Kraftwerk built their own electronic instruments in true computer hobbyist style - produced music that celebrated and queried our techno future - pioneered a beautiful retro/modern design aesthetic - and surely helped take computing from vast rooms of tape machines into the home.
Florian Schneider and the band he co-founded seemed to presage so much about the modern age. And they did so with a feeling that transcended mere machine music, and a striking visual aesthetic rather than words. If you collated all of Kraftwerk’s lyrics and did a word count, the number would not be high…
Schneider’s apparent obsession with privacy - only making gnomic, dry comments even when he was interviewed seemed in itself to be a performance art piece - a commentary - on the role of the silent programmers that run our world. Where what happens behind the scenes is an arcane black box, albeit dominated by flow charts and logic, that only reveals itself when in completed form.
Nothing about Kraftwerk would scream for them to be successful - especially in the UK, where they were very popular. First, they were Teutonic, apparently fetishizing technology - and German with a sense of humour (ohm sweet ohm).
They were deliberately plain-looking, especially by 70s standards. Short-haired, tidy - rocking a geek aesthetic before that was a thing. They played up artificiality, beyond even mass production towards android cloning (see the cover of The Man Machine) - if there could be such a thing.
Their music had an element of repetition as change at least concurrent with Brian Eno, if not actually precedent.
Their specific subjects were unashamedly science and technology geek fodder. Songs on bits of the electro-magnetic spectrum, gadgets, space. On breakthrough long player(!) ‘Autobahn’ there appeared ‘Comet Melody’ 1 and 2. The next record(!), ‘Radio-activity’, is essentially a concept album - punning on radio communication and radioactivity - and here they started mentioned specific gadgets too: ‘Transistor’, ‘Ohm sweet ohm’ (at least implying resistors) and ‘Geiger counter’.
Their horizons moved from the EM spectrum further out in 1978’s The Man Machine - out into space itself.
But it is the computing references that perhaps people remember best (especially as I have no intention of namechecking their biggest UK hit - simply because that is so reductive).
For those in our teens ‘Home Computer’ seemed like a futurist manifesto - ‘I programme my home computer, beam myself into the future’. The cover of 1981’s Computer World, with protagonists fluorescing against a Hazeltine Corporation machine, was positively inspiring.
It inspired a lot of other things as well - I remember a book on Gary Numan from 1981 proudly pronouncing the use of a UK 101 in its production, and it was brought to mind again when I read a Douglas Adams’ book that trumpeted the specific software used for its word processing and type setting.
They even released a limited-edition calculator with ‘Pocket Calculator’ - ‘when you press a special key it plays a little melody.’
Later on we happy few found out that Kraftwerk even inspired hip-hop, were considered funky, were considered arty… but at the time we were just inspired to view technology as a tool - to be used judiciously, yes - but also as cool. That didn’t last - and even my use of the term geek in this article points to that. But it was a beautiful vision.
Interestingly, Kraftwerk also had an underlying message of unease about technology that can’t be overlooked. And today even that nuanced balance is prescient, as we become ever more aware of the missing elements in our headlong rush to innovate - human beings, ethics, feelings.
I am the first to know that this article is a tad on the indulgent side… but I also know I am far from alone is the feelings herein expressed…
And just to bring together the threads of high and low art I’ve hinted at, I am listening to ‘Franz Schubert’ from ‘Trans-Europe Express’ - there’s a reference you wouldn’t usually get in electropop - and it’s from the same record whose title track also name checks Iggy and Bowie.