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January 1975: Strange electronic sounds poured from the radio, male voices droned on and on, proclaiming a monotonous "Wir fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn" (We are driving driving driving on the Autobahn). The song definitely stood out from what people were listening to on the radio at the time: Suzi Quatro, Slade, The Rubettes, Sweet and many other successful German pop songs.
Four young men from the German city of Düsseldorf were behind the strangely captivating new kind of music. And the lyrics were in German, which was at the time only typical for German Schlager-type pop songs.
From the start, Ralf Hütter, who turned 75 on August 19, was the driving force behind the new electronic music. In 1968, Hütter joined Florian Schneider (who died in April 2020) and founded with other musicians a project named "Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikprojekte" (Organization for the realization of joint music projects) — which was later shortened to Organisation.
They experimented with sounds and styles, design, clothes and hairstyles, band names. It was soon clear that they weren't looking to form a regular band, but create an art project.
The group managed to get a record deal in England and release a first album, with only moderate success. In 1970, the band that had by then changed its name to Kraftwerk (power plant) gave a live concert in the popular Rockpalast TV program produced by Germany's WDR broadcaster. The irritated looks of the live audience spoke volumes; they were not ready for Kraftwerk's very new music.
The next album was called Kraftwerk. The album ranked 30th in the German charts; the song "Ruckzuck" which featured various flute sounds on a danceable beat, became a hit and was used as the theme for a popular TV show, Kennzeichen D.
The band worked hard on its next records. "Hütter liked a clean sound, he couldn't stand discordant or unclean tones," Kraftwerk founding member Eberhard Kranemann told WDR.
In the end, mixing the sound of traditional and electronic instruments wasn't what the four musicians were looking for; they felt the result was too Krautrock psychedelic, reminiscent of shaggy long hair and a perpetual brain fog.
Game Changer: Autobahn
In 1974, Kraftwerk released the album Autobahn — and suddenly everything changed. The band no longer used any traditional instruments, they cut their hair short and were clean shaven, wore suits and stood behind synthesizers.
From then on, Kraftwerk's music was almost entirely electronic, apart from the vocals. Ralf Hütter sang with a voice that sounded gentle, even untrained, which made Kraftwerk so fascinating.
The Kraftwerk albums stuck to that musical concept. The albums were produced in the band's studio, Kling Klang. The sessions were often very funny, Karl Bartos remembers. "We improvised, looked at each other while doing it, laughed our heads off and recorded," the longtime Kraftwerk member told DW. "The raw material for our compositions came from these sessions."
The main theme of songs like "Radioactivity," "We are the Robots," "Man-Machine" and "Computer World" was clear: technological progress and how it affects mankind.
Fun fact on the side: Kraftwerk's biggest hit was "Das Model," a love song that was not about machines or computers. The song was covered by Rammstein, among others.
A lot of thought went into bringing the minimalistic Kraftwerk multimedia experience on stage. The development of sequencers, computerization and finally digitalization allowed Kraftwerk to appear on stage as an audiovisual Gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of man and machine — Ralf Hütter's vision had come true by the early 1990s.
A Monument Of Popular Music
"The Beatles of electronic dance music" — that's what The New York Times called Kraftwerk in 1997. Techno DJs and producers alike name Kraftwerk among their most important sources of inspiration; their music is quoted throughout the pop music world.
In 2014, they won the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In October 2021, the band is to be inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame for their influence on popular music.
Hütter can be proud of his career and what he created with Florian Schneider. In a 2017 interview with Musikexpress music magazine, Hütter conceded that "Kraftwerk is my artistic life".
This article has been translated from German.