Kraftwerk and the ultimate man machine

How Germany’s pioneers of electropop fell in love with the bicycle.
First published in Rouleur magazine, August 2005.

Mensch / Natur / Technik. In three words are distilled the ethos of one of the most innovative and influential pop groups of all time. Kraftwerk’s pursuit of harmony between man, nature and technology also explains a passion for cycling that has at times bordered on an obsession. Described variously as the godfathers of techno and industrial music, ‘the Beach Boys from Düsseldorf’ and the inventors of electro pop, it is hard to find a band more revered (and sampled) by their peers, or more worshipped by their fans.

Famous for shunning the media spotlight and turning down invitations to collaborate with names as big as Michael Jackson, David Bowie and The Smiths it is strange to hear Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter describe with star-struck awe how he and fellow founder-member Florian Schneider rode in a Tour De France race car with French cycling legend Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle during the Alpe D’Huez stage in 2003 Tour De France. But it would not surprise any Kraftwerk fan who blames cycling for the dramatic decline in recorded output since their 1983 Tour De France single. The suspicion that Hütter and Schneider had abandoned their banks of electronic recording equipment to ride over the high mountain passes of the Alps and Dolomites is given further credence by former sideman Karl Bartos who said that the excessive cycling contributed in part to his decision to quit the band.

Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider first met in 1968 at an improvisation class at the Düsseldorf Conservatory. Both classically-trained musicians with an interest in the electronic music, sound and feedback developed by Karlheinz Stockhausen, they soon decided to form a band. Organisation was a five-piece project that fitted in with the highly intellectual avant garde German music scene of the time. Organisation was disbanded after just one album and Hütter and Schneider went on to form Kraftwerk. Although gathering a small cult following and beginning to work with new electronic ways of making music, the three albums that followed did not achieve commercial or critical success and within the constellation of experimental German rock at the time, Kraftwerk were eclipsed by bands like Can and Tangerine Dream.

Kraftwerk means ‘power station’ in German, and hailing from the industrial heartland of the Rhur valley, Hütter and Schneider were fascinated by industry and technology both as a way of making music and as a broader cultural aesthetic. Products of Germany’s post-war ‘fatherless generation’, both had witnessed how industrial progress had enabled Germany to rebuild and redeem itself after the moral and material ruin of the Nazi era. They were disappointed at how most continental European pop groups rarely strayed from aping their American and British counterparts and one of Kraftwerk’s early objectives was to develop an uncompromisingly modern style that was at the same time distinctively German.

There is a some irony that Kraftwerk’s first international commercial success came with Autobahn (1974) a concept album about driving a Volkswagen Beetle on the German motorway network: two technological innovations widely associated with the Third Reich (although in the case of the Autobahn, the connection is largely erroneous). This was an unlikely radio and hit, the single being an edited version of the album’s 23-minute long title track.

The four albums that followed mined a rich seam of similar themes in which delight in modernity is balanced by nostalgia for bygone times. It is difficult to find another group whose music so closely relates to overtly stated concepts: radio broadcasting and nuclear power (Radio-Activity, 1975) train travel and European integration (Trans Europe Express, 1977) robots and mannequins (The Man Machine, 1978) and computers, surveillance and international finance (Computer World, 1981). It is sometimes unclear whether Kraftwerk’s vision is portraying technology at the service of mankind or machines taking over at the expense of humanity.

This ambiguity reflects their approach to music-making. The commercial success of Autobahn enabled them to buy and equip their own recording studio, quite an unusual move at the time, but a necessity given the importance they placed upon constant technological innovation, privacy and epically long recording sessions. Hütter and Schneider frequently describe their Kling Klang studio as a musical instrument in its own right, and recall moments when it seemed as though the synthesisers and sequencers were creating music by themselves.

These big ideas are usually tempered with a wry humour. A playful ode to the pocket calculator features the couplet ‘By pressing down a special key / It plays a little melody’ while the vocal harmonies and ‘fahren, fahren, fahren’ chorus on Autobahn invoke the Beach Boys’ ‘fun, fun fun’).

Kraftwerk have always been very secretive about both the instruments and the processes of composition and performance of their music. Accounts by the few people who have spent any time in the Kling Klang studio suggest Hütter is the driving force, structuring the group’s core musical forms while Schneider is the technological sorcerer and insatiable collector and creator of new sounds and aural textures. Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür are the most important of a series of sidemen brought in as percussionists, engineers and programmers. Kraftwerk are said to approach their work in the studio with a discipline and regularity that goes against accepted stereotypes of chaotic rock musicians. Likewise, the uniform of neat, short hair-cuts and suits and ties that the band adopted in the late 1970s was in marked contrast to the fashions of the time and several years ahead of the so-called New Wave bands who would sport a similar style. The construction of robots versions of the band to play in concerts and appear in photo-shoots underscores Kraftwerk’s playful technological vision as well as their disdain for the limelight.

The exhausting process of recording the Computer World album led the band to discuss the issue of physical exercise and it was not long after that Hütter and Schneider took up cycling. The pair encouraged the other members of the wider Kraftwerk clan to take to the roads and even formed their own cycling club, Radsportgruppe Schneider. Their all-black cycling strips matched the black coffee that sustained night-long sessions in the studio. By all accounts they were no slouches in the saddle, often completing 200 km rides and riding the classic climbs of the Tour de France and the Giro D’Italia. Of all the band members it was Hütter who took the sport most seriously, both as a rider and a spectator, making special trips to follow of the Classic races like the Paris-Roubaix.

The creative life of the band revolved around Kling Klang, the custom-built studio they describe as their ‘electric toyroom’ and ‘laboratory’. Yet Hütter explains how working in a ‘very synthetic world’ made them want to escape into ‘the fresh air, sun and wind’. Cycling helps to ‘free the mind’. Maxime Schmitt, a long-time Kraftwerk friend and collaborator told Pascal Bussy, author of the unofficial but authoritative biography Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, Music (SAF Publishing, 2001) that ‘the bicycle was a perfect way of getting a lot of fresh air. We noticed that it was an anti-stress sport because it concentrated totally on the bicycle. When you ride a bicycle, you don’t think about the new album, about how we are going to launch it. We realised that during three or four hours on the bicycle, we were discussing things like, ‘Oh, you have new brakes’, ‘Oh, where did you get your handlebars’, ‘Is the saddle well adjusted’, or ‘What about the pedals?’, things that were only connected with cycling.’

In Radio-Activity Kraftwerk had delved into a new ecological consciousness that was emerging in the late 1970s. In the 1980s this environmental concern was married with a sense of radical egalitarianism. Everyone can own a bike. Soon enough, band members retired their fleet of vintage Mercedes-Benz in favour of VW Golfs and bicycles. Hütter saw cycling as more than a mere leisure pursuit, something closer to a political statement: ‘No, it’s not for holiday. It is the man machine. It’s me, the man machine on the bicycle. Holidays are an alienation, a consumption concept. To relax ourselves, we ride the bicycle, it’s enough. We are liberated from holidays.’

Hütter and his large collection of bikes, either shimmering chrome or jet-black, were featured in a French cycling magazine, with not a single reference to the fact that he was a member of a seminal electronic pop group. It is obvious that the high technology associated with bike frames, components and training regimes held a fascination for musicians who had started out designing and building their own synthesisers and other sonic gadgetry. Just like a recording studio, a bike is made up of parts that must be designed and tuned to work in harmony. It is always possible to upgrade a component in order to reach ever greater heights of performance. Hütter points to many parallels between the Kraftwerk vision of cycling and their music: ‘Speed, balance, a certain freedom of spirit, keeping in shape, technological and technical perfection, aerodynamics.’

It was not long before they turned to making a record about riding a bike. Describing the Tour De France EP Hütter explained that ‘the bicycle is already a musical instrument on its own. The noise of the bicycle chain, the pedal and gear mechanism, for example, the breathing of the cyclist, we have incorporated all this in the Kraftwerk sound, including injecting the natural sounds into the computers in the studio.’ The crisp, clean sound that came to characterise the Kraftwerk sound in the digital era of the 1990s also has a resonance in the sound of the bicycle (or rather the lack of it): ‘When your bike functions best, you don’t hear it – it’s silent, there’s no cracking, just shhhh – you’re gliding. It’s the same when you’re in good shape and your in form and you’re riding your bike, you hear nothing – maybe just a little bit of breath.’

The Tour De France EP was a chart hit in the UK although it was released too late in the year to capitalise on the real Tour and sold just 7,500 copies in France. A major reason for the record’s success in the UK and the US is that it was used in the soundtrack to the film Breakdance. This was the second time the Kraftwerk sound had been adopted by the hip-hop community, following Afrika Bambaataa’s use of themes and drum lines from Trans Europe Express and Numbers in the landmark electro track Planet Rock. Tour De France was also a hit in the dance scene in New York, getting the remix treatment by leading house DJ Francois Kervorkian, of whom Kraftwerk were a great admirer. The track cemented Kraftwerk’s status as an important electronic dance music influence, something that as regular visitors to Düsseldorf disco clubs, they would have been appreciated. Alongside Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk set down many of the basic structures and idioms of dance music that have been further elaborated by second-generation pioneers like New Order, Aphex Twin and Orbital.

The original plan was to record a whole album inspired by the Tour De France but Bartos and Flur we’re not keen on the idea. Moreover, tragedy had come close when Hütter was involved in a bike crash, in which head injuries left him in a coma for two days. Perhaps confirming Bartos’s view that the cycling obsession had gone too far, Hütter’s first words on waking are reported to have been ‘where’s my bike?’. The injuries took time to heal and the Tour De France LP project was shelved.

Fast forward to 2003. It has been 17 years since the last album of new material, Electric Café (1986), was released to a lukewarm reception from fans and critics. Time had narrowed the technological advantage Kraftwerk had always enjoyed over other electronic bands. Yet at the same time, digital technology had made touring easier and Kraftwerk played live more often in 1990s with shows set new standards in sound, video and lighting effects. Rumours of a new album repeatedly spread only to be met with silence from Kling Klang. Finally in August 2003, missing the end of the Centenary Tour De France by a few days, the Tour De France Soundtracks LP was released. It proved that Kraftwer’s love affair with cycling was still going strong but also that they were still making music. Tracks entitled Aero-Dynamik, Titanium, and Vitamin evoke the spirit of professional road racing in the modern age: a blend of athletic performance with constant technical and scientific progress. Hütter explains how the track Elektro Kardiogramm was born: ‘We took my heart-beat, and worked this into a kind of beats per minute, and some kind of drum beat, plus the breath, modulating and filtering and working from that’ One can only speculate as to whether they ever considered writing a track called Erythropoietin or Amphetamine.

The album was received well, and showed that if not the revolutionary innovators of the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk had lost none of their ability to remain distinctive and hold tight to their core ethos. Cycling embodies Kraftwerk’s perennial theme of the man-machine. The man controls the bicycle yet the bicycle enables the man to travel faster and further than he otherwise would be able – and to improve his physique. Both man and machine realise their potential together, working in harmony. And for a group concerned with modernity and progress, one feature of the bicycle is critical: it cannot go backwards.

A very American tour of duty

First published in The Guardian, 24 July 2004.
Lance Armstrong is poised to claim a unique sixth victory in the Tour de France. He shares his achievement of five wins with four other riders, and many Europeans find it galling that an American (from George Bush’s home state of Texas, no less) is set to surpass the European quartet of Merckx, Anquetil, Hinault and Indurain.

Transatlantic rivalry is only part of the story. Some cycling fans object to how Armstrong’s nine-man team operates with the sole purpose of ensuring their man will be wearing the winner’s yellow jersey as the riders enter the Champs Elysées tomorrow at the end of the three-week race. Europeans like the idea of the noble individual, striking out from the pack to ride heroically and alone over the mountains and through the vineyards to claim his prize. Merckx would attack, attack, attack, never content with second place. This year the colourful French rider and six times king of the mountains Richard Virenque chose Bastille Day for a daring 130-mile breakaway, to the delight of the home crowd. By contrast, Armstrong’s rides are carefully calculated; he only unleashes his speed and endurance at key moments, to maximum tactical effect. On the fast, flat days he will shelter behind his teammates, in the mountains he will use them as pacemakers. In fairness, each of the teams in the tour has a hierarchy. But Armstrong’s team has taken things to a new level, reflecting the special American love affair with team sports.

The three most popular American spectator sports are baseball, basketball and American football. Big hitters like Babe Ruth, gravity-defying geniuses like Michael Jordan or quarterbacks like Joe Montana may have star status, but it’s the team that’s the thing. Teams practice drills and set-plays, each member has clearly defined roles. Working cooperatively, sacrificing your own glory for the greater good, a whole greater than the sum of its parts doesn’t fit with the view of America as a nation of rugged individualism. De Tocqueville, to whom Europeans look for insights into the US character, remarked upon the abundance of voluntary “associations” (churches and unions) that performed many of the roles of the larger, more intrusive European state.

Sociologists like Robert Putnam have recorded the collapse of these civic institutions in recent decades. But even if Americans are going down to the mall and – as Putnam famously observed – “bowling alone”, on TV they still love team sports. Perhaps they find them comforting precisely because they reflect qualities of cooperation and social solidarity that are missing from the dog-eat-dog capitalist economy. There is something almost socialist in the way that recently graduated college players are allocated to the professional teams: the worst-performing teams get first choice of the best players, so as to even up the competition. And maybe it is because of our more uniform, egalitarian societies that we Europeans are attracted to the idea of the individual genius outshining the rest through natural ability (though not through hard work, that’s so American).

For Americans the team is about working together for a common aim, and that common aim remains distinctively American. It’s not playing beautiful football, or helping the lesser players rise up to the level of the best. The goal is winning – at all costs. Armstrong has a single-minded commitment to a single goal: winning the Tour de France. He is an outstanding athlete and his team has been built around him, their egos subjugated to the task at hand. They are drilled, disciplined and dedicated. Now, there’s something very American about that.