Now here’s a group that needs no introduction. I think I first heard of these guys in Spin magazine or something – as a teenager I was big into electronic music, but my world just consisted of groups like Underworld, Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, and whatever odd trance compilations my brother was buying. So here was this little sidebar talking about Kraftwerk – specifically Trans-Europe Express, released in 1977, the “god-fathers of electro”, namechecking several more recent acts that I already knew about. And the album itself had this funny cover – four perfectly-groomed men, with serious expressions, staring in different directions, looking like mannequins. A few months later I remembered the name and bought Computer World, and I had no idea what to make of it. The electronic music I was used to was bigger, edgier, more convoluted; and here was Kraftwerk, speak-singing these dinky songs about playing with computers. Block rockin’ beats these were not.
Still, can anyone deny that Kraftwerk will outlive us all? This is a group that has done nothing to stay relevant – the last three decades-plus of Kraftwerk music consists of two singles, two original albums (Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks, not exactly classics), and the early-90’s remake compilation The Mix. And yet when they came to Milwaukee in 2008, the place was swarming with young people; at 22, I figured I’d be one of the youngest, but I think I would have come out right around average. I remember a group of what looked like high schoolers, with custom-made “BOING” “BOOM” “TSCHAK” T-shirts. I’ve been to plenty of shows featuring acts that peaked in the 70’s or 80’s; none of them had crowds like this. The show was incredible, even though, as many in the crowd pointed out, we had no clue what any of them were actually doing – all four of them stood behind matching laptops and barely moved at all. Didn’t matter. The songs sounded huge, but the arrangements were not really any different than what we all knew. Didn’t matter. They had no stage presence, didn’t improvise anything, didn’t indulge in stage banter, and played almost exactly the same set as featured on the 2005 live album Minimum-Maximum. Didn’t matter. Founding member Florian Schneider had quit the band for good at some point, and I didn’t notice he was gone until after the show was over. Didn’t matter. When you have a catalog full of music as timeless, inscrutable, and unquestionably influential as this, what does?
For Kraftwerk, it was always all about the catalog. That run of albums – from 1974’s Autobahn to 1981’s Computer World, is their crowning achievement, and quite honestly all that matters for them. Outside of that, there is practically nothing – sure, there are the first three KW albums that Hutter has steadfastly refused to reissue (as they are notably different from their famous sound), but then what? They don’t release demos, they don’t do guest spots, there are no bonus tracks, no significant rarities or anything. Everything they recorded they used. Karl Bartos has a couple of solo albums to his name but that’s as close as it gets. All Kraftwerk thinks you need to know about them is included in their boxset Der Katalog. This is right in line with what we saw in 2008.
Alas, there is a little revisionism here. I always thought it was amusing when guys like Afrika Bambaataa would talk about how funky Kraftwerk were – you mean these guys, the dudes who dressed up as robots, who barely moved during their shows, whose lyrics were nearly entirely devoid of tangible emotion? Oh, but they were. Studying the band’s carefully crafted image gives you no insight as to how incredibly fun their music is; during the 2008 show the members of the band hardly moved (there was a small amount of dancing-in-place during “Musique Non Stop”, but that was it), but the Kraftwerk of 1981 was a different beast. Their lean touring set up of today is a far cry from the clunky, convoluted, custom-made equipment that they had to lug around in those days – the technology to easily make these sounds just wasn’t around then. With no laptops, the group carried around these little portable keyboards, and percussive devices which looked like wired-up boxes covered in tinfoil. While the current band certainly plays into the stiff, robotic image they’ve so carefully crafted, in ’81 they seemed like a lot more fun – videos show the dudes dancing around on stage, toying around, improvising a little, and actually letting the audience get involved (Schnieder’s crude sample-box would often find its way into the front row of the crowd). How could anyone take this seriously?
Virtu ex Machina (otherwise known as Nippon Numbers) is a bootleg from those days, and unlike a lot of the boots that have cropped up, this one is a good soundboard recording. The downshot is that it misses the first half of the show, which included “The Model”, “Radioactivity”, “Ohm Sweet Ohm”, “Hall of Mirrors”, “Mitternacht”, and “Pocket Calculator”. So it launches it with half of “Numbers”, seguing into “Computer World” (as it would for the next 33 years and counting). The sound is nowhere near as thick as they could later make it; like on the albums, it’s all primitive, synthesized noises, but there’s a unique charm to it. One advantage of building all your own instruments is that you ensure that nobody else can sound quite like you – the “Autobahn” synth they use now is a preset on most high-end keyboards. But the big draw on this recording is that you finally get to hear what Bambaataa was talking about. On “Autobahn” you get to hear Hutter improvising an amusing rap section in the middle. “Showroom Dummies” is almost too fast to dance to. And “It’s More Fun to Compute” turns into a total jam, with descending runs pinging all over the place underneath a frantic, exploding beat. “Neon Lights” and “Trans-Europe Express” have an amped up bass sound that gives them more groove.
So there you have it; if nothing else, this is a new dimension to the Kraftwerk sound, however slight it may be. Sadly, it also marked the point where Kraftwerk would begin to evolve into the stodgy but respected elders they’re known as today; outside of the ’83 “Tour de France” single, they never quite made music like this again. At their peak, the group was nearly peerless, but by their next studio album (1986’s Electric Cafe), they would sound markedly of the times, if not behind them. Since then it seems the band was so afraid of tampering with their legacy that they would release hardly anything at all. Their entire catalog (minus those first three, of course) got remastered in 2009 and they sound better than they ever have; yet I’ve played them so many times in the past that it’s hard to muster up much excitement for slightly-better sounding versions. But if the band declines to toss us anything new, bootlegs like Virtu ex Machina that can still provide a fresh look, to give us some idea of what Kraftwerk were up to back in their day.