The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive electronically-generated rhythms with catchy synthesizer-generated melodies; mainly following a Western classical style of harmony, in a minimalistic arrangement. The group's simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. In the mid to late 1970s and the early 1980s, Kraftwerk's distinctive sound was revolutionary for its time, and it has had a lasting impact across nearly all genres of modern popular music.
The duo had originally performed together in a quintet known as Organisation. This ensemble released one album, titled Tone Float for RCA Records in the UK. The unit split shortly thereafter. The two began setting up their own private studio in a rented loft in Düsseldorf, which later became known as Kling Klang. Early Kraftwerk line-ups from 1970–1974 fluctuated, as Hütter and Schneider worked with around a half-dozen other musicians over the course of recording three albums and sporadic live appearances; most notably guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, who left to form Neu! The input, expertise, and influence of producer/engineer Konrad "Conny" Plank was significant as well. Plank worked with many other leading German acts, including members of Can, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia. As a result of his work with Kraftwerk, Plank's studio near Köln became one of the most sought-after studios in the late 1970s. Plank produced the first four Kraftwerk albums, but ceased working with the band after the commercial success of "Autobahn", apparently over a dispute about contracts. Painter and graphic artist Emil Schult became a regular collaborator with the band starting in 1973, playing bass guitar and electro-violin. Schult then went on to design artwork in addition to writing lyrics and accompanying the group on tour.
What is generally regarded as the classic Kraftwerk line-up was formed in 1975, for the Autobahn tour. During this time, the band was presented as a quartet, with Hütter and Schneider joined by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos as electronic percussionists. This quartet would be the band's public persona for its renowned output of the latter 1970s and early 1980s. Flür had joined the band in 1973, in preparation for a television appearance to promote its third album. The group's striking custom-made electronic percussion pads, played by Flür, made their debut as well. Bartos also helped to write many of the band's most memorable songs.
The band is notoriously reclusive; providing rare and enigmatic interviews, using life size mannequins and robots to conduct official photo shoots, refusing to accept mail and not allowing visitors at the Kling Klang Studio. Another notable example of this eccentric behavior was reported to Johnny Marr of The Smiths by Karl Bartos, who explained that anyone trying to contact the band for collaboration would be told the studio telephone did not have a ringer, since during recording, the band did not like to hear any kind of noise pollution. Instead, callers were instructed to phone the studio precisely at a certain time, whereupon the phone would be answered by Ralf Hütter, despite never hearing the phone ring. Chris Martin, lead singer of UK group Coldplay, anecdotally recalled, in a late 2007 article in Q about Kraftwerk, the process of requesting permission to sample the melody from the track "Computer Love" in its 2005 release "Talk" from its album X&Y. He recalled writing them a letter and sending it through the lawyers of the respective parties and several weeks later receiving an envelope containing a handwritten reply that simply said 'yes'.
In 1990 after years of withdrawal from live performance, Kraftwerk began to tour Europe again regularly. In 1998 the group made its first appearances in the United States and Japan since the completion of the Computer World tour in 1981. Hütter had wanted to play more shows over the years, but the cost and time involved in shipping all of the group's huge analog equipment hindered world tours and travel outside of Europe. The band also ran into problems with customs officials in the Eastern Bloc region, with some of them fearing that the group's older computers at the time would trigger nuclear devices by mistake. During this decade, the band often stated that it was working on new material—though speculation about release dates fell through several times. The growing time between recordings, the rarity of live performances, Hütter and Schneider's alleged obsession with cycling, and the increasingly perfectionist nature of the recording process were the major reasons behind the departure of Flür and soon after Bartos, whose improvisations and song-writing capabilities were an essential part of Kraftwerk's later recordings. Following the departure of Flür and Bartos, Kling Klang studio personnel Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz have appeared in what some have called the second classic line-up of Kraftwerk, which has been active from late 1991 to the present.
In July 1999 the single "Tour de France" was reissued in Europe after it had been out of print for several years. It was released for the first time on CD in addition to a repressing of the 12-inch vinyl single. Both versions feature slightly altered artwork that removed the faces of Flür and Bartos from the four man cycling paceline depicted on the original cover. Also at this time, the group signed a new contract with Sony-ATV Music Publishing. The single "Expo 2000", the group's first new song in 13 years, was released in December 1999 and subsequently remixed by contemporary techno musicians such as Underground Resistance and Orbital. This version was released as "Expo Remix" in November 2000. Before this time, the only artists allowed to remix the band's recordings were François Kevorkian and William Orbit.
In 2000 ex-member Flür published his autobiography in Germany, Ich war ein Roboter. Later English-language editions of the book were titled Kraftwerk: I Was a Robot. The text revealed many previously unreported details about life in the band. This book met with hostility and litigation from Hütter and Schneider, who disputed several of its claims (e.g., that Flür had built the band's first electronic drum pads) and objected to the public disclosure of personal information.
In August 2003 the band released Tour de France Soundtracks, its first album of new material since 1986's Electric Café. In 2004 a box set titled The Catalogue was planned for release. It was to feature remastered editions of the group's albums from 1974's Autobahn to 2003's Tour de France Soundtracks. The item was soon withdrawn from Kraftwerk and EMI's album release schedule. It was only released as a promotional item on CD, which has become a much-wanted item that has often appeared on internet auction sites such as eBay. In 2007, the group showed a renewed interest in releasing the collection, although an official street date was not given.
In June 2005 the band's first-ever official live album, Minimum-Maximum, which was compiled from the shows during the band's tour of spring 2004, received extremely positive reviews. Most of the tracks featured had been heavily reworked and remodeled from the existing studio versions. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album. In December, the Minimum-Maximum two-DVD set was released to accompany the album, featuring live footage of the band performing the Minimum-Maximum tracks in various venues all over the world.
April 2008 saw the band back on tour in the United States leading up to its previously announced show at the Coachella Festival. Florian Schneider is absent from the lineup. The quartet currently consists of Ralf Hütter, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and Stefan Pfaffe. In September, the group will play five dates, with a single festival show in Ireland, three consecutive festival gigs in Poland and a date in Ukraine. In November, four dates will be played at various locations in Australia along with a date in New Zealand. In December, the quartet will play their first show ever in Singapore.
Bartos and Flür are the most widely recognized former members of Kraftwerk; they are featured on the group's most popular recordings. Other former members include
Andreas Hohmann, Klaus Dinger and Klaus Röder were the only other former members to be featured on any official Kraftwerk recordings. Michael Rother has been featured on several bootleg recordings and seen in several TV performances. An unreleased studio recording session produced by Konrad "Conny" Plank, featuring the trio of Florian Schneider, Dinger, and Rother, is rumoured to have taken place. Apparently, these plans were scrapped when Ralf Hütter returned to the group in 1971, before starting the recording sessions for Kraftwerk 2.
Though most famous for its synthpop albums, Kraftwerk began as a Krautrock jam band in the vein of Can or Neu! Its first three albums were more free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined strong structure of its later work. Kraftwerk, released in 1970, and Kraftwerk 2, released in 1972, were mostly exploratory jam music, played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, electric organ, flute and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were then used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both albums are purely instrumental.
With Ralf und Florian, released in 1973, the band began to move closer to its classic sound, relying more heavily on synthesizers and drum machines. Although almost entirely instrumental, the album marks Kraftwerk's first use of the vocoder, which would, in time, become one of its musical signatures.
The group's breakthrough, both critically and commercially, came in 1974 with the Autobahn album and its 22-minute title track, featuring the Motorik beat, which was a worldwide hit and demonstrated its increasing reliance on synthesizers and electronics. This preceded a quintet of recorded works that would exert a huge influence on popular music—Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and the single, Tour de France (1983).
Kraftwerk's lyrics deal with post-war European urban life and technology—traveling by car on the Autobahn, traveling by train, using home computers, and the like. Usually, the lyrics are very minimal but reveal both an innocent celebration of, and a knowing caution about, the modern world, as well as playing an integral role in the rhythmic structure of the songs. Many of Kraftwerk's songs express the paradoxical nature of modern urban life—a strong sense of alienation existing side-by-side with a celebration of the joys of modern technology.
Kraftwerk was one of the first pop-oriented acts to record using pure electronic (or electronically processed) instruments and sounds exclusively. Many of the vocals in its songs are processed through a vocoder or generated using speech-synthesis software. In addition, a Texas Instruments Language Translator was used to generate synthetic speech on its 1981 album Computer World—not a Speak and Spell as is commonly believed (though its bleeps do occur at the beginning of "Home Computer"). It also pioneered the use of backing tracks that were generated by the electronic sequencing of purely synthetic sounds.
All of its albums from Trans-Europe Express onward have been recorded in separate versions: one with German vocals for sale in Germany, Switzerland and Austria and one with English vocals for the rest of the world, with occasional variations in other languages when conceptually appropriate. Tour de France was released in French, along with a limited German edition. The German-language versions are Kraftwerk's attempt to provide an alternative to the dominant Anglo-American influence in rock and pop music.
Tour De France Soundtracks, which expanded the concept from the 1983 hit single, was recorded exclusively in French.
Documentation of this period in the group's history is sparse, with Hütter and Schneider not keen to talk about it in later interviews. A few bootleg recordings are in circulation. The only official released material is its 1971 performance on the German Beat Club TV show, which is available on DVD.
By the late 1970s the band's live set focused increasingly on song-based material, with greater use of vocals, less acoustic instrumentation, and the use of sequencing equipment for percussion and musical lines. The approach taken by the group was to use the sequencing equipment interactively, thus allowing room for improvisation. In 1976, the group went out on tour in support of the Radio-Activity album. As Kraftwerk's trivial status as a "novelty act" began to dissipate in the mainstream US, this tour took Kraftwerk around Europe only, with the foursome making its first stops in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland.
This tour also tested out an experimental light-beam-activated drum cage allowing Flür to trigger electronic percussion through arm and hand movements. Unfortunately, the device did not work as planned, and it was quickly abandoned. Despite the new innovations in touring, the band took a break from live performances after the Radioactivity tour of 1976. The band did, however, appear on television shows to promote the albums Trans Europe Express and The Man-Machine.
The band returned to the live scene with the Computer World tour of 1981, where the band effectively packed up its entire Kling Klang studio and took it on the road with them. Around this time, Wolfgang Flür was heavily involved in designing customized modular housing and packaging for the group's touring equipment. The band also developed an increasing use of visual elements in the live shows during this period. This included back-projected slides and films, increasingly synchronized with the music as the technology developed, the use of hand-held miniaturized instruments during the set, and, perhaps most famously, the use of replica mannequins of themselves to perform onstage during the song "The Robots." The group came back to the US, Canada and the UK; this tour also marked the first time that Kraftwerk had toured in Spain, Poland, Hungary, Japan, Australia, India and China.
Kraftwerk laid dormant from the live scene once again until 1997, when it headlined the Tribal Gathering festival in the UK. It was the near-legendary success of that show, that led to a two week mini tour in 1998, with the group visiting the US and Japan for the first time since 1981. By this time, the US audience had swelled into a small underground cult following; only major metropolitan cities were visited that were of core interest—Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit, and New York. This outing also took the group to South America for the first time with shows in Brazil and Argentina. Three new songs were performed during this period, which remain unreleased to this day. Following this trek, the group decided to take another break.
In 2002 the band was touring again in Europe and Japan, using four customized Sony VAIO laptop computers, effectively leaving the entire Kling Klang studio at home in Germany. The group also obtained a new set of transparent video panels to replace its four large projection screens. This greatly streamlined the running of all of the group's sequencing, sound-generating, and visual-display software. From this point, the band's equipment increasingly reduced manual playing, replacing it with interactive control of sequencing equipment. Hütter retains the most manual performance, still playing selected musical lines by hand on a controller keyboard and singing live vocals and having a repeating ostinato. Much of Schneider's live vocoding has been replaced by software-controlled speech-synthesis techniques.
In January 2003, prior to the release of the album Tour de France Soundtracks, the group performed in Australia and New Zealand at several dates on the Big Day Out festival; this was also its latest visit to the region since 1981. In November, the group made a surprising appearance at the MTV European Music Awards in Edinburgh, Scotland, featuring a visually stunning performance of Aerodynamik. In 2004 the band toured in support of Tour de France Soundtracks. In addition to all of its usual stops, Kraftwerk ventured to Canada once again for the first time since 1981, and explored previously untouched regions of the globe, as the quartet made its first visits to Iceland, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Ireland, Portugal, Chile, and Mexico. The group also visited US cities Seattle and Miami for the first time, with the latter region's famous Miami Bass sub-genre of hip-hop heavily influenced by the combination of Kraftwerk and electro music.
In 2005 the group released its first official live album, Minimum-Maximum, recorded on the aforementioned 2004 world tour. In support of this release, Kraftwerk made another quick sweep around the globe, with more first visits in Serbia, Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, and Greece. In December, the DVD release of Minimum-Maximum was made available.
In 2006 a small number of festivals were played in Norway, the Czech Republic, Spain, Belgium and Germany. The songs Showroom Dummies and Computer Love were added to the set list. This was the first time that Showroom Dummies had been played live since 1981.
The spring touring quartet consisted of Ralf Hutter, Henning Schmitz, Fritz Hilpert, and video technician Stefan Pfaffe. Original member Florian Schneider was absent from the lineup. As Hutter said, he decided to stay at Kling Klang studio to work on future projects.
One of the first major recording artists to claim a direct influence from Kraftwerk's music was David Bowie. Part of this can be heard in a series of albums that start with Station To Station and continue with the Berlin Trilogy—Low, "Heroes", and Lodger. Iggy Pop's association with Bowie during this period would result in the classic albums Lust For Life and The Idiot. Kraftwerk's members were mutual fans of both artists, name-dropping them in the lyrics of its 1977 single "Trans-Europe Express."
Following this were the artists in the new rock and dance-music scenes that were developing in the US, Europe, and Japan. A large number of them borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk not only musically but also in terms of image and ideas. This can be seen and heard in a wide variety of artists such as Gary Numan, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Human League, Depeche Mode, Devo, Joy Division, Telex, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Giorgio Moroder, New Order, Front 242, Cabaret Voltaire, Art of Noise, Yello, Ultravox, Visage, and Thomas Dolby.
Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock (1982) was a major defining hit for hip-hop and the birth of electro music, which contains elements of '"Trans-Europe Express" and "Numbers." Legal action was pursued against Bambaataa and won for the blatant use of these particular sounds and melodies without giving proper credit to the group. Since the lawsuit, proper credit is now given on the song’s writing credits. Numerous artists have continued to sample and pilfer various elements from Kraftwerk's catalog.
The influence of Kraftwerk’s distinctive use of synthesizers, drum machine rhythms, and heavily effected vocals can also be heard on early Detroit techno records. Detroit techno artists Derrick May and Juan Atkins tried to replicate Kraftwerk’s sound on early techno records such as Cybotron’s Clear (1983), Model 500’s No UFOs (1985), and Derrick May’s Nude Photo (1986).
Kraftwerk was also a major influence in the genre of Chicago house Music. Keith Farley's (Farley "Jackmaster" Funk of the Hot Mix 5) recording '"Funkin With the Drums Again" pays homage to Kraftwerk's "Home Computer" and "It's More Fun to Compute," which are cult classics in Chicago's house-music history.
While touring after the release of Astronaut in 2005, Duran Duran would signify its arrival on stage by playing "The Robots." This track appeared on the album Nick Rhodes and John Taylor present Only after Dark (2006). When Duran Duran played Broadway in November 2007, and the Lyceum in London in December 2007, it performed "Showroom Dummies" as part of its electro set. Each band member used electronic instruments—Nick and John used a Korg Radias and Simon used a microKorg.
The band has also had an influence on celtic fusion, most notably in the use of electronic sounds to complement traditional instruments in the music of bands such as the Peatbog Faeries; its fourth album was called Croftwork and featured the track "Trans-Island Express."
A petition for the induction of Kraftwerk into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was recently created through PetitionOnline. It has been eligible for induction since 1996. However, there has been no formal consideration by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's ruling committee.
This discography focuses on Kraftwerk's English-language releases. Alternative-language versions are also noted. Chart positions are given for the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Canada. UK chart positions are taken from the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. USA chart positions are taken from the Billboard Hot 100 Web site (http://www.billboard.com/). Canadian chart position from Charts Canada compiled by Ted Kennedy.
For more information on individual releases including track listings and label details see Kraftwerk discography.
The only difference between the Radio-Activity and Radio-Aktivität albums is the packaging. The music on both albums is identical.
Tour de France Soundtracks was only released in French.
Kraftwerk has never authorized any best-of albums; however, the group's former record companies often put together compilations of old material to cash in on the band's growing popularity, particularly during the early 1980s. A number of these releases can be found here in the following link , as they are too numerous to list here.
|GER||U.K.||U.S. Hot 100||U.S. Dance Play||U.S. Dance Sales|
|1974||"Comet Melody 2"||German version: Kometenmelodie 2||–||–||–||–||–|
|1976||"Radio-Activity"||German version: Radioaktivität - France #1||–||–||–||–||–|
|1977||"Trans-Europe Express"||German version: Trans-Europa Express||–||–||67||–||–|
|"Showroom Dummies"||French version: Les Mannequins||–||–||–||–||–|
|1978||"The Robots"||German version: Die Roboter||18||–||–||–||–|
|"The Model"||German version: Das Model||–||–||–||–||–|
|1981||"Pocket Calculator"||German version: Taschenrechner - Japanese version: Dentaku|
French version: Mini Calculateur
|"The Model"||Reissue 1982-2-6||7||1||–||–||–|
|1982||"Computerwelt"||Remix German only release||–||–||–||–||–|
|1983||"Tour de France"||Released in German and French versions||47||22||–||4||–|
|1984||"Tour de France"||Remix - Released in German and French versions||–||24||–||–||–|
|1987||"The Telephone Call"||German version: Der Telefon Anruf||–||89||–||1||18|
|1991||"The Robots"||Re-recorded version from The Mix - German version: Die Roboter||–||20||–||42||42|
|"Radioactivity"||Re-recorded version from The Mix - German version: Radioaktivität||–||43||–||21||–|
|1999||"Tour de France"||Reissue - Released in French only||–||61||–||–||–|
|2000||"Expo Remix"||various remixes||–||–||–||–||–|
|2003||"Tour de France 2003"||50||20||–||–||13|
|"Elektro-Kardiogramm"||Radio Mix - Promo Only||–||–||–||–||–|
|2007||"Aerodynamik" / "La Forme"||Remixed by Hot Chip||79||78||–||–||4|