Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany

/ Commentary

I’ve been wanting to read Uwe Schütte’s Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany ever since I became aware of the book via The Quietus’s review.

It doesn’t disappoint. At least, the first 180 pages or so don’t disappoint, which is in part because Kraftwerk become a lot less interesting from page 180. Schütte plots a chronological path through the Kraftwerk story, and this more or less marks the point where Schneider and Hütter stop making new music, concentrating instead on honing – and commodifying – the band’s image and back catalogue. While Schütte makes a convincing argument for placing this retrospection within the whole Kraftwerk project (or gesamtkunstwerk) – and we can only marvel at Kraftwerk’s recentish live shows and minimalist image – there’s no getting away from the fact that this is essentially ultra-high quality marketing.

Paperback edition of Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany. It has a picture of a synthesiser in a suitcase.

The cover is suitably minamalist. Kraftwerk spent nearly a million pounds on a synthesiser that helped them create digital music rather than the analogue electronic sounds they’d used before.

Which doesn’t matter, because we have the astonishing run of work from Autobahn through to Computer World, and other bits and pieces that are well worth exploring, even if the band pretend the first three albums are not a part of the whole. It’s just that marketing is boring compared to music that’s trying to answer a tangle of troubling, complex questions, and Schütte’s writing reflects that, circling round the same points and occasionally adopting a half-arsed slangy tone. Phrases like “this may sound a little cheesy or arrogant” start to creep in.

What Schütte does really well is examine the roots and influences of Kraftwerk through exploring the five great albums, identifying an artistic project that aims to forge a new German identity after the cataclysm of the Second World War. While this basic idea isn’t original – Julian Cope makes the same argument for Krautrock as a whole in Krautrocksampler – Schütte pinpoints the artistic, social and political influences, teasing out the complexities and contradictions that make Kraftwerk so interesting.

1986 marks the end of this Kraftwerk. While the work may dry up because Ralph and Florian enter cycling-fuelled retirement, you could argue that all the questions and contradictions of the previous music have been resolved, obviating the need for more of the same. The new European identity is based solidly on liberal democratic capitalism, where everything becomes a consumer choice – clothes, politics, even the Kraftwerk oeuvre. Ironically, Kraftwerk’s skill with surface and imagery makes them the perfect product for this world, where the most successful bands are the ones that can articulate their “offer” most attractively.

Except now that world looks far less certain, and a music that grapples with identity, history and technological problems can help us navigate these times – the music of the classic Kraftwerk.

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