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Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk-The Catalogue

  by Jon Rogers

published: 8 / 10 / 2009

Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk-The Catalogue


Jon Rogers, in the first part of a two part profile, examines the history of seminal German electro outfit Kraftwerk, and 'The Catalogue', a new box set, which collects together all their albums between 1974 and 2003...

Everyone’s at it nowadays. Remastering that is. It wasn’t long ago that The Beatles back catalogue got a shiny new paint job and everyone could go out and buy once more albums they already owned. And if it’s good enough for those four Liverpudlian Mop Tops then it’s good enough for Dusseldorf’s four bodied man-machine. Both The Beatles and Kraftwerk would go on to fundamentally change pop music. For some reason the band’s first three albums always seem to be airbrushed out of history – in much the same way Primal Scream seem to have a habit of ignoring their C-86 origins with ‘Velocity Girl’ – and so the eight disc box set ‘The Catalogue’ kicks off when the electronic pioneers came into their own with ‘Autobahn’ with Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos joining mainstays Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. Schneider and Hütter had actually met in 1968 and formed Kraftwerk as well as set up their Kling Klang studio in 1970. The pair, having been born into a devastated post-war Germany, witnessed the country being reborn anew and so took a Futurist stance over the wonders of modern technology and the apparent freedom and liberation that brought with it. Kraftwerk marvelled at the modern world. When ‘Autobahn’ was released in 1974 it was a world away from most other albums that were released at the time, like Eric Clapton’s ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’, Queen’s ‘Sheer Heart Attack’ and Roxy Music’s ‘Country Life’. Even Brian Eno was still mucking around with ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’. Kraftwerk were busy penning their symphonic hymn to the German motorway system with painter Emil Schult and in doing so took a side step away from their ‘Krautrock’ peers. The title track, captured the appeal of gliding down an autobahn, with its sense of endless repetition and sublime, crystallised minimalism. The album contained what the band called ambient “Electronic Volks-Musik”, ie. electronic music for the people and was, largely, wordless with only the title track having a basic lyrical structure. As Ralf Hütter said in 2003, “It’s sound poetry, and also very dynamic.” That formula of Futurism’s wonder, electronic ambient experimentation and shiny, metallic beats kept them at the forefront of avant-garde pop experimentation for most of their careers. 'Radio-Activity' in 1975, with its punning title, celebrated the atomic and radio age with its refrain of “it’s in the air for you and me”. It was only later when the problems of nuclear energy became clear that the band then changed the emphasis giving it a darker edge. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ did for the train what ‘Autobahn’ did for the car, but wrapped it up in Romanticism and gloried in the past as well as revelled in the future. And the band’s ironic sense of humour would be made explicit in ‘Showroom Dummies’. The title track mimicked the relentless rhythmic motion of a train giving it a trance like quality and utilised cutting edge sequencer technology. The album would become a key influence on hip hop, electro and experimental music, most famously heard on Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’. Once again the album was a world away from just about everything that was being released in 1977 which was dominated by the likes of Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ and the emerging new wave and punk bands like Television, the Stranglers and Wire. Plus the Sex Pistols and The Clash both released their debuts. Kraftwerk were still light years ahead of everyone else the following year when the iconic ‘The Man-Machine’ was released. Whilst new wave was picking up momentum with Pere Ubu’s ‘The Modern Dance’, Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’ and the Jam’s ‘All Mod Cons’ the four Germans were ushering in the robotic age. Picking up where ‘Showroom Dummies’ left off ‘The Robots’ saw the band, with tongues firmly in cheeks, proclaim, “We are the robots” and ham up their android-like image. The album saw the band stretch their sound even further with the use of synthetic vocals but also took it in a slightly more commercial direction too with the achingly gorgeous ‘Neon Lights’ and the satirical ‘The Model’ which gave the band their only UK hit. It’s a mark of just how far ahead of everyone else the band were as the song was only a hit three years after the album was released. The album went on to be a huge influence on synth pop and the likes of the Human League, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys as well as New Order. The band remained at the forefront of things with 1981’s ‘Computer World’ which celebrated electronic information technology and the microchip with the likes of personal computers and online dating. For the band Earth was becoming a “computer world”, driven by electronic technology. Once again the album glistened in fluid, repetitive beats that flowed along effortlessly like the title track and ‘Computer Love’. While electronic bands were starting to make themselves felt with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s ‘Architecture and Morality’, the Human League’s ‘Dare’ and Soft Cell’s ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ they couldn’t come close to the German pioneers. After a five year bout of silence – and one aborted album – ‘Electric Café’ saw the light of day in 1986. This remastered album has now reverted to the intended title of the album that was originally ditched and served as the basis for ‘Electric Café’. The album still saw Kraftwerk ahead of the game – but the gap between themselves and everyone else and closed. The opening ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ managed to give the likes of the Chemical Brothers their “block rockin’ beats” and ‘Techno Pop’ was classic Kraftwerk with its simple, one-handed melody. But at times they just weren’t being that inventive and tracks like ‘Sex Object’ were just treading water. As well, the world perhaps just wasn’t that interested in what was coming out of Dusseldorf either. Hip hop was being taken off into new areas by Run DMC’s ‘Raising Hell’ and the listening public splintered into quite well defined pop and rock camps. Amongst the important albums of the year were Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ and the Smiths' ‘The Queen is Dead’ while on the other side of the coin Metallica unleashed ‘Masters of Puppets and Slayer gave metal a whole new genre with ‘Reign in Blood’. Kraftwerk were being to look more out of time than ahead of time. But the band weren’t about to rest on their laurels. After another five year hiatus the band reappeared with 'The Mix' in 1991. Which re-evaluated the band’s work with some radical remixes of their classic tracks. ‘Radioactivity’ was given a darker sheen with its warnings about nuclear waste while tracks like ‘Autobahn’. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘The Robots’ were given radical makeovers and presented afresh. Club culture duly took note and welcomed the masterclass. And then silence once again. Apart from the odd flicker of activity with the Expo 2000 EP the Kling Klang studio fell silent until 2003 with the release of ‘Tour de France’ which celebrated the bicycle and the famous race. The band hadn’t lost any of its slick grace and effortless, streamlined style and contained some great tracks with ‘Aéro Dynamik’, ‘Vitamin’ and ‘Electro Kardiogramm’. But while there were some great moments there wasn’t really anything to match the heights of the past. So what do you get for your money with the remasters? A new clear, crystal-clear sound that refreshes the music, heightening the sheer beauty of it all. The sound, as you would expect, is spot on. Although best to avoid playing them through a computer’s tiny and tinny speakers. Emphasis is given to the simple textures as the tracks glide along having been given a tune-up. But the songs haven’t been mucked about with and it is the same songs just seen in a new light. Pennyblack remains unconvinced with some reissues and the use of “bonus material” added on at the end of ‘classic’ albums. While new light can be shed on albums by doing this all too often it’s just a case of cleaning out the cupboards and tacking on some half-baked alternate version of a band’s famous songs. There’s none of that here though, just the original albums and it might have been a good opportunity to give some unreleased material an airing. Or even some live versions of songs would have been good. In particular it would have been interesting to hear some of the music created for the original ‘Techno Pop’ album before it got shelved. But that wasn’t to be. Instead, luxuriate in the glistening sounds of true electronic pioneers. 'The Catalogue' will be released on Mute Records on the 16th November

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Kraftwerk - Kraftwerk-The Catalogue

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