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Kraftwerk – the band that transformed pop music

Kraftwerk still distance themselves from their first three albums, but in 1974, when they released their fourth album, Autobahn, they finally found the sound that still characterises their music today. This new sound was little short of a revolution.

The rock and pop of the 1970s was heavily influenced by the electric guitar and virtuosos such as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. Kraftwerk took a radically different path with their music, using purely electronic sounds produced with synthesisers and rhythm machines, some of which the band built themselves. They combined these sounds with very basic melodies sometimes resembling just nursery rhyme tunes. Kraftwerk challenged the cult of the ‘guitar heroes’ with the concept of the ‘human machine’ – ultimately even replacing the band members with robots at concerts. Thus Kraftwerk tied the image of a pop band to the principles of modern art.

Ledge through techno music

It’s almost impossible to over-estimate Kraftwerk’s influence, particularly in Britain and the USA. Many young British musicians, especially those with a background in punk, latched on eagerly to the idea that they no longer had to spend years learning an instrument but could create music by experimenting with cheap synthesisers. This realisation spawned bands like Depeche Mode, Ultravox and OMD. In the USA, meanwhile, the first hip hop DJs used Kraftwerk tracks as a backing for rappers, and this electro-funk sound eventually featured on the pioneering hip hop albums played by DJs like Afrika Bambaataa. In Detroit, DJs and musicians like Jeff Mills and Derek May took inspiration from Kraftwerk to develop an even more minimalist sound, a mini-cultural revolution that was to sweep Europe in the early 1990s as techno.

Kraftwerk around the world

The influence of Kraftwerk can be seen in a wide spectrum of musicians, from David Bowie to bands like Rammstein. The artistic concept of the band from Düsseldorf is as modern and relevant now as it has ever been, in view of the digital sound production and recording techniques available today, despite the fact that Kraftwerk have only released two studio albums since 1986. Almost as rare are the tours, which have taken them as far as Latin America, Japan and Australia, where they are also hailed as musical pioneers – as, perhaps, the only band with an unmistakably German identity, and as Germany’s most important band.

Kraftwerk are probably more famous outside Germany than in their home country. Which German bands are popular in your country? And which is your favourite German band? Ask other people in your community what they think! CULTURE group

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January 2012

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