If Ralf Hütter had his way, the world would think Kraftwerk came to life in 1974, glistening on the motorway, lights on full beam. None of Kraftwerk’s prog-leaning, first three albums are on Spotify (they weren’t part of the big reissue/remaster programme in 2009), but this closing track from Autobahn hints at the group’s earlier existence. Florian Schneider’s flute conjures up ghosts of 1971’s Kling Klang, after which he and Hütter would later name their studio. It also recalls 1973’s more pastoral Tongebirge (which translates, deliciously, as Mountain of Sound), from the hard to find LP, Ralf und Florian. By mimicking birdsong and running water with synthesisers, Morgenspaziergang (which means Morning Walk) also reveals the romantic side of the men living and working in modern, clean Düsseldorf. Then again, Kraftwerk’s records were always really love letters to experiences, old or new.
The concept album belongs to the late 1960s as a cultural phenomenon, a time of wilful excess in sound, thought and ego. Kraftwerk made concept albums, too, although theirs were set and fixed on more minimal lines. Take this 22-minute journey from door slam and accelerator roar – a device echoed in Roxy Music’s Love Is the Drug a year later – through a largely blissful, but occasionally sinister, on-the-road reverie. Autobahn’s genius lies in its simplicity. The two gentle notes crossing an octave between verses. The sweet, nursery-rhyme melody with its lyrical nod to the Beach Boys, which Hütter has occasionally denied but occasionally entertained (“fun, fun, fun” becoming “wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n”). The visceral impact of the Vocoder, speaking the title sweetly, and then, through distortion, terrifyingly. Here were the euphoric and eerie faces of the future, an edit of which, miraculously, became a No 11 UK hit.
The title of 1975’s Radio-Activity was a conscious play on words, exploring two revolutions made possible by early-20th-century science – radio transmission (the potential of communication) and the process of atom-splitting (the potential of the nuclear bomb). Consequently, the album’s mood is often unnerving, especially in the first track, Geiger Counter, which features a pulse quickening rapidly before the title track appears. However, there is hope in some tracks, with Radioland phosphorescing gently in clouds of gentle reverb. Here is wide-eyed, childlike optimism about what new technologies could do, not about the terrors that they could deliver.
4. Trans-Europe Express
Kraftwerk’s explorations of German identity and the idea of Europe were always interesting, especially at a time when the iron curtain hung heavily. This was the title track of an album that began with a sweet major-key ditty called Europe Endless, and ended with its reprise, Endless Endless, both projecting from the speakers like beacons of hope (unless you equated the titles with older visions of empire). This track felt different. Projecting the template of Autobahn on to the rails, it lionised the continental luxury TEE train service, which until the late 70s was only for first-class, usually business passengers. Its lyrics are spare but exotic. We leave Paris in the morning; by the evening, we’re in a late-night cafe in Vienna, like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks; we then return to Düsseldorf, where we meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie. (By this time, Kraftwerk were influencing the Berlin-dwelling proto punk and pop chameleon strongly, so much so that Bowie’s 1977 album “Heroes” would contain a tribute called V-2 Schneider.) This track, in all sorts of ways, is about movement. Its title is rhythmically repeated, synthesiser sounds conjuring up the brutal machinations of metal on metal. These industrial sounds would connect with other global cities, too, Trans-Europe Express being the first Kraftwerk track to hit clubs in America.
Music about space had been a rich vein in pop culture since the late 1950s, but, by the late 70s, electronics were bringing new sounds and style to the mix. Among the cosmic disco and space-pop that teemed out of Europe at the time, this track from 1978’s Man-Machine conveyed beautifully the wonder of the great beyond. It was named after the reusable laboratory being developed by Nasa at the time. A future in space was still a sci-fi prospect back then, its soundtrack made by men who sounded more like machines.
6. The Model
Four years after it was a track on The Man-Machine (1978), The Model reached No 1 in the UK singles chart. Why it took so long is simple: British synthpop was in full flow by then, with groups such as the Human League and OMD taking the influence of their German inspirations into the mainstream. Until the mid-80s, Kraftwerk had always been ahead of the game with their sounds and their subject; now the world was catching up. The Model also involved Ralf Hütter singing, something he’d done on the somewhat cartoonish Showroom Dummies from Trans-Europe Express. Here his vocal is naively confident in some lines (“I’d like to take her home, that’s understood”) and sweetly nervous in others (“Now she’s a big success, I want to meet her again”). The lyric also belies the bewitching nature of fame and surface gloss, an appropriate sentiment for the decade that was flashily unfurling.
7. Numbers (live)
After Computer World (1981), Kraftwerk’s influence on electronic music became more widespread, with electro and techno being directly inspired by the album’s sounds, textures and rhythms. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa rerecorded the Trans-Europe Express riff over a sample from Numbers to make the hip-hop classic Planet Rock. In 1983, Juan Atkins sampled the racing, percussive melody from Home Computer for his band Cybotron’s classic electro track, Clear. Numbers’ main rhythm is one of artfully managed melodic chaos, the sound of digits being fed into a system and bubbling up and down in fascinating patterns – imagine the stock market but more volatile, more important, more fun. This live version from the Minimum Maximum album of 2005 shows the track’s propulsive power in full, dazzling effect.
8. Tour de France
Kraftwerk are often dismissed as faceless automatons, but the presence of the human being in their songs is essential to their DNA. In The Hall of Mirrors (1977), even the greatest stars find themselves in the looking glass. In Computer Love (1981), lonely people stare at the TV screen, longing for a rendezvous. In Tour de France (1983), the human breath drives the song, fast, hard and strong. After paeans to the car and the train, the bicycle might have seemed an odd choice – as if Kraftwerk’s whole career had been sponsored by a transport initiative – but it had a personal connection with its frontman, Ralf Hütter. A borderline obsessive cyclist by the early 80s, he suffered a fractured skull after falling from his bike in 1983 and was in hospital for several days. (John Harris tried to glean more details for the Guardian in 2009.) Released on 7in, 12in and cassette, and originally planned to be released on Electric Cafe (1986), no definitive edition of this gleaming track exists. This 2009 remaster, however, is a slick, fast favourite.
9. The Robots (The Mix rerecording)
The Mix (1991) is often overlooked in appreciations of Kraftwerk, but its reworkings of the band’s back catalogue are often dynamic and exciting. The Robots, for instance, fares far better here than the 1978 original, which is somewhat sluggish, the sound of a creature being slowly wound into life. Thirteen years on, something far more energising pings into life. The main difference between the two versions is how the main melody works: in the original, it’s a stately, static thing, sticking to the beat rigidly, slavishly. In the 1991 update, it has a wiggle in its hips, a joyful, snakish lilt. The robot voice is also more confident, showing artificial intelligence with a purpose, an intention, a power. “We’re charging our battery / And now we’re full of energy,” it announces. It’s impossible not to conduct some as you’re listening to it.
In 2015, Ralf Hütter and three men who aren’t Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür keep on touring the world, but it feels impossible to imagine new music emerging from Kling Klang. For now, we’ll have to make do with an album that’s already 12 years old. Tour de France Soundtracks (2003) sounds like a quirky curio these days, or an album of afterthoughts inspired by a much earlier starting point, but this brief track finishes it off like an appropriate elegy. Slow, gracious and glimmering, as the album it sits on gently comes to a standstill, a deep, robotic voice tells us that things are done for now. Regeneration, relaxation, hydratation, alimentation. The cycle of life will continue. In the head and soul and the body, so will Kraftwerk.