Although not the first to toy around with constructing and playing synthetic instruments, Kraftwerk essentially kick-started electronic music. Throughout their 33-year career, the natives of Düsseldorf, Germany, have influenced just about every pioneer in electronic and hip-hop, including highly influential artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, David Bowie, Herbie Hancock, Soft Cell, 808 State, Depeche Mode, The Orb, Juan Atkins, Aphex Twin and Gary Numan — and that's just a fraction.
Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider grew up studying classical music together. In 1970, the duo founded Kraftwerk along with drummers Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger and released Kraftwerk 1 (Philips) in 1971. Guitarist Michael Rother and bassist Eberhard Krahnemann joined the group for live performances.
In the early '70s, making electronic music was a challenge because synthesizers, recording devices, effects and so forth were all analog. Although computers had yet to come into play, the group wasn't held back. Taking cues from composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kraftwerk made minimalist synthetic sounds with analog oscillators, echo chambers, Moogs and more. And much like walking uphill both ways in the snow, Kraftwerk cut up tape with razor blades long before editing on a computer. Schneider, whom Hütter calls a “sound source fetishist,” even made his own sound machines, including a rhythm box with a manual drum pad.
But the group was not fundamentalist by any means. Although Kraftwerk has kept all of its old gear, the group's Kling Klang studio has grown with the times. In the early '80s, Hütter and Schneider updated their studio with digital equipment, including scores of computers. But Hütter says he doesn't give preferential treatment to any one piece of gear. “They're all alike,” he says. “It's like an electronic garden with all the plants, like an electronic laboratory. And we've kept all the old equipment, and it's all functioning.”
In the midst of recording a second album, Kraftwerk 2 (Philips), Rother and Dinger departed to form their own pioneering electronic group, Neu! Meanwhile, Hütter and Schneider continued, releasing Ralf und Florian (Warner) in 1973. The duo then brought new members Wolfgang Flür and Klaus Roeder into the fold and released Autobahn (Philips) in 1974. This album marked the group's interest in conceptual music. The 22-minute title track, for example, was created to exude the feeling of a long drive. A shorter version of the track made it to the Top 10 in U.S. and UK charts.
Kraftwerk's next concept album, Radio-Activity (Capitol, 1975), concentrated on radio communication. Another lineup change saw Karl Bartos take the place of Roeder. During the next few years, the group continued to release albums — including Trans Europe Express (Capitol, 1977), The Man-Machine (Capitol, 1978) and Computer World (Warner, 1981) — that spawned many '80s new wave bands.
In 1982, Hütter wrote a script for an album concept to accompany the Tour de France. A song of the same name became a single for the band and a theme for the cycling event. Other projects, including Techno Pop (which wasn't released), prevented the group from seeing the concept to full-length fruition. But cycling continued to occupy the minds of Kraftwerk. “Culturally speaking, the sport is part of the urban city,” Hütter says. “People are going to school or to work taking their bike. It's part of the cultural history here.”
Following the release of their 1986 album, Electric Café (Elektra), Hütter and Schneider took a long break from the spotlight, waiting 17 years before putting out another full-length album — the centennial anniversary of the Tour de France got them back in action. They dusted off their 20-year-old script about the event and revisited their 1983 single to create Tour de France Soundtracks (Astralwerks, 2003), an exploration of the tempo and movement of cycling. Hütter finished the script, and Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, who have been working with the band for almost 30 years, helped with programming. Meanwhile, Hütter recorded his “Sprechgesang,” or speech singing, and Schneider recorded vocoded voices, typewriter noises and other esoteric sounds.
In 2002, the group incorporated laptops at a performance in Paris and has since toured Japan and Australia with the latest technology. Tours of the U.S. are pending, and Hütter says the group may even bring out its old robot costumes.
Kraftwerk has been through every step of technological advancements in music, and Hütter and crew haven't lost interest in the machine. They still operate the crustiest of analog boxes while interpreting sounds with the newest in nanotechnology. But if the lights ever go out, Kraftwerk will have a problem. “There's a lot of sound development at our fingertips,” Hütter says. “In the '70s, we sometimes played all analog equipment. And now it's all running electronically live. So when the electricity is gone, we are out of work.”