Randi Hernandez
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Journey Into Sound: German Krautrock



The most interesting thing about music is that it’s hard to find out who the “originators” of a sound are. It seems as if Nas were right when he said “No idea’s original”. Was Nas even the first person to utter this bold statement? It’s hard to tell! Finding originality is even harder now that we are knee-deep in the era of the digital download, because the “citations”, so to speak, are either not available to users, or if available, rarely acknowledged. Sometimes I wonder if listeners are even aware that most modern music (wholly pop) relies heavily on pre-existing music. Hell, in most cases, old song samples are directly lifted by producers and re-used without many changes at all. As long as original musicians are credited, there’s no harm done, right? Technically, no, but when a sample is used in excess over a long period of time, the song known and accepted as the “original” could easily be replaced with the “first recalled version” that the average listener THINKS is the original. In other words, the history of a song, or the “track timeline”, is at risk of being lost. Consequently, some artists (especially if they were not huge artists) may disappear along with their poorly documented contributions.

I mention this because most songs I like/have liked were incarnations of other earlier songs. Such is the case with Kraftwerk. I thought that the song “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force was totally revolutionary, and that this song was at THE orgin of computer-generated sounds in the timeline of hip-hop. A former colleague corrected me and told me that in reality, the Bambaataa song borrowed from the 1982 single “Trans Europe Express” by Kraftwerk. He insisted the Kraftwerk song was first, but of course, I thought he was just defecating on my love for hip-hop. And….then I listened to the Kraftwerk song after our argument and realized I had just gotten completely sonned.

Although Kraftwerk had over a dozen fluctuating members since the group’s inception in 1970, the two originating members of the group were Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter. These two are originally from Düsseldorf, Germany, and the name Kraftwerk was derived from the German word for power plant, or power station (wikipedia). The nomenclature is fitting, as the group created groundbreaking, computer-driven electronic music that has influenced techno, electronica, pop, and even hip-hop. In a nutshell, the group pretty much INVENTED looping and sampling! Their particular sound was dubbed “Krautrock”, in reference to the word Sauerkraut – which was a WW II term used for Germans.

Kraftwerk, Album covers for Computer World and Trans-Europe Express

Kraftwerk, Album covers for Computer World and Trans-Europe Express

Kraftwerk is the epitome of musical experimentation. All of their albums from Trans-Europe Express onward have been recorded in German, English, French, or in a mix of languages (wikipedia), and some of their songs are just instrumentals. They use tools like the Minimoog, ARP Odyssey, vocoder, Deagan Vibraphone, flutes, synthesizers, electro-violins, and even a Texas Instruments Language Translator, which was used for the electronic vocals on Computer World (wikipedia).

Kraftwerk's musical performances are often synchronized with visual special effects

Kraftwerk's musical performances are often synchronized with visual special effects

The band poured their money into building a customized studio, which was later known as the Kling Klang studio. They took the time to invent new musical instruments (and recording techniques) to truly create something new. The members commissioned Synthesizerstudio Bonn, Matten & Wiechers to design and build the “Synthanorma Sequenzer with Intervallomat, a 4×8 / 2×16 / 1×32 step-sequencer system”(wikipedia via the book Kraftwerk – Man Machine & Music by Bussey, P.), which supposedly was not available in commerce at the time. Music sequencers controlled the band’s electronic sources, and during recording sessions, the members would program the sequencers and studio equipment to play melodies. New musical sequences were gradually added in layers on top of the primary sounds, and this is how their songs came to life. Kraftwerk’s songs were often the result of improvisation both in the studio and on stage. After being in the studio, the group would often dub and manipulate the tracks even further (much like Rockabilly engineers did – i.e., they messed with the recordings to achieve a certain sound). Kraftwerk’s live shows featured crazy visuals, visuals that they tried to synchronize with the music whenever they could.

So, next time you hear some bloops and bleeps coming out of your radio, or a song that sounds like it has the same beat as a Nintendo game, think of Kraftwerk.

Fun Facts about Kraftwerk

*The members (4 of them, at that point) would use replica mannequins of themselves to perform the song “The Robots” onstage.
*Kraftwerk’s song “Tour de France” was about bicycling and featured sounds from bike gears and chains. Ironically, during the recording of “Tour de France”, member Ralf Hütter was involved in a serious cycling accident (wikipedia).
* Jay-Z’s “Sunshine” used a sample of Kraftwerk’s “The Man Machine”.
* Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France” was in the movie Breakin’. It played during Turbo’s Broom Dance scene. Alas, I mention this epic movie yet again!!!

“Trans Europe Express”

“The Model”

“Tour de France”

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2 Responses to “Journey Into Sound: German Krautrock”

  1. SB sB says:

    Pioneers. Great Post!

  2. Gee Gee says:

    do I sound totally ignorant if I say that I didn’t know much about Kraftwerk before this post? If so, I am an ignoramus, but who cares because these guys are AWESOME!


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