Review: Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany

Uwe Schütte's new book, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany, had me at the EMS Synthi AKS on the cover. This iconic and much sought after suitcase synth from the early 1970s was used extensively by Brian Eno (from Roxy Music onward), and by David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, and it turns out, Kraftwerk (Florian Schneider used it to process his flute).

I have always been a big fan of Kraftwerk's music, but truth be told, I knew little about the "data workers" (as Kraftwerk call themselves) behind the music. This book offers a wealth of inspiring detail on the band, its history and members, its influences, how much of the near-future the band divined, and the amazing impact Kraftwerk has had on popular music and culture.

In setting the table, the first few chapters of the book reminded me a lot of the 2009 BBC Four documentary, Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany. These chapters explain the German art and music scenes of the 60s and 70s and the desire of many German musicians to eschew the blues/jazz/gospel roots of US and British music and to lean more toward the experimental, the avant garde, than the popular.

From there, the book breezes through the early Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter records (1969's pre-Kraftwerk Tone Float is a must-listen) on our way to the surprising pop success of 1974's Autobahn, the band's unlikely and nervous appearance on The Midnight Special TV show, and their first American tour. We then move from record to record, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine, Computer World, Tour de France Soundtracks, etc.

In telling the story of each of these albums, we also learn about Kraftwerk's influences, which were more artistic than musical (the Bauhaus, Joseph Beuys, Gilbert & George, Andy Warhol), the fundamental role that their hometown of Düsseldorf and its art scene played in the formation of the band, Schneider and Hütter's cycling obsession (which grew so intense, it almost sidelined the band), their man-machine philosophy and its affinity for computers, robots, factory workers, and cyborgs, and their identification as industrial folk artists ("We are not musicians. We are workers").

Uwe Schütte also does a decent, though brief job of tracking the influences that Kraftwerk has had on a dizzying array of musical genres: synthpop, techno, ambient, house, disco, funk, hip hop, new wave, the list goes on. Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany also makes clear that Schneider and Hütter always thought of themselves as multimedia artists, obsessively working on their stagecraft, graphic design, and media image, and were happy to increasingly be asked to perform in art museums and mount multimedia shows at museums and galleries.

If you're a fan of Kraftwerk, the history and development of electronic music, or just interested in music or pop culture history in general, Future Music From Germany is a highly recommended read. And thanks to YouTube, you can listen to all of the records and watch the pivotal performances mentioned in the book as you go. I did this and felt deeply enriched and inspired by the whole experience.

[H/t to Keith Harker who gifted me the book for Festivus]

Image: Ralph_PH CC BY 2.0