Robots without Attitude

Kraftwerk are the German naifs of electronic pop music. They hail from a more innocent moment, before hip-hop became the lingua franca of American teenagers, before the World Wide Web made computers an inextricable part of our lives. And now that electronica has become a significant segment of pop culture, Kraftwerk’s abiding innocence takes on a unique, prescient air.

Sure, like most acts experimenting with technology in the ’70s (Yes; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; David Bowie), Kraftwerk was a band of futurists, toying with new sounds. But whereas most science fiction embraces the future by trying to get there first, Kraftwerk seems to have understood itself as a cultural pupa patiently awaiting greater forces to transform the world.

With their multi-lingual, self-consciously jejune and plainspoken lyrics (“I program my home computer / Beam myself into the future”; “We’re charging our battery / And now we’re full of energy”), Kraftwerk was more than happy to take baby steps while everyone else feigned evolutionary leaps. Bowie hallucinated about “Diamond Dogs” while Kraftwerk focused on more pedestrian role models, like in the song “Showroom Dummies”; Genesis and Pink Floyd produced lengthy rock operas set in totalitarian distopias while Kraftwerk produced ditties about “Spacelab.”

For sake of chronological reference, it can be helpful to note that Kraftwerk’s first album was released in 1971, the year of the birth of Richard D. James, who would grow up to be Aphex Twin, a leader in today’s electronic music. Kraftwerk’s giddy, automated songs provided the pop-radio cocoon in which James and his generation came of age — the bounding joy ride of “Autobahn,” the B-movie squeamishness of “The Robots,” the digital-romantic effect of a piece named for composer Franz Schubert. (The close-knit band is led by founding members Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, who seem to have determinedly kept their earliest albums out of print.)

Kraftwerk’s best songs, of which there are many, remain eminently enjoyable. They’re formal hybrids of bright little pop nuggets and proto-techno instrumentals. The first few minutes of “Spacelab” sound like a proper song, but five minutes along you realize you have spaced out entirely.

Ah, yes, techno. Kraftwerk’s strong influence on techno — the height of inner-city electronic music, largely courtesy of Detroit innovators — is one of the most fascinating cross-cultural stories in modern music. Just ponder for a moment the idea that a small group of almost uncomfortably clean-cut Germans could help trigger a musical revolution in the black community of a post-industrial American city. And this was not a one-way relationship. On “Boing Boom Tschak,” the first track on Kraftwerk’s Electric Cafe (1986), you can hear the influence of hip-hop; the song’s vocals sound like a European exchange student recounting for friends back home the wonder of the human beatbox.

Were Kraftwerk to arrive on the scene today, their minor hit “Pocket Calculator” would no doubt go something more along the lines of, “I am the operator with my Pocket PC with wireless remote Internet connectivity, real-time stock quotes and instant messaging.” Technology has quickly threatened to outpace our imaginations, but it’s likely we would have been dumfounded far earlier had Kraftwerk not prepared us in advance.

5 Recommended Kraftwerk Albums: Autobahn (Capitol, 1974) Back before meaty SUVs became the icon of vehicular achievement, “Autobahn” captured the love affair between man and car with a hypnotic loop of minimalist romance. No road rage here.

Trans-Europe Express (Capitol, 1977) You’ll want this one for the popular title track, which continued the group’s car fetish, and for the Wendy/Walter Carlos-style elevator classicism of “Franz Schubert.”

The Man Machine (Capitol, 1978) Put simply, this is the album with “The Robots” (as in “We are the robots”), which sounds like invading techno-aliens trying to charm us into taking them to our leader.

Computer World (Elektra, 1981) Put simply, this is the album with “Pocket Calculator.” Five of the seven tracks have the word “compute” in the title, and no one’s complaining. Sounds like Devo on sedatives.

Electric Cafe (Warner Bros., 1986) Kraftwerk’s last proper studio album, and their most dated one. You might opt, instead, for the Balanescu Quartet album Possessed, which renders the band’s hits for strings.

Originally published, in slightly different form, by Pulse! magazine, September 2001.

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