The word unique is over-used in music, but in Kraftwerk's case it is true. They are without doubt the most important and influential band to come out of the 1970s. Important because they bridge the gap between composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and today's electronic music; influential because without Kraftwerk modern music would not sound the same. No other artist of the last 30 years can claim these titles without keeping a straight face!
Ralf Hütter (b. 20 August 1946, Krefeld, Germany; organ) and woodwind student Florian Schneider-Esleben (b. 7 April 1947, Dusseldorf, Germany; woodwind) met while they were studying improvised music in Dusseldorf, Germany. They drew on the influence of experimental electronic forces such as composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream to create minimalist music on synthesizers, drum machines and tape recorders.
Having previously recorded an album in 1970 with Organisation ( Tone Float ), Hütter and Schneider-Esleben formed Kraftwerk and recorded their debut album with drummers Andreas Hohmann and Klaus Dinger. Guitarist Michael Rother and bass player Eberhard Krahnemann were subsequently recruited for live performances at art galleries.
Hütter briefly left the line-up, but returned in time for the recording of a second self-titled album. During the recording of Kraftwerk 2, Dinger and Rother left to form Neu!. Produced by Conny Plank (later to work with Ultravox and the Eurythmics ), the bleak, spartan music provoked little response.
After releasing a duo set, Ralf Und Florian, Hütter and Schneider-Esleben were joined by Wolfgang Flür (electronic drums) and Klaus Roeder (guitar/violin/keyboards). Autobahn marked Kraftwerk's breakthrough and established them as purveyors of hi-tech, computerized music. The title track, running at more than 22 minutes, was an attempt to relate the monotony and tedium of a long road journey. An edited version reached the Top 10 in the US and UK charts.
In 1975, Roeder was replaced by Karl Bartos, who played on Radioactivity, a concept album based on the sounds to be found on the airwaves. Trans Europe Express and The Man-Machine were pioneering electronic works which strongly influenced a generation of English new-wave acts like the Human League, Tubeway Army ( Gary Numan ), Bill Nelson, Depeche Mode and OMD, while David Bowie claimed to be have long been an admirer.
The New Musical Express said of The Man-Machine : "It is the only completely successful visual/aural fusion rock has produced so far".
Kraftwerk spent three years building their own Kling Klang studios in the late 70s, complete with, inevitably, scores of computers. The single The Model, from The Man-Machine, gave the band a surprise hit when it topped the UK charts in 1982, and it led to a trio of hits, including Showroom Dummies and Tour De France, a song that was featured in the movie Breakdance and became the theme for the cycling event of the same name in 1983. Electric Cafe was a disappointment, but Kraftwerk were now cited as a major influence on a host of electro artists from Afrika Bambaataa to the respected producer Arthur Baker. Bambaataa and Baker's pioneering 1982 Planet Rock single was built around samples of both Trans Europe Express and Numbers (from 1981's Computer World ).
Hütter and Schneider-Esleben have remained enigmatically quiet ever since Electric Cafe . Little then came out from Kling Klang about the departure of half the band! In 1990, a frustrated Flür departed to be replaced by Fritz Hijbert . ( Flür later collaborated with Mouse On Mars under the name of Yamo ).
In 1999, Flür published a book about life with Kraftwerk entitled - Kraftwerk: I Was a Robot. It didn't best please the remaining band members and lawsuits from the direction of Dusseldorf abounded.
Karl Bartos also left around this time. He has since worked with with OMD (Andy McCluskey) (who could be said to have been Liverpool's No. 1 Kraftwerk tribute band!) and Electronic (Bernard Sumner / Johnny Marr) (Bernard Sumner from New Order who could be said to have been Manchester's No. 1 Kraftwerk tribute band!), The Mobile Homes (Sweden), and Anthony Rother and Deine Lakaien from Germany.
Bartos also formed Elektric Music with Lothar Manteuffel . Manteuffel subsequently left the group, leaving Bartos to work under the slightly modified name Electric Music.
In 2000, Bartos released the CD 4 track single, 15 Minutes Of Fame , co-written with Anthony Rother.
Kraftwerk's best known songs were collected together in 1991 on the double, The Mix, aimed chiefly at the dance music market by EMI Records.
"I think our music has to do with emotions. Technology and emotion can join hands . . ." said Hütter in 1991. They made a surprise return to live performance with a headline appearance at the UK's Tribal Gathering in the summer of 1997.
In December 1999, Hütter and Schneider-Esleben recorded a new single, Expo 2000 , to promote the Expo 2000 European Business Conference in Hanover.
In 2000, Kraftwerk contributed to the Japanese charity CD, Zero Landmine , co-ordinated by Riuichi Sakamoto and also featuring among others, David Sylvian.