Loving the robots

With a new biography, a lavish compilation of 45 single sleeves and even an eight-night residency at MoMa, Kraftwerk’s legion of graphic designer fans have had much to enjoy recently. What is it about these sonic scientists that makes them so appealing to the design profession?

If the graphic design industry had a house band it would be Kraftwerk. Their aesthetic, musical output and cultivated air of mystery are all of endless fascination to us.

I first encountered Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl when I was at secondary school in the mid-80s. At the time all my school friends were into heavy metal, they wore neat denim jackets with AC/DC, Whitesnake and Rush logos carefully embroidered onto them. I wasn’t into guitars or embroidery, my musical tastes were far more exotic. I liked bands like Japan, Ultravox, Depeche Mode, The Human League and above all Kraftwerk.

I first heard their music when it was used on a children’s TV series. The drama was about a gymnast and had an eerie black and white stop motion title sequence featuring an excerpt from Kraftwerk’s seminal LP Autobahn as the soundtrack. A classmate’s older brother sold me a battered copy of Man Machine for 50p – he was clearing out records from his collection and already had a copy on green vinyl, so didn’t need his other copy. As soon as I got the record home I played it on the ancient stereo in my bedroom. I was immediately transported to a strange and exciting new place. The music was like nothing else I’d heard before – cool robotic vocals, warm fuzzy analogue synthesizers and a steady metronome like drum beat. This was futuristic music that harked back to a short wave pre-war vision of Europe.

The album consisted of just six, perfectly formed, majestic pop songs. Among them is The Model, Kraftwerk’s only UK number one hit. The album packaging was as beautifully produced with the same attention to detail as the music. The cover featured all four members of the band, resplendent in red shirts, black ties, neat haircuts and bright red lipstick artfully arranged on a staircase in some far distant European office building. The stark imagery and typography was, according to the credit on the back, “inspired by El Lissitzky”, the influential early 20th century Russian avant-garde artist.

Solid information about Kraftwerk was impossible to find; the internet hadn’t been invented, music press interviews were nonexistent and I didn’t have the address for the fan club. This lack of information only made the band and their music more appealing. Who were they? How did they compose and record this amazing music? Did they really work in a laboratory called Kling Klang?  By visiting record shops in Manchester I found that the band had produced other LPs before Man Machine. Eventually I completed my collection and bought copies of Autobahn, Radioactivity, Trans-Europe Express and Computer World. Each record has its own unique identity, sounds and imagery that adhered to a single conceptual vision. Those classic albums are an incredible body of work, exploring topics as diverse as nuclear energy, motorway travel, the internet and telecommunications – concepts not normally associated with the three minute pop song.

Kraftwerk eventually released new material in 1986 with Electric Café, the album featuring a palette of new sounds and images. Cutting edge three-dimensional computer modelling provided imagery for the album cover, a couple of the tracks also featured something that sounded worryingly like slap bass! Following the release of this record, the band began a long period of inactivity. Kraftwerk would not release any significant new material until Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003. Rumours circulated that they had split up, Ralf had fallen off his bike and they had swapped all their analogue instruments for laptops.

During this time the reputation and influence of the band grew enormously. The early drum machine rhythms they had first produced in their Düsseldorf studio on home-made equipment had been co-opted by early hip-hop producers. Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa used the distinctive rhythm from Trans Europe Express as the template for a new musical form. Kraftwerk were name checked by a diverse range of musicians, from David Bowie to Michael Jackson. They provided the blueprint for early Chicago and Detroit House music. By remaining silent and refusing to release new material the band only increased the interest and developed their reputation.

Technology finally caught up with Kraftwerk in the late 90s when cheap drum machines and samplers became easily accessible, laptops became the norm and the internet was invented. This is when my dream came true and I finally got to work with the band.

My friend Kip Parker was the first person I knew who had a computer connected to the internet. I would go to his basement flat off the Wandsworth Road in London and we would explore this exciting new world together via his modem-powered dial-up connection. Kip played around with basic Flash animations and we constructed a rudimentary website together. We called the site friendchip, shamelessly stealing the name from the back cover of Computer World by Kraftwerk. The site was a mixture of looping animations, scratchy Casio sound samples and bitmapped type, beamed out in pure RGB colours. It gained a bit of attention – at the time there weren’t many websites, so it was quite unusual. Then we received an email inviting us to design a website for an un-named German electronic music group. The email was cryptic, nobody had asked us to design a website before, so we emailed back asking what kind of music it was. It was then that we found out it was for Kraftwerk.

Kip and I spent around three months working on the site, communicating with Kling Klang via a contact in New York. We had no direct communication with the band, only ever receiving messages via short emails. The project ran smoothly, we received everything we asked for – looping sounds, samples of voices, rhythm tracks, all of which we still have archived on floppy disks. Once the site was launched, all communication ceased. The last email from Kraftwerk simply stated, “We are a little bit excited”. It was the perfect sign off.

So why is Kraftwerk so popular amongst graphic designers? It’s a combination of many factors; the strength and control of their image, the romance of Kling Klang studio, analogue synthesizers, home-made drum machines, the simple rhythmic song structures and the strange ironic sense of humour. There is a mystery and folklore about the band that helps to continue this myth.

The creative force behind the band is Ralf Hutter. In his sporadic interviews, he is playful and noncommittal. Facts aren’t forthcoming, only vague ideas are hinted at. It’s this vagueness that we find interesting, filling in the gaps with our own imagination.

Ralf controls the look of the band. Central to this are the iconic record sleeves designed in collaboration with German-born artist and poet Emil Schult who is as shadowy and mysterious as his friends in Kraftwerk. His work is as equally idiosyncratic as the band. Ralf and Emil’s most famous collaboration is the original album sleeve design for Autobahn. The cover features a strange futuristic landscape; a motorway is depicted, snaking through an idealised sunlit landscape. The band’s own VW Beetle is shown driving along the open road ahead. This early sleeve has a romantic, far-out hippie aesthetic, totally removed from the 2 3 band’s later stark robot image. The strange juxtaposition of automated modernity contrasting with the natural landscape gives the album a romantic, almost naive ‘folksy’ atmosphere.

As the band developed their identity through subsequent releases, this idealistic outlook was replaced by a colder, more controlled and distant aesthetic. Robotic replicas, their images now represented by simplified drawings shown on computer screens, replaced the band members. The human element slowly withdrawn in favour of an identity that refused access and cultivated mystery.

It is this lack of contact, the refusal of the band to invite fans into their world, that is strangely appealing. Celebrities crave our attention; when direct contact between fans and stars is possible through social media, their appeal and allure is somehow lost. I’m not really interested in what Ralf or Florian had for breakfast, even though I’m sure it would be fascinating! Through this air of mystery and lack of solid facts, we can project our own images on to the band. It’s a simple psychological trick, whether it’s been by accident or part of a cunning master plan, it works on us. We infuse Kraftwerk with an almost mythical quality, they are untouchable and unaffected by fashion or trends, they inhabit their own world, manufactured in Kling Klang studio, that engages with the outside world but never invites us in. That’s why Kraftwerk will always be fascinating to us, we’ve grown up with the mythology, the imagery and the sheer joy of seeing four middle aged German men dressed in lycra body suits pretending to be robots.

The current incarnation of Kraftwerk is presented as an elaborate robotic karaoke. Their recent shows at MOMA in New York were a controlled and serious affair. Hutter is the only remaining original member, the three others now replaced by anonymous workers, toiling behind laptops to carve out precise synthesized melodies. Maybe it’s time the robots retired for good. Originality and creativity has eluded Kraftwerk since the early 80s, the music they produce now has none of the fizz and hum of their early work. But even though they’ll never again produce such groundbreaking work, there will always be a place for Kraftwerk as the original sonic scientists. Vielen Dank Ralf, Florian, Karl und Wolfgang!

Anthony Burrill is a designer and Kraftwerk fan, anthonyburrill.com. For details on Kraftwerk 45RPM see vfeditions.com

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