Last week, I flew from Dallas to L.A. to see a band with a 67-year-old “frontman” who most people wouldn’t know from a college math professor.
Ralf Hutter and his fellow members of Kraftwerk were in the middle of a sold-out, eight-performance residency at the prestigious, Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall. Each performance, part of the L.A. Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox festival, is devoted to a different Kraftwerk disc.
This follows on the heels of similar, sold-out residencies in New York, Sydney, London, Tokyo and Dusseldorf, Germany. But since it doesn’t seem as if these reclusive German electronic-music pioneers are ever going to bring their residency to North Texas, I had to go to them.
My tickets were for the two Thursday-night performances, spotlighting the 1981 album Computer World, and the 1990 release Electric Cafe (retitled Techno Pop when remastered), respectively. It proved to be a blissful book-end to the first time I saw Kraftwerk on the Computer World tour 33 years ago at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium across town.
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Yes, things have changed in the intervening years. Hutter is the only remaining original member of the group. The huge amount of gear Kraftwerk used to cart around — basically the entire Kling Klang Studio — has been replaced by four compact consoles. The visual element is state-of-the-art: All concertgoers Thursday were issued 3D glasses.
Indeed, computers have taken over the world, something Kraftwerk prophesied back in 1981, well before the spread of the Internet. And when the robotic voices in Computer World’s title track talk-sing, “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard, business, numbers, money, people, computer world,” it’s at once a promise of connectivity and a warning about life on a post-NSA planet.
But what hasn’t changed is the music, an alternatively beautiful and beat-heavy salute to all things machine-driven and mechanical that has left a lasting impact on pop music.
The two sets not only put on display the group’s distinctive, groundbreaking use of electronics but merged it with eye-popping visuals that underscored the group’s wedding of rhythm and technology.
Some songs in the two 90-minutes-plus sets were dazzlingly beautiful and ethereal: Spacelab was turned into a sublime salute to space exploration while Autobahn, Kraftwerk’s first hit in 1974, was a retro, kitschy kick to driving along German highways full of Benzes and Beetles. Other tracks were cleverly updated for the times, like the buzzing ’70s-era track Radio Activity, which now includes a reference to Fukushima, in addition to Chernobyl and Harrisburg, Pa.
It all showed the depth of Kraftwerk’s impact.
Despite studied anonymity, little airplay and only releasing 11 albums of new material in 44 years, Kraftwerk pioneered one of the most influential sounds in pop music, right up there with the British Invasion, Motown and Jimi Hendrix.
Channeling the electronic minimalism and “found sound” musique-concrete movement of such classical-music avant-gardists as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kraftwerk took the idea of making music from everyday industrial noises out of the academic realm and turned it into infectious pop music and sleek art. Instead of raging against the machine, they celebrated it.
Their use of synthesizers — and only synthesizers, no drums, no guitars and no bass — was revolutionary for its time. Whereas other electronic musicians, such as fellow Germans Tangerine Dream, were content to stay within the hermetic world of progressive rock, Kraftwerk managed to slip through the cracks of the mainstream and build a career that has lasted nearly a half-century.
I first heard Kraftwerk through the road-trip bliss of the 1974 German-language global hit Autobahn (“fahn, fahn, fahn auf der Autobahn”). But it had the whiff of novelty about it. It wasn’t until the transformative 1977 Teutonic masterwork Trans-Europe Express, a hypnotic musical journey across the continent by rail, that Kraftwerk started to show why it would become an inspiration for three generations of rock, hip-hop, disco and EDM stalwarts. And it helped me look at pop music in a new, more expansive way.
Others felt the same. David Bowie, Radiohead, U2, Daft Punk, Depeche Mode, Coldplay, Iggy Pop, Afrika Bambaataa, Donna Summer, N.W.A./Dr. Dre and Devo are just a few of the artists who have either sung Kraftwerk’s praises or showed off its influence. (In fact, Coldplay’s song Talk is built around a riff lifted directly from Kraftwerk’s 1981 track, Computer Love.)
At any given time, you can hear its influence in the Top 40, whether it’s through the rap of J.J. Fad’s Supersonic in 1988, dance-pop of Fergie’s Fergalicious in 2006 or the pop/hip-hop of Far East Movement’s Like a G6 in 2010. The 1983 track Tour de France has been used as the official theme for the race. And don’t forget comedian Mike Myers’ Sprockets spoof on Saturday Night Live, which sent up Kraftwerk’s almost comicly stoic Germanicism.
So, even if you’ve never heard of Kraftwerk, you’ve certainly heard them.
‘The Warhol of pop’
Still, it wasn’t just about the music. Visually and graphically, the members of Kraftwerk — at first looking like mid-level Bonn bankers and, later, scientists — stood outside rock ’n’ roll expectations. They conjured up a retro-futuristic vision where classic early and mid-century design — Volkswagen Beetles, Art Deco, Russian Constructivism — reign. They were both pre-rock and post-rock. They were geek-cool long before Apple, Microsoft or The Big Bang Theory.
That’s why Kraftwerk can feel as appropriate in a museum as a music hall. The New Yorker called the band “the Warhol of pop — apolitical, fond of mechanical reproduction, and almost creepily prescient.”
It was this cross-genre, multigenerational, pan-racial appeal that found Kraftwerk knocking down the walls of pop segregation back in the ’70s, when such crossover was rare. The songs Trans-Europe Express, Pocket Calculator and Numbers got R&B airplay and the four Germans were even profiled in magazines aimed at black American audiences.
Both Trans Europe Express and Numbers would go on to be heavily sampled by the first generation of hip-hop performers, most notably Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s Planet Rock. Later, Detroit’s militantly political techno collective, Underground Resistance, went so far as to come up with what could have been an anthem for this entire cultural collision: Afrogermanic .
But for all the cerebral, art-school theorizing that has been written about Kraftwerk over the years, what is often forgotten is just how ferociously funky the band is, even if its members — like the robotics they champion — never perspire. (In fact, Hutter was predictably reticent Thursday, barely speaking except to say “Good night, auf wiedersehen,” while the others were as silent as mannequins.)
The pounding Numbers/Computer World suite and the clanging Trans-Europe Express dug grooves so deep, it’s a wonder they didn’t feel them in China.
And this is where the residency fell short. The music-as-museum-piece approach offered no space to dance — no one even stood up until the standing ovation at the sets’ end — and this undercuts much of the foursome’s appeal. When I’ve seen the band before, the ability to throw yourself into the beat was the yin to Kraftwerk’s coolly constructed yang.
Just because they don’t sweat doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t.