Kraftwerk's current concerts at The Tate are generating the sort of hyperbole one would expect, given their (apparent) immaculate staging, excellent sound, inspiring setting, and apposite visuals. Paul Morley in The Telegraph, Alexis Petridis in The Guardian, John Doran at The Quietus, are among those critics ensuring a five star reception for a musical act that has long been granted a critical "pass".
Had I afforded the admission, hotel bills, and airfare to see the show, had I won the ticket lottery and been one of the chosen few (male, middle-aged, middle-class), I would no doubt have enjoyed the spectacle. But it would have required a rather large suspension of disbelief, as I know from similar exercises at which I have been present. I think that a less fawning evaluation of the creators of synth-pop is overdue, and that these concerts might provide a good moment for critical reflection.
At the Turbine Hall, Kraftwerk have literally replaced the engine of industry. But where once energy was generated, the function now is to generate nostalgia for a futuristic vision that may have been novel when it first appeared, but is now entirely safe and predictable. Oh look, four men acting like robots. Counting like computers. Again.
That's the bit that would have required a suspension of judgement. But some things are harder to ignore, notably the revisionist history that has erased the contributions of many people integral to Kraftwerk's development.
The first problem is in the definition of Kraftwerk. Apparently they are now a band composed of Cuthbert, Dibble, Gruber, and Hütter. That's odd, because only the last of these has had anything to do with the moniker, being one of the founding members oh-so-many decades ago. While it might be appropriate to continue the robot project with as many generic components as possible, this would be more acceptable if Ralf wrote himself out of the script, finding a stage replacement. This third-party component version of the group could be spawned in as many iterations as required to meet demand. Replicas, indeed.
By pretending he is the only one important enough to remain, Hütter is making a conceptual mistake.
So instead we have a revisionist version of the group that attempts to downplay the facts of replication on one hand (offering them as mere spectacle) and on the other hand denies the very human processes at the heart of the group. This egocentric impulse is unfortunate only in how it is masked; naked narcissism is an important energy in rock'n'pop. The primary technique Hütter uses is to pretend that Kraftwerk began in 1974 with Autobahn. This party line is conveyed through the catalogue programming at The Tate, along with the continued unavailability of the first three/four albums (except as bootlegs and the inevitable download streams).
While it may be more politically advantageous to claim Kraftwerk as a creation of the seventies, this is true only in name. It was instead in 1968 that Ralf Hütter met Florian Schneider at art school and formed Organisation, a group successful enough to land a record deal, and with a British company (RCA) to boot. Released in 1970, Tone Float is more than worth a listen, making plain the foundations of the group's sound in the sixties, particularly in folk, classical, and psychedelia.
But even if we restrict ourselves to Kraftwerk proper, it is difficult on purely musical terms to justify the purging of their three initial albums from the collective memory. Kraftwerk (1971), Kraftwerk 2 (1972), and Ralf and Florian (1973) are fascinating, charming, varied, and compelling. Already the first of these says everything Kraftwerk needs to say, in four near-perfect tracks. "Ruckzuck" kicks things off by highlighting the flute, not an instrument you would at first associate with electronic music. But this flute is driven and rigid, pulsing and precise, embedded in a structure made up of unexpected accelerandi and carefully-controlled feedback. The sense of motion, a Kraftwerk trademark, is palpable. "Stratovarius" is a creature of three parts, the first being primarily difference tones arising through ring modulation. Field recordings then usher in a bit of a skronk freak-out. "Megaherz" welcomes us to the machine, a place made up equally of crackling energies and pastoral woodwinds. "Vom Himmel Hoch" spells out in uncompromising fashion the mandate of electronische musik to upset convention and provide a new sonic pallete for a new post-War age. This debut disk makes a statement about man's place in and amongst the machines. And in the main it's a romantic vision.
The excellent Kraftwerk 2 is stranger, more fragmented, less "composed", and owes more to Conny Plank and the Kluster/Cluster axis of German music. Ralf and Florian begins with swirling synthesiser and cutesy keyboards, announcing a new timbral space. But it retains the "human" looseness and improvisatory quality of its predecessor. "Tongebirge" uses interlocking woodwind melodic fragments... some of which they'd recycle later in their career. "Heimatklange" is a moody piano piece that sounds exactly like a track off Bowie's Low. Which is to say that it is beholden to the aesthetic Moebius, Plank, Roedelius, and others were busy creating in their many interlocking projects. Eno and Bowie fell in love with this sonic world, but so did Kraftwerk.
These albums demonstrate how Kraftwerk's sound started with classical traditions and sixties utopianism, gradually changing in instrumentation with the addition of electronics. They illustrate that Kraftwerk was part of a community of like-minded musicians (for example Klaus Dinger, later of Neu!, played drums on Kraftwerk). They highlight the enormous importance of Conny Plank in the group's evolution. They foreground an improvisatory, organic process.
It is apparently for these reasons that Hütter purged these albums from history. When the Kraftwerk catalogue was re-issued in 2008, it began with 1974's Autobahn. The previous albums are not officially available. The music is not played live. We are to believe instead that the motorik rhythms and hypnotic electronics, the stripped-down aesthetic and plaintive melodies, arose fully formed in 1974.
The omission of the early development also aided the creation of the primary Kraftwerk mythology, that of a self-sufficient organisation who record in their own studio, are their own producers, and make their own instruments. These exaggerated claims come directly from interviews and press releases. The first fact might have eventually become true, though Kling Klang studios was initially a decrepit warehouse space with no significant claims to being a "studio". The other statements are simply false. Kraftwerk have largely relied on store-bought instruments, just like everyone else -- Moog Minimoog and ARP Odyssey on Autobahn, for example. Infrequently they have had these modified for their own usage, a not uncommon studio practice.
But of the three lies, the deletion of Plank from his producer's seat is definitely the most offensive, given how much he did to help the music evolve. He was a truly gifted producer and, from all accounts, a generous, open individual -- not someone who should be denied the respect he deserves.
Another effect of the catalogue deletion was to make Kraftwerk a pop group, hence, of the people, palatable. No, not one of those strange hippy outfits, uppity classically-trained musicians, or followers of atonalism and that weird Stockhausen dude. By eliminating four albums made up entirely of instrumentals, Hütter put the emphasis back on vocals, child-like lyrics, and incantatory verbal offerings. These provide a necessary commercial hook, no matter how strange some of the attempts at singing were! You don't get on the radio with instrumentals.
This historical revisionism obviously says something about post-War Germany, where the dominant need was to "forget" Nazism. Kraftwerk refer to this obliquely, through their name if nothing else. But what they actually are saying is unclear. That's because this is not a cogent artistic strategy, but is instead political and self-serving. We have to provide our own reading of what Kraftwerk are saying by what they disallow to be said. (That would be another article.)
Nonetheless, if I was Hütter attempting such a clean-up, I wouldn't leave so many clues. The one classic cut on Autobahn is spread over an entire side. But for anyone who bothers to flip the record, the band's past comes flooding back. How are listeners supposed to reconcile die Mensch-Maschine with the pastoral flute of "Morgenspaziergang"?
Self-congratulatory revisionism aside, Kraftwerk produced three more wonderful albums: Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and The Man Machine (1978). By Computer World (1981) the floppy disk was wearing thin; the many bands inspired by Kraftwerk had by this time superseded their progenitors. Five years later and Electric Cafe was simply... boring. Core members Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos left soon after. In truth, the experiment should have been wrapped up once "Cars" hit the charts. No longer could one reasonably pretend that electronic pop was special music that could only arise from one mind in Düsseldorf. Neither was the "I am a robot" act worth sustaining once Gary Numan's glares hit Top Of The Pops.
The Mix (1991) announced Kraftwerk as full-fledged members of a culture industry that glorifies conformity and repetition. The Tate shows are the direct continuation of this 22 years on. Where once they celebrated speed and diodes, finding romance in radioactivity, they now venture 3D glasses and a kitsch view of modernity. Where once they commented on repetition and conformity, they now offer up only more of this same repetition. Nostalgia De-Luxe.
The reviewers seem in denial of this. Morley can somehow say that "Kraftwerk are still the future". (When were they ever? In the seventies they were a group very much about the contemporary.) After a much better review, one which even acknowledges their acoustic past by referencing the very track "Morgenspaziergang" I mention above, Petridis nonetheless concludes "Kraftwerk still feel unique".
But notice the "still" in both cases. This word weakens these pronouncements, as though admitting that this is now all we can expect. A little something after all these years. It's rather sad that there's nothing more exciting in contemporary music that would deserve five stars from these critics.
Well, for me there is, and it comes from music made without commercial constraints, without packaging, without genre boundaries, and without structural prohibitions. Whatever you want to call it, it's the sort of music that results from free, organic processes that acknowledge their embedded situation in a system of networks and flows. It's never the same twice. And it's much more compelling than 3D glasses. Because you really are there. And not just in 3D.
Kraftwerk once knew this to be true. Grab their first few albums for proof. And to be amazed.