I just attended Moogfest, which is a festival ostensibly inspired by Bob Moog’s work in developing the synthesizer. I’ve been listening lately to the new John Foxx + The Maths album, “Evidence” recently and it got me thinking about Kraftwerk. The elephant in the room when discussing synthesizers. It goes without saying that from 1974 to at least 1981, the group were unimpeachable in their pursuit of the acme of machine music. After that, it all seemed to unravel rather quickly. The questions arise. Why? How? I can hazard a few guesses.
With “Autobahn” the band managed to have a worldwide hit with an electronic pop soundscape [at a time when no such things existed, apart from historical novelties like Gershon Kingsley’s “Hot Butter” or Apollo 100’s “Joy”], and in German to boot! To say that the “Autobahn” album and its four descendants had a galvanizing effect on the pop music that followed is no hyperbole. All of my favorite core collection acts looked to Kraftwerk for inspiration. Without them, I have no idea what kind of music I would have grown up and prospered on. I had always liked music, even the US early 70s Top 40 dross I grew up with as a child, but until I heard their work and its stylistic brethren, I was not hearing music that spoke intimately to me.
Why is there a line in the sand following 1981’s “Computerworld” that strongly differentiates what followed later in their career as music that is lacking somehow and to many, disappointing to their legacy? For a start, I can point to the development of sampling keyboards as an inflection point of catastrophic proportions. Word has it that when Kraftwerk heard the “Into Battle” EP by The Art Of Noise, they were rattled. Seriously rattled. And this was a group that did not rattle easily! They were so rattled, that their long-gestating “Technopop” album was scrapped with only a single, “Tour De France” eventually appearing in 1983.
That single did have a fine melody and was the first evidence of leader Ralf Hutter’s cycling obsession, but the track was jarring in that it marked their first use of samplers. The bass guitar samples it featured were somewhat wrong for placement within their vision. Prior to this, Kraftwerk, who began using stock Moogs available in the early 70s, had been developing their gear with a private army of technicians. A glance at the inner sleeve of “Computerworld” has many credits for technical assistance in the album’s development. The physical limitations of analog sound synthesis insured that any non-stock, customized/modified hardware couldn’t help but generate sounds of novelty.
And when a band describes themselves as “sound technicians” then no less than the creation of sound itself is their goal. With analog synths, this is all but assured since absolutely replicating sounds is not possible to 100% accuracy. Added to that, the circuits would self-modify with responses to environment or ambient temperature. That is to say, they would de-tune, over time and use. The move to digital was antithetical to that approach with clinical precision all but assured with each press of a button. The move to sampling, meant that Kraftwerk, were following instead of leading, because they [wrongly] saw digital and sampling synthesis as being where they should be.
What ultimately seemed to happen is that having that much precision of sound meant that the music had a greater capacity for clinical sterility, which, unfortunately, seemed to be appealing to Ralf Hütter. The part of his makeup that gravitated to this quality of digital synthesis, insures the was now in a situation where he could not see the forest for the trees. There is a world of difference between striving for perfection [and falling] and actually achieving it.
This is where I differ with Hütter. I see perfection as an unreachable goal that the grasping for only distracts from the basic business at hand of creating something. The pitfalls and “accidents” along the way add texture at the very least to art and can unwittingly transform it in radical and unforeseen ways. It seems like Hütter is put off by that attitude. How else to explain the ever expanding gulf of years/decades between Kraftwerk albums post-1981 as he seeks to have absolute control over his beloved sounds?
It was telling that the lackluster “Electric Cafe” appeared five years on from “Computerworld” but didn’t seem any better for all of the knitting of brows that apparently went into its creation. Then five years later, the next Kraftwerk album appeared, and it was merely an all-digital compilation of past glories now rendered more sterile, for the most part. Admittedly, the new version of “Radioactivity” was a cracker! It alone justified the entire, semi-dubious exercise. Then, a dozen years down the line and a new Kraftwerk album appeared. Tellingly, “Tour De France Soundtracks” again sought to re-work past material and this time there was no track like “Radioactivity” to salvage it. The resulting album is a characterless Kraftwerk pastiche that sounds more like one of the many faceless techno concerns that sprung up in their wake rather than the real thing.
Next: Alone again…naturally