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Kraftwerk Biography

Home > Music > K > Kraftwerk > Biography

Birth Place: Düsseldorf, Germany
Years Active: 1970–present
Genres: Electronic Music, Synthpop, Krautrock, Experimental Music

Kraftwerk is an influential electronic music band from Düsseldorf, Germany. The group was formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970, and was fronted by them until Schneider's departure in 2008. The signature Kraftwerk krautrock sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western Classical style of harmony, with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation. The group's simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software. Kraftwerk were one of the first groups to popularize electronic music and are considered pioneers in the field. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk's distinctive sound was revolutionary, and has had a lasting effect across many genres of modern music. Kraftwerk were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003.

Prior to forming Kraftwerk, Hütter and Schneider were part of a project called Organisation that released the album “Tone Float” in 1970.

Their first three albums were free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined strong structure of later work. “Kraftwerk,” released in 1970, and “Kraftwerk 2,” released in 1972, were mostly exploratory jam music, played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, electric organ, flute and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both albums are purely instrumental. Live performances from 1972–73 were made as a duo, using a simple beat-box-type electronic drum machine, with preset rhythms taken from an electric organ. These shows were mainly in Germany, with occasional shows in France. Later in 1973, Wolfgang Flür joined the group for rehearsals, and the unit performed as a trio on the television show “Aspekte” for German television network ZDF.

With “Ralf und Florian,” released in 1973, the band began to move closer to its classic sound, relying more heavily on synthesisers and drum machines. Although almost entirely instrumental, the album marks Kraftwerk's first use of the vocoder, which would, in time, become one of its musical signatures.

The input, expertise, and influence of producer and engineer Konrad "Conny" Plank was highly significant in the early years of Kraftwerk and Plank also worked with many of the other leading German electronic acts of the period, including members of Can, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia. As a result of his work with Kraftwerk, Plank's studio near Cologne became one of the most sought-after studios in the late 1970s. Plank co-produced the first four Kraftwerk albums.

The release of “Autobahn” in 1974 saw the band moving away from the sound of its earlier albums. The members had invested in newer technology such as the Minimoog, helping give the group a newer, disciplined sound. “Autobahn” would also be the last album that Conny Plank would engineer. After the commercial success of “Autobahn,” the band members invested money into updating their studio. This meant they no longer had to rely on outside producers.

After the 1975 “Autobahn” tour, Kraftwerk began work on a follow up album, “Radio-Activity.” After further investment in new equipment, the Kling Klang Studio became a fully working recording studio. It was decided that the new album would have a central theme. This theme came from the band members' shared interest in radio communication, which had become enhanced on their last tour of the United States. “Radio-Activity” was less successful in the UK and American markets, but it did open up the European market for the band, gaining them a gold disc in France. With the release of “Autobahn” and “Radio-Activity,” Kraftwerk had left behind its avant-garde experimentations and had moved forward toward electronic pop tunes

While their initial albums featured mostly German lyrics, in 1975 Kraftwerk began writing lyrics that combined both German and English verses. Beginning with 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express,” most songs by the group have been created as duplicate versions sung in English or German. Additional versions sung in French, Japanese or Spanish have also sometimes been made.

In May 1978 Kraftwerk released “The Man-Machine” which was recorded at the Kling Klang Studio. "The Man-Machine" was the first Kraftwerk album where Karl Bartos was co-credited as songwriter. Following the release of “The Man-Machine” Kraftwerk would not release an album for another three years.

In May 1981 Kraftwerk released the album “Computer World” on EMI records. The album was recorded at Kling Klang Studio between 1978 and 1981. A lot of this time was spent modifying the Kling Klang Studio so the band could take it on tour with them. Some of the electronic vocals on “Computer World” were created using a Texas Instruments Language Translator. “Computer Love” was released as a single from the album backed with the earlier Kraftwerk track “The Model.” Radio DJs were more interested in the B-side so the single was repackaged by EMI and re-released with “The Model” as the A-side. The single reached the #1 position in the U.K. making “The Model” Kraftwerk's most successful record in the U.K. Kraftwerk returned to the live scene with the Computer World tour of 1981, where the band effectively packed up its entire Kling Klang studio and took it on the road.

In 1982 Kraftwerk began to work on a new album that initially had the working title Technicolor but due to trademark issues the group decided to change the proposed name to Techno Pop. One of the songs from these recording sessions was “Tour de France,” which EMI released as a single in 1983. This song was a reflection of the band's new found obsession for cycling. After the physically demanding "Computer World" tour, Ralf Hütter had been looking for forms of exercises that fit in with the image of Kraftwerk, subsequently he encouraged the group to become vegetarians and taking up cycling. “Tour de France” included sounds that followed this theme including bicycle chains, gear mechanisms and the breathing of the cyclist.

During the recording of "Tour de France" Ralf Hütter was involved in a serious cycling accident. He suffered head injuries and was left in a coma for a few days. During 1983 Wolfgang Flür was beginning to spend less time in the studio. Since the band began using sequencers his role as a drummer was becoming less frequent. He preferred to spend his time travelling with his girlfriend. Flür was also experiencing artistic difficulties with the band. After his final work on the 1986 album “Electric Café” he hardly returned to the Kling Klang Studio. Wolfgang Flür left the band in 1987 and was replaced by Fritz Hilpert.

In August 2003 the band released “Tour de France Soundtracks,” its first album of new material since 1986's “Electric Café.”