Music History

Kraftwerk Helped Shape Pop Music as We Know It

Kraftwerk is currently on its 3D Concert tour of North America, with a stop planned for the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Wednesday, September 23. The multi-media show includes a performance of the music with 3D video accompaniment. The combination of a tactile experience and modern technology fits perfectly with Kraftwerk's futuristic vision for what music and the presentation of that music can be.

When the group was started in 1970 by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter — art students at Robert Schumann Hochscule in Düsseldorf — it was part of a vibrant world of experimental music and art that came to be called krautrock. Kraftwerk's sound and aesthetic was very different from those of its peers, though the band was also inspired in part by minimalism, abstract jazz, early electronic music and the avant-garde generally.

Popol Vuh is credited with being the first krautrock-era band to use a synthesizer in its music. But Kraftwerk soon followed, and across its first trio of records, its music was more in line with the improvisational music that was in vogue in German, psychedelic prog. But by the time of the 1974 album, Autobahn, Kraftwerk had taken a decided turn for a more pop-oriented songwriting approach. In fusing the unusual with the accessible, Kraftwerk struck a chord with international audiences.

The 1975 follow-up, Radio-Activity was the group's first recorded entirely in its own Kling Klang Studio which the band used as a compositional tool as much as a vehicle for having control over the production of its sounds at a time long before anyone with a computer could have easy and cheap access to fairly sophisticated recording software. 

While Autobahn introduced the world at large to Kraftwerk, it was Radio-Activity and the subsequent tour in support of the album that cemented the band's impact on young musicians in Europe, the UK and North America. Andy McClusky of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark has long cited seeing the band on September 11, 1975 at the Liverpool Empire in seat Q36 as the point at which he was inspired to make the type of music he did with OMD in that first wave of synth pop in the late 70s and early 80s. At that time, Kraftwerk also proved a direct influence on Gary Numan, the future members of Depeche Mode, The Human League and virtually every band at the dawn of the eighties that utilized synthesizers as more than a mere affectation to augment rock music.

Morton Subotnick invented the synthesizer, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Delia Derbyshire pioneered electronic music as we know it but Kraftwerk took the possibility of using the synthesizer in the pop music context and made it a distinct reality. From Radio-Activity alone, New Order sampled “Uranium” for “Blue Monday. Much later The Chemical Brothers sampled “Ohm Sweet Ohm” for their song “Leave Home.”

1977's Trans-Europe Express garnered Kraftwerk even greater critical praise and popularity and the album's title track inspired Afrika Bambaataa to write “Planet Rock” and in later years it was named as an influence on Radiohead's Kid-A and J. Dilla's song “Big Booty Express” not to mention Madonna sampling “Metal On Metal” for her Drowned World Tour. Joy Division used to play the record over the P.A. before every show to set the tone for the performance. Kraftwerks's quasi-futurist artwork may not actually have proved a seminal influence on Peter Saville, the artist behind the look of Factory Records and New Order, but it seems unlikely that Saville was not impressed with Kraftwerk's iconic visual sense. A promotional video for the song “Trans-Europe Express,” which in 1977 was far from common practice as it would be in the '80s and beyond.

Before the end of the '70s, Kraftwerk released one of its most popular and important albums up to that time in The Man-Machine in 1978, with two well-known singles, “The Model” and “The Robots.” Synth pop was already becoming a thing by that time but Kraftwerk had created the template so many others would follow in coming decades. Legendary noise rock band Big Black did an unironic cover of “The Model” for its 1987 album Songs About Fucking. Ladytron may have named itself after a Roxy Music song, but its early, electroclash music was inspired by the spare yet effective melody and mysterious quality of “The Model.”

For most of the first half of the 1980s, Kraftwerk had notable releases but none that had the same level of impact as its 1970s recordings. 1981's Computer World is considered by many to Kraftwerk's finest work. In the roundabout, oblique way, that classic science fiction can prove prophetic, Kraftwerk certainly proved so with that album. Though the last full album of all original material proved to be 1986's Electric Café (also known as Techno Pop), the last classic Kraftwerk release was the 1983 single “Tour De France,” which was exposed to a wide audience through the 1984 film Breakin'.

Kraftwerk has never toured extensively, but it has engaged in periodic forays into the world. And yet, against all odds, despite eschewing media stardom, by virtue of its imaginative pop songcraft and visually and sonically affecting live performances, Krafwerk has proven to be one of the most influential musical acts of all time. If not for Kraftwerk there is no synth-pop, hip-hop is greatly diminished and electronic pop music as we know it doesn't exist. Artists as disparate as Björk, Coldplay, Aphex Twin, U2, LCD Soundsystem and the aforementioned to name but a very few point to Kraftwerk as a primary influence. 

Without Kraftwerk there is no industrial music, post-punk would have largely remained merely darker punk, no EDM, no house, no rave music, certainly no minimal synth, no techno to speak of and none of the modern pop music that is all but built on the foundation Kraftwerk laid in the 1970s. Few, if any, other single bands can claim such a rich and pervasive legacy and that the band can continue to make music and perform shows that push the envelope is remarkable. Still, it's really just part of what Kraftwerk has done all along.