EMI / Mute – LP
By Paul Rigby
My friends, allow me to introduce the biggest punk band the world has ever seen.
This was a band with a totally new agenda, with a wholly new method of creating music often via DIY instruments. They offered a new look to accompany their new sound. They ignored – and largely continue to ignore – the press, they abrogated the traditional rock band lifestyle, they were wholly selfish in how they created their music, how that music was structured and was arranged. How many of these facets could truly be attributed to other, so-called, punk groups? This is a band that were so punk, they were never even labelled with that epithet. They, instead, influenced entire generations of future musicians from, not just one musical style, but multiple genres.
As an electronic outfit they amazed and wowed their audiences and the music industry as a whole: I remember watching them at a Tribal Gathering music festival in the 90s, when every other sound stage closed down just so the other international musicians could stop, stand or sit and watch four blokes from Germany.
I remember, around 1981 I think, sitting in the Royal Court theatre in Liverpool and watching the curtains open to reveal a Star Trek bridge of synthesisers and twinkling lights. Behind each synth was a member of the band. Standing next to each band member was a mannequin double of that band member. Each pair adopted exactly the same pose and no-one moved. The crowd went wild. For long, long seconds the pose was struck. No-one in the crowd could tell the difference between mannequin and band member. This was machine music. This was Kraftwerk.
EMI and Mute Records have now reissued eight of this seminal band’s LPs. The classic albums: Autobahn, Radio Activity, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World plus the more recent black sheep of the family, which saw a drop in creative quality for the first time, Electric Café or, as it’s named here in its original working title, Techno Pop plus the ‘best of’ project, The Mix and, finally, the ‘soundtracks’ album Tour De France.
You will notice that the three earlier works: Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian are not included.
Kraftwerk co-founder, Ralf Hütter, has talked about his memories of those early days, “We (Ralf and Florian Schneider) met at some improvisational courses at the University (Düsseldorf Conservatoire) and we’ve been doing things together since then. I had a simple electronic organ and we worked with echo chambers, tape machines and other simplistic elements, in those days, because there wasn’t that much in the budget. We produced very minimal records and it has developed from there.”
However, despite Hütter’s acknowledgment of those times, none of these early records have ever been officially reissued. Observers say that the band has chosen to ignore all three releases, acting, in fact, as if they had never existed.
The band’s meticulous standards have not only influenced their work but also these reissues. In fact, Kraftwerk have been wholly wrapped up in the these vinyl packages, being actively involved in the remastering and the packaging. And that, so rumours say, has been the reason that the vinyl releases have experienced delay after delay. To give you one example, one Internet rumour had it that the vinyl reissues were put back by several months because the cover of the Man Machine album was the wrong shade of red.
Playing the vinyl reissue of Autobahn is a momentous experience. Firstly because it reminds you just how new this form of music was back in 1974 and how much of a curiosity the group was to the rest of the world at this time, “We didn’t have much respect at that time,” commented Karl Bartos, part of the classic Kraftwerk line-up back in the 70s and 80s. “I remember the NME producing a collage. We were placed at the centre. Over us was placed a Swastika. The headline ran, ‘The final solution of music’.”
Ignoring the irresponsible core journalism, this, in hindsight, would now be an odd stance to take. Compare this music to modern techno and realise just how human it is compared to the stark techno beats.
Listening to the title track, you also realise that this was a leap of creative faith for the artists themselves, “It was all about cars,” said Ralf Hütter, “Singing a melody, it’s like an Autobahn raga. We would drive around Germany and dream about hearing Kraftwerk music on the radio – which never happened.” Until, with Autobahn, it came true, as the edited version of the title track charted to a stunned world in 1974. In fact, most people in the UK first heard this innovative music via, who else, John Peel.
I was also stunned. Stunned because of the quality of the remastering on this and the other LPs in this collection. There is no compression to be found, just pure, unadulterated music that exhibits immense clarity and marvellous dynamics within a quiet pressing background.
Putting on Computer World, I was most impressed both by the lower frequency extension and, again, by the dynamic response which promotes a sense a power but also, simultaneously, a lightness of touch that never fails to surprise and change the mood ready for the next piece of music.
Each reissue offers exceptional music quality, excellent pressings and attractive packaging. The sometimes newly stylised cover images often hiding more familiar artworks within, along with large, multi-page, booklets.
For any Kraftwerk fan, this entire reissue set is absolutely essential.
Stand-out track: Numbers (Computer World)
A bass fan’s dream. This track will really rock any decent pair of speakers and will never fail to trigger a rhythmic bodily reaction with its killer melodic riff.
Stand-out track: Autobahn (Autobahn)
Arguably, the track that started the modern Kraftwerk legend. A trance-like, minimalistic paean to the motorway featuring those classic automotive stereo pans that so often seemed to be a silly studio trick on most rock albums but made perfect sense here.
Stand-out track: Ohm Sweet Ohm (Radioactivity)
This relatively ignored minor classic is tucked away at the end of the album and begins with a vocodor speech excerpt, starts in a slow melancholy fashion but then speeds up to form such a sweet melody that you’re transported to a warm cuddly place inside your head.