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Album Audit: Kraftwerk

With electro pioneers Kraftwerk headed our way for May’s Vivid LIVE, we thought it was prime time to reacquaint ourselves with their back catalogue. Ahead of these exclusive Sydney performances, MICHAEL HARTT ranks the band’s classic “werks”.

Described by some as the electronic Beatles, Kraftwerk were among a slew of German experimental bands that came to prominence in the late ’60s- to early-’70s under the broad (and slightly racist) umbrella of Krautrock. What unified Kraftwerk with the likes of Can, Cluster, Tangerine Dream, Amon Duul II and Neu! (formed by early Kraftwerk members Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother) was their drive to make music not solely informed by British and American rock, creating something that was uniquely European and progressive.

Kraftwerk was formed in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (who retired from the group in 2008). They released three studio albums of mostly free-form experimental rock between 1970 and 1973 that barely hinted at the machine-driven music that would become their calling card. Pointedly, none of these albums have ever been issued on CD, seemingly due to a reluctance to revisit this part of their history. It wasn’t until 1974, when new instruments such as the EMS Synthi AKS and Minimoog were brought into the mix – for the album Autobahn – that the Kraftwerk we know today and that has influenced generations of musicians including Joy Division, David Bowie, Gary Numan, Bjork, Franz Ferdinand and even Coldplay, really came to be.

8. Electric Café/Techno Pop (1986)

Kraftwerk’s five studio albums released between 1974 and 1981 all, for the most part, still sound like the future. This album, however, despite being the first Kraftwerk release recorded using predominately digital instruments, sounds very much of its time. Fraught with delays (one due Hütter suffering head injuries in a cycling accident) and extensive reworking due to concerns that the material wasn’t sufficiently ground-breaking, by the time the album appeared in 1986 popular music had been infiltrated by Kraftwerk-influenced acts who had pushed things even further than their forefathers. There are some fun moments, such as ‘Musique Non Stop’, but overall it feels like one of the first moments that Kraftwerk weren’t streets ahead of the pack (let’s not talk about the heavy amount of slap bass). This was the last album to feature the “classic” Kraftwerk quartet of Hütter, Schneider, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos.

7. The Mix (1991)

Not quite a studio album, not quite a greatest hits, The Mix is an odd hybrid that saw the band take some of their best known tracks and re-work them into altered states. Like Electric Café, this one sounds very much of its time with most of the tracks driven by characteristic ’90s dance beats. The new versions capture how the band was performing the tracks during live shows, having started touring again the previous year.

6. Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

Kraftwerk’s interest in cycling started in the early ’80s, when they were looking for a way of keeping in shape that would also fit with the group’s image. This album – their first studio release of new material in 17 years – was released in the year that the world’s most famous cycling race celebrated its 100th anniversary. It took the ideas first toyed with on their standalone 1983 single ‘Tour de France’ and peddled it into a sleek concept album that captures the motion of cycling in a way not dissimilar to how they’d captured movement in a car ( Autobahn ) and on a train ( Trans-Europe Express ). A brilliant comeback album.

5. Autobahn (1974)

The album that launched Kraftwerk to the wider world, Autobahn is best known for its near 23-minute long title track that depicts a trip on one of Germany’s speed-limitless motorways. Despite being regarded by some at the time as a novelty, the track is the first clear sign of the futuristic space Kraftwerk would very soon make their own. Side two still contains traces of the earlier Kraftwerk, with instruments such as a flute, violin and guitar all audible. An abridged version of the title track would become Kraftwerk’s highest charting single in Australia, peaking at number nine.

4. Radio-Activity (1975)

Following on from the success of Autobahn, which saw them tour North America and much of Europe for the first time, Kraftwerk completely embraced the use of electronic instruments on their next album: A concept record featuring songs about both radioactivity and activity on the radio (Kraftwerk like a pun). Opening with the sparse thumps and squelching white noise of ‘Geiger Counter’, Radio-Activity is a colder, sparser album than its predecessor. The title track is a towering piece of music that foreshadows the synth boom of the early ’80s, while the heavy use of the vocoder on tracks such as ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ gives the vocals a strong non-human feel that compliments the music. This album is the first completed at the band’s famous Kling Klang Studios in Düsseldorf. ‘Uranium’ was later sampled by New Order on their track ‘Blue Monday’.

3. Computer World (1981)

When this album was released in 1981, the idea of owning a personal computer was as foreign to most people as the concept of not having a personal computer is to most people today. Computer World now plays out like a spooky prophecy for the computer-powered society of 2013; the title track lists business, numbers, money, people, crime, travel, communication and entertainment as things to be enjoyed in “Computer World”. The whole record is driven by layers of propulsive beats and repeated musical phrasing. A heavy chunk of ‘Computer Love’ (a sultry paean to PC love) was later appropriated by Coldplay for their track ‘Talk’.

2. The Man Machine (1978)

Having produced three albums anchored by sprawling electronic workouts, Kraftwerk’s next release proved that they could produce melodic, punchy pop songs in their own, idiosyncratic form. ‘The Robots’ and ‘The Model’ are unmistakably Kraftwerk but super poppy, even with Hütter’s half-spoken/half-sung, German-inflected English vocals. ‘The Model’ gave the band their only number one single, when it was released as the b-side to ‘Computer Love’ in the UK in 1981 and DJs started to play it instead. ‘Neon Lights’ has been covered by U2, Simple Minds, Luna and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, among others.

1. Trans-Europe Express (1977)

Coming out in the year of punk, Trans-Europe Express sounds miles more revolutionary than any of the three-chord wonders pinning themselves as renegades that year. Its influence has been felt in everything from Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ to You Am I’s ‘Rumble’ on which Rusty Hopkinson appropriated the beat of ‘Showroom Dummies’. Trans-Europe Express is an album of stark minimalism with a second side that is a suite driven by mechanised rhythms and chugging beats, celebrating Europe’s best-known rail network. It’s a majestic album – by a band at the peak of their powers – which still sounds like it’s been beamed in from the future.

KRAFTWERK – THE CATALOGUE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Friday, May 24, 7pm – Autobahn (1974)
Friday, May 24, 9.30pm – Radio-Activity (1975)
Saturday, May 25, 7pm – Trans Europe Express (1977)
Saturday, May 25, 9.30pm – The Man Machine (1978)
Sunday, May 26, 7pm – Computer World (1981)
Sunday, May 26, 9.30pm – Techno Pop (1986)
Monday, May 27, 7pm – The Mix (1991)
Monday, May 27, 9.30pm – Tour De France (2003)

All tickets will be allocated via an online application process that runs from February 25 to March 1.

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Evil_bob

Evil_bob said on the 28th Feb, 2013

i'd put trans-europe express behind the man machine, computer world, autobahn and tour de france soundtracks. its just never really done it for me for some reason.