Computers that crashed

On Tuesday evening New York’s Museum of Modern Art will resound to the noise of a car door slamming, an engine starting up and two perky blasts of a horn. A robotic voice will chant a single word – Autobahn – the vowels drawn out in wonder, as if the robot were awed by the sublime notion of motorway travel. A simple pulsing synthesiser hook will start up and the 450 people present will erupt in cheers. The journey that changed pop music will be under way.

Kraftwerk’s Autobahn came out in 1974. It was their breakthrough album, gaining them an international hit single. So began a run of records that turned the eccentric Germans into one of pop’s most important bands. They pioneered synth-pop and influenced disco, hip-hop and techno. Their vision of a technologically determined society was prophetic.

Next week they start an eight-night retrospective at MoMA. Each evening will be devoted to a different album from their discography, starting with Autobahn and ending with 2003’s ode to the bicycle, Tour de France. The location is apt. Kraftwerk’s live show is a son-et-lumière spectacle in which 3D visuals and music unfold in perfect symmetry as the unsmiling foursome stand lined up behind synthesisers, a caricature of Teutonic severity. It’s as much performance art as pop concert.

Yet Kraftwerk have released only two albums of new music in the past 30 years. Of the quartet from the band’s heyday – Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür – only Hütter, now 65, will be on stage at MoMA, joined by three more recent recruits. For some enigmatic reason that the elusive Hütter doesn’t discuss, Kraftwerk were knocked off course by the arrival of the future they had predicted. What went wrong?

Andy McCluskey is co-member of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, one of the English synth-pop acts that sprang up in Kraftwerk’s wake. He first heard them when “Autobahn” was a surprise hit single in 1975: a 16-year-old, surrounded by “hippies, spotty nerds and the odd disco dolly” at the Liverpool Empire, he had a teenage epiphany.

“It was completely different to anything I had seen before,” he recalls. “Those were the days of long hair, denim and rock bands. But these four guys came out in suits and ties, two of them playing what looked like tea trays with electronic knitting needles. Their names were lit up in fluorescent lights in front of them, there were projections behind them. The place was barely a quarter full, but it was just the most incredible experience I had ever had.”

Kraftwerk’s novelty lay not in the fact that they played electronic music but in the way they did so. The band was formed by Hütter and Schneider, who met as art students at Düsseldorf. Both were drawn to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic compositions. In 1968 they formed a band called Organisation, which two years later morphed into Kraftwerk.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were boom years for the synthesiser. Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach came out in 1968, the year Hütter and Schneider began writing music together. In 1973, Mike Oldfield topped the German charts with Tubular Bells. A year later Autobahn came out. It was Kraftwerk’s fourth album, but the first that was recognisably Kraftwerkian. Three earlier albums were quietly expunged from the band’s official history.

Before Autobahn, the synthesiser was mainly used to create unearthly or fantastic noises, an otherworldly instrument on which cape-wearing prog-rock maestros such as Rick Wakeman would let their imaginations and digits run riot. Kraftwerk, in contrast, made electronic music that was orderly and comprehensible. Their songs were melodic and repetitive, an ear-catching blend of romanticism and minimalism. They sang about the everyday infrastructure of modernity: motorways, railways, radio waves, neon lights. Energy was a repeated theme: “Kraftwerk” is German for power station.

The cover for Kraftwerk's 1978 ‘Man Machine’ album

Their ideas coalesced around the notion of the man-machine. “Kraftwerk is not a band,” Schneider said in 1975, on the band’s first US tour. “It’s a concept: ‘Die Mensch-Maschine’, the human machine. We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas.”

Three years later, their album The Man-Machine hymned the idea of the cyborg. Their “robot-pop” was criticised for being cold and inhuman. But it was delivered with a deadpan humour and theatricality that had the opposite effect, investing electronic circuitry with warmth and feeling.

Like much of Kraftwerk’s imagery, the man-machine was borrowed from the past, specifically from Fritz Lang’s 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. “It appealed to anybody who wanted to be modernist. The last great populist movement of modernism was the synth-pop of the late 1970s and early 1980s,” McCluskey argues.

Yet the leaders of this movement fell away as it gathered steam. 1981’s Computer World was Kraftwerk’s last notable album. It was characteristically prescient about a world linked by computers. But then they lost their bearings.

“Once the spotty little English boys caught up with them and turned it into a new pop music genre, I think they had an essential dilemma,” says McCluskey. “The world has now caught up with us, where do we go?”

It wasn’t just spotty English provincials with mail-order synths who copied Kraftwerk. Hip-hop visionary Afrika Bambaataa sampled them on “Planet Rock” in 1982. Detroit techno DJs such as Derrick May were attracted to their repetitive beats and clean synth lines. Yet the acclaim seemed to inhibit rather than encourage the band, making them more hermetic. The crisis of confidence emerged with Computer World’s aborted follow-up, Technopop. In 1984, just as the album was due to be delivered to their record company EMI, the band decided to withdraw it. The episode, as with much else surrounding the band, is shrouded with mystery.

“The reason they got cold feet is Ralf, in particular, started chasing the latest sounds, such as ZTT productions – ABC, The Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood – in London and Niles Rodgers’ productions – Chic, Madonna, David Bowie – in New York,” says David Buckley, Munich-based author of the forthcoming Kraftwerk: Publikation. “There appears to have been a loss of nerve. They suddenly felt that their sound needed radical up-dating to compete.”

Tracks from the abandoned Technopop were adapted for the 1986 album Electric Café, which had a muted reception. The next time Kraftwerk emerged with an album of new tracks was in 2003 with Tour de France. Prompted by Hütter’s obsession with bicycling, that classic union of man and machine, it deftly modernised their sound.

But the flurry of activity was a one-off. In the past decade they have gone on touring and released a live album, but there has been no new material. “In a sense it has become a bit of a time capsule,” says Buckley. In occasional communiqués, Hütter has insisted that they remain busy in the studio. If so, their un-German productivity rate leads one to expect a new album sometime in the 2020s.

Music is quicker to embrace technology than other branches of culture. It was the first to go digital, in the early 1980s, when Kraftwerk lost their way. Nowadays software corrects singers’ voices and synthesisers mimic the sound of an orchestra. Even the most organic-seeming recordings are processed by powerful computers. The fusion of the man-machine has become seamless.

It’s the nature of technological innovation to speed up. Having shown the way forward, Kraftwerk were unable to keep up. Uncertainty about technology has crept into their outlook, hints that it might not be so benign after all. Their 1975 song “Radioactivity” now carries an anti-nuclear power message when they play it live. The failure of the online ticketing system for their MoMA shows – it crashed, locking out thousands of disappointed fans – is oddly fitting. The future, for Kraftwerk, is not what it was.

‘Kraftwerk: Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’, MoMA, New York, April 10-17,

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