Pop Culture

How Kraftwerk Made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The word “seminal” does a lot of work in expressions like “seminal band/album/track, etc.” Yes, it’s an adjective denoting “majorly influential,” even “essential.” It’s also an adjective relating directly to the male reproductive system. The conceptual use of the term does not necessarily exclude women, who can perfectly well be said to “seed” artistic movements. But it does suggest that creativity is an inherently masculine act. To take a broader view, we could say that art is non-binary; it includes all of the generative principles involved in the act of creation, including gestation, birthing, and nurturing new art forms.

In this vein, we might call German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk a “seminal matrix” of musical activity, an economy of creative work led by two fathers — Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter  — who midwived a techno/electro revolution, and — indirectly — through early spin-off projects like NEU!, an experimental post-punk/New Wave revolution.

The best known of the “Krautrock” bands to emerge in the 1970s, early versions of Kraftwerk included in its ranks German producer Conny Plank (unofficially) as well as drummer Klaus Dinger, and guitarist Michael Rother, both of whom went on to play in the aforementioned NEU! and “seminal” avant-garde bands like Harmonia and La Düsseldorf.

In its early, anarchic phase, “Kraftwerk’s music neither referenced nor evoked the robotic,” writes Simon Reynolds at NPR. “They started, in the final years of the 1960s, as post-psychedelic progressives — long hair and all. (Watch their first recorded gig in 1970 here.) In 1968, Hütter and Schneider met at the Academy of Arts in Remscheid, near Düsseldorf, where they studied piano and flute, respectively. Sharing an interest in improvisation and avant-garde electronics, as well as a fondness for The Velvet Underground, the Doors and the multimedia provocations of Fluxus, they joined with three other musicians and recorded the album Tone Float under the name Organisation.”

This early avant-garde phase continued for a time, but once Dinger and Rother left and were replaced by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, Kraftwerk began its unlikely climb up the charts, and into the hands of remixers and DJs everywhere, with 1975’s Autobahn. “That is the point at which they went from a krautrock curio to a world-historical force,” Reynolds writes, “when the single edit of the 24-minute title track became an international hit in 1975.” The song retains some instrumental elements from the band’s previous incarnations — “twinkling guitar and wafting flute feature alongside synth pulses and drum machine.”

But the melding of man and machine was well underway. “Crucially, it was music stripped of individualized inflection and personality” — not only were Kraftwerk beyond 70s gender stereotypes, they were charting the course for the post-human before the term had any currency. “We go beyond the individual feel,” Schneider told Sounds magazine. “We are more like vehicles, a part of our mensch machine, our man-machine. Sometimes we play the music, sometimes the music plays us, sometimes… it plays.” Kraftwerk may have played German stereotypes for humor in music videos and live performances, but their detachment was no act — their approach from the late 1970’s onward was entirely the opposite of rock and roll’s self (indulgent)-expression.

Why, then, does Kraftwerk belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Just inducted this year, their presence is truly indisputable. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say, as the Hall of Fame does, that they “are the foundation upon which all synthesizer-based rock and electronic dance music is built…. Kraftwerk’s influence can be heard in the work of David Bowie and Brian Eno, the synth-pop of Depeche Mode, the electronic-rock integration of U2, the ‘robot rock’ of Daft Punk, the production techniques of Kanye West, and in countless EDM and dubstep artists.”

This is just to name a tiny sampling of the musicians influenced by the perfectionistic German foursome. The case can and has been made that for the sheer breadth of their influence, Kraftwerk is more important than even the Beatles to the history of popular music, for rather than mastering and transforming the music of the 20th century’s first half, they invented the rock and roll of the future. See many more classic Kraftwerk videos at this YouTube channel.

Related Content: 

The Psychedelic Animated Video for Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” from 1979

Kraftwerk’s First Concert: The Beginning of the Endlessly Influential Band (1970)

The Case for Why Kraftwerk May Be the Most Influential Band Since the Beatles

Watch Kraftwerk Perform a Real-Time Duet with a German Astronaut Living on the International Space Station

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Performed by German First Graders in Adorable Cardboard Robot Outfits

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness




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