The death of Florian Schneider, co-founder and (probably) principal conceptualist of Kraftwerk, (probably) in the past week, (probably) does not mark the end of the band. The other co-founder, Ralf Hutter, who (probably) was the principal musical driver of the German pioneers has been touring versions of the band since Schneider left (probably) around 2006.
Probably? Enigmatic is barely half of it with this group. We’re talking people who happily wrote out of their history key members of the group, tried very hard to write out of history their earliest albums, and to this day reveal as little as possible about who did what and what means what, up to and including exactly when Schneider died.
Still, in 2003 when the band reissued five key albums from the 1970s, from Autobahn in 1974 to Computer World in 1981, I took a stab across two parts at not just getting a handle on the music but where it led to. And where it led to is pretty much all the key musical developments of the late 20th century popular music: electronic and industrial pop, pan-Europeanism, hip hop and electronica.
Does it explain everything? No. Does it explain some of it? Probably.
Autobahn/Radio-Activity/ Trans-Europe Express (EMI)
Digging up electronic music's roots.
Without Elvis rock 'n' roll would still have existed, but it would have come later and looked different. Without Kraftwerk and the early '70s German music scene (what came to be known as Krautrock) there probably would have been electronica, industrial dance, hip hop and rave culture eventually, but not as we know it. Which makes this year's re-issue of Kraftwerk's canon worth investigating.
You can't get the first three Kraftwerk albums any more (Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf Und Florian are out of print and the band doesn't seem interested in changing that) but as far as the wider world is concerned, album four, 1974's Autobahn, is where it all began anyway. Here were contemporary-classical and musique concrete concepts of hypnotic, repeated rhythms and found sounds combined with pop music's expansion into atmospherics.
Here, too, was a European, particularly German, sensibility that took modernism to heart in declaring there was a way to create a new world that restructured accepted, tradition-bound thoughts (not just in music and art) into forms that burnt with optimism.
Autobahn opens with the 22-minute title track that positively hums with the rhythm of the open road as a metaphor for a new Europe. Clean, sleek, pulsing and fresh, it entrances with its minimalist repetition, the foundation for some sweeping rushes of sound, using both old and new elements, such as flutes and moog synthesisers. And then there's the nod to the Beach Boys in the "fahn fahn fahn" refrain.
Autobahn's spiritual partners came three years later in the title track of Trans-Europe Express, and the expectant Europe Endless on the same album. Ostensibly a homage to the pleasures of super efficient train travel, the rhythmically insistent Trans-Europe Express suggested open vistas both physical and intellectual. And in all three tracks you can see the roots of ambience and its drugged electronic sibling, trance.
The four tracks that made up the second side of Autobahn and much of the album that followed it, Radio-Activity, are more complex. There's beauty but there are also disturbing shifts. Glistening melodies are countered by disembodied elements that aren't exactly harsh, but conjure senses of distance and alienation.
This can appear as coldness but is in fact its opposite, bustling emotion being kept in check. It's most evident in the stark fears of The Hall of Mirrors from Trans-Europe Express, the track that seems the most obvious forefather to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and the rest of the British industrial movement of the post-punk years.
In the more defined rhythms of Trans-Europe Express songs such as Showroom Dummies and the title track, the basic elements that would inspire and provide the tools for the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and other early hip-hop DJs are in place. Where Kraftwerk took those rhythms will be seen next week with their albums Man-Machine and Computer World.
Man-Machine/Computer World (EMI)
The start of something big.
The pop underpinnings of Kraftwerk were always there if you were prepared to look for them (remember the Beach Boys reference in Autobahn?). But with 1978's Man-Machine and 1981's Computer World the evidence was clearer.
Melodies insinuated themselves inside shiny, perfectly constructed boxes, such as the floating-in-space Metropolis and the romantically dreamy Neon Lights. Hooks couldn't be avoided in the eminently catchy Pocket Calculator and Model. And in irresistible dance moments such as Computer World, you got both.
Perhaps nothing was more pop than the band's continued love of a uniform look, this time red shirt and black ties, slicked-back hair and impassive faces (think of The Knack and The Angels, then, and the Hives, now, for other fine uniform examples). The casual observer often assumed the humans had slipped aside.
However, investigate the longing lyrics of Computer Love or the imagery in Neon Lights and you'll find a beating heart. The other thing beating was a subtle sense of humour. Pocket Calculator had its droll gag ("by pressing down this special key it plays a little melody") and the sly nods continue throughout Computer World.
On these two albums, Kraftwerk pushed themselves further towards the clean lines and flawless golden future of humanist science fiction: computers, robots, dispassionate intercourse between man and machines. The idea of building a new Europe explored on the earlier albums now expanded to the concept of building a new type of man.
Just how seriously Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider took this, of course, is up for debate, but here was the essence of sleekness, of white-walled rooms, perfectly pressed linen and very shiny cutlery.
Then there were the rhythms created by electronic percussion boffins Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur, who tended to be written out of the picture later by Hutter and Schneider. New York DJ Afrika Bambaataa took two early Kraftwerk tracks, Trans Europe Express and Numbers, and created the hip-hop prototype with Planet Rock.
But it is the work on these two albums that really has the strongest influence on hip-hop, Detroit's techno, British electropop and industrial scenes and the later European dance network. The repetitive beats and cold separations of It's More Fun To Compute or Robots laid the groundwork (quite literally, given how often they were sampled) for most of what you heard in clubs throughout the '90s.
This was the future being written.