© 2022 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

TEST - Kraftwerk: Where to Start in Their Back Catalogue

Karl Bartos, Ralf Hutter, Wolfgang Flur and Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, circa 1975
Maurice Seymour
Kraftwerk/Getty Images
Playful, romantic, melodic…Karl Bartos, Ralf Hutter, Wolfgang Flur and Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, circa 1975.

From Autobahn to Trans-Europe Express…the electronic pioneers helped shape a new Germany and changed the history of pop.

While many of us worldwide are unable to experience live music during the coronavirus crisis, or even socialise as normal, we can still use streaming services. Now is the time to delve into that artist you’ve always wanted to check out more deeply – but where to start?

This week we’re starting a new series to run during the outbreak (and potentially beyond it) called Listener’s Digest, in which our writers guide you through the back catalogues of various musicians. These aren’t designed to be exhaustive or definitive, but helpful signposts to get you started in some of the world’s most exhilarating bodies of popular music. We kick off with Kraftwerk, and coming up in week one we will have Rihanna, the Fall, Alice Coltrane and Sleater-Kinney. We’ll include a 10-song primer playlist with each, in Spotify and Apple Music.

The album to start with

Computer World (1981)

TEST - Computer World (2009 Remaster)

Kraftwerk, who formed in 1970 in Düsseldorf and were a major force in making synths and drum machines the lingua franca of pop, dance and hip-hop, are often named alongside the Beatles as the world’s most important and influential groups. In a UK still guilty of stereotyping Germans as efficient and cool – and the group themselves slyly playing up to that – they are also often dismissed as a heritage act of eccentric boffins. But these reputations belie what is actually a playful, romantic, rapturously melodic body of work, exemplified perfectly by Computer World.

With only seven tracks – six really, with the title track in two parts – it is one of the greatest albums of pop melody ever. These tunes are so satisfyingly sturdy and logical – reminiscent of the ringtones and corporate sonic motifs that they helped to usher in – but also spectrally beautiful.

As a kind of concept album imagining, and indeed enacting, a digitally mediated future, there are moments of disquiet. Computer Love pre-empts the eerie contradictions of online dating; the title track coldly lists “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard”, the lack of explanation hinting at the rampant subterfuge of the information age.

But it mostly acts as techno-evangelism. One track title announces It’s More Fun to Compute, like a bumper sticker; vocalist Ralf Hutter notes with childlike glee on Pocket Calculator, “by pressing down a special key it plays a little melody”. On Home Computer, he sounds like a dad unboxing his first PC: “I program my home computer / beam myself into the future”, he murmurs wondrously. The music, of course, is already there.

The three albums to check out next

Trans-Europe Express (1977)

Test - Trans Europe Express (2009 Remastered Version)

Listening to this album post-Brexit is deeply poignant. The opening track, Europe Endless, like their first hit Autobahn, evokes a freedom of movement that was then so deeply cherished after the second world war. The title track (plus its clattering counterparts Metal on Metal and Abzug) celebrates the unstoppable force of cross-continental rail travel, though its sterner mien hints at noirish escapades. Elsewhere there is psychological horror, done in pure pop (Showroom Dummies) and drifting ambient (The Hall of Mirrors). Again, the melodies have a purity that harks back to the classical era of Franz Schubert, namechecked here.

The Man Machine (1978)

TEST - The Robots (2009 Remastered Version)

If they were previously Showroom Dummies coming to life, now they were The Robots, “dancing mechanik”: an announcement of their growing sophistication. Just as on Computer World and Radio-Activity (1975) – which found communication and nuclear technologies both fascinating and troubling – the tension is in their simultaneous enthusiasm and wariness of technology. The Robots’ promise – “We are programmed just to do / anything you want us to” – feels like a malevolently taunting lie, but Spacelab and Neon Lights are beautifully benign. The Model, meanwhile, suggests that there is only melancholy to be found in flesh and blood.

Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

Test - Tour De France (2009 Remaster)

One of Kraftwerk’s greatest triumphs is to move with the times, keeping their Kling Klang studio updated rather than becoming a nostalgic analogue synth museum. They returned 17 years after their previous album for this ode to their beloved Tour de France, rendered in sparkling digital sound. Any paranoia has disappeared entirely: the whole album whirrs with happy industry, and a wonder in the blend of science, topography and physical effort that makes up the Tour.

One for the heads

Dentaku (taken from Minimum-Maximum, 2005)

TEST - Dentaku (Live)

Kraftwerk have spent the post-Tour years touring themselves, with a superb 3D setup for the greatest hits. This recording from first live album Minimum-Maximum sees them play Dentaku – a higher-tempo, Japanese-language version of Pocket Calculator – to an adoring Tokyo crowd. Their chanting along with Hutter, whose composure cracks into audible glee, is one of the most powerfully human moments in the whole catalogue.

The primer playlist

In 1988, a determined Bob Boilen started showing up on NPR's doorstep every day, looking for a way to contribute his skills in music and broadcasting to the network. His persistence paid off, and within a few weeks he was hired, on a temporary basis, to work for All Things Considered. Less than a year later, Boilen was directing the show and continued to do so for the next 18 years.