Soon after their very early Can-like Krautrock years, Kraftwerk began to develop and refine a hardcore man-machine aesthetic, imagining themselves as cyborg musicians, as much enslaved by technology as liberated by it. The amazing thing is that the band-machine has been able to sustain itself on that track. Almost any other group would have gone on to other things after the vein ran cold, but Kraftwerk continue to tap the mineshaft of digitalized culture as deep as it wants to go.
As a boy in the late 70s, I used to sit on the shag-carpet floor of my basement bedroom and gaze into the cover of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, a pair of giant Koss headphones connected to a glowing analog amp by a long green spiral cord, mesmerized by the pulsing, organic, yet also completely artificial sound of this strange German synth group. I imagined myself driving the beige VW bug, watching the black Mercedes zoom past in the opposite direction, as oscillators, generators and patch bays synthesized the sights and sounds of life in a place Â called “Germany,” where everyone could drive as fast as they damn well pleased and the album covers went on forever.
40 years later, Kraftwerk are still doing their cold-hard-artificial-but-still-somehow-warm-sounding thing, but now you can dive into their album covers in a totally immersive 3D experience. You’re issued a pair of 3D glasses as you enter a show on the “3D” live tour (ironically for us, on the same night Facebook announced their purchase of Oculus VR, we were having a somewhat more old-school 3D experience). The truth is, there isn’t much to see when four guys are doing their whole thing on anonymized, Tron-style keyboards (no cheesy keyboard brand logos, no visible cables), so a visual show of some kind is practically required.
(Images here are fuzzy b/c of your current lack of 3D glasses)
But this was no simple light show, and the visuals aren’t some kind of elementary add-on – they’re half of the experience. Just as Kraftwerk’s songs are uncomplicated (but intense) explorations of singular concepts (driving, biking, fashion, robots, the descent of SkyLab, being baked alive by a nuclear meltdown, mathematics), the band have created state-of-the-art 3D film-ettes to accompany each track, which spanned 40 years of exploratory synthpop history. The films are as Â pure as the music itself. Many of them are celebrations of digital purity, while others (Tour de France, Model) create contrast by diving into black-and-white, or by mixing b/w with vivid, energetic color – some of it filmed, some of it computer-generated. Meanwhile, the sound is both Â hauntingly artificial and spleen-vibratingly huge.Â The effect is as bodily as it is cerebral.
Confession: I much prefer their exploratory, off-the-reservation stuff much more than the synth-pop dance tracks (I’ll take “Airwaves” over “Musique Non-Stop”, thanks), but it’s all part of a continuum for Kraftwerk. As culture becomes ever more digital, they don’t recoil – they just hug it harder.
1970s tribute to FM radio:
Wenn Wellen schwingen / Ferne Stimmen singen
(When air waves swing / distant voice sing).
Once I’d exhausted the riches of Autobahn as a teen, I moved on to 1975’sÂ Radio-Activity. Â The timing was perfect – I was Â protesting the nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon, while my favorite German anti-hillbillies were warning of the real-world dangers of radioactivity (while remembering to give credit to discoverer Madame Curie). One of the most impactful experiences of the live show was Â their updated cover of Radio-Activity, which listed in giant letters the sites of the world’s most tragic nuclear disasters (including Fukushima) over the top of bone-rattling bass and thumping trances. It hit me like a ton of bricks: All of the nuclear disasters splayed across the screen had occurredÂ since that song was written.
The 3D visuals sucked us down an infinitely pulsing tunnel toward the international radioactivity warning symbol, reminding us that, despite the brand’s unapologetic embrace of technology, they’re painfully aware of its anti-human downsides. Kraftwerk are bridging the gap between human and cyborg, between digital perfection and its ever-present potential Â for anti-human consequences.
All of this had me scrambling back in time to complete my personal Â Kraftwerk catalog, including the difficult-to-find Kraftwerk 1 and Kraftwerk 2 albums, which can only be had on LP or CD (i.e. not from any of the usual digital music outlets), plus the outstanding Ralf und Florian, which serves as a sort of catwalk between the early, more experimental work and the more accessible Kraftwerk most of us know. Though I won’t pretend to have tracked it down in 8-track form.
For the truly hardcore, Dangerous Minds just tracked down a must-watch Â rarity:
44 minutes of Can-style core krautrock, from back when the band played actual drums, actual flutes, and actual guitars. Dig: