Kraftwerk's Brilliantly Mixed Message

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From the beginning, everything about Kraftwerk confused me.  I heard the song “Autobahn” on the radio in 1974 and loved it – the weird, space-age electronic textures and motoric rhythms sounded cool and musical, even though I couldn’t figure out what instruments were being used to make them. 

I also have a vague recollection of watching a very trippy animated video for an extended version of “Autobahn” on TV late one night – and this too was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.  Remember, this was before music videos, and the idea of a 20-minute song was something I’d never considered. 

Finally, I saw the band play live on one of the late night weekend TV shows – it might have been Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or something like that.  There were these four guys sitting behind an array of unlikely-looking gear, with wires everywhere, and the “drummer” seemed to be tapping aluminum foil pie plates to create the rhythms.  It was, I thought in my confusion, like watching music from an alien civilization.

So maybe I wasn’t so confused after all.  Clearly, in retrospect, that was at least part of what Kraftwerk was going for.  They were creating a music of the future, in the present.  Of course that was going to sound alien and bizarre.  But as we began to computerize and digitize our lives, Kraftwerk began to seem increasingly prescient.  And eventually, what had once seemed deliberately expressionless and unemotional began to reveal layers of possible meaning.  Were they celebrating technology?  Warning us about the “Man-Machine” effect?  Suggesting that something like love could exist with or between silicon-based entities?  And all those songs about modes of transportation (“Autobahn,” of course, but also “Trans-Europe Express,” later to become a Founding Father of Hip Hop, “Tour de France,” and many others) – were they reminding us of the simple pleasures of travel and seeing the world around us, or chiding us for the way we hurtle through our busy lives?

OK, so I guess I am still confused. 

But maybe this is why Kraftwerk has influenced such a startling array of musicians, from Afrika Bambaataa to the Balanescu String Quartet. This is a band that has never been all things to all people; but for 40 years, they’ve been something to a lot of people. 

Do you have a Kraftwerk memory?  Leave a comment.