading it that those answers will only become available if you can get Hutter or Schneider to talk to you about it.

If what you want is to be titillated by stories about blow jobs and coke orgies, this isn’t the book for you as it has virtually nothing to say about the sexual conquests, drug consumption or bad behavior that serves as the basis for so much “rock journalism”.  I enjoyed “Kraftwerk” because Bussy is a thoughtful writer and I like the group and learned things I didn’t know about them.  “Kraftwerk” also has an extensive discography in an appendix that is very useful.  Readers of this review should be aware, however, that Ralf Hutter and I share excessive interests in cycling, coffee and music, we both seem to consume all three in quantities that are probably not good for you, and this may have biased my view of the book.  I finished the book thinking I would love to ride in the Alps with him.  lol


07/27/2007 - Posted by | book reviews, music

1 Comment »

  1. […] Kraftwerk weren’t ahead of their time, they were outside of time altogether.  They didn’t sound like the future, they shaped the future.  They were the dominant influence in establishing electronic music as a form of popular music.  They influenced the early days of House music and that influence can still be heard in electronic dance music, especially in the techno genres and subgenres.  Some of their music sounds like it could have been made yesterday and there are any number of techno groups with established careers today who are still haven’t gotten to the point Kraftwerk were at 35 years ago.  They were a dominant, perhaps the dominant, influence on the development of synth pop in the 1980s.  They played a crucial role in the establishment of hip hop when Afrika Bambaataa released the Arthur Baker produced “Planet Rock” which ripped off the melody line from Kraftwerk’s immensely influential “Trans-Europe Express” and combined it with the drum track from “Numbers” off of Kraftwerk’s Computer World.  (For more on Kraftwerk, see our review of Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music). […]

    Pingback by Review: Kraftwerk, The Catalogue « Tuned In To Music | 07/03/2010 | Reply

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