Forget everything you've been taught. The birthplace of all that's cool and modern in music wasn't Memphis, Liverpool or the South Bronx. As a set of new reissues demonstrates, it was Dusseldorf, Germany, where Kraftwerk invented the future we are now living. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of electronic pioneer's landmark 1974 hit "Autobahn," Astralwerks released eight original Kraftwerk albums this week on CD and mp3, with a vinyl box coming in mid-November.
A lot of people have at least a vague notion about the combo--even if they're not familiar with the band's glistening synth washes and driving rhythms, the name Kraftwerk has been dropped by hip musical tastemakers ever since the Autobahn LP appeared in 1974. And there's good reason for that: Kraftwerk, it turns out, is the wellspring for all musical modernity.
The conventional history of rock draws a line between everything prior to punk and everything subsequent to it. But first wave punk--especially American punk--was for the most part a roots movement. The Ramones, for instance, though a lot of fun, were nothing more than loud surf music and girl group nostalgists. Back-to-basics primitivism is not a force that's going to move anything forward.
Kraftwerk, on the other hand, starting several years before the punk explosion, threw out the rock canon and built something entirely new. They weren't about taking it back to the garage--though they did build and tinker with a lot of actual hardware in order to make devices that sounded the way they wanted. And unlike many contemporaneous electronic experimentalists, they were not simply transposing current popular music for Moogs (Switched-On Rock), or clowning around (think of Perrey-Kingsley's "Barnyard in Orbit"), or desperately trying to sound avant-garde (like Silver Apples or a lot of krautrock acts). Instead they harnessed new technology to create something original, but something that still retained the utilitarian spirit of rock--you could use it, which is to say, dance to it, groove to it, drive to it.
Where others had made minor (and sometimes strictly reactionary) diversions from the same old mainstream sounds--carving modest alleyways off to the side--Kraftwerk broke ground on an autobahn along which an entire alternative history of music soon hurtled forward. In so doing, they became the starting point for basically everything we take for granted as progressive and cool in music today. For proof, consider the following video timeline:
"Trans Europe Express," by Kraftwerk With typical kraut literalism, Kraftwerk called their sound "machine music," and not only created their songs with novel electronic instruments but also liked to play on technological themes and imagery--robots, computer love, mass transportation. About one minute into this title track from their 1977 album, you can hear the synth riff that is later incorporated into "Planet Rock," giving birth to the electro movement in early hip-hop.
"I Feel Love," by Donna Summer Giorgio Moroder put a disco spin on machine music and created a track that despite being produced in 1977 is still breathtakingly modern.
"Supernature," by Cerrone The French disco impresario cast off the typical string arrangements for this synthesizer-based 1977 space-disco epic, complete with wiggy sci-fi theme.
"Situation," by Yaz Vince Clarke, the writer and producer behind Depeche Mode's earliest hits, split off and with Yaz and later Erasure continued to craft pop confections out of minimal synth riffs. This 1982 hit exemplifies an entire genre of synth pop--a genre that included acts like Human League, Visage, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, OMD, Heaven 17, and the robot-obsessed Gary Numan.
"Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force This is the instrumental 12-inch version of the iconic 1982 song that provided the blueprint for the spacey, tech-hop known as electro by combining a Kraftwerk sample, vocoderized vocal lines and another key innovation for then-nascent hip-hop--the use of drum machines, in this case mimicking a drum pattern also lifted from Kraftwerk. The new genre mushroomed in New York with artists such as Hashim, Newcleus and Mantronix, and would further ensconce itself in the mainstream via rollerskating jams like Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music."
"Clear," by Cybotron Formed in Detroit, Cybotron had a classic electro hit with this 1983 track. Co-founder Juan Atkins went on to pioneer Detroit techno.
"Egypt, Egypt," by Egyptian Lover West Coast electro at its finest, this 1984 track is heavily indebted to Kraftwerk--particularly the track 1983 "Tour de France," which was included in its original form in the early hip-hop movie Breakin'.
"House Calls," by World Class Wrecking Cru The electro sound lingered on the West Coast long enough that Dr. Dre's earliest productions--like this 1987 track with the World Class Wrecking Cru--clearly echoed the aesthetic. Another original NWA member, Arabian Prince, also came out of the LA electro scene.
"Your Love," by Frankie Knuckles A classic 1987 example of Chicago house--definitely showing a fondness for the bubbling synth sounds of the Kraftwerk catalog--that hints at the acid house sound starting to explode in the UK at the time.
"LFO," by LFO This UK act used the synth pulse of Kraftwerk and beefed up the bottom end to such a degree that their records came with a warning about the speaker damage they could cause. This self-titled 1990 track--the letters are short for low frequency oscillator--is the beginning of 1990s techno and the minimalism that still rules in places like Berlin.
"Brothers Gonna Work It Out," by Chemical Brothers This UK duo created the blueprint for Big Beat--a genre that prefaced the integration of the indie rock and electronic scenes that is taken for granted these days. This iconic 1995 track gets its drama from the brooding sample of Kraftwerk's "Ohm Sweet Ohm" that kicks it off. Fellow Big Beat innovator Fatboy Slim also copped a Kraftwerk sample, using elements of "The Robots" in "Give the Po' Man a Break" on his debut album.
"Rollin' and Scratchin' (Live)," by Daft Punk With 1997's Homework album, Daft Punk stripped house back to its basic component parts and in so doing kicked off a renewed electro boom that spread out and now holds sway across many musical genres. The French duo loves technological themes and imagery, and dresses like robots. In their wake came the distorted house of Ed Banger records (Justice is the flagship act there), as well as even more self-consciously throwback electro acts like I-F and Dakar & Grinser. A new generation of devotees like Boys Noize, Digitalism, and Bloody Beetroots continue to move this sound forward.
"Fuck the Pain Away," by Peaches Rising to prominence with the Electroclash scene, Peaches created a stripped-down DIY iteration of electro with her 2000 album The Teaches of Peaches, ushering in a golden era of indie dance music. And yeah, Peaches also helped MIA get started. Other acts that emerged in the wake of this scene--including Ladytron and LCD Soundsystem--used Kraftwerk samples.
"What U Gon Do," by Lil Jon The Atlanta-based King of Crunk juiced another electro descendant--Miami Bass--to create a distinctive sound exemplified by this 2004 track. Combined with more Daft Punk tech and heft, crunk also contributed to the mix that became Baltimore club music, which is poised to become the next big thing thanks to MCs like Rye Rye and the Get 'Em Mamis and producers including Aaron LaCrate and Tittsworth who head a list of B-more producers currently much in demand.
"Courtship Dating," by Crystal Castles One of the most exciting bands on the planet right now, this Toronto duo used consciously antiquated video game blips and bleeps as well as bigger, scarier beats and often heavily processed vocals to create a lo-fi, gothed-out electro that was the toast of 2008. There's an American counterpart in the LA/Brooklyn duo Heartsrevolution, who split a 7-inch EP with Crystal Castles back when both were getting started.
"We're Back," by Heartbreak Along with Portland's Glass Candy (who run the Italians Do It Better label) and a host of Scandinavian producers like Neon Workout, Heartbreak--who also sing about robots--are part of an on-going global resurgence of what's variously called Italo-disco, dirty disco, or space disco, much of which is played at a glacial pace reminiscent of early Kraftwerk. The sound is evident in some of this year's big releases, too, like the track "Zero" from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "La La La" from LMFAO, or even "My Girls" from Animal Collective.