The line waiting for Sunday brunch at Arnie’s, a fountain-strewn and pretentiously decorated restaurant, was long, and Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, masterminds behind the German electronic-rock group Kraftwerk, didn’t have much time. They still had to visit a local free-form radio station before departing on a 5 p.m. flight to Atlanta in the midst of their first American tour.
Schneider, dressed in a stark black suit and knee-length gray worsted overcoat, stepped over to the maitre d’ and began speaking in a thick accent. He displayed a postcard with a photograph of four impeccably dressed males staring trancelike into space as if they had just experienced an ecstatic religious vision. In the upper left-hand corner of the card was the group’s name. We were seated immediately.
Kraftwerk, which translates as “power plant,” recently rode up the charts in this country with their Top Five album Autobahn, featuring the Top 20 single of the same name. Many people feel that Autobahn, along with its electronic predecessor, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, heralds a new era for commercial electronic rock. The album, on Vertigo Records, is the first issued in the U.S. by the four-year-old group, who’d previously released three albums in West Germany.
“Autobahn” describes a journey on the German expressway leading in and out of Berlin, and underscores the group’s concern with pulse and wave over note and rhythm. A Beach Boys record it is not, even though a line from the piece – “Wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der Autobahn” (“We’re driving, driving, driving on the autobahn”) – sounds uncannily reminiscent of the line from America’s premier car group: “And she’ll have fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes her T-Bird away.” Hütter and Schneider, in fact, claim no U.S. groups as influences. Their favorites include such space-rock outfits as Pink Floyd, Yes and Tangerine Dream, as well as avant-garde classicists John Cage, Terry Riley and, particularly, countryman Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose pioneering electronic work provides a “spiritual” tie to their own.
“We do not conceive ourselves as rock & roll stars,” Hütter, a former student anarchist of the Sixties, explained between bites of his eggs florentine. “No, no, we’re just private people,” Schneider added. “In the evening we set up, turn on the knobs and play.
“Kraftwerk is not a band,” Schneider continued. “It’s a concept. We call it ‘Die Menschmaschine,’ which means ‘the human machine.’ We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. And Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas.”
Hütter’s and Schneider’s ideas revolve around the advanced use of electronic keyboards and percussion pads to create music that is highly visual and accessible (Autobahn even made it onto the Easy Listening charts). “There’s always this melody and we build it up to illustrate a story,” said Hütter, who sees himself as the record equivalent of a film director. “Like a movie script, the camera puts attention to a certain part. Then we zoom in on it as if we were operating a huge lens.”
On the album version of “Autobahn,” which as a song takes up the record’s entire first side, each lyrical phrase marks a milestone on the musical auto jaunt. The piece flows from the early serenity of “a huge valley” and “the sun shining in a glittering stream” to the optical illusions caused by endless “white stripes, green edges” and the sudden jolt of a Porsche or Mercedes speeding past. The lyrics are in their native tongue, Hütter explained, because “the German language, like our own rhythms, is more machinelike, more abrupt.
“The autobahn is a perfect vehicle for our music,” Hütter said. “We did not look for it. It just happens that we play synthesizers and we suddenly saw this word ‘autobahn,’ and we found out that while we were on it we were moving and changing, like in a movie.”
Obviously, Kraftwerk sees cars and other symbols of technology as more than “fun, fun, fun.” “You cannot deny technology,” Hütter maintained. “There was a tendency in the late Sixties to do so, to go back to the country, which is understandable. But technology is still there and you have to face it and live with it. And we make it a part of our music. The more you can handle it, the more you can develop yourself.”
Hütter and Schneider hail from Düsseldorf, the capital of the North Rhine-Westphalia district of West Germany. The area’s harsh, sudden contrasts between heavy industry in one valley and beautiful, rolling landscapes in the next played a major role in shaping their sound. Even the area they record in has been a source of inspiration. “Our studio is in the middle of an oil refinery,” said Schneider, his eyes lighting up. “There’s smoke and fire around it and when you emerge from the studio you hear this hissing sound all around you.”
Kraftwerk financed its own U.S. tour, as Phonogram/Mercury, the American representative of Vertigo, did not underwrite it. Actually, Kraftwerk’s contract with Phonogram ran out several months ago and is presently being renegotiated (Phonogram has three unreleased albums in the can). Hütter and Schneider don’t intend to make the same kind of deal they did back in 1971, when they sold the entire rights to Kraftwerk, the first of their three European albums, to Philips Records (a Phonogram subsidiary) for $2000.
For many of the people who saw Kraftwerk during their tour, one of the most unusual aspects of the group was the employment of two percussionists, new member Karl Bartos and original member Wolfgang Flür. They played electronically adapted pads able to simulate any drum timbre rather than acoustically built drum kits. As Schneider explained it, the pads highlight the group’s electronic base. “We don’t make a distinction between an acoustic instrument as a source of sound and any sound in the air outside or on a manufactured tape. It’s all electric energy, anyway,” he said.
But the use of two percussionists may have been one of the reasons why the tour itself met with mixed success. Without the familiar sounds of Klaus Roeder’s guitar and violin (he was replaced on the tour by Bartos), the group was left only with keyboards, percussion and an occasional flute and saxophone solo by Schneider. A San Francisco reviewer wrote: “The entire performance was one buzz that varied its pitch. The audience even had difficulty discerning the end of numbers.”
Kraftwerk’s cyclic approach to composition gave Schneider a retort to this criticism. “There is no beginning and no end in music,” he said. “Some people want it to end. But it goes on.”
This story appeared in the July 3rd, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.