Kraftwerk’s co-founder Florian Schneider has died, aged 73. Since their formation in 1970 the electronic group are credited as of one music’s most influential – impacting pop music, hip-hop, post-punk, techno and beyond.
Revisit our rankings of all the Kraftwerk albums – from their 1970 debut to their most recent, 2003’s ‘Tour De France’ soundtrack
11‘Electric Café’/’Techno Pop’ (1986)
If a ‘mojo’ isn’t too rock’n’roll, Kraftwerk appeared to lose theirs here on the last album to feature the classic line-up of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. Flür would leave soon after the release of ‘Electric Café’ (renamed ‘Techno Pop’ for the 2009 boxset reissue), with Bartos following as 1991’s ‘The Mix’ neared completion. This is no swansong. ‘Telephone Call’ is a quirky bit of fun, while ‘Boing Boom Tschak’ and the title track play around with the ‘Tour De France’ single released three years earlier – but that’s just it. For the first time in their history, Kraftwerk sounded behind the beat. No matter, that’s out of the way.
Kraftwerk’s debut album barely exists – it’s been quietly ushered out of the official records by de facto leader Hütter. A pity, really. It’s not tearing up any trees in the 31st century electronica stakes, but it’s still a fascinating record. More of a full band at this point, Kraftwerk are skirting around the edges of free jazz on ‘Ruckzuck’ – with Schneider mucking about on the flute, of all things, and not for the last time – and getting motorik on the epic ‘Stratovarius’. Hardly surprising with future Neu! drummer Klaus Dinger providing the propulsion. Electronics are limited to effects, phasing through ‘Megaherz’ and dropping Spectrum bombs on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’.
9‘Kraftwerk 2’ (1972)
Another one swept under the carpet, ‘Kraftwerk 2’ sees the line-up whittled down to the engine room of Hütter and Schneider. It’s not too distant stylistically from the debut – embellishments are pared down, but flute and surprising freak-folk excursions remain – but advance is palpable. ‘Klingklang’ (later adapted for the name of their legendary studio) wrings 17 minutes of beauty out of ambient electronic washes and occasional pitch shifts, while iron-lung interlude ‘Atem’ sounds like an ultra-slow ‘Tour De France’, 10 years ahead of schedule. Even further ahead, the intricate, hollowed-out ‘Wellenlänge’ is a clear forerunner of Arthur Russell’s 1986 suite ‘World Of Echo’.
8‘The Mix’ (1991)
A compilation but not a cop-out. By 1991, techno had comprehensively infiltrated the mainstream and Kraftwerk were back in the game to collect their props. With Flür gone and Bartos on the way out, Fritz Hilpert was new in town (and still in the band today). Kraftwerk souped up their sound for the 90s market accordingly, remixing favourites and ensuring everything had a kinetic dancefloor makeover, reflecting the evolution of tracks when they played live. ‘Radioactivity’ and a slimmed down ‘Autobahn’ stand out in what’s still a handy Kraftwerk primer.
7‘Ralf Und Florian’ (1973)
‘Ralf Und Florian’ is the last of the ‘forgotten’ Kraftwerk, and an absorbing study of the bridge between their pastoral and industrial guises. If ‘Elektrisches Roulette’ sounds alarmingly like 70s glam-pop duo Sparks, that’s just a sign of the times, but there are harbingers of a distant future in the proto-Detroit techno of ‘Kristallo’ – with its throbbing synthesized bass and cascading harpsichords – and the tropical idyll of ‘Ananas Symphonie’ where, in Balearic style, spacey synths meet slide guitars and vocoder-warped voices. Voices! Yep, ‘Ralf Und Florian’ is where Ralf and Florian finally discover vocals.
6‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ (2003)
Poor Fritz Hilpert. Joins Kraftwerk in 1987 and has to wait 16 years before his name’s on an album of original recordings. Still, ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ is an awesome conceptual piece – man, machine and bicycle frame in perfect symbiosis as our heroes revisit 1983 hit single ‘Tour De France’ and stretch its central idea over 54 lush, danceable minutes. The centrepiece of Kraftwerk’s 2004 tour, this comeback album saw them freewheel effortlessly into the 21st century. Let’s be honest though – they were there already.
And here’s where Kraftwerk comprehensively jettison all ‘organic’ instruments, except voice. The results are suitably brutal on glitchy opener ‘Geiger Counter’, but sweeter on ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ (spot the intro to The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Leave Home’) and cyborg-ballad ‘Radioland’. Hütter, Schneider, Flür and Bartos are in harness – perfect synthetic harmony – for the first time and celebrate with morbid symphony ‘Radioactivity’, where you can hear the synth-pop boom of the early 80s unfolding throughout its seven minutes. Whether you want to thank them for that is entirely up to you.
It’s 1974, concept albums are cooler than an iced Fonz, so Kraftwerk are just going with the flow. Nothing bloated about this, mind, even if the title track is pushing 23 minutes. No, Hütter and Schneider (with Flür on board now) are almost down to the bare electronics, although Schneider can’t quite put his flute away and Klaus Röder’s in the room, adding some violin. From the ignition of the still-astonishing title track to the bucolic birdsong of ‘Morgenspaziergang’, this is the official first leg of a journey that took music to an unthinkable beyond.
3‘The Man-Machine’ (1978)
Hit factory! ‘The Man-Machine’ pushed out some of Kraftwerk’s most enduring singles in ‘The Robots’, ‘Neon Lights’ and ‘The Model’ – a UK No.1 three years later when DJ’s flipped it from ‘Computer Love’’s B-side – all belated proof that Kraftwerk could pen pop songs with the best of them. All this and the dreamy electro of ‘Spacelab’, a six-minute excursion beyond the ultraworld, and ‘Metropolis’ – an odyssey to compare with old spars Tangerine Dream.
2‘Computer World’ (1981)
A rich hunting ground for hip-hop and early techno, ‘Computer World’ boasts the most descriptive of titles – within you’ll find ‘Home Computer’, ‘Computer Love’ (the source for Coldplay’s ‘Talk’), ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’ and ‘Computer World’ parts one and two – but it’s more than a celebration of contemporary technological advances. As a unified whole, propulsive and looped, it’s a perpetually satisfying document of a band at the peak of its powers.
1‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977)
Everyone’s got a favourite, but for completeness, for pioneering spirit, for sheer breadth of influence, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is tough to beat. The eerie synth riff driving the title track – and rearing up here and there on ‘Europe Endless’ and ‘Abzug’ – stamped its mark on hip-hop and electro, notably on Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’, and the spidery fingers of ‘The Hall Of Mirrors’ had similar reach. But above all, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ felt – feels – like a carefully constructed symphony and, in ‘Europe Endless’, it produced perhaps their most gorgeous track.
Originally published in 2013