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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Kraftwerk's Remixes
Jude Rogers , April 1st, 2022 07:25

Jude Rogers gets to grips with a weighty collection of remixes of work by foundational modern electronic music institution

A new release from Kraftwerk: let the synthesised sirens sound. Not that it offers brand new material, but a collection of remixes recorded over the previous three decades, some by the band, others by hand-picked producers. It arrived on streaming services in December 2020, including two new workouts by Kraftwerk, the first in many years. A new version of 'Tour De France (Etape 2)' from 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks was scrubbed to a silver sheen, while 'Non Stop', a 30-second soundbite made nearly 35 years earlier for MTV, was elongated into a dense and dreamy eight minutes.

2022’s new vinyl version of the anthology also throws in a 2021 remix of 'Home Computer', that subtly sinister minor-key masterpiece from 1981’s Computer World. Here, in its new shiny patches, it feels brighter, fitter and happier. Still, one wonders if there are any properly new tracks are lurking in Kling Klang, given that it’s been nearly two decades since Kraftwerk released a new album – that itself being an expansion of their work on 1983 single, 'Tour De France'.

Kraftwerk’s focus in recent years has been the relentless touring of their back catalogue live. Perhaps an engagement with new subjects is of no interest to Ralf Hütter at all, and the forthcoming festival dates are about topping up the pension pot. Or perhaps Kraftwerk's urgent desire to take their music to new audiences is about cementing and expanding their legacy in later life.

I veer towards the latter assessment because I was young in the 1990s. If you were young in the 1990s, with a curiosity for rhythm and rave in your blood, you probably discovered Kraftwerk through a remix. I found them one Friday night in 1995, in my front room in Swansea, my friend Chris coming over to play me a CD he’d just bought. A figure loomed from its cover, shot from below, spiked by a humanoid head and torso and spindly robotic arms. The blocky pixel typeface around it said "KRAFTWERK" and "THE MIX". It reminded me of the Spectrum 48K computer my late father bought when I was small. By 1991, the year The Mix was released, my father was long dead; it was almost a decade after my father had bought that computer. Technology had moved on by then. This artwork hadn’t. I later came to realise that Kraftwerk had created their own nostalgia from day one, because they felt they had to.

German identity before both Hütter and Florian Schneider were born, just after the second world war, was obviously fatally compromised: "We certainly represent the generation with no fathers," Hutter told NME’s Chris Bohn in 1981. Instead, his band channel the functional simplicity of art movements from the time before the Reich, like the Bauhaus, whose visions were both direct and universal. “Our music is very primitive – the German word is geradeaus (straight ahead) and that is the best word for it," he added. "Simple means a little stupid, minimalistic means reduced, but geradeaus means, you know where you are going, and you try to get there as fast as possible."

The Mix is often dismissed as a side-note in Kraftwerk’s catalogue, but it should be considered as central. It was the point where the group’s engagement with their impact beyond themselves – and a more meaningful connection with the wider world – truly began. From their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn to 1981's Computer World, they were busy working on the infrastructure. Twentieth-century inventions now experienced daily by everyone helped them, their ideas coming from motorways, radios, new sources of power, international train adventures, computers, and endless music beamed into every home.

If at first, Kraftwerk felt like weird novelties to many, eventually most caught up. By 1986’s Electric Café, many musicians had finally clicked with Kraftwerk’s ideas and rhythms, exploding them in a myriad of dizzying directions (hello, synth-pop, electro, techno, acid house). It’s no surprise that Kraftwerk dismissed that album’s name and went back to the working title for their 2009 remasters. They should have trusted their instincts, having set the foundations for Technopop – as they called it – from the very beginning.

This set of three heavyweight albums begins with Kraftwerk's own remixes on its first side of six. 'Non Stop' is a strange, somnambulic opener, given that pace is given such priority elsewhere, but its ghostly motifs act like ethereal earworms. B-sides follow from 1991, 'Robotnik' and 'Robotronik', full of fizzing energy. The latter is particularly fresh, the melody buzzing into life in a bassline, before stuttering rhythms make the ends of lines glisten, then glue the magic together.

Then come the remixers. To newcomers, the list may feel unadventurous, populated as it is by chunky names like William Orbit and legendary Paradise Garage alumnus François Kevorkian. But this is a historical audio archive, and Orbit was a young producer when he made his mix in 1991, years away from his work with Beth Orton, Madonna and Blur. His treatment of 'Radioactivity' highlights the additional lyrics on Kraftwerk's 1991 reworking of the original, referencing nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Harrisburg and Sellafield, and the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

Kraftwerk’s original track was also much more ambivalent about what radiowaves meant for communication and contamination. Orbit’s mix is all buzzing, whooshing metal. An exhilarating chain reaction of warped voices and wobbling textures develops, transferring the track’s energy away from ideas of death to the heartbeat of the dancefloor.

Kevorkian’s 12” mix of 'Radioactivity' is even better, almost as majestic as his high gear take on 'Tour De France', originally released in 1984 and re-released in 1999 (it doesn’t appear here, perhaps to let his juddering take on 'Aèro Dynamik' from 2004 take precedence). In his hands, 'Radioactivity' becomes something stunning, both spacious and propulsive, before the breakdown arrives halfway through, and new melodies inject extra dimensions of melancholy.

Nine versions of 'Expo 2000', Kraftwerk’s 1999 single, follow (which I would like to warn against as a sequential listening experience). One of Kraftwerk’s less satisfying tracks, its mood is laborious rather than mysterious, its lyrics repeating old formulas without dazzling them in ambiguity. It feels fitting that 'Expo 2000' was written for Germany’s equivalent of our Millennium Dome project, which also attracted half of the visitors it was expected to.

Fittingly, none of Kraftwerk’s three versions are especially uplifting, but in the remixers’ hands, the track occasionally comes alive. Orbital crank up its pace brilliantly, and mess around deliciously with its deeper registers. DJ Rolando from Underground Resistance fills its clean spaces with motivating, street-level funk, and adds lyrics that stretch hands across the oceans (“Detroit… it’s so electric/ Germany… it’s so electric”) while the Underground Resistance remixes themselves do what great remixes often do: tear the original apart, limb from limb. Synthesised gurgles, post-jungle sonic miasmas and guttural minimalism create entirely new landscapes. It’s rousing to hear an act daring to align Kraftwerk’s authority with its own.

The 'Tour De France'-era tracks offer better foundations for a remixer to work with. The spinning, glistening sounds of 'Aèro Dynamik' and 'La Forme' still sound sublime in their original shapes. Alex Gopher and Étienne De Crécy’s crunchy take on the former is fun, but feels dated, convulsing away in a world still coming to terms with the retro gloss of Daft Punk. Hot Chip’s Intelligent Design Mix feels lighter and cleaner, more playful. It imparts a sense of joyful ease around the idea of travel, and hints of a monkey with a miniature cymbal jumping on a BMX. Their remix that ends this compilation is a cosmic, gentle romp.

These tracks work best when allowed a little freedom – and freedom from tyranny, both lyrically and sonically, is encouraged by Kraftwerk. It’s too easy to think of them being po-faced and protective about their work, especially after their 20-year legal battle against producers Moses Pelham and Martin Haas, who sampled two seconds of 'Metal On Metal' on a Sabrina Setlur track, 'Nur Mir', without permission (the case was finally escalated to the European Court of Justice: Kraftwerk won).

But these remixes show Kraftwerk have always had a desire for connection, as long as that contact involves cooperation – and that this desire is also long-standing. The band's earliest contact with Kevorkian was back in 1984, before which he'd mixed singles by Yazoo, U2, and The Smiths. The album’s press release also reveals them having an interest in remixes even earlier than that: from a story told by Ralf Hütter himself, remembering a trip to New York in the late 1970s with Florian Schneider.

They were taken to an after-hours club. Here they watched Afrika Bambaataa play with ‘Trans Europe Express’ and ‘Metal On Metal’ across two turntables, to the delight of Black clubbers. 'Planet Rock' came after that, as did Kraftwerk’s impact in Detroit and Chicago. So followed the world.

Ever since, many music fans have found common ground in the world that Kraftwerk constructed, so is it any surprise that they enjoy tinkering away with their tracks, rather than create new ones from scratch, so they can continue to make them the best they can be? It’s also, understandably, as if they are lending their tools to people they trust, to do things that they cannot do themselves.

Let’s hope Kraftwerk do more of this as they continue to hone their legacy live. They are the fathers now, surveying their loud and rich land. Working with a wider range of younger artists to play with their building blocks could lead to new musical routes being created, and inventions of thrilling new sources of power. Remix creativity could keep Kraftwerk going forever, make their future nostalgia non-stop.

Remixes by Kraftwerk is out on Parlophone. Radio-Activity by Kraftwerk is one of the twelve chapters in Jude Rogers' new book, The Sound Of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives, published by White Rabbit at the end of April