NORMALLY I hate it when rock bands don’t say anything during gigs. Even the standard “Good evening… Dundee!” will do.
This demonstrates attention to detail, even if the lead singer’s chief fluffer only alerted him to the relevant date on the tour schedule minutes before showtime, and an hour before that the “talent” had been fast asleep in his hotel room amid the M&M-packet detritus of the previous night’s bacchanal.
But there was one concert where I didn’t want to hear a single bit of chat: March 2004, Carling Academy, Glasgow – Kraftwerk.
Well, why would you? Kraftwerk had spent 34 years by that point being an anti-band. They wore suits, not jeans. There was no singer so “none of the heat of rock’n’roll… a complete absence of the traditional drama of popular music,” according to biographer David Buckley. “No songs of passion, envy, desire, love won and lost.” No wrestling with guitars like they were pythons – in fact, no guitars. No drums either, not in the traditional sense. “Our drummers don’t sweat,” explained founder member Ralf Hutter. “They are not sub-humans doing the dirty work. They are like computer programmers.” Four emotionless German man-machines, then, and the most important figures in music since the Fab Four.
Not that they like to boast, or even talk much. Super-rare interviews come with strings attached: we’ll only discuss bicycles and you’re not allowed to mention Kraftwerk. “By giving nothing away,” writes Buckley, “Ralf Hutter and [fellow founder] Florian Schneider have created a mythic corona around the band.” Good for them, but that presents obvious problems for the biographer. Barney Hoskyns was cold-shouldered by Tom Waits and key associates but managed to produce a terrific book.
Buckley isn’t that kind of gumshoe, and has far fewer lyrical clues with which to work, but does a solid job on Kraftwerk’s beginnings – Hutter and Schneider met at a jazz summer school outside Dusseldorf at a year-zero moment for German culture when the youth had to confront the crimes of their parents’ generation – and an even better one on their breakthrough with a hymn to vorsprung durch technik (Autobahn) and the consternation it caused.
In a notorious 1975 interview, the gonzo rock writer Lester Bangs remarked that Schneider had the look of a man who could push a button and blow up half the world without blinking, also asking the band if their robotic sounds represented a “final solution” for music.
This was a time when John Cleese was goosestepping up and down the corridors of Fawlty Towers, and rock traditionalists were unnerved by their German-ness as much as all the technology-worshipping. Suddenly, Buckley writes, the Kraftwerk four were “Adolf, Hermann, Rudolf and Heinrich”. They unnerved some more with remarks like the German mentality being “more advanced”. Even Germany was confused, calling them “verrückte knopfchendreher” – mad knob-twirlers.
But their most important TV appearance wasn’t Top Of The Pops but Tomorrow’s World. The world didn’t know it, but Kraftwerk were inventing tomorrow’s music: house, techno, trance, hip-hop, trip-hop, synthpop, you name it.
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