It is not just that Kraftwerk invented the future of music; it is that a startling amount of the music you hear today, from the most obscure indie rock to the most mainstream pop to literally every suffering inch in between, bears the impression of their invention.
The pop century has been dominated by the goliath shadow of Mount Beatle. We presume that every musician and every listener were constantly aware of The Beatles’ sassy silhouette and wedding cake frosted recordings as they thought about what it meant to make music, hear music, be a part of the Popsi Generation.
But take a look at the pop music world in 2017. Take a good look. You will find that The Beatles are no longer the most influential pop band in the Western world.
There’s a mesmeric grace to Kraftwerk’s music, a sweetness and an all-encompassing sense of circular, major-chord resonance that completely defies the band’s robotic image. Like their closest musical relatives, the original Ramones, Kraftwerk were bubble-gum revolutionaries, ludicrously simple but absolutely radical and utterly inimitable. There is virtually no more seductive pop music on the planet. Over and over, for 43 years, Kraftwerk have made Dark Side of the Moon via The Archies via HAL 9000.
The complex, beautiful evolution of rock & roll is not a simple story. Every genre pioneer has a dozen or more antecedents: Scratch Chuck Berry and you find Louis Jordan; scrape off The Clash’s spiky façade and you’ll see the greaser haircuts of Dr. Feelgood; peel away Velvet Underground’s banana and the drones of LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad emerge; poke at Elvis’ bruised lips and Wynonie Harris, Hardrock Gunter, even Dean Martin are revealed. In rock and pop there is virtually no spontaneous combustion; everything is a gorgeous story of causation, addition and subtraction.
There is one giant exception.
Kraftwerk didn’t just pioneer a genre; they literally materialized it out of thin air, much like Sai Baba materialized holy ash. Until the moment “Autobahn” hit the airwaves in the autumn of 1974, nothing like it had ever existed.
Of course, many cult artists and composers working outside of the mainstream have revealed exceptional originality and invention: Suicide, Terry Riley, Sunn O))). These are all artists who didn’t just raise the bar, they built entirely new ones; like Kraftwerk, they defied the laws of dependent origination. But none of these artists, impactful as they might have been, reset the broad landscape of international pop as visibly and constantly as Kraftwerk.
Now, what did they do again?
In 1974, Düsseldorf, Germany’s Kraftwerk transposed the entire idea and form of a pop band into synthetic terms and placed cheerfully familiar pop modes within this entirely synthetic and rhythmic framework. Today, the idea of (partially or wholly) synthetic pop is so common that it seems odd to consider that one single artist indisputably did it first; but that’s the case. Think of it this way: When you see a “standard” band with an electric guitar, electric bass, standard trap-kit drummer and a vocalist, you may think, Oh, those guys remind me of Sonic Youth, or Arcade Fire, or The Strokes, etc.; but you don’t ever think, Oh, these guys remind me of that band that was the first band ever to use an electric guitar, electric bass, standard trap-kit drummer and a vocalist.
You can’t think of that band, because that band doesn’t exist.
But all synthetic pop, each and every occurrence of a synthetic drum or synthetic bass pulse in a song, can be traced back to one freaking group. It’s like finding out that Adam and Eve really existed.
Prior to 1973, a pile of artists had used the synthesizer (and other electronic music devices) to create sound effects, aural noodles, sundry harmonic and melodic window dressing. Some had even used it to thump a rhythm or replace a bass or drum. For instance, in 1969 The Beach Boys used a synth in this manner for about eight bars on “Do It Again” (it’s like Neil Armstrong putting one toe on the moon and turning back); circa 1968, the amazing Wendy Carlos used synths to drive her inventive interpretation of classical pieces; in the late 1960s, pioneering electronic musician Gershon Kingsley had created novelty hits like “Popcorn” with synths; and way back in 1963, the remarkable Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire had conjured the astonishing, all-electronic original Doctor Who theme.
But before Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974, no artist working within the melodic and structural boundaries of pop had ever said: “We now challenge you to accept that a complete pop music rhythm section can be created with a synthesizer — this is the repetitive, metronomic fart that will conquer all — and that most of the melodic and harmonic elements that accompany the rhythm will also be played with a synthesizer.” With the mega-worldwide hit “Autobahn” in 1974, Kraftwerk created the first true non-novelty pop song driven (virtually) entirely by synthesized and electronic elements. (That it was pure pop could never be in doubt; it alludes ferociously to both The Beach Boys and Gary Glitter.)
Every synthetically thumping rhythm section you have heard since then — and think of how many you hear, every single day, either intentionally or more likely atmospherically/accidentally — can be traced, without fail, to Kraftwerk’s amazing innovation.
If you think I’m off base, try this: Put on any damn pop station (and I’m not talking about college radio or Sirius specialty channels, I’m talking about freaking hear-it-in-the-gym, drunk-people-sticking-their-head-through-the-top-of-the-rented-limo pop radio): Nearly every song bears the imprint of Kraftwerk’s invention. Also consider every synthetic beat or melodic synth line you’ve ever heard in any rap or hip-hop song. Sometimes these artists are aware that they are standing on the shoulders of Kraftwerk (Dr. Dre spoke passionately about the importance of Kraftwerk in The Defiant Ones) and sometimes they’re not, but the influence is real and enormous.
None of this is meant to diminish The Beatles' leviathan achievements; it’s just to say that sometime in the last few years the landscape changed — the why and how is a whole different story, and I’m not going to distract us with that — and Kraftwerk became the most influential pop act of all time.
You may be thinking, well, OK, Kraftwerk are the root of all that pop music that I hate.
But Kraftwerk also had a big impact on the guitar-based bands that defined post-punk (and in many ways, guitar-based alt-rock is still very much living in the shadow of post-punk, but again, that’s a different story). The three bands that essentially set the template for post-punk — PiL, Joy Division and Magazine — each adopted an approach to drums and bass significantly influenced by Kraftwerk and the motorik beat. Joy Division are a great example: Their music was virtually an analog reproduction of the rhythmic and melodic elements of Kraftwerk (and, of course, this led directly to the Kraftwerkian throb of New Order). The most visible example of a band that inhaled the clean, low-end tick-tock of Kraftwerk and exhaled it out into the world is U2, whose economic, martial rhythms are never very far from the unfussy utility of Kraftwerk.
By the way, the genius and innovation of Kraftwerk is supremely on display in their most recent release, 3-D The Catalogue, which was unveiled this past May. 3-D The Catalogue is a hefty and conceptually unique work: It is a live recording of all — yes, all — of Kraftwerk’s post-1974 catalog (seven studio albums and one remix album), arranged chronologically and completely devoid of any audience sounds (the project documents concerts the band performed between 2012 and 2016, each of which was devoted to a single LP). Not only does 3-D The Catalogue sound fresh, thrilling and vibrant, but virtually every moment of it is superior to the original recordings; imagine going to see Brian Wilson playing Pet Sounds, and it actually sounding better than Pet Sounds.
It also helps that on 3-D The Catalogue, Kraftwerk have done some subtle editing and condensing of their album material. For instance, the four neo-ambient tracks that comprised the second side of Autobahn always felt slightly like academic exercises, but they work far more effectively here as a 12-minute medley; and Kraftwerk’s two least exciting LPs, 1981’s Computerwelt and ’86’s Electric Café (the latter also released under the name Techno Pop), now sound pointed and efficient, conceptually supported by their (likely intentional) superficialities instead of weighed down by them.
3-D The Catalogue also has the very peculiar function of, in essence, replacing all of Kraftwerk’s post-’74 albums (this is not the time to discuss the three fascinating, deliberately out-of-print albums Kraftwerk released between 1970 and ’73, before they entered synth-pop Eden, though I look forward to that time, I really do). And even though the 4-hour, 45-minute playing time (!) might seem daunting (there is also a 10-song edition available), I say, without hesitation, that the full version of 3-D The Catalogue is one of the best albums of the decade, one of the greatest live albums ever released and an absolute essential for anyone who loves pop music intensely or casually. It reveals that Kraftwerk aren’t merely the most influential band of all time — they are also one of the most satisfying.