Category Archives: Kraftwerk

Dancing music in the C20: electro (1980-81)

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The 1980s is where what we commonly understand as ‘dance music’ begins, and from the very start of the decade, the era announces that it is not playing by any previously established rules.

The most important dance music release of 1980 wasn’t a record, it was a box of circuits and wires called The Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer.

The 808 wasn’t the only drum machine in those days – the Linn LM-1 Drum Computer was also released in early 1980, and pop artists like Michael Jackson and, in particular, Prince would conjure stuttering rhythmic magic out of its faders and pads.

The hype around the LM-1 was that it was the first drum machine to use digitally sampled sounds from real drums. Until then, drum machines could only crudely imitate percussion sounds by manipulating bursts of white noise or sine waves.

But this was high-end studio gear, for high-end studio musicians, and at a fifth of the Linn’s retail price, the 808 was more accessible and edgier. A big part of the 808s appeal was its ability to create booming, low-frequency bass drum sounds that sounded awesome in clubs.

Contrary to the movement of music technology at that time, the fact that the 808 didn’t really sound like a live drum set did not diminish the machine’s appeal, instead it lent its own unique character to any recordings that it appeared on. It just sounded cool.

Roland is a Japanese company and the first exponents of the 808 were a Japanese group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, who integrated it immediately into their setup. YMO leader Ryuichi Sakamoto showcased the drum machine heavily on his 1980 solo album B-2 Unit, and its lead single, Riot in Lagos.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – Riot in Lagos

In 1980, no other music sounds like Riot in Lagos.

In 2016, still barely anything does.

Riot in Lagos prefigured a lot of major trends in late 20th century dance music. It must have sounded weird then and it sounds weird now.

In the next two years, more music would arrive that was driven by drum machines and adorned with synths. Purely electronic club music. But most of this music came from the States, from Detroit, Michigan.

The people who made this music were young, middle-class African-American men. They liked P-funk, but perhaps even more than P-funk, they loved British synthpop – Depeche Mode, Tubeway Army and Visage were staples at Detroit clubs and parties, particularly those featuring the DJ duo Deep Space Soundworks – two college students named Juan Atkins and Derrick May. They REALLY liked Kraftwerk.

With Yellow Magic Orchestra so often regarded as ‘the Japanese Kraftwerk’ it’s entirely likely that Atkins, May and their crew heard Riot in Lagos and it gave them a few ideas. But rather than the focal point of a new movement, it’s probably more likely that the Sakamoto single was a fluke glimpse into the future – in the same way that Sakamoto’s 1982 tune Bamboo Music/Bamboo Houses is a sort of accidental proto-grime, one that arrived two decades early.

In 1981, Atkins released the first of his own attempts at music, under the name Cybotron. Cybotron’s Alleys of Your Mind single was a thinly-veiled recycling of an Ultravox song called Mr X, from their recent Vienna album. But much cooler, and totally geared towards bassy Detroit sound systems rather than chic Parisienne cafes.

This dialogue between synthy European art-pop and bass-hungry Yank club noise wasn’t a one off – in 1982 Arthur Baker twisted two separate Kraftwerk songs and an 808 into a new piece of music and Afrika Bambaata delivered an afrofuturist sermon over the top called Planet Rock, a milestone in both dance and hip-hop culture, and sampling’s first true statement.

A year later, Cybotron hit back with Clear, their dancefloor anthem, and again the music was powered by a loop from Kraftwerk. This music – totally electronic and simultaneously somehow both funky and android-stiff – became known as electro.

Spotify playlist: early electro

“George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator” is how Derrick May famously summarised the electro sound.

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Of course, we’ve studied George Clinton’s immense contribution to dance music before in this series, but Kraftwerk have not been on our radar until now. And they weren’t even a new group – they’d been playing around Germany since the late 60s!

So why is Krafterk suddenly now a driving force in the evolution of dance music? Their 1970s albums are all classic works, but you’d struggle to find a genuinely danceable moment on any of them. Ornate 20-minute hymns to the autobahn and a clever aesthetic that mined a sort of pre-war vision of the future sure, but bangers? Nah.

The main thing Kraftwerk brought to dance music was synthesizers. No other musicians until now had embraced synths and investigated them forensically to the degree that Kraftwerk had. Synths were difficult to use and expensive to buy, but in Kraftwerk’s world they were important for their connotations of industry, machines, labour and the future.

This aural metaphor was also extremely powerful, musically. It was only a matter of time before someone retro-engineered that sound to make it danceable.

The amazing thing was that it was Kraftwerk themselves who did this.

In synchronicity with Alleys of Your Mind, Kraftwerk released their Computer World masterpiece. It is their album-length poem imagining how numbers and data will create new economies and cultures, about how having a computer in every home will change things. Kraftwerk’s songs are now short and painfully deliberate, and the album’s centrepiece Numbers/Computer World 2 is genuinely as brilliant a piece of dance music as any that you’ll encounter in the 20th century or any other.

Kraftwerk – Numbers

There’s something appropriate about how it took a song about numbers to make Kraftwerk dance. Their percussionist, Karl Bartos, was classically trained and some critics have suggested that his conservatoire-level studying of instruments like marimba and xylophone provided a perversely good training ground for the machine-logic of early 80s rhythm sequencers.

It is rhythm that frees these pieces from conceptualism. In Bartos’ too-clever percussive patterns he tastes the transcendence of what dance music could offer to epicurean minds. Minds that weren’t thinking anymore about what computers mean, or anything. Minds that are just coordinators of electrical impulses that keep the body regions jerking in time to the sensation it has found.

In Numbers, a simple five-note drum sequence is sprinkled with micro-beats – tiny winged-things – that flutter around an elastic, pinging flange on the snare and bass drums, which in turn forms a kind of implied bassline. Full of hallucinated not-there moments while still crammed with architectural detail, the piece gives the impression that it is fluctuating constantly while remaining mathematically and reassuringly precise – a weird rhythmic attribute that wouldn’t achieve genre-form until the turn of the millennium and microhouse.

However, Kraftwerk would only release one more studio album, before transforming into a kind of self-repairing museum exhibit. But the musicians they had inspired were only just getting started.

These days group founder Ralf Hutter talks earnestly of a “spiritual connection” the Dusseldorf group had with Detroit, and fondly remembers being taken clubbing there by Juan Atkins and Derrick May. It’s a sweet acknowledgement of a sort of symbolic passing of the torch.

The electro fad that encompassed Planet Rock, Cybotron and Computer World was a short-lived musical moment, but it provided a template for electronic dancing music, and its twin child genres, techno and house, dominate dance music to this day.

Spotify playlist: early techno

Techno was a pure refinement of electro’s science fiction leanings and post-human surrender to quantised machine rhythms, while house gleefully shed that stiffness for a soulful bounce and party-appropriate funkiness.

Of the two, techno had the longer and slightly more painful gestation. Its first single may or not be ShareVari – a comic send-up of early 80s Detroit scenesters that, in its instrumental version, formed a brilliant, bluntly aggressive dance track. The single was credited to ‘A Number of Names’ by the Detroit DJ The Electrifying Mojo, as its authors hadn’t thought to present the track with any identifying information.

A Number Of Names – Sharevari (Instrumental)

The Detroit Metro Times commented of ShareVari that it sounds like multiple records being mixed, suggesting that it was Detroit’s first record to respond to what the DJ added to the music.

Juan Atkins firmly denies that ShareVari came out before his own Alleys of Your Mind, and alleges that A Number of Names didn’t release their track for another year, sneakily adding ‘1981’ to the label in order to snatch some retrospective credit for Cybotron’s new sound.

Whatever, this music was now altering its composition to respond to changes in how that music was being disseminated and enjoyed. In a new feedback loop that featured the club, the DJ and the producer in some eternal ouroboric three-way, the way music was structured was now being informed by how people wanted to dance to it.

So, Shari Vari might be the first techno single, but between its release and 1987 there was only one person in the world making techno music, and that person was Juan Atkins.

By the middle of the decade, Atkins had retired Cybotron and devoted himself single-mindedly to the pursuit of a melodic but  technology-driven music made for clubs. Released under the name Model 500, his classic singles during this period are the very foundation of techno.

Kraftwerk listening party – The big easy

Featuring : Kraftwerk

Important things happen between Kraftwerk 2 and the next album.

  • Florian got a haircut, and started wearing nice suits
  • Ralf and Florian got neon signs
  • Ralf bought a mini-moog

 

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The kraftwerk traffic cone is still in use – as with the previous albums this is men at work, under construction. Kraftwerk are perhaps still a work in progress.

1973’s Ralf und Florian remains distinctively experimental, lacks the previous albums’ dissonance; the music is sweeter, more colorful with the arrival of the synthesizer. Where there would have been music concrete there is now ambience; melodies become integral, pastoral, sometimes classical in theme. As Kraftwerk are left with only Ralf and Florian on the album, Ralf’s melodic style can breathe more and Florian refrains from putting his flute through 7 shades of effects.

They are having fun together and indulging in the art of composition and songwriting.

Tanzmusik, with it’s strange ghostly Victorian sounds is more hauntingly music box than it’s title, translated as dance music, would suggest. It marks a milestone in the duos music growth and again one of xxjfg’s favorite tracks of all time, but basically anything we could choose to post from Ralf und Florain is classic, such as Kristallo.

Kraftwerk – Kristallo

The album closes with Ananas Symphonie (Pineapple Symphony), a confection of mouth-watering phase and Vocoder sounds washing onto a sleepy Hawaiian beach- you can almost taste the pineapple.

ummm pineapple.

Like John said : “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t own Ralf und Florain, don’t fuck ’em!”

 

xxjfg will continue their Kraftwerk listening party after soon.

Kraftwerk listening party – Processing to an end…

Featuring : Kraftwerk

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1972’s Kraftwerk 2 album begins with the track King Klang. Industrial sounds echo into Kling-Klang with an approach taken to processing the organic instruments, production is key to sound.

Gone are the live drummers, replaced by mechanical rhythm machines, and a minimal more ordered approach bring the volume lower. It’s definitely Kraftwerk, in the beautiful tones and melodies arising through the repetition.

Tape is speeded up and slowed down, there is lightness to the sound – gone are the Hammond organ/distorted violin freak-outs left over from the hippie roots.

This moment could conceivably be the start of dance music as we know it.

Atem (meaning Breath) processing human breathing almost begs the invention of the Vocoder, as used on later albums. Ralf and Florian continue their scientific themed titles, Wavelength and electricity in Strom (Stream or Current). Kling Klang was becoming a laboratory for the science of sound.

Kraftwerk – Strom

This album would be the short lived Kraftwerk’s last, and brought them to a suitable end.

Kraftwerk brought the Tate’s website and phone lines to an end on Wednesday 12th of December 2012.

20jfg hope to continue their own Kraftwerk listening party soon.

Kraftwerk listening party – What’s in a name?

Featuring : Kraftwerk

From the unorganized power of Organisation emerged the organised Kraftwerk – literally translated meaning Power Station (no relation to the Robert Palmer / Duran Duran supergroup).

Ruckzuck opens the first Kraftwerk album as a statement of intent. Unrelenting rhythms drive the song forward but this time the freak-out is more machine-like. Stuttering patterns echo the machinery around them, as man recreates the sound of the machines. We make no secret here at xxjfg that Ruckzuck is one of our favorite pieces of music of all time.

Stratovarious (a pun on the Stratocaster guitars) with Neu!’s Andreas Hohmann on drums provides a moment at around 6 minutes that gives us the first taste of the legendary motorik rhythm normally associated with Klaus Dinger, the drummer on side 2’s Vom Himmel Hoch.

Kraftwerk – Vom himmel hoch

Vom himmel hoch shows more of Kraftwerks exploration of rhythm with ‘the sound of german funk’ which they would later lend back to Afrika Bambaataa. With the involvement of Dinger, Andreas Homann and Conny Planck as producer, Kraftwerk is a pivotal point in the history of ‘Krautrock’ (a highly derogatory phrase, kraut meaning cabbage).

The title of the track Megaherz (translated as Mega-heart, a wordplay on Megahertz, the unit of frequency) brings in the theme Kraftwerk were to become known for – their obsession with science and specifically energy.

As a whole the album Kraftwerk flows through sonic experiments, as Kraftwerk try and escape the ‘sound’ of traditional instruments, and their salvation was just around the corner.

Kraftwerk play 8 nights at the Tate Modern in February.

20jfg will be hosting Kraftwerk uneasy-listening parties throughout December to celebrate.

Kraftwerk listening party – Tone Float

Featuring : Kraftwerk

“Dear Kraftwerk, I’m quite good with Vocoders & Electronics, like dressing up like a robot & know all of your songs by heart, just in case.”

Disastronaut – 8:11 PM Jan 7th 2009, from web

The message had come through. Florian Schneider, the co-founder of Kraftwerk had left the band.

Since the mid 1980s Kraftwerk had critically been called a self-remix project, with the ultimate remix their 2005 ‘live’ album Minimum Maximum. Recorded during the bands taking to the stage with laptops period and ironically one of the best live albums ever since it was recorded by, in the traditional sense, something that could not by further removed from a live band.

But lets go back to where it began…

BBC Television, Tomorrow’s world – 25th September 1975.

Four gentlemen dressed more for the office than the pop charts surrounded by neon lights, with knitting needles for drumsticks produce melodies by seeming to press buttons and turns dials. They smile unnervingly, obviously gaining a great sense of satisfaction from their interaction with the machines. The BBC voice announces :

“Kraftwerk have a name for this, it’s machine music. Sounds are created at their laboratory in Dusseldorf, programmed, then recreated on stage with a minimum of fuss. This is ‘Autobahn’ – based, say the group, on the rhythm of trucks, cars and passing bridges heard while driving through Germany…..next year Kraftwerk want to eliminate the keyboards altogether, and build jackets with electronic lapels which can be played by touch.”

Unless you were a religious follower of the German artrock movement, this would be your first exposure to the band, Kraftwerk in the UK. It would possibly also be the first time you had seen a synthesizer, or certainly a band whose only instruments numbered these strange new metal boxes with wooden panels and wires coming out the back, Moogs, home-made tinfoil drums and ARPs.

http://youtu.be/3s5pZCrOxeQ

But lets go back to where it really began…

The Beach Boys from Düsseldorf, Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter met at the Düsseldorf Conservatory where their interest in improvised live music, fixation with Iannis Xenakis, John Cage and Pierre ‘all art of the past must be destroyed’ Boulez drew them together.

1969 – An Organisation

As Organisation Ralf and Florian perfomed as a quintet, joined at various times by Basil Hammoudi, Butch Hauf , Alfred “Fred” Mönicks, Charly Weiss, Peter Martini and Paul Lorenz, releasing the 1969 album Tone Float for RCA Records, produced by Konrad “Conny” Plank.

Tone Float’s 20 minute A-side of the same name is far from the sound of Kraftwerk most people would recognize, with live drums, bass, flute, organ and violin. The atmosphere has more in common with the freakout improvisations of Lightning Bolt or Oneida than any of the synth pop bands most listeners normally associate with Kraftwerk. There is not a synthesizer in site.

Organisation – Vor Dem Blauen Bock

Vor Dem Blauen Bock pre-emanates a sound later to be associated with Neu! (but more in that in another listening party). The album as a whole places Organisation firmly in the post-psychedelic experimental sound of their German contemporaries.

“The studio was in the middle of an oil refinery. When we came out of the door we could hear the sound of those big flames burning off the fumes – all kinds of industrial noises.” – Ralf Hütter

Ralf and Forians studio in Düsseldorf, which later became known as Kling Klang, had been established and in their live guise as Organisation they performed a groundbreaking piece of music Ruckzuck, later to appear on a 1970 self titled album by a band called Kraftwerk.

Kraftwerk play 8 nights at the Tate Modern in February.

20jfg will be hosting Kraftwerk uneasy-listening parties throughout December to celebrate.