(Re)Collection #40: Kraftwerk
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
I can say lots of stuff about the music of Kraftwerk, but most of it has been said a million times before by people much more perceptive and analytical than I am. I will keep this simple. Kraftwerk is Trans-Europe Express. Kraftwerk is Computer World. Kraftwerk is Tour de France. Kraftwerk is ultra stiff and ultra German. Kraftwerk is clinical, robotic and detached, yet their music somehow retains a counterintuitive warmth .
As I have noted before, I love David Bowie. He was a musical chameleon who spoke in a language that I instantly liked and wanted to hear. I love Kraftwerk in a similar, naive way. They were never a band I was going to relate to on a personal level like Husker Du or Embrace or the Clash. They were not a band I would ever see live. I could not claim to have heard them first among my set of friends. I did not know if they were cool or not.
Whatever the music was, as strange as it was, I just got it. Other Krautrock groups that were peers, like Can, Faust, Neu! and Cluster, seem aloof and almost academic in comparison. And they sounded like bands with people playing the instruments (more or less).
On the other hand, Kraftwerk embraced a stripped down, electronic musical framework and unemotional, unpoetic lyrical vocabulary. Who was making the music? It wasn't people was it? It was machine music. And they were kind of funny in their dry, Teutonic way. The robots are likable and humorous.
If I think back really hard and strain my powers of recall, I can vaguely remember first hearing a song that I would later learn was Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk. My friends and I, lacking anything better to do, would venture down to Georgetown on the weekends and walk around. It was populated by ex-hippies, punks, drunks, panhandlers, lunatics, businessmen, dudes with big combs in their back pockets, girls with center parts and winged haircuts, Marines, tourists, yuppies and everyone else. It was a fairly broad slice of humanity.
It was a big, open air mall. We didn't have malls in D.C. when I was a kid. Mall culture existed in the suburbs. If I would have lived out in suburban Virginia or Maryland, I would have been a mall rat. But I didn't, so I wasn't.
The year was 1979. I was in 8th grade. At that point in time, break dancing crews would come down to Georgetown on the weekend nights, drag their massive boomboxes and taped-together cardboard dance floors and set up shows in empty spaces along Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. They danced to music like the Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's The Message or Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express.
Crew members would pace around waiting for their turns to spin, hop, pop and lock. All that breakdancey kind of stuff. It wasn't the boogie down Bronx, but it wasn't lame. These kids were good.
I carried Trans-Europe Express around in my head for a while until I figured out what it was and who it was by. Kraftwerk was not played on the radio. You had to buy the records. Or you had to know someone with a record collection. College stations might play it or perhaps you could get lucky and hear it on WHFS, the progressive, commercial station.
In 1980, I went from my public junior high school to Gonzaga, an all boys Jesuit school. I was required to take Latin and another foreign language of my choice. I chose German. It just seemed cooler. Everybody limped unimaginatively through French and Spanish, but us nerds actually had fun in German.
My freshman German teacher, Frau Gannon, played German pop music for us from time to time as a way to teach us contemporary, colloquial expressions. She was one of a couple of female teachers at Gonzaga, and she was young so we all had crushes on her. I sat in the front row. We learned the lyrics to songs by Nina Hagen, Andreas Dorau (Fred Vom Jupiter) and Kraftwerk.
This tradition of learning pop songs in German was carried on by Frau Gannon's replacement, Herr Gedman. I am calling them Frau and Herr because for the longest time I didn't know their first names, and we were not allowed to call our teachers by their first names anyway. He played Nena's 99 Luftballons for us. Then it became a hit with the translated English version. And David Bowie's Heroes, the German language version. And Falco's Der Kommisar. Pretty hip now that I think about it.
In 1982, I bought a copy of Computer World on vinyl. I don't know why because I didn't have a functioning turntable at the time. I couldn't play the record at home, so I went to my buddy Dave Nolan's house to record it onto cassette. Music and technology were different back then--much more restrictive and limiting. You had to be patient. Mostly for the worse, rarely for the better.
I took computer class as an elective. We learned how to write code in Basic on Radio Shack TRS-80s. That computer looked an awful lot like the one on the cover of Computer World. I wasn't good at the code writing. That required organization and logic. That was something I hadn't figured out yet. I could understand literature and art but computers were a cold and unyielding world to me. My mind was that of an artist even back then. I had no concept yet of how I learned best.
For a moment there, Kraftwerk made computers and robots seem kind of cool. That said, it didn't help me in that class. I got a C. Just barely.
Herr Gedman arranged an exchange program to Germany my junior year in the Spring of 1983 and I went. Kraftwerk popped back up on my radar that year. They released Tour de France in 1983. This coincided nicely with my growing obsession with bicycles. Was the song Tour de France written for a commercial reason or because the group loved cycling or both? No idea.
Kraftwerk's place in my musical life has ebbed and flowed over the many years. For a while in the 90s, they even got hip again among the indie rockers and record store clerks. I still love their disciplined, minimal aesthetic and the clarity and snap of the synthetic drums. This explains why I always come back to using the Roland 808 style drums when I want a classic, electronic sound. I know many others feel the same way.
Quite a few artists have covered their songs. I am usually not a fan of those versions. However, some have embedded little Easter eggs in their songs for the music geeks and nerds to discover. I have a few favorites. The first is by a band called Trans Am. They came out of the D.C. area in the 90s and are still around. They released a record called Surrender to the Night in 1997. The song Motr stood out for some reason. Then I realized that they threw in the main melody from the great Kraftwerk song Neon Lights in a brief guitar solo.
Swervedriver also paid tribute to Kraftwerk on one of their aptly titled B-sides, Neon Lights Glow. Yep, another band playing the central melody from Neon Lights on a guitar. A nice wink to all those in the know.
Some day I would like to be able to write a song like Neon Lights. So skeletal yet so evocative. That is the essence of Kraftwerk. Their melodies are timeless like a commercial jingle from your youth or a lullaby from childhood. I relate to the simplicity and the heart. Timeless.