A new biography of the band Kraftwerk offers a fascinating history of the influential German band and their work, while painting an incredible portrait of the cultural scene that helped create their unique sound.
Formed in Dusseldorf in 1970, Kraftwerk's co-founders, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, wholly embraced the burgeoning technologies around them, creating a hugely influential sound that changed popular music forever. With the release of Autobahn in 1974, the band became internationally celebrated, and lauded by those in the worlds of rock, pop, and art. They went on to release six more albums over almost three decades, and are known for such pulsating, electro-masterpieces as "The Model", "Pocket Calculator", "Radio-Activity", "Neon Lights", and "Showroom Dummies". In a testament to the cross-cultural appeal of Kraftwerk's music, American hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa sampled "Trans-Europe Express" for his 1982 U.S. hit "Planet Rock" while, as the new biography Publikation (Omnibus) notes in referencing the attendance of one Miss Ciccone at a David Bowie tour stop in Detroit in 1976, It's hard to decide which influenced Madonna more: Bowie's stunningly visual show or the unrelenting rhythmic pulse of Kraftwerk's introductory music. Either way, both would become key elements in the work of the most commercially successful female singer of all time.
The latest biography of Kraftwerk, by David Buckley, offers a compelling examination of the history and legacy of the seminal German electronic band.
Such an observation is symbolic of the thoroughness of author David Buckley's understanding of his subject, to say nothing of the extent of their reach across popular culture. Publikation traces every vital aspect of the seminal electronic band: the influence of the autobahn on popular German culture, the after-effects of the Second World War, German folk music, initial reception in the U.K., equipment, immense cultural influence. Buckley covers every possible angle of Kraftwerk in dazzling, dizzying detail, skillfully weaving tales of the band's rise and creative inspirations with lengthy quotes and punchy anecdotes. It's heady, but highly readable.
Along with historic context, the book features numerous insightful interviews with former band members and associates, including Eberhard Kranemann, Wolfgang Flur, Michael Rother (who went on to form influential band Neu), and Karl Bartos, who also provides the book's charming introduction. There are also solid contributions from musicians influenced by Kraftwerk, including Moby, OMD's Andy McCluskey, and former Ultravox member John Foxx. Some quotes span entire paragraphs, with Buckley's own writing providing minimal context and clarification. New Order's Peter Saville is given close to two full pages to explain the influence of Kraftwerk on Joy Division and its later incarnation, pronouncing the 1984 electronic hit "Blue Monday" to be "undoubtedly the most important product of 'viral Kraftwerk'."
Buckley, who wrote what many consider the definitive biography of David Bowie and has written for Mojo magazine, offers sparkling contextualization and insight, balancing both historical perspective and a fan's bold, unfettered passion. The cumulative effect is a meticulously researched, highly engaging work that makes for a truly great band biography.
The Liverpool-born, Munich-dwelling author recently shared his thoughts on the legacy of Kraftwerk, sourcing interviews for the book, and why getting away from The Beatles isn't such a bad thing for popular music.
In the introduction to Publikation, Former Kraftwerk band member Karl Bartos writes that author David Buckley "provides an in-depth insight into how this strange band from Dusseldorf managed to produce pop music that was -and still is -understood around the world."
Some music fans only heard Kraftwerk through another tune: "Planet Rock." How do you see this moment culturally?
On a personal level, I don’t like "Planet Rock" that much! I can see why it’s important but it doesn’t move me and it doesn’t sound as nuanced as some other Kraftwerk interpolations. But culturally, it was an astonishing moment – a time when music made by four white middle (in two cases upper-middle class), soon-to-be middle-aged German men fused with street music made by blacks, gays, Hispanics and disaffected white youth. It must still be the weirdest pop alchemy in the history of popular music and it’s led directly to the dizzying collective of disparate styles modern electronic and dance music now displays. Kraftwerk set off a musical time bomb.
You offer a superb contextualization of the social/political/cultural atmosphere of post-war Germany that gave rise to various bands; why did you decide to include this in such detail?
I studied history at university, so I am naturally drawn to this sort of contextualisation. I’m not trained as a journalist at all, which maddens some people because I’m not trained to write short, snappy, pithy, media-savvy pieces. I like building things up slowly, making connections between music and art and culture. I think to understand Kraftwerk one has to understand German society and culture, particularly its media culture. There was next to no music industry in West Germany, very rudimentary strategies of promotion and distribution and very little music which was uniquely theirs. Kraftwerk therefore had to re-invent the wheel and this is why their music was so odd and so powerful.
How difficult was it to get hold of certain people within (or formerly a part of) the Kraftwerk camp?
Initially, it was a slightly dispiriting process. Kraftwerk have no real management or PR team, so, going down the normal routes when one would like to request an interview wasn’t really possible. Kraftwerk appear to operate within the music business on very much their own terms. They have friends in the music business at the record company level who they trust, and people to look after their financial and contractual dealings but the whole operation is very private.
My editor at Omnibus Press sent a letter inviting Ralf Hütter to be involved and the reply stated that Kraftwerk would get back to us if they decided to be involved. As for ex-members, many have their own websites and so it was relatively easy to contact them. Persuading them to be involved was altogether different. Initially Karl Bartos ruled himself out but over the three years researching and writing the book we ended speaking regularly and he wrote the foreword which was so nice of him. It’s not easy for some past-members of the band to relive their time in Kraftwerk.
Buckley begins Publikation by describing his nervousness at being driven to Kraftwerk's famous Kling Klang Studio by ex-band member Wolfgang Flur, whom he describes as "one of my favorite music icons, ever." The interview was spread over two days and culminated in Buckley singing "The Model" to Flur "pub-singer style" one evening. "A mildly bemused Wolfgang took it with good humor," Buckley writes.
You made public requests online for people to get in touch with you when you were writing Publikation in order to contribute; what kind of responses did that yield? Would you do it again?
Yes, I would, and, in fact, one thing I would have liked to have done in the book would be to explore Kraftwerk’s fan base in more detail, a sort of ethnographic study of why people like robots! I managed to interview a selection of people in the media who were either fans of Kraftwerk (such as Moby, or Andy McCluskey from OMD), or had worked with them but I think I would have liked more straight fan input which is something I put a lot more into my earlier book on David Bowie.
Why do you think Kraftwerk have had such an enormous influence across popular music?
I think it’s a confluence of time, opportunity, technology. Kraftwerk emerged in the early 1970s. It was once said to me that popular music only really innovates when musicians try to do something totally un-like the Beatles! The Beatles had such an impact on popular music that (it is) only by denying their inheritance that music evolves. Elton John, for example, wrote ballads which might easily have been such by Paul McCartney. But one couldn’t imagine any of the Beatles singing "Virginia Plane", or "God Save The Queen" or indeed, "Autobahn."
Another crucial factor was that David Bowie told the world Kraftwerk were cool. It’s hard now to imagine how much of an arbiter of taste Bowie was. But if he said he liked it, his fans would too. And so many Bowie fans went on to become pop stars in the late-seventies. That generation, musicians who went into recording say from 1978-1982 were bored with punk and with guitars and so Kraftwerk offered a new utopian future which was brash, modern, synthy, futuristic, detached – Gary Numan, John Foxx, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Ultravox, Simple Minds, Depeche Mode, Eurthymics – they were all listening.
How much do you think Kraftwerk's music is "great soul music", as it's been described?
One of the stereotypes I wanted to debunk in the book was exactly what you have described – that Kraftwerk’s music lacked heart. In a world dominated by the discourse of the love song, Kraftwerk wrote very differently and broadening popular music with songs about technology, travel, communication. And when they did write about love, they did it with a sad, detached heartbeat that resonated very much with my teenage self at the time. "Computer Love" is such a sad song! Kraftwerk subverted that brash, arrogant, heteronormative standpoint one gets in the Stones and Led Zeppelin. They wrote songs which were the opposite of "Hey hey woman, know the way you move/gonna make you sweat gonna make you groove!" This was music for a complicated people who had complicated relationships. I’m sure there’s a bit of the lovelorn Kraftwerk in Morrissey.
Many chapters in Publikation features lengthy quotes from a variety of people Buckley interviewed for the book, including ex-band members and assorted musicians. "I"m interested in oral history," the author explains, "(that) what people say is as important, if not more so, than my narrative. I want to make the reader aware that I haven't simply condensed other peoples' work or ideas, but have discovered genuinely new material from my own bespoke interviews."
Ralf Hutter, the co-founder of Kraftwerk and its only consistent member, comes across in the book as obsessively private -what do you think accounts for this?
I think he is simply a private person. He’s not really a pop or rock star in the sense that Marc Bolan or Freddie Mercury or Elton John are (or were). He has no interest in pressing the flesh, seeking attention, playing the PR game. This doesn’t mean he is unfriendly, just a person who operates on a different level. Interviewees have also said that on a personal level he was, or is, very controlled. Karl Bartos told me that in all his time in the band, he never once saw Ralf drunk.