If you’re unaware of Kraftwerk's expansive discography, it’s time to get acquainted.
With music inspired by computers and the exploration of humans’ relationships with machines, the German outfit founded by Ralf Hütter (vocalist, vocoder, synthesizers, keyboards) and Florian Schneider (synthesizers, background vocals, vocoder, computer-generated vocals, and many more), the latter of whom sadly passed away in 2020, have managed to find the sweet spot between nostalgic and futuristic music.
If you saw Kraftwerk’s Australian tour and Meredith festival announcement yesterday and are unsure who they actually are, The Music and Purple Sneakers have got you covered. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, and you can never listen to enough Kraftwerk, you have to start somewhere. So, why not listen to some of their most influential hits?
This is a band that’s influenced everyone from Kate Bush to Aphex Twin to Blondie to David Bowie to Rammstein to Siouxsie And The Banshees to Red Hot Chili Peppers. If you’re unaware of their expansive discography, it’s time to get acquainted.
The English version of Das Model, The Model, stems from the band’s 1978 seventh album, The Man-Machine. It was re-recorded to coincide with the band’s 1981 follow-up album, Computer World, which saw The Model hit #1 on the UK Singles Chart and #33 in Australia, amongst other successes. The Model is a propulsive, mid-tempo jam that feels utterly hypnotic with Hütter’s monotonous, repetitive vocals. It’s just one of many examples of Kraftwerk sounding far ahead of their time.
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Computer Love or Talk by Coldplay? The British four-piece sampled the keyboard intro from Computer Love on their X&Y classic, only interpolating it on guitar. Either version of the melody works, but there’s something soothing about Kraftwerk’s original.
Another UK #1 and #13 on the US Dance Club Songs, who doesn’t want to ruminate on the social media age to a song released in 1981? With Computer Love, Kraftwerk combine what some would call “cold” synthesizers to create a song utterly warm and luscious.
On The Robots, Kraftwerk saw a future where robots would be subservient to humans, and they didn’t like what they saw.
“I am your servant / I am your worker,” Hütter sings, but that’s not before saying through a vocoder, “We're charging our batteries, and now we're full of energy....” You can’t help but believe the band when they call themselves “The Robots”, feeling equally spooked and intrigued, ready to know more. A song that wasn’t as successful as others on this list (the highest peak was #20 in the UK), it’s no less a highly rewarding electropop single.
The melancholy, minor-key opening to Radioactivity can put any listener in a trance. The title track and sole single from their fifth album, released in 1975, this one is equal parts dramatic and quietly heartbreaking.
Radioactivity finds Kraftwerk utilising a Minimoog bass line and Morse code to spell out “radioactivity” and “is in the air for you and me”. Their first fully electronic album was anchored by the one single, and with its bilingual French and English lyrics, Kraftwerk went Gold in France.
It’s a beautifully sad song that was reinterpreted by English electronic outfit Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark on their track Electricity. According to Contact Music, OMD’s Andy McCluskey said about Electricity: It’s “a faster, punkier version of Radioactivity with a chorus”. While Electricity retains the core melody and some of the sadness, it’s just not Radioactivity.
We’ve deliberately put these two together as the pair were interpreted by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force on their track, Planet Rock, making for one of the earliest hip-hop and electronic music driven hits. Trans Europe Express, from the 1977 album of the same name, and Numbers from Computer World, are a few years apart but no less remarkable when listening to the evolution between them.
Trans Europe Express is haunting and ruminates on a world without humans. It’s experimental, and the bouncy, mechanical rhythms and flowing melodies make for something alluring. While Trans Europe Express runs for over six and a half minutes, Numbers is down to three minutes and 20 seconds, showcasing the vast leaps in electronic music production in just four years.
Not only does Numbers sound great, but its tempo and beats are pre-cursors to hip-hop, once again proving how far ahead of their time four men from Germany were in 1981.
Heading back to The Man Machine, Neon Lights is another great example of minimalism done right. Covered by both U2 and Simple Minds, the effectively repetitive track highlights a group unafraid of showing restraint when the music calls for it. It’s at once calming, colourful and imaginative.
Another track that’s been covered by music icons that couldn’t be further from Kraftwerk’s chilling electropop works, Hall Of Mirrors received a stunning rework from goth-rock legends Siouxsie And The Banshees. It’s easy to see what drew Siouxsie and co. to Hall Of Mirrors – it’s creepy, dark and tells an autobiographical story of how stars look at themselves in the looking glass.
While Hall Of Mirrors wasn’t a single, its deadpan, intriguing appearance on Trans Europe Express surely helped the album land on numerous Best Albums Of All Time lists. It’s one of those tracks where you can see an influential turning point for Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Hütter called the Siouxsie And The Banshees cover “extraordinary”.
Below, we’re including Tour De France 2003, the new recording of Kraftwerk’s 1983 song of the same name. Re-released 20 years after the original, Kraftwerk’s most recent album was recorded and released for the 100th anniversary of the first Tour De France bicycle race and contains synthesizer software, sampling, and sequencing.
Tour De France 2003 feels rhythmic and quick, sort of like the song’s beats are in a race against each other, with just Hütter’s signature vocals and harsh breaths anchoring listeners back to reality. Tour De France was the band’s first album since Electric Café, released in 1986, and the last album to feature founding member Florian Schneider before he left the band in 2008 and passed away in 2020.
Back to the robot voices and sounds, Pocket Calculator is one of the most thrilling songs on Computer World. “I’m the operator with my pocket calculator,” the lyrics chant. “I’m the operator with my pocket calculator.”
A report from Open Culture reminds us that Kraftwerk actually commissioned their own pocket calculator through Casio; the special promotional item transformed the company’s VL-80 model into a calculator that was also a musical synthesizer. “Kraftwerk was eager for fans to play Kraftwerk hits on their own calculators,” Dangerous Minds’ writer Martin Schneider stated, “so they issued these special instructions — OK, let’s call it ‘sheet music’ — to play not just the new material but also classics like Trans Europa Express and Schaufensterpuppen.”
Kraftwerk’s first international hit, Autobahn, begins with car horns and rumbling before an ahead-of-its-time robot voice – Autobahn comes from the band’s 1974 album of the same - you can hear how this one might have influenced Daft Punk. Set to the exact cadence of The Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann, Kraftwerk introduced the US and the UK to electro-pop while reminding listeners of something familiar.
The track's original version spans 22 minutes, with the band attempting to recreate a journey on the highway. Did they succeed? Well, it’s a driving track containing plenty of noise and anxieties we feel in a car, so mission accomplished.
Kraftwerk will headline Meredith Music Festival alongside their Australian headline tour dates. You can find all the shows below.
Monday, 4 December – Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Brisbane QLD
Wednesday, 6 December – Aware Super Theatre, Sydney NSW
Friday, 8 December – Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne VIC
Friday, 8 - Sunday, 10 December – Meredith Music Festival, Meredith VIC
Tuesday, 12 December – Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre, Adelaide SA
Friday, 15 December – Riverside Theatre, Perth WA