Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Power-Plant Robots Hit Tour de France

                                                        The Power-Plant Men 

Kraftwerk is one of the most, if not the most influential music projects in electronic and pop (popular)  music after the Beatles. The act originally from Dusseldorf, Germany, steered by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, certainly defined contemporary dance music.  Kling Klang, their studio, is their master instrument into which they isolate themselves not only to make music but also make, customize, or program machinery and/or instruments in order to produce their distinctive sound. 
Minimalism and repetition empowers the funky rhythmic beats and synthy-keys that have made their song catalogue an obliged reference and unique sound-bank, where producers and other innovators have found a spring to nourish their muse.  Afrika Bambaataa - Planet Rock, 1982, became a patent corner stone in Pop Culture assembling Kraftwerk´s Germanic legacy keyboards riffs with the edgy New York´s Bronx Afro-American rhythm beats, breeding Electro-Rap.

Along its timeline, Kraftwerk´s discography includes to the moment, 14 outstanding records. Many of their titles tell us with nuance about their awareness of contemporary life styles and emerging technologies envisioning their impact on our daily continuum. 

While Die Mensch Maschine and Computerwelt albums reside on the relationship between man and technology, Autobahn,  the LP, and Trans Europe Express´ s unique presentation press-conference aboard a train, reveals Kraftwerk´s concern in locomotive systems, and evidently Tour De France, the 1983 single, definitely exposes Ralf Hutter´s, the group´s driving force, quasi-obsessive passion for biking. The bike´s gear mechanism, the chain rattle and its cyclist´s rhythmic breathing presence on the music add percussive context to the allusive track.
 I remember reading somewhere how much Hutter tried to persuade the band to take up biking as part of their training routine and while on tour back in the 80’s, he suggested to get off the tour bus, quite a few miles before their final destination, to go on the rest of the way riding their bikes. 

However, paradoxically enough, no devotion would save Hutter from falling into a coma for a few days caused by a serious bicycle accident in 1983 riding close by home while recording their ever since abandoned ongoing project Techno-Pop.. Nevertheless, the French bike race theme luckily made its way through the mess to the vinyl press, rising totally unharmed from the catastrophe, as a hit single.

The Quest for Style 

It was the 1970´s, the hippie culture was waning and the seeds of the late 60´s Psychedelia powered flowers planted by free thinkers, new agers,  religious leaders and social revolutionaries, were sprouting out shedding searing political awareness, avocation to civil rights and greater respect for individualism, in this rapidly growing society. The new demographics blown by the Baby Boomers generation were on the quest for new and different lifestyles, demanding innovative appliances, new instruments and toys for an enlarged and younger population. As a result new aesthetic codes together the emerging technologies were starting to pervade the Status-quo, Pop Culture and all forms of Art, questioning its own essence and redefining concepts defying standards. 

In the music world Psychedelia had permeated through all genders and styles, from Folk to Rock and Soul to Pop extending its realm. In Germany, it had reached the experimental music territory forging Kosmische Music  which by its geographic origins, was naïvely tagged as Krautrock by the English music press. 

Kosmiche Music

Unlike British and American Psychedelic Rock, Kosmiche Music, parting away from the traditional Blues and Rock and Roll structures, takes the Psychedelic sound essence in combination with various Jazz and Fee Jazz elements, Classic Experimental Music - influenced by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen -  and drawing on its Germanic roots, Kosmiche Music conjures itself into existence. 

Regardless of style, influenced by the ethereal Zeitgeist, names like Can, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Popul Vu, Faust, and Kraftwerk spear out on this grid, introducing the electronic component with a somehow unorthodox manner of music production, enhanced with the addition of inventive electronic effect gadgets, drones, and manipulation techniques; coating the style with its characteristic eclectic sound.

Ignition of the Power-Plant

Kraftwerk released their first record Kraftwerk, in 1970, followed by Kraftwerk 2, in 1972. Basically, instrumental explorations in Experimental Rock using conventional instruments such as bass, drums, electric keyboards, flute, guitar and violin to be processed in studio post-production by means of electronic effects, multiple dubbing of a single instrument, tape editing and other studio techniques. 

Ralf und Florian 

Released in 1973, starts defining the style of the duo´s project with the use of synthesizers, stronger presence of drum machines and the introduction of the Vocoder, short for voice encoder or analysis/synthesis system, used to reproduce human speech, later to be a sonic signature of their work.  During this 3 year period they performed live as a duo mostly in Germany with occasional gigs in France, relying on drum machines and synthesizers. They had important collaborators in their studio sessions including Bartos, before definitely joining the band circa 1976 and Konrad ¨Connie¨ Plank, sound engineer, who produced their fist four albums and worked with other relevant artists in the scene such as Can, Harmonia, and Neu! turning Plank´s studio into one of the most sought then.

Kraftwerk´s music in this period is shows the band´s influence left by their academic classic training very particularly applied to electronic technology, techniques and experimentations. Hutter and Schneider had been formed at Robert Schumann Hochschule in Dusseldorf, and their names together with that of Karl Bartos, are actually included in the music academy´s distinguished students list.


Their groundbreaking album released in 1974 is their breakthrough to international audiences, Autobahn Instantly a respected cult classic, with its 22 minute long title track,  suddenly reached favorable positions in USA, Europe, Australia and as far as N°11 in the UK charts. This musical epic subtly portrays the region´s landscape grassy hills and a driver´s routine listening to his car-radio along the Autobahn 555, the first ever built freeway in Germany, riding from Koln to Bonn. 

On side 2 of this album, Kometen Melodie 1 and 2, Mitternacht and Morgenssparciergang; with a spacey, profound and particular sound, evokes a vision of Kohutek, the comet, pulling its icy iridescent tail, as it glides through the deepest midnight sky, passing smoothly by, to let the morning light shine come its time in sonic pastoral.  

Violin, flute, guitar, several own designed devices, their unique electronic drum, Vocoder, Minimoog, Arp Odissey, EMS Synth AKS, complete the set applied in this fantastic concept album. Its cover was created by Emil Shult – painter, poet, and musician - taking part in the musical process in this period, and touring with the band as well as designing most of their records´ cover art.  Not surprisingly Autobahn 555, the German expressway, virtually extended its reach beyond to an enhanced reality, transporting the act much further than Koln or Bonn for it took the band to US, Canada, and the UK on an international tour, financed by Phonogram Records to promote the album.


With the benefits from Autobahn´s success, Hutter and Schneider were capable of upgrading their studio with new equipment acquiring self production ability. Radio-Activity, by its name in English, is a bilingual album with some themes in German and others in English, stresses on the importance of media and mass telecommunications. 

At times raw, others sublime, a valiant and romantic intensity conducts the sonic mood of this, ahead of its time, once again, concept LP, conveying with a tinge, an imaginary sound holograph of next decade´s club music, presenting the threshold for Kraftwerk´s new direction in music.

All aboard!

Recorded in 1976, released in ´77, Trans-Europa Express, unlike any other train, TEE  is always beating on time bursting with hypnotic mechanistic rhythms and stressed pitched minimalistic key riffs surely is Kraftwerk´s  exclusive train to electronic trance-inducing cosmopolitan dance floors.  

The band´s formation from this time on became the classic Hutter-Schneider-Flur-Bartos line up to be seen on all live gigs for a good period of time.   With their power plant fully operative the high performance robotic quartet gained a much wider audience scope, reaching the American contagious phenomenon known as Disco fever, releasing its title track in a 12” vinyl maxi-single, the new format that had recently hit the market then. At the same time, Disco music had started to drop its acoustic orchestral arrangements in favor of electronically controlled music resources, synthesizers and rhythm boxes, and its producers and acolytes were ready for the Eletro-fication of dance music, nonstop!. 

Die Mensch Maschine, released in 1978 produced three of the bands iconoclastic long lasting hits. Its title track plusThe Model  and The Robots in combination with its cover art work and emblematic photograph portrays the four musicians, resembling androids resembling men in red shirts and black ties, rendering their mechanistic style enhanced by deep-rooted repetitive rhythms and sublime crafty melodies, producing a tantric like sound loop as a musical figure. In harsh contrast to the exotic trendy look of the artist stereotype of the times, this album configures Kraftwerk’s four machine-men image for years to come, ironically confirming their audience that after all, they are everything except showroom dummies.

"It´s More Fun To Compute" 

With the arrival of the personal computer, anticipating its impact on arts and everyday life, comes Computerwelt as well as the band´s return to the road after a three year absence, packing the entire Kling Klang studio ready to go, with a strong increase of amazingly synchronized visuals elements. To comply with the band´s multi-language ethos, a Texas Instrument language translator was used to reproduce some vocal parts, Pocket Calculator, track 2 of this album, was issued as a single, in German, French and Japanese. 

Due to Computerwelt;s effort demanding tour, Hutter started looking for new forms of exercise to keep in shape and biking fitted perfectly the band´s image providing at the same time recreation and inspiration for the Tour De France single in 1983.  

Electric Café released in ´86, it´s the last album in which Flur and Bartos take part. After a long absence, the band hit the road again for The Mix album tour in ´91, touring Europe, UK, US until ´98 when they hit Japan, Brazil and Argentina after headlining the dance music festival Tribal Gathering in England in 1997 with huge success.

     Tour De France Soundtracks 
This album released in 2003 as homage for the 100th anniversary of the Tour de France bicycle race and just like its title suggests fits the task with its collection of tracks. Taking up 20 years after on their original single; this album with its retro-futuristic sound  surely is a good accompaniment to enjoy the ride at the French tournament.  

Prologue The opening track conditions the atmosphere providing a sense of calmed concentration for the route ahead. 

Tour De France The sequential high spirited triad, pumps up the initial adrenaline kick needed to hit the road, needless saying all three 1° Etage, 2° Etage and 3° Etage  have multi-task-all-terrain qualities, being fully able to ignite the hardest of dance floors anytime anywhere. 

Electrocardiogram The heartbeat like organic bass drum & spiritual funky beats emulates African rhythmic patterns bound to the origins of life in the heart of the mother continent. 

Chrono A speedy fugue, a dear legacy from earlier Germanic keyboard masters. 

Vitamin Portrays a musical insight on the chemical reaction within our organism. Its minimal lyricism is a pleasant reminder of the impact of controlled basic nourishment for the track ahead. 

Titanium No metal, alloyed or not, has ever has ever been so funky and light. 

La Forme A relaxing ambient track which balances this collection of themes.   

Regenaration The Vocoder, stamping the album with some sort of sonic invisible ink makes this theme the signature track with strong and particular presence. 

The same year, 2003, the band started the extensive Minimum-Maximum world tour for which they virtually packed the entire Kling Klang studio into four Sony Vaio customized laptop computers. Two years after Minimum-Maximum, a compilation album from the performances during the tour, was released.

Acknowledging the importance and complexity of Kraftwerk´s work, in April, 2012, Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at Large at the Museum of Modern Art – MoMA – in New York, organized Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 An exhibit of eight consecutive nights presenting a chronological exploration of the sonic and visual experiments of Kraftwerk with a live presentation of their complete repertoire, blasting-off astonishing 3D projections, showcasing what they phrased as “Kraftwerk´s historical contributions to and contemporary influence on global sound and image culture”.

After 42 years of a successful and ageless existence, Kraftwerk´s current members are Ralf Hutter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Stefan Pfaffe.

Written by Bert Tosh