Tomorrow Belonged To Them: Kraftwerk’s Future Music From Germany

Uwe Schütte’s new book, Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany places the group in a lineage stretching from the Weimar to Berghain, finds John Quin

Photo by Ralph PH. Licence: CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

No future for you? Not even up for guessing what it might sound like? Uwe Schütte’s book begins by recalling Mark Fisher’s question, “where is the twenty-first century equivalent of Kraftwerk?” The short answer is there isn’t one because the future itself has been cancelled.

Schütte, a German academic at Aston University specializing in WG Sebald, is also interested in the cultural meaning of Kraftwerk. We might begin his study by asking (to amend, slightly, the title of Walter Abish’s terrific novel) how German is it? And the answer would be… very. Kraftwerk, and Schütte’s book, are very, very, German indeed: but in what particular ways?

The received thinking on Kraftwerk is that they conform to certain stereotypes about Germanness: that they are perfectionist, efficient, machine-like, cold. But there was always a bold playfulness in their act, a “subversive over-identification” as Schütte puts it. An over-identification with what? German clichés, what we think of as archetypically German obsessions: their fascination with motorways and speed, fast cars, high-speed trains, hi-tech. All that and not forgetting the nerdy prissiness of dress code they favoured in rare publicity shots, und so weiter.

America, for the defeated Germans of the immediate post-war period, “had colonized our minds” as Wim Wenders puts it, citing the ubiquity of Hollywood movies and rock and roll music. In reaction Kraftwerk, like Can, Neu! and others, wanted to start afresh: this was stunde null, zero hour. Culture must begin again after the twelve-year long interregnum of evil. But how to imagine such music of the future? Kraftwerk’s eureka moment was to take their cues from the past. And if music historians are still around later this century and list pop musicians allied with the 20s no doubt Kraftwerk will feature. A caveat though: they will mean the nineteen twenties. Schütte elaborates with this quote from the band’s Ralf Hütter:

”Our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler; the school of Bauhaus and German Expressionism.”

He means the focus on functionality, those brilliantly designed lamps and chairs, the sleek architectural lines of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The music of Kraftwerk would be as polished. This combined with the stark linearity of expressionism as associated with the movies of Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang. This was the 1920s world of the Weimar Republic, that explosion of avant-garde talent preceding the abyss of fascism. Kraftwerk wanted to pick up the baton of experimentation dropped by those geniuses, the many artistic exiles in diasporic rush to escape Nazism.

A cursory examination of Kraftwerk’s reference points confirms and acknowledges these influences: Lang’s Metropolis; the train imagery of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; their interest in mannequins, robots and cyborgs, a ubiquitous signifier of the 1920s; mirrors, and the surfaces of consumer capitalism as highlighted by contemporary writers like Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno. Then too there is the shimmer of neon on asphalt as seen in the movies of Joe May and FW Murnau, all of these were key cultural tropes of the pre-Nazi era. Kraftwerk are essentially an overdue Weimar product.

Born into the destruction of the immediate post-war period Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider knew that their generation was, culturally speaking, truly lost. Schütte proposes that Kraftwerk was, in effect, a redemptive project, a reclamation of pre-war modernism and its aims: “an attempt to fulfil a potential that never had a chance to develop, cut short as it was by fascism”. Kraftwerk rejected a nationalist mindset and would declare in interviews that they wanted to “create a Central European identity for ourselves”, a multilingual pan-European project that, on this side of the Channel, would always face scepticism from certain quarters.

In Britain – even early on in their career – Kraftwerk were, as Schütte reminds us, up against it. Older readers will remember the prog-fixated, pre-punk New Musical Express. The paper, with its onanistic sexism and The Victor mindset (Achtung, Hände hoch!), was quick to portray Kraftwerk as latent neo-Nazis with the usual run of predictably juvenile clichés unchecked by a complaisant editorial. In turn the band played to sparsely attended halls in Britain. To the surprise of many ‘Autobahn’ became a hit.

Schütte duly lists both Kraftwerk’s cultural progenitors and their spiritual descendants. To the former he counts, in addition to the Weimar gang, the later electronic experiments of Stockhausen, the delight in play of fellow Düsseldorf artist Joseph Beuys, and the industrial archive of Bernd and Hilla Becher in photography. All of these inspirations, and others, fed into Kraftwerk’s ideas of a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk that would evolve to take in music and the full visual package that typifies their recent performances.

They apply particular skill to ‘Neon Lights’ using the latest digital 3D technology to create a nostalgic reminder of what their country actually looked like at night during the Weimar years. Those glimmering facades are captured brilliantly and chime with Janet Ward’s wonderfully insightful study of the glory days, Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. Kraftwerk are great tinkerers, forever making adjustments, hence the newer 3D versions of the old albums, but the melodies remain as Niederegger marzipan sweet as Schubert’s.

As for the influenced – where to start? British 80s synth pop, hip hoppers like Afrika Bambaataa, and the Detroit techno of Juan Atkins and Derrick May are rightly listed. Schütte also stresses the local importance of ‘Metal on Metal’ from Trans-Europe Express. Their referencing of Wagner’s anvil chorus was further refined by panel beater manqués like Einstürzende Neubauten and Die Krupps.

We might add to the list recordings from the Kompakt organization from Köln, Gudrun Gut’s Monika label, most releases on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton, Move D, Roman Flügel, Felix Kubin, Atom TM… where to stop?

Schütte highlights that Kraftwerk are now a firm fixture of the contemporary art scene with recent performances at MOMA and Tate Modern, their representation by the Sprüth Magers gallery, the “self-confessed debt” owed by the photographic artists Andreas Gursky and Thomas Demand.

This book then is the German take on the German pop phenomenon.

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