TEST - Kraftwerk: Where to Start in Their Back Catalogue
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)
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)
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)