We're living in the future that Kraftwerk hypothesized and synthesized on 1981's Computer World. On that classic album, the German electronic-music pioneers postulated a populace enraptured and awestruck by computers and their life-enhancing and potentially utopian applications. Somehow they didn't foresee internet trolls and groan-inducing click-bait headlines, but no matter. Do you create music on a synthesizer or a computer? You should probably thank Kraftwerk.
Kraftwerk have always been avant-garde... until they weren't—around the time of 1986's Electric Cafe (later retitled Techno Pop). But from 1970 to 1983, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, and myriad comrades had one of the most torrid hot streaks in music history. Their first four albums—including 1969's Tone Float, recorded as Organisation—mapped out a freaky jam aesthetic that scanned more as psychedelic rock and free jazz than the later rhythmically precise and melodically grandiloquent approach of their post-Autobahn output. Bafflingly, Kraftwerk rarely acknowledge those early works, which, while not as influential as their 1974 to 1983 output, contain some of history's most adventurous and unhinged music. Listen to Kraftwerk: It sounds like a new, unprecedented universe being born. On 1972's Kraftwerk 2, tracks like "Klingklang" and "Strom" basically invented '90s post-rock groups Stereolab and Labradford, respectively. Ralf & Florian (1973) is the transitional record that nudged Kraftwerk into the electronics-dominated approach that would blossom spectacularly on their mid-'70s releases. Many smart people consider it their best.
Kraftwerk hit big with the automaton-Beach-Boys odyssey of 1974's "Autobahn" single, and then went on to blueprint synth pop (Radio-Activity, the supernal "Airwaves" is a pinnacle), techno (Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine), and electro (Computer World, see especially the gravity-defying "Numbers"). And the 1983 single "Tour de France" invented biketronica. Kraftwerk's music epitomized the hypnotic bliss of aerodynamic movement, no matter the mode of transport.
In sum, Kraftwerk have been electronic music's Beatles and Velvet Underground: They both popularized it and inspired thousands of people to create their own unconventional sounds with synths and computers. Kraftwerk's impact on Seattle's musicians runs deep and wide. In advance of Kraftwerk's 3-D Concert at the Paramount, The Stranger interviewed several local musicians about their initial encounters with Kraftwerk's innovative music and what it has meant to them.
Norm Chambers (Panabrite): The first time I can vividly remember hearing Kraftwerk was in a hotel-room New Year's party in the late '80s. My friend had one of those unofficial truck-stop cassette comps with all the "hits," and it was playing on a boom box. I was into a lot of industrial-electronic stuff at the time, so it resonated in a way where it felt sort of quaint and naive, but in a humorous and clever way. A few years later, I picked up another comp and got more acquainted with their discography. I think the real turning point for me was when my friend showed me his father's copy of Ralf & Florian. I was drawn in by the cover and the whole aesthetic, and was subsequently blown away by the sounds. "Tanzmusik" was the deal sealer for me. Something about that flat piano figure and the rapid bossa beat resonated with me, and still does today. Not to mention the face-melting "Ananas Symphonie," which is just about proto-everything.
I know they revolutionized electronic and dance music a bit into their mid-career, but those early records are so rewarding, mostly because they possess a rare combination of naïveté and forward-looking genius. They are one of the very few bands where I think everyone can agree they are great.
Scot Porter (Vox Mod/Lazer Kitty): When I first heard Kraftwerk, I was in high school, probably at home surfing the web. I was doing research on electronic music that had come out in decades past, trying to find what the earliest was. Kraftwerk was one name that popped up, being pioneers of electronic music who broke through into the pop world. I believe the first track I ever heard of theirs was either "Trans-Europe Express" or "Pocket Calculator." I remember feeling delighted by the seemingly simplistic sounds, but then I was blown away to remember they were recorded to tape with a variety of nontraditional instruments decades ago, instruments that still challenge people's views of what music "should" be. I also felt very proud of the heritage of electronic music at that moment and finding that these guys have influenced so much, including many of my current favorite artists/bands.
Since that initial encounter, they have felt like old friends, musically speaking. They have been and will remain explorers, and that is indicative of my favorite artists/bands. Pushing boundaries and expanding ideas is what I strive for, so I feel that I'm in good company making music. I have the best guidance because nothing rings more true than that these gentlemen have stuck to this idea all these years and permeated culture in so many ways. Endless inspiration.
Domenica Clark (Hollow Earth Radio, Spread Thick): I don't remember exactly when I first heard Kraftwerk, but Trans-Europe Express was my first album (I was 16), and I remember I bought it in Auburn's supermall in the early 2000s. I had been into electronic music previously—mostly '80s synth pop and a lot of the late-'90s hyped MTV bands like the Chemical Brothers and Underworld. Nothing else up until that point had quite sent me hurtling into the further outer limits of sound the way Kraftwerk did. From them I started listening to the other major German artists, such as Can and Neu! Because of Kraftwerk, I realized where my true musical love lay—in the sound of modular synthesizers, in vocoders and "robot" music in general, and in their sound that inspired so many genres I came to adore and DJ: left-field techno, electrofunk, experimental music, noise, and booty bass (!). I loved Kraftwerk so much as a teenager, I tried to get my 8-year-old sister into it, but I think I just scared her when I made her listen to "Showroom Dummies."
Troy Nelson (The Young Evils, KEXP): I first heard Kraftwerk when I was 8 or 9. It's such a vivid memory because I'm from a very small town in the middle of nowhere South Dakota. It was 1983 or 1984, and I was up way too late at 12:30 a.m. and I was not supposed to be watching MTV after 10 p.m. They played the "Pocket Calculator" video, and it did something so strange to my innocent mind. Without knowing anything about the video, the artist, or even the song title yet, I still knew I was watching something from another country, or maybe another planet. Something made by either humans or robots that is light-years ahead of right now. I remember it actually scared me a little. I think art on that level can't be fully comprehended by a kid with a mind that's not fully developed. But it can leave a hell of a mark, which it did. I never forgot seeing that video, and when it reappeared in my life in my teens, I remember thinking, "Oh shit, this is that fucked-up video that almost hypnotized me when I was a kid!"
Then I really saw how brilliant it was. Then I tracked down Computer World and started my two-decade journey of loving and respecting a group of people who stuck to their art like a band should. Not only were they composing sounds and tones with unconventional synths, modulators, and "computers," but they stuck to the visual side of it, too. Their electronic compositions somehow sound like the birth of computers, and the death of them as well. It's primitive and futuristic. In other words, when the humans are all gone from this earth and artificial intelligence sweeps the land for anything we left behind, I hope they come across Kraftwerk's music.
Kenric McDowell (Big Phone): Nerdily, I was a young collegiate in a music-history class when I first heard Kraftwerk. It was Trans-Europe Express. The familiarity of the sounds and patterns, their inherent futurism and deadpan Teutonic corniness were fascinating, like a shiny object in a hole in a log. The most beautiful element of Kraftwerk’s story to me is how much cross-cultural appeal they had to the African American musicians that created techno. That techno was birthed from this compels me as a mixed-race person and sets the stage for techno’s role as a global music and endlessly hybrid cultural space. Viva mutation!
Benjamin Thomas-Kennedy (Lesbian/Fungal Abyss): In the early ’90s I had a friend who lived in a tiny shack in the woods filled with nothing but CDs and empty beer bottles. It was there that I stumbled upon the cover of Kraftwerk’s Ralf & Florian for the first time. The cover compelled me put it in immediately, and I fell in love at first listen. Like a mushroom trip packed with abstract knowledge, it gave me a perspective on the world that was as important as it was impossible to articulate.
Jason Baxter (USF): As I suspect is the case with a lot of people of my generation, I first heard Kraftwerk indirectly via Afrika Bambaataa's “Planet Rock.” My first encounter with the authentic article was by design—the band had always been on the periphery of my musical awareness, and I made a point to immerse myself in Trans-Europe Express during a whirlwind post-college journey throughout mainland Europe. The whole record was a revelation, but the song I kept returning to was “Franz Schubert.” People sometimes grouse that electronic music is inherently cold, clinical, or soulless. To my ears, there is a depth of emotion to that song's elegant, heavenly arpeggio that matches the best of the rock and pop music coming out of that era. Kraftwerk's music bears all of the qualities I associate with my admittedly vague sense of German design—it is simple, unfussy, and quietly revolutionary. Divorced from the limitations of the technology that was available to the band, their music remains a testament to precision, economy, and grace.
Frankie Crescioni (Bankie Phones): I first heard Kraftwerk while sitting in the basement of my parents' house digging through my dad's old records; it was probably around 1999. He had a stereo that was really nice at one point, but having been in storage in a pretty damp and dirty basement coupled with a teenage boy who didn't have any idea of how to handle vintage electronics, it was, well, lo-fi. The record was Exceller 8. I remember not really getting it at first, it seemed like a really weird, repetitive, and meditative (definitely not like the gabber and loud and fast jungle music that I was into at the time), but then I heard “Stratovarius” (which after doing some short research on YouTube, the version on Exceller 8 is abridged significantly from the album of the same name), and it kind of made sense. After it played the first time, I put it back on again, and it felt like a puzzle of repetition just falling into place. Lights came on, and I realized the future doesn't have to be dark and bleak but can be illuminated by neon lights.
You can age gracefully if you are part machine. Plus, Miami bass would not be nearly as cool without “Tour De France” and “Numbers.”
Tyler Jacobsen (Roladex/art director of Medical Records): I was probably 18 years old and living in Austin, Texas. I had heard "Pocket Calculator" as a kid, but my really meaningful first encounter was with Autobahn shortly followed by Radioactivity, Kraftwerk I, and Ralph & Florian. At that time, I had just discovered Krautrock via Stereolab, so I was listening to a lot of Can, Neu!, Faust, and Cluster, among others. I felt like I had found this hidden history that only a few people knew about. It was a very mind-opening experience for me. Those pre-Autobahn records showed me an alternate world of experimentation in “rock” music that I had never seen. When I first heard the track "Radioactivity," I was hooked for life. For me, “Radioactivity” was the first true electronic-pop song. It built upon what Kraftwerk was doing with Autobahn, and formatted it with a more verse chorus song structure with vocals. It was the pop music of the future in 1975.
I remember being most taken aback about the year it was released—1975! Those unassuming gentlemen from Düsseldorf saw the future in the mid-’70s. I love to historically contextualize music, especially when I’m listening to it after its release. In 1975, the Bee Gees released "Jive Talkin’," and people were listening to “Kung Fu Fighting”…. Don't get me wrong, America was producing some innovative pop around the same time: Talking Heads, Modern Lovers, Stooges, Lou Reed, Eno/Bowie in the UK, and stuff was starting to happen in Italy. But Kraftwerk were on a whole other plane: the sounds of technology, about technology, and through technology. What's so amazing and perfect about this band is how brilliant and deliberate they are about every aspect of their music, album art, live shows, and exhibitions. Like the Living Theatre of Julian Beck, Kraftwerk would diffuse the "fourth wall" between themselves and their audience during their rare appearances. It’s not that they would never break character. Kraftwerk truly were “the robots”—they were popularizing this never-before-heard electronic music that was as nationalistic to being German, as the Beach Boys are to being Californian. Add an avant-garde execution, a superb technical mystique, and a style as unique and modern as the world had seen since the Neo-plasticism of De Stijl. They somehow brought highbrow conceptual art to a wider audience, and they did it with such grace.
I have to say, my favorite Kraftwerk albums at this point are The Man-Machine and Computer World. My favorite Kraftwerk songs are probably on The Man-Machine, but Computer World conceptually epitomized everything that they had been moving toward at that point. Computer World is the soundtrack to our mechanized modernity. It is made from the sounds that cascade from the assembly lines that produce products that are bought and sold by faceless multinational corporations. Recorded from the noise created out of the blips from the circuitry of the first home computer, edited through monotonous echoes of the high-speed monorail, and pulsating with the assonance of ultra-modern architectural structures, Computer World is sonic dissonance that seeps from our existence as we go to work, fall in love, grow old.
In only a way that all timeless art can, the music of Kraftwerk gives me humility. They show me how the machine of society is no better or worse than microscopic mitosis or the panspermia of debris from ancient collisions of solar bodies and planets. They forever changed my approach to music and art.
Chloe Harris (Raica/Further Records co-owner): When I was 5, I was taken to Easy Street Records to visit my dad, who opened the shop. He gave me Man-Machine because I loved the robotic look. I was really into sci-fi and the future and they were the perfect music for that. I listened and watched that record spin on my mum’s old turntable for years, and I still have my original copy.
Chris Pollina (Eldridge Gravy and the Court Supreme): I think Timm Mason played "Computer Love" for me when we lived together. First impressions are strong I guess because it's still my favorite song—the second half of the song is a towering achievement. It's at least three minutes long but I always wish it were longer. Kraftwerk is obviously a monolith of electronic music, but I feel like there are not a lot of other electronic acts that create songs as thoughtfully as they do. People often seem to pay attention to gear, timbre, getting weird or new sounds, and these details often overshadow the creation of a memorable song. As a drummer, it's a reminder to me that laying down one good beat and repeating it with little to no variation for five minutes is often the best choice.
Marc Laurick (China Sea Recordings Concern): My first experience with Kraftwerk came from an otherwise square record store in New Jersey in '77. I was in fact shopping for Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True, already on the lookout for unusual, non-mainstream music even at that tender age. But Ralf & Florian—adrift in a sea of Bob Seger—seemed to beckon to me from the bargain/cut-out bins. It was most certainly not the bar rock of the Silver Bullet Band, but having no comparative reference, it only confused me.
By this time, Kraftwerk had already released Autobahn and Radio-Activity, and Trans-Europe Express was just landing stateside. They were slowly building buzz, and I would not be deterred. I was foursquare in cracking the code of these mysterious Germans. What post-war Germany was or would become was a very new concept to a 14-year-old boy from South Jersey, and Trans-Europe Express seemed to explain it all to me. Beautifully.
Not too much later in the long arc of universal time, I went to New York for the new music seminar roadie-ing for Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Malcolm McLaren was the keynote speaker and had already set his sights on this new trend coming out of the Bronx. But despite the fact that Soulsonic Force were inexplicably opening for Haircut 100, what happened when Afrika Bambaataa took the stage at the Ritz was utterly transformative.
Brian McDonald (DJ Mackro): I discovered Kraftwerk in 1981 by hearing "Pocket Calculator" on an R&B/disco FM station in Los Angeles called KUTE. I loved it! It wasn't the first electronic radio track I heard. Lipps Inc's "Funkytown," Gary Numan's "Cars," Devo's "Whip It," Rick James's "Give It to Me Baby," along with a lot of other R&B tracks were already using electronics all over pop radio at the time, being played far more often than Kraftwerk. I thought Kraftwerk were just a new goofy novelty band.
I didn't think much of Kraftwerk after the Electric Cafe album until the late ’90s, when I discovered Kraftwerk had a very different early incarnation via CD bootlegs of their first three albums Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, and Ralf & Florian. I was already into underground music, and post-rock was all the rage at the time. Those early Kraftwerk albums frankly put almost all of the post-rock I enjoyed to shame. From there, I took a deep dive into Kraftwerk's catalog chronologically, and then realized that Kraftwerk were a critical common denominator of both modern dance music and avant-garde—on a global level.
Masa (KEXP/Expansions): I first heard Kraftwerk in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. It was the Robot/The Man-Machine. I remember staying up all night listening to Can and Kraftwerk back to back until my mind started to melt with the music and eventually I would fall asleep. I remember standing in front of the speakers while side A played out. The music made me feel very relaxed and excited in same time.
At that time when I encountered Kraftwerk, I was really into European progressive rock and German bands like Can, Neu!, La Düsseldorf, Conrad Schnitzler and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Kraftwerk (and YMO) opened my ears for lighter side of electronic music. It made a strong impact on my taste and view in music. I get Kraftwerk fever and have to listen to them back to back.
Darek Mazzone (KEXP): I first heard Kraftwerk in Somerville, Massachusetts, listening to WMFO. The song was “Trans-Europe Express.” Felt odd. It was a super hot July and the airwaves in Boston were dominated by classic rock and new wave. Hearing that was hypnotizing and it really stood out. It built hiphop and I constantly found it fascinating. I became very curious on what they used to make it.