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Endless Utopia

Florian Schneider died some time last week. Schneider was one of the two founders of Kraftwerk, who I’ll assume you’ve heard of – he was the handsome one in a suit and proper shoes.

Black and white shot of Kt=raftwerk dressed in expensive suits and wearing glamorous make up

Schneider (second right) created Kraftwerk’s image. Here they’re an androgynous, cool, very smart, part Germanic, part Soviet quartet wearing expensive suits and make up. What does this mean?

I found out while I was cooking tea. Fittingly enough, I switched the radio on and 6 Music was broadcasting the full-length version of Autobahn, a dense piece you only play once in a while, after getting yourself in the right frame of mind. But this sort of thing happens in lockdown, and that was cool, until it occurred to me there could be another reason. But nothing on Twitter.

A quick Google and my fears were confirmed. I was sad, because Kraftwerk mean a lot to me, and I was slightly put out by the lack of social media noise. It was different when Bowie and even Mark died.

Kraftwerk originated from the same 70’s German scene as Can, Neu, (K)Cluster et al (Schneider’s first band was the magnificently named Pissoff). If you don’t know about what is more or less affectionately termed Krautrock, you should look into it. It’s wildly experimental, funky, electronic, weird music; far more interesting to my mind than the cannon of US/UK rock and roll.

Around 1973 Kraftwerk begin to look different from other German longhair bands. On the cover of Ralf and Florian, Hütter resembles a factory engineer and Schneider the owner. Musically, they veer away from Can and Neu, focusing more on electronics. It wouldn’t be right to say they were the only band doing this – Cluster’s 1974 Zuckerzeit consists of weird synth sounds and broken drum machine patterns – but they were the first band – anywhere – to use the sound of machines to create something purposefully artificial.

Freed from notions of organic, “real” music Kraftwerk could explore humour, romanticism, rhythm, complexity, simplicity, minimalism, modernism and history to create art. Their genius lay in adopting contradictory, sometimes troubling German and European ideas to produce a beautiful whole that spoke of a new, better future. The instrumentation itself looks back to the expressionism and modernism of pre-Nazi Germany, while anticipating the everyday future of individual computing devices – it’s modern and nostalgic-modern, often at the same time. Kraftwerk can literally soundtrack a pocket calculator or a Fritz Lang film:

Which is all wonderful, in and of itself. But what I love about Kraftwerk – and what they mean to me – is how this artifice results in beautiful, utopic music, free from all borders, ego, history, nationalism and constraints, but still capable of sadness. An escape from English boorishness and jingoism. Often this was explicit in song titles such as Europe Endless, and in the subject matter of travel, the statelessness of being inbetween things, the joy of cycling. For me, this is what you also find in the romanticism of Beethoven and Schubert, but in a language and tone more immediate and identifiable.

So, we can consider all the sometimes unsettling, often contradictory meanings of the German motorway system through the lens of retro-futurism on Autobahn, and lose ourselves in the romantic melancholy of Radioland, a paean to the simple joy of listening to the radio at night. The song is from their best album, Radio-activity, the title (note the hyphen) of which refers to several things, including a mid-70s US pop show. Typically, the songs explore a range of connected subjects: the physics of radio waves, nuclear power and modern, everyday uses of technology. The cover pictures a Nazi-era radio.

Why not come join me in listening to this on VE Day rather than Vera Lynn.