Düsseldorf, London, Paris, Tunbridge Wells: station to station with the Bowie-Kraftwerk connection

“I like them as people very much, Florian in particular. Very dry. When I go to Düsseldorf they take me to cake shops, and we have huge pastries. They wear their suits. A bit like Gilbert and George, actually. When I came over to Europe – ‘cause it was the first tour I ever did of Europe, the last time – I got myself a Mercedes to drive myself around in, ‘cause I still wasn’t flying at that time, and Florian saw it… He said, “What a wonderful car”, and I said, “Yes, it used to belong to some Iranian prince, and he was assassinated and the car went on the market, and I got it for the tour.” And Florian said, “Ja, car always lasts longer.” With him it all has that edge. His whole cold emotion/warm emotion, I responded to that. Folk music of the factories.” – David Bowie, 1978

It’s auf wiedersehen then, to the great Florian Schneider, co-founder of Kraftwerk with Ralf Hütter, the oddly strange but hugely pioneering German electronic duo who helped change everything about the way music sounds. The Teutonic two created a truly innovative series of albums that helped define the world of electronic and dance music, an influence that still stands tall today. Like latter period Beatles and a smattering of David Bowie’s 1970s output, Kraftwerk’s most inspirational records were at their best when they were given free rein to be as fearlessly experimental as they wanted to be.

However celebrated Kraftwerk might be, I don’t think we could ever really appreciate their genius in carving out a new musical genre almost entirely from scratch. Certainly in their corner of southwest Germany, a tradition of electronic experimentation already existed, in particular Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio (WDR), plus, further afield, Delia Derbyshire’s work at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, and, of course, the godfather of disco, Italian-born Giorgio Moroder.

Despite later synth gods such as Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure) pointing out that “he never really embraced electronic music” in its purest form, Bowie is one of the innumerable who owe Kraftwerk a huge debt. Though being the great influencer that he was, through his championing of the band he was able to popularise a somewhat unusual niche act and help gain them mainstream acceptance, inadvertently making their influence on modern music even more apparent than possibly his own.

In essence, post-war Germany was a laboratory, and a window from which Bowie could comfortably observe the history behind the barbed wire without getting bruised by it. Kraftwerk had provided a sound and alluring trips on the Trans-Europe Express, but it was Bowie who united elements of music and history that had seemed separated by the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall.

Basel, Switzerland, August 2019. Ralf Hütter wannabee cycling into my Lexus optional © Steve Pafford

As a model postmodernist, someone who built his life and art out of the artificial, the fabricated, who traversed pop art, comic books, and Brecht, Bowie needed the necessary frisson of the real, which he found in Berlin, but also Warsaw and Moscow. There, you had little art or style to be consumed, but the burden of history, which could be tracked on the cities’ gargantuan open spaces: all consuming emptiness and morbid austerity.

As the Thin White one himself once said, tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.

Intriguingly, Kraftwerk’s most revered run of albums in the mid-Seventies to early 1980s are concurrent with Bowie’s best work for RCA. They hold great personal memories for a lot of us, and this is my very personal tribute and somewhat belated triple-header Kraftwerk live review that I’d intended for later in the year, the 50th anniversary of their debut album.

Are you siting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Hailing from Düsseldorf, classically trained musicians Florian Schneider-Esleben and Ralf Hütter formed Organisation in 1968. Assisted by Basil Hammoudi, Butch Hauf, and Fred Monicks, the experimental outfit released one album (1970’s Conny Plank-produced Tone Float) that was little more than a mixture of sounds, feedback and rhythm.

The quintet had already begun to perform under the name Kraftwerk shortly some time after Tone Float had been recorded, though when their UK record label RCA failed to persuade the band to retain their English name they dropped them. No matter, they switched to the Dutch-owned Philips and issued Kraftwerk’s self-titled debut before the year was out.

Kraftwerk have gone through many personnel changes over fifty years in existence, though every one of their albums produced during their creative and commercial high point from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s were conducted as a four-piece outfit with the addition of percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür).

Line up evolutions aside, the band has always been committed to using the latest innovations to push both their own music and music technology as a whole as far as they can. The band (especially Hütter, who is the only remaining original member) are said to use their Kling Klang Studio – reportedly cut off from the outside world with no phone or means of outside communication – as more of a hermetically sealed laboratory than a performance space.

As stubborn as they were pioneering, Kraftwerk were most definitely an albums act. Like their ardent admirer David Bowie, they saw little use in the value of a seven-inch piece of plastic where they had to edit away their creativity.

To them, the humble 45 was merely a promotional tool for the long-players where they could fully realise their conceptual aspirations. In their hermetically sealed world, singles were hardly the place to find hidden treasures and exclusive oddities. 

Zip forward a decade, and like almost every Brit of my generation, I became aware of the name Kraftwerk via a surprise hit that took everybody by surprise, including the band. 

Now signed to British label EMI, in July 1981—the month I finished middle school awaiting elevation to high school, and a mere nine weeks after I officially purchased my first 45—a three year-old track entitled The Model had been slung on to the flipside of the band’s new single Computer Love, which reached the unspectacular heights of no. 36 in the UK charts.

When DJs started playing the B-side, EMI flipped the single—expressly against the band’s wishes—with The Model as the A-side. The rejigged 45 entered the UK Singles Chart on Christmas week, December 1981, and eventually reached No.1 in February 1982, having spent a total of 21 weeks in the top 75. Pretty extraordinary by the standards of the day.

When you study that Christmas run-down it’s astonishing how many records are in the upper echelons ahead of Kraftwerk, yet owe the German group an incomparable debt. The most obvious example is the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me sitting pretty at No.1, chart chased by  whole heaps of young pretenders: Duran Duran, Ultravox, OMD, Japan and Gary Numan among them. 

But even more conventional rock and pop acts were getting in on the synth act, with ABBA, Bucks Fizz, Kim Wilde, Dollar figuring. Even hoary old rockers Foreigner, The Police and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott were jumping on the sonic bandwagon.

I do remember quite liking the quirky catchiness of The Model but being a mere slip of a boy, this 12 year-old had only just completed his first term at high school and a strange German group of eccentrics were just a bit too out there for me. They were the same age as my parents, for chrissakes. I was content with my Adam & The Ants records, for now at least.

One thing that did strike me was just how German they sounded. I can vividly recall a British Rock & Pop Awards (the forerunner to the Brits) a year or two earlier where ABBA sent over a perfunctory video message thanking the public for voting them Best Group and being utterly astonished at how foreign the Swedish foursome sounded.

“You don’t hear that when they sing, do you?” agreed my mum, helpfully. 

 

Although they sang in English, Kraftwerk made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to hide their German-ness, and for that they child be commended. Ralf would also record German language versions of the tracks but for me, they sounded better being alien robots trying to sing in my mother tongue.

This is where I’m tempted to retcon my memories and come on all superior wary Englishman a’ la the dotty old Major in Fawlty Towers… without mentioning the war, obviously.

“Germans? Oh, I don’t care much for Germans.”

But the truth is, as the ‘80s kicked off my mum’s sister had married one of them, a perfectly pleasant German who I came to know as Uncle Jürgen, all six foot seven of him.

But at least he was from the “right side of the tracks,” not one of those “commies” from behind the Iron Curtain but a West German from Bremen, three hours from Düsseldorf. And like Kraftwerk—or at least the public image that they liked to project—Jürgen was austere, starchy and extremely ordered. A barrister and partner in a law firm, no less. His job dictated that’s the way he had to be, unlike Hütter and Schneider and gang. 

In July of 1983 I had just turned 14, and for the first part of the summer holidays I went to stay with my aunt Julia and Jürgen in that bastion of English middle-class suburbia, Tunbridge Wells. No sooner had I arrived, on the first evening we caught the latest James Bond film Octopussy at the local Classic Cinema, where it emerged, much later, that this was the former Ritz picture house where David Bowie’s parents had met just after the war, and freakily, at the time of viewing the producers were trying their damnedest to lure Dame David into playing the villain in their next instalment of the franchise, A View To A Kill.

More importantly, the following day was a weekday, and with the elders at work I was home alone and had a good old  rummage around Jürgen’s record collection, as you do. Actually, it was more cassette collection. Very ’83. Out of the myriad music I found two things that demanded a closer inspection. One was a tape of the latest Police album Synchronicity, and being as intrigued by the shot of a topless hairy-chested Sting as I was about the material contained within. Though having just had my first sexual relations with a girl from school the last week of term I had yet to work out exactly why the picture intrigued me.

The other thing was even less explainable but a darn sight more fascinating. In fact, it was nothing short of a revelation.

I found a hand-written tape cover with the words Kraftwerk and Autobahn scribbled on it. Interesting. I promptly pressed the play button on the silver hi-fi and listened intently as the hissy recording began with the closing of a car door, the footsteps of a person getting in to the vehicle and the sound of an engine of the pretty primitive sounding car revving up and driving off-from left to right in stereo—honking the horn twice.

“What on earth is this?” I thought, metaphorically scratching my head.

The first set of lyrics set in: a heavily distorted, dispassionate voice slowly repeating the word “Au-to-bahn” four times. After fifty seconds the pulsating all-electronic beat and melody set in. 

After two minutes the actual lyrics began, sung/spoken in a clumsy, nerdy voice and not totally in synch either: “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn”, which, being a silly young Brit, I naturally assumed was “Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn.”

Guess what? It’s not.

It later emerged that it’s German for “We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.” Who knew? Well, probably not too many of us back then, though I certainly knew that Autobahn meant motorways if not from the German lessons we’d started at school then certainly from my pan-European relatives.

“Christ,” I called out to no one, least of all him. “It’s not exactly The Model, is it?”

Indeed it wasn’t. It had none of the conventional pop structure and commercial appeal of their biggest hit, the one that remains their only Top 10 hit in Britain.

But I persisted. Eventually I became transfixed by the strange alluring beauty of Autobahn. All 22 whopping minutes of it.

It got to the ominous sounding section that thudded its way across the speakers, almost as if it was announcing doomsday had started (9:10 on the dot) and, besides finding it more than a little unnerving, it occurred to me that I had actually heard this unbelievably strange music before. I would have been only a mere nipper of six years old when Autobahn was a surprise hit in the even more surprisingly dry British summer of 1975, but something filtered through. I was just too young to realise what it was.

I had never heard a piece of music so long or so mysterious or so utterly alien before. What did I do? I played it again. And again. I was utterly transfixed. I think they call it a deep discovery.

And then I parked the car for a few years.

As nasty Norman Tebbit once said, it was time to get on your bike.

My musical tastes, at least in record-buying pocket-money power terms were extremely narrow for a good chunk of the Eighties. I certainly enjoyed Tour De France, in some ways the cycling successor to Autobahn, when Kraftwerk released it the following month, but it took a long time before there was anything in my record collection that wasn’t a regulation white British act. Seriously, it was pushing the boat out buying a U2 record, because they were from Ireland. To a spotty teenager like me the Irish Sea felt wider than the Pacific. The “English” Channel even more so.

My Kraftwerk collection started in earnest in 1991 with The Mix, their “let’s re-record some of our best known songs in digital stylee, but not the poppy stuff like The Model and Tour De France because that would be predictable” album. 

Having said that, the insistent dance floor upgrade they gave to Radioactivity was a worthy remodel: sonically superior if less atmospheric, and gave the distinct impression they’d been listening to Pet Shop Boys’ One More Chance on repeat.

The ironic beauty of the melodies, the proto-techno beats, the arrangements, their robotic vocals – everything about The Mix finally got me hooked into the whole Kraftwerk concept, and not before time.

I’d often play the new abridged mix of Autobahn on the work’s stereo and would often be on the receiving end of a colleague’s disapproving frown whenever it reached the six and half minute mark and the cue for a an endlessly related bit of vocodered vocal that sounded like a parrot that’d swallowed a computer. 

No matter that Schneider and Hütter were struggling creatively by this point. There has been only one solitary studio album after 1986’s Electric Café/Techno Pop: Tour de France Soundtracks, from 2003, which included yet another re-recording (I’m sure you can guess which) and was their tenth and final long-player to date.

It was on the back of that unexpected release that I caught my first Kraftwerk concert: 18 March 2004 at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I had almost succumbed to the hype of trying to join the mad scramble to get tickets for their appearance at the Tribal Gathering in 1997. But

a) I was busy trying to get an issue of the magazine I was publishing finished 

b) the tickets sold out in silly time 

c) it was in a field… near Luton.

Plus, I freely admit I found the idea of seeing a band known for sonic innovation, obsession even, in a muddy field a little incongruous to say the least.

I’m glad I waited. Because the Southbank show was immense, and this surreptitiously recorded video certainly won‘t do it justice.

The sound was crystal clear, in fact it was almost certainly the best sounding live concert I’d witnessed; only surpassed by…, well, I’ll come to that in a minute.

The second show was almost a decade later. By this point Schneider had made his shock exit from Kraftwerk, which was announced in 2008.

Though no new music was forthcoming, a series of shows at the the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern art gallery were held on in February of 2013. The gigs, which were titled ‘The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’, took on the same format as the residency they’d played at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, whereby each studio album from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks would be played in full across the eight nights, including, slightly controversially The Mix (whereas Ralf and Florian pretty much disowned the pre-Autobahn trio decades ago). 

Quite unlike me, I queued up in the bitter cold and bagged a pair of returns for the Techno Pop night on 12 February (coincidentally my parents’ 44th wedding anniversary), having only decided to do so an hour or so before.

With Florian gone I had slight reservations about this one. Techno Pop would hardly be in many people’s top five Kraftwerk albums, but as the former Bankside Power Station, Tate Modern was the ideal venue for the band’s explorations of technology, energy and rhythm (Kraftwerk is deutsch for power station), in titular terms anyway.

The new 3D show was interesting (disposable 3D glasses were handed out, natch) and the visuals quite mesmerising in part, but the sound wasn’t a patch on the purpose built acoustics of a proper concert hall.

Once they’d got Techno Pop out the way, as is customary with these album shows, the rest of the set (the latter two thirds in fact) was given over to a glorious run through the Teutonic back catalogue, plus a few extracts from Tour de France.

And then there were three. In July 2019, I attended my third Kraftwerk show, which I timed my arrival back to France from completing a 50 states trip of the US for. Again, there was some slight trepidation as I realised that I’d be seeing the group live without Florian twice as many times as with him. I felt almost disloyal in a way, in much the same way happened to me this year, notching up my third New Order gig, and the second without testosterone filed bassist Hooky.

Kraftwerk really should be the most boring live band ever – four stiff, oldish, unanimated German men standing in a row behind their faceless synth workstations – yet in reality, they deliver some of the most exciting live multimedia experiences that others can only dream of.

Machines: for me, they are one of the most fascinating acts in the history of popular music. and the show at the state of the art Philharmonie de Paris was absolutely magnificent. The acoustics at this cutting edge classical venue were phenomenal, with the sound and vision bouncing off the walls and enveloping you in a pulsating synth wash that was nothing short of incredible. And to hear Tour de France just before it turned midnight and thus into Bastille Day was a nice touch. Bon Bastille mes amis.

Instagram will load in the frontend.

Bizarrely, the next stop on the Kraftwerk tour was in Macclesfield, the Cheshire town where my maternal grandfather (thus, my aunt’s father) had died. Not for me, though, I stayed in Gallic climes and toyed with the idea of catching the Tour de France. Though it was not to be.

Sadly my aunt herself had passed away earlier in 2019, but I was fortunate enough to spend a good chunk of time with her re-bonding over old and new times. In 2014 I became her houseguest again, for the first time since that fortuitous week in ’83. By then she was divorced and had been living in America for almost two decades. On my very first trip to California I stayed with her at her house just outside San Francisco. We met for dinner in the Castro, the famously gay district of San Fran, and she introduced me to her boyfriend Michael.

I couldn’t quite place his accent. It was well spoken but non specific. Not English and certainly not American, so I asked him.

“I’m from Germany,” he replied.

I gave a knowing look to Julia and we both burst out laughing.

“Old habits die hard, eh neph!,” she said, slightly sheepishly. 

“Well, your ex did one good thing though. He got me into Kraftwerk and he never even knew it.”

“Really? Kraftwerk was definitely more Jürgen’s thing than me. You do love your music, don’t you, Steven.”

Then proceeded to remind me that she was the first member of the family to see David Bowie live.

 

“It was in the mid Seventies, and everything was white. I think it was Wembley. Someone from work got the tickets so I was her plus one.”

It then occurred to me that she had a Kraftwerk moment of her own after all. The Isolar concerts of 1976 began with piped music from Kraftwerk’s album Radio-Activity, followed by the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. It was typically arty, typically Bowie: the great influencer who helped popularise Kraftwerk that they, ironically, became just as influential as himself. Maybe more so.

Bowie explained the staging Melody Maker’s Chris Charlesworth, who would later commission the BowieStyle book I authored with Mark Paytress.

“I’ve never seen Brechtian theatre used like this since Morrison and the Doors, and even then Morrison never used white light like I do. I think it looks like a corrupted version of the Thirties German theatre, what with the waistcoat, which has always been a favourite with me. I should have had a watch-chain to make it perfect. I’m trying to put over the idea of the European movement with the Dali film and playing Kraftwerk over the speakers.”

Less than a fortnight after the Wembley shows, the Thin White one was in the French capital for further concerts, and invited a certain Düsseldorf duo to the after show. This particular tête-à-tête would be immortalised in the lyrics of 1977’s Trans Europe Express, and Maxime Schmitt, the manager of Kraftwerk’s French record label and friend of the band, was there, recalling an oft-quoted meeting between Ralf and Florian and David and Iggy to writer Pascal Bussy.

“It was in Paris, after one of Bowie’s concerts. He had hired the L’Ange Bleu nightclub on the Champs-Elysées for a private party. When Ralf and Florian walked in they received a five-minute standing ovation. Iggy Pop was gazing devotedly at them, he completely adored them. Both he and Bowie were transfixed, Bowie was saying to Iggy Pop, ‘Look how they are, they are fantastic!’”

Iggy Pop later remembered that

“David Bowie turned me on to Radio-Activity when I was hanging out with him on his Station to Station tour, trying to get him to produce The Idiot. I heard this and thought, ‘Aha – the world has changed.’”

This week the world changed just that bit more.

Vale V2.

Steve Pafford

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