Kraftwerk or The Beatles? Even today, experts are still arguing over which quartet had a greater impact on modern pop music: the Fab Four from Liverpool or the Robots from Düsseldorf. The New York Times wrote: "It has been argued in the press that Kraftwerk is the most important music group since the Beatles. Less debatable is the fact that what the Beatles are to rock music, Kraftwerk is to electronic dance music. The band laid down a blueprint for the music's future, developing an automated, impersonal sound that although it seems ultra-intellectual and European, slipped across barriers of race, class, and nationality like mercury."
Technophile Florian Schneider-Esleben started out by playing krautrock together with Ralf Hütter. His father Paul Schneider-Esleben was a prolific architect in a young post-war Germany. He left his mark on the Rhine, designing in Düsseldorf the Mannesmann skyscraper along the River Rhine and the Hanielgarage, as well as Cologne Bonn Airport. Florian Schneider studied the flute at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf while his interest in electronic music grew.
Kraftwerk - Autobahn (2009 Remaster)Original Source: Kraftwerk YouTube
In 1974, the album Autobahn was released. Kraftwerk completely redefined music from Germany. The eponymous track is an automotive journey across the Federal Republic of Germany in 22 minutes and 30 seconds. The cars in the associated music video—Mercedes and Volkswagen—bore Düsseldorf license plates. With Wolfgang Flür on electronic drums, cutting-edge technology had the upper hand. Ralf Hütter's cold singing voice could be heard for the first time. Krautrock was obsolete—the future was electropop!
"I found that the flute was too limiting," said Florian Schneider in an interview published in the book Man, Machine and Music by Pascal Bussy. "Soon I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesizer. Much later I threw the flute away; it was a sort of process." Wolfgang Flür described his musical development in the New York Times later: "We built one of the first sequencers, a small one that we could use on stage. And that was the first step for techno music. Without sequencers, it isn't possible. From the sequencer on, the music became more cold and more cold and more technical."
Kraftwerk landed in the US billboard charts with Autobahn. The album was the first exported German pop music hit in the US. It remains the band's bestselling album today. Rock critic Lester Bangs published a legendary Kraftwerk feature in magazine Creem in 1974. In the interview with Bangs, Ralf Hütter presented his musical vision: "We are the first German group who sings in our own language, we use our electronic background and create a central European identity for ourselves."
The early indoor concerts in their home town: on October 12, 1975, Kraftwerk performed in the Rheinhalle (today the Tonhalle). The Autobahn concert poster by Düsseldorf artist Emil Schult now hangs in Museum Folkwang in Essen alongside artwork by Andy Warhol. On June 13, 1981, Kraftwerk played at the Philipshalle. At the souvenir stand a silver-plated Kraftwerk Casio pocket calculator was available for 10 German Marks. It had a few Computer World melodies saved onto it and you could also use it to create other sounds.
Kraftwerk - Radioaktivität (2009 Remaster)Original Source: Kraftwerk YouTube
The successor album to Autobahn, Radio-Activity, was released in 1975. Karl Bartos joined Kraftwerk as a drummer. With that, the legendary line-up was complete: Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter, Wolfgang Flür, and Karl Bartos. Kraftwerk used wordplay as their guiding theme: radio and radioactivity. Kraftwerk would incorporate a romanticized image of people, technology, and nature in harmony over time. For now, the theme was Stop Radioactivity. In 1992, Kraftwerk took part in a protest concert organized by Greenpeace against the Sellafield II reprocessing facility together with U2 and Public Enemy in Manchester. The intro to their classic song Radioactivity created for this campaign has since been a part of Kraftwerk concerts around the world.
The journey continued by train: in 1977, the band's sixth album, Trans-Europe Express, was released. The Düsseldorf band, with their innovative rhythms, were the godfathers of the early hip-hop genre. In 1982, the title track of the album and the track Numbers were covered by New York DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the band Soulsonic Force for their song Planet Rock. Hip-hop legend Bambaataa later said "They probably had no idea how big they were among black listeners in 1977." The LA Times selected Trans-Europe Express in 2014 as one of the most significant pop albums of the last 40 years.
In 1978, The Man-Machine was released. Karl Klefisch's artwork was inspired by Russian constructivist Eliezer "El" Lissitzky. Florian Schneider announced through the vocoder: "We are the robots." The band mutated into a machine. Kraftwerk's sound awakened a lot of English bands, who had turned away from punk and delved into electronic music. The song The Model, the B-side of Computer Love, was loved by British DJs who played it over and over again. The single re-release, this time as an A-side, reached number 1 in the UK charts in 1982.
Since Autobahn, Kraftwerk have been considered pioneers of electronic music. The musical influence of the group has been iconic. Many British musicians described Kraftwerk's first performance on British television as "a life-changing eureka moment." In the art world, Kraftwerk are classed as somewhere between minimalism and constructivism, alongside Mondrian and Kandinsky. In 1978, lifelike mannequins first appeared as the band's doppelgangers. The musicians' movements and motions while live were reduced to a minimum. Double or original? The illusion is perfect.
A look into the machine world: Kraftwerk's sound lab, founded in 1970, was the famous Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf. In the inconspicuous studio near the train station the group tinkered with their electronic sound. Until 2009 the studio was located on Mintropstraße, right next to strip clubs, kebab houses, and sex shops. It was only by mid 2009 when Kraftwerk moved to another studio in Meerbusch-Osterath, about 10 miles west of Düsseldorf.
The house with the plate Elektro Müller GmbH became a pilgrimage site for Kraftwerk fans throughout the world—a legend from the days when Kraftwerk conjured up spherical sounds from transistors, the likes of which had never been heard before. For Kraftwerk fans, the Kling Klang Studio is like a mix of the Cavern Club and Abbey Road for Beatles fans. Not even David Bowie, a huge admirer of the band, was allowed access when he visited Düsseldorf and wanted to look at the studio.
The name Kraftwerk is meant to be a callback to their heavily industrial home town between the Rhine and Ruhr rivers. Above all, in contrast to many beat and krautrock bands, the name made no attempt to hide their origins from a Germany burdened by history. But anyone looking for the meaning behind Kraftwerk's music is typically going to be disappointed. Florian Schneider wasn't fond of speaking. In rare interviews, he often let Ralf Hütter do the talking. Ralf later said in an interview, looking back on the special relationship between Schneider and Hütter: "We spoke the same language. We were mavericks, loners. Mr. Kling and Mr. Klang. Two mavericks making up one doppelganger." Schneider was once asked by a presenter just before performing at a Brazilian festival: "Which songs are you going to play this evening?" "All of them," Schneider responded.
Florian Schneider is a true Rhine citizen. When Iggy Pop arrived in Düsseldorf from Berlin together with David Bowie, he went with him to the Düsseldorf weekly market to buy fresh asparagus, as Iggy pop himself mentioned in an interview. Both music icons actually walked from the Kling Klang Studio along the route to the Düsseldorf old town without being disturbed so that Iggy Pop could get closer to the delights of the region's cuisine. From Düsseldorf, Iggy Pop and Bowie went on their way back to Berlin to start recording Heroes and Lust for Life at the Berlin Hansa Tonstudio recording studio.
After a three-year break in activity, the LP Computer World was released in 1981. In tune with binary code, Kraftwerk marked the ambivalent entry of the computer into everyday life. The title track is a criticism of mass data collection, while Pocket Calculator offers a dash of humor. Martin Gore of Depeche Mode later stated in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel: "For everyone in our generation involved with electronic music, Kraftwerk were pioneers."
Kraftwerk - Boing Boom Tschak (2009 Remaster)Original Source: Kraftwerk YouTube
Boing. Boom. Tschak. Electric Café was Kraftwerk's last regular studio album, released in 1986. The visually brilliantly produced single releases The Telephone Call and Musique Non Stop caused quite the sensation in particular. The album title was changed in 2009 to Techno Pop. The music video for Musique Non Stop is a milestone in the genre: the 3D computer-animated wireframes recreate the heads and bodies of the band and are the pioneering work of researcher Rebecca Allen and her team at the New York Institute of Technology. The work took almost two years to complete.
What links Detroit in the US state of Michigan with Düsseldorf, the state capital of North-Rhine Westphalia? According to Ralf Hütter, there is a spiritual bond between the sound from the industrial city on the Detroit River and the electro sound from the Rhine. In the early 1980s, Kraftwerk provided inspiration for the Detroit music scene. When the DJ The Electrifying Mojo played Computer World (Computerwelt) by Kraftwerk on the radio, the sound was a huge source of inspiration for young artists like The Belleville Three—Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins—and the blueprint for techno "made in Detroit".
Juan Atkins, who coined the term techno at the start of the 1980s and is considered the godfather of the genre, described the band as his "gods." Kraftwerk were most popular during their US tours in the run-down auto city of Detroit. African-American fans lost themselves in the bright-looking future world of Kraftwerk and experimented with electronic sound generators themselves as soon as they could afford to.
Run-D.M.C. are still considered pioneers of hip-hop in the United States. The legendary New York hip-hop band also emphasizes that Kraftwerk had a decisive influence on the beginnings of hip-hop. Founding member Darryl McDaniels (DMC) told the English trade magazine New Musical Express in December 2020 that the Düsseldorfers "created" no more and no less than hip-hop. “Kraftwerk were a foundation of hip-hop not just because of their music, but they built their own machines and computers,” McDaniels said. “They were doing the same thing as young boys and girls in the Bronx were doing at the beginning of hip-hop. We didn’t have studios but we heard their music and there was something in their music that connected us. If you listen to the early years of hip-hop… we followed the blueprint of a group from Germany.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, the core duo Hütter and Schneider were less productive than before. During this time, they bought heaps of digital devices for their Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf. The band converted to digital technology for their music production and published the remix album The Mix in 1991. At this time, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos were no longer a part of the band. In 1999, Kraftwerk returned with a jingle for the Expo 2000 world exhibition in Hannover. A radio-friendly version lasting 3 minutes and 35 seconds was released as a maxi single with different remixes and reached number 35 in the German charts.
Kraftwerk - Tour de France (Live)Original Source: Kraftwerk YouTube
The 1983 song and single release Tour de France grew into a longplay album in 2003. Tour de France Soundtracks was inspired by band founders Hütter's and Schneider's love of cycling. They presented a romantic tribute to road cycling and professional cyclists. The official canon of eight studio albums completes their catalog of music.
In 2009, founding member Florian Schneider left the band. Since then, Ralf Hütter has been the only one responsible for Kraftwerk's legacy. Kraftwerk continued to perform and arranged their catalog as a multimedia 3D spectacle. In 2014, Kraftwerk became the first German band to be given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The Beatles were also one of the prize recipients for this year. The English newspaper The Guardian wrote: "It's very difficult indeed to imagine what modern music would sound like had they [Kraftwerk], and specifically the five albums they released between 1974 and 1981, not existed."
In 2012, they played eight concerts in the Museum of Modern Art in New York—one for every one of their albums. Concert attendees included hip-hop-legend Afrika Bambaataa, Japanese pop icon Ryuichi Sakamoto, and REM singer Michael Stipe. This concept was later implemented in several other locations as well—among them, K20 of the North Rhine-Westphalia art collection in Düsseldorf (2013), the Tate Modern in London (2013), the Vienna Burgtheater (2014), and the New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgalerie) in Berlin (2015). In parallel to their concerts in Düsseldorf, there was also a Kraftwerk photo exhibition in the NRW Forum in the city, with pictures by band photographer Peter Boettcher.
Hütter described his home town in an interview with American magazine Rolling Stone : "Düsseldorf is on the side of the industrial region here in Germany, and on the other side of the Rhine is flatland with open skies—more like the Netherlands, in a way. Also, Düsseldorf was the center in postwar Germany of the visual arts scene—painting and performance art. We are very closely related to the Düsseldorf art scene, or have been always. When we got to play at MoMA [in 2012], it was like a return to the art-gallery scene and the art scene in general."
On July 1, 2017, Kraftwerk revisited their home town of Düsseldorf. To mark the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, the band gave an open-air concert in the Ehrenhof, the area between the Tonhalle, the NRW Forum, and the Kunstpalast. Tour director Christian Prudhomme personally wanted Kraftwerk to perform to mark the grand departure in Düsseldorf. German time trial champion Tony Martin also started the tour on a beautifully formed machine developed together with Kraftwerk, with a grid design matching Kraftwerk's on-stage suits.
Kraftwerk's home performance was celebrated by 15,000 viewers wearing 3D glasses on their faces and coming from across the world. Journalist Philipp Holstein wrote in local newspaper Rheinische Post: "Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf, it's like The Beatles in Liverpool: the man-machine felt at home and you could sense that."
2020 marks exactly 50 years since the band Kraftwerk were formed in Düsseldorf. The result has been astounding: Kraftwerk decisively shaped electronic pop music, from synth pop, hip-hop to techno. Even Coldplay's global hit Talk is based on a Kraftwerk melody. From Coldplay to dubstep, Daft Punk to Jay-Z, Kraftwerk's impact can be found everywhere. Even 50 years after the band was formed, their total body of work leaves no room for doubt: "It'll keep going—music as the transporter of ideas." When Florian Schneider died in 2020, techno star Nina Kraviz tweeted: "What would electronic music be without Kraftwerk? RIP."
A special talk in the Salon des Amateurs: Mike Litt, radio presenter and DJ, talks to Sven-Andre Dreyer and Michael Wenzel about "The Sound of Düsseldorf". The two Düsseldorf music book authors describe the electronic avant-garde on the Rhine.
Curated by Sven-André Dreyer and Dr. Michael Wenzel, editorial assistance Thorsten Schaar (Visit Düsseldorf). Participating institutions: Cultural Office of the State Capital Düsseldorf, City Archive Düsseldorf, Heinrich Heine Institute, City Museum Düsseldorf, Tonhalle Düsseldorf gGmbH