As pioneers of synthesized pop music, the German group Kraftwerk has long been hailed as visionary. But the band, whose co-founder Florian Schneider died last month, has been visionary on a much grander scale than music.
While the members of Kraftwerk have famously celebrated technology — perhaps more than any other group in the history of popular music — they have also been wary of it. Their elliptical, dystopian “Computer World” (1981), for instance, didn’t just anticipate the ubiquity of the “home computer,” it described a society in which digital technology infiltrated every aspect of life. It wasn’t a celebration, it was a warning.
Kraftwerk was formed in 1970 in Düsseldorf by Mr. Schneider and a fellow music school student, Ralf Hütter. Both of their fathers were well off and that meant the band could afford state-of-the-art equipment, which might well have pushed them in the futuristic direction they took.
While so much of mainstream ’70s rock — and the granola-crazed popular culture of the time in general — was about going up the country, Kraftwerk insisted on acknowledging technology. The band’s synthetic sounds, automated rhythms and severe haircuts were a pointed contrast with the prevailing hirsute, earth-toned boogie of much rock music of the time, just as the group’s rigorously Teutonic mien was a reaction to the hegemony of American culture in postwar Germany. Kraftwerk wanted to create its own culture. As Mr. Hütter said, “The question is, ‘What does Germany sound like today?’ That’s where we started.”
The band built its concept around a “Menschmaschine” (human machine) powered by a “Kraftwerk” (power station). But Kraftwerk never really forecast a robotic destiny. Its views were more like the futurist Ray Kurzweil’s concept of the singularity, a cultural moment when technologies such as artificial intelligence merge with humans to bring on a new historical epoch.
At concerts, the four band members, dressed in identical uniforms, stand nearly motionless at lecterns laden with electronics. It isn’t readily apparent that they’re actually creating the music in real time, leaving the audience to ponder such things as the nature of performance. It is, as the music writer Robin Howells put it, “post-human musical theater.”
The band found its voice on its fourth album, 1974’s “Autobahn,” an electronic record that was also a hit record complete with a hit single, featuring a side-long, cinematically evocative sonic depiction of a drive down Germany’s famous motorway.
Four other classic records followed. Kraftwerk’s productivity waned in the ’80s just as its influence exploded across a uniquely broad array of genres: not just synth-pop but hip-hop, new wave, industrial and Detroit techno. David Bowie, who once hailed the group’s sound as the “folk music of the factories,” paid tribute to Mr. Schneider and the group with “V-2 Schneider” on his 1977 album “Heroes.” Everyone from Coldplay to Jay-Z has sampled its music; Kraftwerk remains woven into the fabric of popular music. It is revered across several generations, a rarity.
But Kraftwerk has never been just some novelty group whose members pretend to be robots. There is soul and beauty in their music, and both humor and melancholy. It’s not surprising that they have a social conscience.
In 1975 the group released “Radioactivity,” which punned about music on the radio: “Tune in to the melody/Radioactivity/Radioactivity is in the air for you and me.” But in 1991, after several major nuclear accidents, Kraftwerk radically remade the song. A monotone synthesized voice intones a brief litany of nuclear disasters: “Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, Hiroshima.” Then Mr. Hütter sings mournfully, “Stop radioactivity,” and “Chain reaction and mutation/Contaminated population.”
Ever since, Kraftwerk has performed the song at antinuclear events, beginning with Greenpeace’s 1992 “Stop Sellafield” concert to protest the Sellafield reactor in England. In 2008, Kraftwerk played the song at Coachella, the annual music and arts festival in Southern California, on the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and the band also played it in 2012 at the No Nukes concert in Japan, not long after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Nuclear contamination is a byproduct of humankind’s inability to completely control the effects of its interactions with the physical world. In our relentless, reckless quest to produce more energy so we can produce more profit, we are interfering with nature, with effects that we can’t fully anticipate — often with catastrophic consequences, as with potentially apocalyptic climate breakdown.
So there is some irony in the fact that Kraftwerk had to cancel its 50th-anniversary tour of North America this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. This global crisis, like radioactive contamination, likely began because humans meddled with nature, upsetting a delicate and complicated balance.
Mr. Schneider would not have been on that tour anyway — he left the band in 2008. The reasons for his departure were mysterious; Mr. Schneider was an enigmatic man, famous for his puckishly laconic interviews, and guarded his privacy.
But his concern for technology’s effect on the environment never flagged. In December 2015, he made a rare appearance, as a surprise guest at a Paris event for the Parley for the Oceans environmental organization. He sported a funky plaid jacket and matching hat recycled from the kind of plastic used for laundry bags, said a few words about a song he had composed, inspired by seeing fishermen in Ghana catch loads of plastic in their nets. With that, ever the showman, he danced himself off the stage, doing a pretty good version of the robot for a 68-year-old, as a recording of the song began to play.
Composed with the Belgian composer-engineer Dan Lacksman, the song, the haunting “Stop Plastic Pollution” includes percussive samples of water dripping from a faucet. It is ingeniously spare and mechanistically funky in that Kraftwerkian way, with delicious textures and a catchy little hook. Mr. Schneider delivers the lyrics in a conspiratorial whisper: “Stop plastic pollution in the ocean/Save the fish/Keep your planet clean.”
Those words reiterate an ambivalence about technology, both love and unease, that has long lived in Kraftwerk’s music and that is well worth heeding. “The Voice of Energy,” from the 1975 “Radio-Activity” album, is little more than an ominous synthesized voice speaking in German. The piece’s narrator is “a huge electric generator” that enables essential things such as light, power and communications. And the generator has a clear and compelling warning: “I am your servant and your lord at the same time,” it says, “so take good care of me.”
Michael Azerrad is the author of “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the Indie Underground 1981-1991” and “Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana.”
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