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Kraftwerk And Our Computer World

Kraftwerk, photographed in 1977. From left: Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, Ralf Hütter and Wolfgang Flür.
Gilbert Uzan
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Kraftwerk, photographed in 1977. From left: Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, Ralf Hütter and Wolfgang Flür.

In the early-to-mid-'70s, the four members of Kraftwerk were still under-the-radar music experimentalists from the art-leaning city of Düsseldorf – a path they never really diverged from. After all, the band's U.S. breakthrough was accomplished with a 22-minute electronic ode to driving, "Autobahn."

Now, Kraftwerk is considered inarguably foundational to electronic music, as well as to the early construction of hip-hop. In his book Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany, writer Uwe Schütte looks closely at the cultural and social contexts that incubated the band, and what its work gave rise to in turn.

Audie Cornish, All Things Considered: You're writing about the idea that Kraftwerk represented an effort at rebuilding Germany, culturally. How does a pop act do that?

Uwe Schütte: The band members all belonged to the first generation of Germans being born after the Nazi period – after 1945. They were Germans grew up in the rubble, who saw the destruction of German cities and inherited the trauma of being born into a collective of perpetrators, of mass murderers, of people who attempted a genocide.

And they try and define this identity through art, culture and technology.

But harking back to a previous age ... to the great age of German culture and art, cinema, expressionism – the Weimar [Republic], the inter-war period. So they had to look back to find German traditions they could associate with. Not something that was tainted by Nazism.

So they embraced the European project.

Absolutely. Of course, being German meant being European from then on – nationalism was too close to racism, and so a new German identity could only be developed in the European framework.

You talk about their way of looking to the future – their 1981 album was called Computer World. In it, they talk about the widespread future use of personal computers... were they reflecting the broader thinking at the time?

Yes, but broader thinking at the time in the German context – for example, use of computers by the equivalent of the FBI in Germany to track down left-wing terrorists.

As it happens, Dusseldorf was also home to the headquarters of IBM, so they arranged a factory visit to try and find out about these new machines that were coming. Interestingly, Computer World is ninety-five percent devoid of computers, it's all analog. Only the vocals had an electronic treatment to them.

How does the music make the leap? For instance, to the U.S. and its burgeoning electronic music movements? Does Kraftwerk and its music inspire and spread to other kinds of music?

Obviously there are too many routes and avenues of exchange to list, but most important I think, because it happened to early, was "Planet Rock" by Afrika Bambaataa. You can clearly hear the two Kraftwerk samples – "Numbers" being one of them and the other is the melody from "Trans-Europe Express."

Also in Detroit, Kraftwerk are considered godfathers of [the music] there.

And the music is still sampled – Frank Ocean, Dr. Dre. I've been surprised by the artists who reach for those albums.

The big discussion of course, "Would techno have emerged without Kraftwerk?" Yes, of course it would – but perhaps it would've sounded differently. These ideas float around, and it's the times that produce these ideas, particularly the influence on Detroit techno music, demonstrates that you shouldn't consider music in terms of national constraints. Kraftwerk demonstrates that music is international ... that it emerges.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.