It’s 2013 and I have come straight from my graduation ceremony to Latitude Festival.
I’m standing in a field with 30,000 people wearing 3D glasses and four men appear on stage wearing, what looks like wet suits, they stand in front of a their own individual podiums and the lights go down.
This is Kraftwert and it is the first time I have ever seen or heard anything of the German band. The show begins and for the rest of the evening I’m in a trance.
‘What the hell is going on’, I remember thinking.
A spectacular visual show plays behind the four Germans as their stripped techno booms out across the Norfolk countryside. The atmosphere is unlike anything I have ever felt as songs like ‘Autobahn’ and ‘The Robots’ are greeted by the crowd like some of the greatest hits from a Beatles gig.
Back then, I had no idea the impact the group had made on music since the 70’s or the cultural phenomenon they were, nor their story. That was until I picked up ‘Kraftwerk – Publikation’, the biography written by David Buckley. A book which has shone a light on the inner workings of a group which, as I now recognise, is one that has been responsible for revolutionising music as we know it today.
Kraftwerk are shown to be the godfathers of techno music as they precede the likes of Giorgio Moroder, who many believe is the man to have invented the genre. The breakdown of the musical style created by the Germans is incredibly interesting as Buckley frames it expertly within the social and technological environment of post war Europe.
It is also nice knowing that the book was written by a fellow Scouser and Liverpool fan, how do I know he is scouse and a Liverpool fan you may ask? Only a devout red would manage to talk about The boot room, a place where Bill Shankly and other staff would discuss tactics at Anfield, in comparison to the legendary Kling Klang studio where many of the greatest songs where manufactured by Kraftwerk. A cheeky mention of the Peter Crouch robot dance didn’t escape my attention either….shameless.
Anyway, the book demonstrates how Kraftwerk emerged onto the music scene in the 1970’s as outsiders who were ‘anti-music’ only to become a group which the likes of David Bowie and The Jackson 5 were desperate to work with.
It was because of a style which had never been seen before. Kraftwerk made electronic music before electronic music even existed as a form. The group made music with nothing but synthesisers and samples of electronically edited sounds of the world itself, such as passing trains or a car engine.
Do me a favour, have this song playing in the background while you read the rest of the article and you’ll get what I’m talking about. (You might even recognise part of the melody…)
Though the band are seen as revolutionary now, this was not the case in the 70’s and 80’s.
But it wasn’t just the way the music was made, it was the subject matter as well. Songs focusing radiation, nuclear danger, computers and robots. It was a far cry from sex, drugs and rock and roll….
Buckley expertly captures how the rest of the world perceived the band at the time. Cold and robotic, making music without conventional instruments and harbingers of an end to music. The four German horsemen of the musical apocalypse.
This was due to the fact that the music world believed that ‘real music’ was made with guitars and songs stuck to the same ridged pattern.
But the end of music never came. Instead of death, new life radiated throughout the sonic universe.
From the moment Kraftwerk began making music, they sparked a mutation within the industry which grew and spread amongst the ‘cock rockers’ who had ruled for so long. Similar to introducing a new animal into a foreign ecosystem, Kraftwerk began transforming the very fabric of the environment which had lacked innovation for so long.
“All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity” – Friedrich Nietzsche quoted by Buckley.
Kraftwerk went against every convention when making music and performing, which is what makes their art so appealing. They copied no one and where true innovators, declining offers to work with some of the most influential musicians of all time, in order to preserve the authenticity of their own sound.
At certain points in the book, upon learning that Kraftwerk turned down so many chances to work with other musicians, I felt that the group had a certain level of arrogance.
However when I considered the following point, I could see why the Germans were so devout.
Would Picasso have ever invited Salvador Dali to draw all over his own paintings? Would Van Gogh have invited Pollock to cover his work in splashes of green?
These artists had a style which was uncompromised, it was their art, their vision and I believe that Kraftwerk saw their own work in the same way.
Who knows, if they had worked with others, would their music remain so potent, so recognisable, so undeniably Kraftwerk?
Buckley’s biography captures the importance of the band exceptionally well, however, the story is not simply one of their artistic output, it is also one fraught with tension, legal battles, life threatening accidents, social history and the evolution of music as a whole from the 1970’s to the 2000’s.
An obsession with bike riding, clashes with producers and a whole host of other vital parts of the Kraftwerk story are covered, but I would suggest reading the book instead of an amateurs summary to get the whole picture….
The story of Kraftwerk is as compelling as any in the music industry because of how divisive, revolutionary and important the group have been over the past forty years.
David Buckley delivers an outstanding piece of work which is incredibly educational in its documentation of the band, its impact on culture and all of the conflicts which eventually broke the original group apart.
Personally, I have learned an incredible amount and my perception of what music can be and what it should be has changed.
For any music fan, I would argue that Buckley’s biography is essential reading. Not only for Kraftwerk’s personal story, but for the wider influence they had in changing the entire sphere of music.
Music would be very different today had Kraftwerk not existed which is why I now understand the stunned reaction thousands had on that summers evening in Norfolk four years ago.