Who They Are: A tremendously unique and influential German electronic ensemble, founded in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider-Esleben. After a formative period of personnel churn (which included the members of the also profoundly influential Neu!), the group’s “classic era” formed, with Ralf and Florian being joined by electronic percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. That quartet lasted for a decade (roughly 1975 to 1986), issuing five thrilling studio albums along the way, each of them chockablock with classic cuts, many of which have been widely sampled in the electronica, hip-hop and EDM eras, all of which must count Kraftwerk’s pioneering craft as a formative influence. The group’s visual presentation was equally radical and striking, most notably their pioneering use of high-resolution videos as an integral part of their performances, and their high-concept stage designs, which have long included robot incarnations of the band members at key points in their sets. The group have also closely managed their interactions with the “real world” over the years, with very little information being provided about what they do, how they do it, and why, adding to the strange other-worldliness of their catalog and back-story. While they’ve not released any new studio albums since 2003’s Tour des France Soundtracks, Kraftwerk remain an ongoing concern helmed by Hütter, and also featuring Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen; their live shows remain legendary. Florian Schneider-Esleben passed away in 2020, having quietly left the group around 2008. My obituary for him, here, includes a bit more background and perspective if interested.
When I First Heard Them: A single edit of the side-long title track to their 1974 album Autobahn became a surprise global hit in 1975, and so I am sure I first heard that song on American Top 40 and related pop radio stations. As was likely the case for most every American who heard the song at time, I would have merrily sung along with Ralf and Florian about the “The fun, fun, fun of the Autobahn,” even though the song’s words are actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.” (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.”) A happy accident that likely increased its appeal in the English-speaking world. I got more deeply interested in electronic music after discovering Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygène and Équinoxe in the later ’70s, and somehow realized that Kraftwerk were much more than a one-hit wonder novelty pop act; this would have been somewhere in the Trans-Europe Express (1977) to The Man-Machine (1978) era. 1981’s Computer World would have been the first Kraftwerk album I bought upon its actual release, and I would count my first spin of its transgressively stripped-down, beat-wild track “Numbers” as one of the greatest “my mind is now well and fully blown” listening moments of my entire music-loving life.
Why I Love Them: I’d have to think long and hard to come up with another group who were so innovative and experimental in their creative approaches, but who also made such urgent, exciting and accessible music from within their strange constructs, with simple singalong melodies, often fun-to-funny words, all atop great beats that could move dance floors like nobody’s business. While the robotic stage personas were ostensibly manufactured, when reporters actually tried to uncover the “real” people behind them, it almost seemed like Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl actually were the “man-machines” that they sang about: super intelligent, emotionless, aloof. Throughout their careers, if Ralf and Florian wanted a sound and the technology did not exist to create it, then they just created the technology, and their work has been not only creatively but technically influential, especially in the arenas of voice synthesis and electronic percussion. For most of their creative time together, they did what they did in the secretive confines of their own Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf. When Marcia and I visited that great German city, I made a pilgrimage to its site, though the studio had moved after Florian’s departure from the group. Here’s what it looked like then; the studio was behind the rolling steel door:
That wasn’t the only pilgrimage that Kraftwerk’s members inspired: Marcia and I also traveled to Brussels, Belgium, specifically to visit The Atomium after hearing Karl Bartos’ solo song about the same; you can learn all about it, and sing along to it, here. (Bartos was a major composer in the latter part of the classic era, and also got a rare non-Ralf lead vocal on “The Telephone Call,” featured in my list below). Ralf and Florian were obsessive cyclists, and their last studio album together (the aforementioned Tour des France Soundtracks) was an incredible sonic tapestry that merged their musical beats and melodies with the mechanical rhythms of hardcore bike riding, so as a music lover and cyclist myself, I always appreciated that overlap. As a note before posting my Top Ten Kraftwerk songs, I would generally only use original studio recordings for such purposes, but Kraftwerk so diligently worked to keep their music fresh over the years, re-recording entire analog albums in digital formats, and then reinventing their instrumentation for live performance on computers, rather than on traditional musical keyboards, that I’ve varied from that approach and included what I think are the best versions of the various songs, many of them from the epic 2005 live album Minimum-Maximum. If you only want to have one Kraftwerk album, that’s the one I’d recommend. I’d also recommend watching the visuals of the live Minimum-Maximum versions of songs below if you’ve never seen what Kraftwerk look like onstage. In all cases, I note the source of the recordings used, and also the original sources of the songs, if you’d like to explore further.
#10. “Showroom Dummies” from Trans-Europe Express (1977)
#9. “The Telephone Call” from Electric Café (1986)
#8. “Music Non-Stop” from Minimum-Maximum (2005); song originally appeared on Electric Café (1986)
#7. “Trans-Europe Express” from Trans-Europe Express (1977)
#6. “The Robots” from Minimum-Maximum (2005); song originally appeared on The Man-Machine (1978)
#5. “Tour des France” from “Tour des France” single (1983), later reissued on Tour des France Soundtracks (2003)
#4. “Radioactivity” from Minimum-Maximum (2005); song originally appeared without the “Sellafield” introduction on Radio-Activity (1975)
#3. “Pocket Calculator/Dentaku” from Minimum-Maximum (2005); song originally appeared without “Dentaku” on Computer World (1981)
#2. “The Hall of Mirrors” from Trans-Europe Express (1977)
#1. “Numbers” from Minimum-Maximum (2005); song originally appeared on Computer World (1981)