Kraftwerk (meaning “power plant” or “power station”, German pronunciation: [ˈkʀaftvɛʁk]) is a pioneering and highly influential electronic music band from Düsseldorf, Germany. The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western classical style of harmony, with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation. The group’s simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. Kraftwerk was one of the first groups to popularize electronic music. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk’s distinctive sound was revolutionary, and has had a lasting effect across many genres of modern music.
The group was formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 and was fronted by them until Schneider’s departure in 2008.
Kraftwerk was formed in 1970 by Florian Schneider (flutes, synthesisers, electro-violin) and Ralf Hütter (electronic organ, synthesisers). The two had met as students at the Düsseldorf Conservatory in the late 1960s, participating in the German experimental music scene of the time, which the British music press dubbed “Krautrock”.
The duo had originally performed together in a quintet known as Organisation. This ensemble released one album, titled Tone Float (issued on RCA Records in the UK) but the group split shortly thereafter.
In 2010, a recording from 1969 has been uncovered for an art movie by Katharina Sieverding called Life-Death. The recording is an atmospheric piece in a drone style unlike any other recording by Kraftwerk or Organisation. It is also interesting to note that even though this recording was produced in the Organisation period, the band is cited as Kraftwerk. This recording is believed to have never been released officially as a stand alone soundtrack although at least 1000 ‘study edition’ DVDs have been produced.
Early Kraftwerk line-ups from 1970–1974 fluctuated, as Hütter and Schneider worked with around a half-dozen other musicians over the course of recording three albums and sporadic live appearances; most notably guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, who left to form Neu!.
The input, expertise, and influence of producer and engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank was highly significant in the early years of Kraftwerk and Plank also worked with many of the other leading German electronic acts of the period, including members of Can, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia. As a result of his work with Kraftwerk, Plank’s studio near Cologne became one of the most sought-after studios in the late 1970s. Plank co-produced the first four Kraftwerk albums.
The release of Autobahn in 1974 saw the band moving away from the sound of its earlier albums. The members had invested in newer technology such as the Minimoog, helping give the group a newer, disciplined sound. Autobahn would also be the last album that Conny Plank would engineer. After the commercial success of Autobahn, the band members invested money into updating their studio. This meant they no longer had to rely on outside producers. At this time the painter and graphic artist Emil Schult became a regular collaborator with the band, working alongside the band. Schult designed artwork in addition to later co-writing lyrics and accompanying the group on tour.
What is now regarded as the classic line-up of Kraftwerk was formed in 1975 for the Autobahn tour. During this time, the band was presented as a quartet, with Hütter and Schneider joined by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, hired as electronic percussionists. This quartet would be the band’s public persona for its renowned output of the latter 1970s and early 1980s. Flür had already joined the band in 1973, in preparation for a television appearance to promote Kraftwerk’s third album.
After the 1975 Autobahn tour, Kraftwerk began work on a follow up album, Radio-Activity (German title: Radio-Aktivität). After further investment in new equipment, the Kling Klang Studio became a fully working recording studio. It was decided that the new album would have a central theme. This theme came from the band members’ shared interest in radio communication, which had become enhanced on their last tour of the United States. While Emil Schult began working on artwork and lyrics for the new album, the band began to work on the music. Radio-Activity was less successful in the UK and American markets, but it did open up the European market for the band, gaining them a gold disc in France. Kraftwerk produced some promotional videos and performed several European live dates to promote the album. With the release of Autobahn and Radio-Activity, Kraftwerk had left behind its avant-garde experimentations and had moved forward toward electronic pop tunes.
In 1976 Kraftwerk began recording Trans-Europe Express (German: Trans-Europa Express) at Kling Klang Studio. Hütter and Schneider had commissioned Bonn-based “Synthesizerstudio Bonn, Matten & Wiechers” to design and build the Synthanorma Sequenzer with Intervallomat, a 4×8 / 2×16 / 1×32 step-sequencer system with features which were not available from commercial products. The music sequencer controlled the band’s electronic sources creating the albums rhythmic sound. Trans-Europe Express was mixed at the Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles and found the location to have a stimulating atmosphere. It was around this time that Hütter and Schneider met David Bowie at Kling Klang Studio. A collaboration was mentioned in an interview with Hütter, but never materialised. Kraftwerk had previously been offered a support slot on Bowie’s Station to Station tour, but they turned it down.The release of Trans-Europe Express was marked with an extravagant train journey used as a press conference by EMI France. The album was released in 1977.
In May 1978 Kraftwerk released The Man-Machine (German: Die Mensch Maschine). The album was recorded at Kling Klang. During the recording of the album the band would sit behind the mixing console and let the sequencers and studio equipment play melodies. Florian Schneider would then stand up and move toward a sequencer and launch another musical sequence. This was Kraftwerk’s style of “jamming”. This process would be repeated until the tracks were built up into songs. Due to the complexity of the recording the album was mixed at Studio Rudas in Düsseldorf. Two mixing engineers from L.A., Joschko Rudas and Leanard Jackson, were employed to mix the album. The cover to the new album was produced in black, white and red, the artwork was inspired by Russian artist El Lissitzky. The image of the band on the front cover was photographed by Gunther Frohling. This showed the band dressed in red shirts and black ties. Following the release of The Man-Machine Kraftwerk would not release an album for another three years.
In May 1981 Kraftwerk released the album Computer World (German: Computer Welt) on EMI records. The album was recorded at Kling Klang Studio between 1978 and 1981. A lot of this time was spent modifying the Kling Klang Studio so the band could take it on tour with them. Some of the electronic vocals on Computer World were created using a Texas Instruments Language Translator “Computer Love” was released as a single from the album backed with the earlier Kraftwerk track “The Model” Radio DJs were more interested in the B-side so the single was repackaged by EMI and re-released with “The Model” as the a-side. The single reached the number one position in the UK making “The Model” Kraftwerk’s most successful record in the UK.
Like many other so-called Krautrock bands Kraftwerk was heavily influenced by the pioneering compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Hütter has also listed The Beach Boys as a major influence, which is apparent in its 1975 chart smash, Autobahn. Fellow bandmember Wolfgang Flür also made a similar remark comparing Kraftwerk’s German identity to the Kinks and their strongly-English brand of pop/rock. Their first three albums were more free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined strong structure of its later work. Kraftwerk, released in 1970, and Kraftwerk 2, released in 1972, were mostly exploratory jam music, played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, electric organ, flute and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were then used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both albums are purely instrumental.
With Ralf und Florian, released in 1973, the band began to move closer to its classic sound, relying more heavily on synthesisers and drum machines. Although almost entirely instrumental, the album marks Kraftwerk’s first use of the vocoder, which would, in time, become one of its musical signatures.
Kraftwerk’s lyrics deal with post-war European urban life and technology—traveling by car on the Autobahn, traveling by train, using home computers, and the like. Usually, the lyrics are very minimal but reveal both an innocent celebration of, and a knowing caution about, the modern world, as well as playing an integral role in the rhythmic structure of the songs. Many of Kraftwerk’s songs express the paradoxical nature of modern urban life—a strong sense of alienation existing side-by-side with a celebration of the joys of modern technology.
All of Kraftwerk’s albums from Radio-Activity onwards have been released in separate versions: one with German vocals for sale in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and one with English vocals for the rest of the world, with occasional variations in other languages when conceptually appropriate.