Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany by Uwe Schütte

Stumbled upon this book from a friend’s recommendation. It piqued my interest because I love learning about music and because I’ve been reading about music, music history, musicians, scenes, publications, journalists, etc. etc., for decades. (I also couldn’t keep my eyes away from the cover!) I instantly went for a book on Kraftwerk, a blind spot of mine. Like heavy metal, I love to learn about music I don’t listen to. If the writing is good enough, everything is interesting.

But it helps to have a good story, and Kraftwerk’s story is fascinating. I am drawn to artists of all mediums who refuse to explain themselves (see: David Lynch, as my most glaring example) and lets the art speak for itself. I am drawn to artists of all mediums who play with the mind of the audience. Kraftwerk operates on all levels of artistic control from not letting any outsiders in their Kling Klang Studio, to having no information aside from touring dates on their website, to using robot dummies, or models, as stand-ins for press photographs; at one point journalists were asked to interview the dummies instead of the band. Brilliant!

Hütter and Schneider were children of upper middle class artists, raised in Düsseldorf (which became an artistic hotbed for photography and architecture among many other mediums) and wanted to create a space for their generation to separate themselves from Nazi Germany’s past and the country’s former identity of nationalism as the first post-war generation “…[they were part of] a generation that broke with the nationalistic and chauvinistic tradition that had dominated Germany for the previous 200 years. …They sought to define a new German identity.” (Foreword XIII.)

Writing about and creating the sounds of radio communication and cross country and cross-continent travel was meant to inspire and highlight cooperation between nations, to inspire collective creation and adventuring into evolving cultures outside any comfort zone. Kraftwerk wanted no boundaries and pushed that idea onto audiences with limits; the ultimate exercise of art. (This reminds me of the color, design, and sound control of The White Stripes.) Here the medium is the message. Hütter and Schneider wanted to move away from their parents’ philosophies and the world around them. “Our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler; the school of Bauhaus and German Expressionism,” Hütter declared.

Their 1978 LP The Man-Machine, iconic in its album design, photography, typography, and sonic content, Schneider, at this point in time, declared Kraftwerk a concept, not a band. The colors (red, black, and white) of their outfits and imagery on the LP were meant to imitate Nazi propaganda. Everything they did in look and sound “…served as a reminder that the crimes of the past were possible only because far too many Germans had been …like robots without conscience or moral compass…” (p126). How do we start this conversation? Let’s be robots. There are several steps to get to one from another but you must get there for yourself. This book will fill those gaps.

Their ambition was to create “future music.” There is great dissection here about just how influential and groundbreaking Kraftwerk was as innovators in computerized sound, design, and concept. Uwe Schütte questions at the beginning and end if they are the most influential band since The Beatles and as an outsider who knew nothing other than a general “they’re the proto-techno band” (which I now know is major trivialization of Kraftwerk) it seemed like the truth. There is still no other band like them and Schütte does a great job to argue that they were more influential than The Beatles. His work paralleling Kraftwerk’s sonic inspiration on disco and the underground techno/dance scene in Detroit are fascinating. Kraftwerk’s reach knows no bounds.

Uwe Schütte is conversational in all the right ways. The best music writing makes you turn to the music. Admittedly I did not spend that much time with it. Simply, it is not for me. But I appreciate it on every level. Hütter and Schneider’s quoted predictions about the Internet, computers, and the global change both would bring sprinkled throughout these stories and concepts now read as “well, duh!” They knew long before anyone else. Early adapters are like that. Open minds are like that.

For any Kraftwerk fan, fan, or student of music and its origins. A brief, pocket-sized 280 pages was just enough. Had it been longer this book wouldn’t be as approachable (see: me, a Kraftwerk outsider). I originally checked it out from the library and ended up buying it so I could make notes and keep it for my library. A unique story and book. Aces all around.

[Originally posted on my Goodreads, June 2022.]