Future's past 

It's David Bowie's fault, really, that the German electronic collective Kraftwerk was widely exposed to pop audiences. Bowie championed Kraftwerk's 1974 album Autobahn during his own Diamond Dogs period, when the always mercurial Duke made a point of proclaiming Kraftwerk's brilliance. He told journalists that the group was all he listened to, and, further, named the instrumental piece "V-2 Schneider" on his 1978 Heroes album after Kraftwerk co-founder, Florian Schneider.

Time travel to 1987. In a Rolling Stone interview, Bowie commented on the German four-piece saying, "Kraftwerk are like craftsmen -- they've decided they're gonna make this particular wooden chair that they designed, and each one will be very beautifully made, but it will be the same chair." So it's Bowie, too, who may just have made the most telling point yet about Kraftwerk.

Though the group's not touring in support of a new record, Hütter and Schneider have revealed new material recently. Perhaps it's the millennium, perhaps it's electronic music's now near-commercial as well as cultural ubiquity, but Kraftwerk has chosen to show us, for the first time in 17 years, how to operate the machines. Besides, it makes sense that Kraftwerk appear in Detroit, where the group's work found its way to the future in the hands of Detroit's techno artists.

For the past 30 years, Kraftwerk has paved an unequaled, distinct path in music. Without the group's work, such thoroughly modern genres as techno, acid house and trip hop would not exist. But during the past 12 years, Kraftwerk has only completed two albums -- one of original material, 1986's Electric Cafe, and one a retread of the group's most famous songs, 1991's The Mix. This lengthy lapse certainly doesn't typify a group that's as influential in popular music as the Beatles, the Doors and the Velvet Underground. Kraftwerk debuted a song at last summer's Tribal Gathering music festival in England (to lukewarm reviews). But the impact of Kraftwerk's past is undeniable.

The group had its origins in Düsseldorf in the late '60s, when founders Ralf Hütter and Schneider were two-fifths of a group called Organisation, which released the fairly forgettable 1969 album, Tone Float. The duo had enough foresight to depart shortly after Tone Float's release to form a group that was more in keeping with Germany's unique aesthetic, one that had been in decline since the end of World War II. They called themselves Kraftwerk, a German word meaning "power plant." Though Hütter and Schneider recorded three instrumental albums between 1970 and 1973 (Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian), it wasn't until the release of 1974's Autobahn that the band achieved worldwide chart success. Indeed it's been often cited that legendary Detroit DJ the Electrifying Mojo was one of the principal catalysts in breaking Kraftwerk through America's musical and cultural barriers.

"Well, that's what they tell me," says Mojo, who's been keeping the airwaves alive and free for more than 30 years.

He recalls Autobahn as a "strange little album in that radio stations used to use it for production music. But it was so funky and otherworldly that I started playing it like crazy. And people began buying it like crazy. People just got wrapped up in this redundant, pulsating groove that sounded like it was from another planet. It showed me that music didn't have to be in a manufactured can with a label for people to dig it."

Kraftwerk's musical transmission kicked into high gear. Each album found the group more focused on its musical mission, and it began to distance itself from the public eye and media, letting music and minimal lyrics do the talking. For its 1977 album, Trans Europe Express, the group composed "Showroom Dummies," a cold, but humorous anecdote about anonymity. One year later came The Robots, a warning about society's dependence on technology. And when the rest of the world managed to catch up with the group's electronic rhythms with 1981's definitive Computer World, Kraftwerk upped the ante by having group members replaced by robot replicas of themselves for press photos.

With its minimal, unwavering rhythms, the music on this album and, more specifically, an appearance at the defunct Detroit club Nitros in 1981 spurred Detroit's much-hyped techno scene and its founders.

Indeed, Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins cites Kraftwerk's only previous stateside tour as a principal catalyst in crystallizing the future DJ's direction. Along with schoolmates and fellow soon-to-be first-generation Detroit techno artists Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, Atkins was introduced to Kraftwerk in 1978 via the Electrifying Mojo with The Robots. When he got wind of the group's performance three years later, the then-17-year-old Atkins was hell-bent on attending -- even if it meant using a fake ID to get in.

Wrapped up in that redundant, pulsating groove.

"When I heard Kraftwerk, I literally froze in my tracks," says the 35-year-old Atkins. "The precision and sound was what I was looking for and inspired me to follow the musical path that I have."

But one has to question whether the engineers Hütter and Schneider have ultimately derailed themselves with their self-created mystique. Electric Cafe was a great album, but showed little progression from Computer World. And what of The Mix, which wasn't a remix album at all, but a re-recording of their best known material? Well, let's just say it sounded great in clubs. Indeed, it's been argued that the architects of Detroit's techno scene such as Atkins and Carl Craig have taken Kraftwerk's music to a level the group never imagined.

"It always happens like that where someone has to take up the torch," says Craig. "I think Kraftwerk has been out of the loop for so long that the only way they could do something new and fresh is to avoid outside stimuli. But since they've probably been exposed to the virus, there's no turning back. They're going to try to keep up with the rhythms that inspired them. I mean, the whole jungle and drum 'n' bass thing alone is probably fucking their heads up."

Kraftwerk's lack of output and the changing times wore on former percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, who had joined the group in the mid-'70s and departed after the release of Electric Cafe. However, Atkins offers a more hopeful possibility in defense of his heroes.

"We're at a stage in music that's similar to when the electric guitar came out," says Atkins.

"The only thing you can do is have your signature and personality. Just because modern music may be stagnant at the moment, that's no reason to stop doing it. Like they say, you have to look at life through a child's eyes. You see and learn a lot of things, but you can't let that limit the creative process. And if you apply that same philosophy to music, it will always be different."

And maybe that's been Kraftwerk's point all along.

Kraftwerk was once the future of music, kicking down doors and using the silent treatment and the robots as means to further its cause. Now, with modern music in a state of flux, the future has caught up with Kraftwerk. And that's a scary thought. Colin McDonald writes about music and film for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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