It’s 1971, and Kraftwerk are playing on German TV show The Beatclub following the release of their debut album, Kraftwerk 1.
The trio feature the hirsute rock god Michael Rother on gold Les Paul guitar, Klaus Dinger in white, angel-winged shirt flailing away on his drum kit, and a dungaree-clad Florian Schneider on jazz flute and an Eno-style bank of switches which pre-date Eno. Traffic cones on the floor act both as an identifiable pop art motif, and, presumably, to ensure nobody parks their car on stage.
In the background, it has been a turbulent time. Founding Kraftwerk member Ralf Hütter has returned to his architectural studies and plays no part in the power trio’s performance.
In the YouTube clip of this performance it is difficult to reconcile this band to the one that went on to record Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, and Computer World, and for good reason.
Two thirds of this band left Kraftwerk soon afterwards, after failing to successfully record a follow up to the debut album. Rother and Dinger instead formed a new band they imaginatively called Neu!
So Ralf Hütter abandoned his studies, rejoined Kraftwerk, and alongside Florian Schneider formed a dynasty. Yet had he not done so, the whole genre of Kosmiche Musik (or Krautrock) might have had Kraftwerk as a mere footnote. A trivial pursuit question for musos. What was that band that Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger were in before they joined Neu!? Kraft-something or other…?
And even now, the story of Kraftwerk’s early albums require a little detective work.
Look at Spotify and the Kraftwerk canon starts in 1974, with Autobahn.
But go to Spitalfields Record market and there are vendors selling bootleg copies of two early Kraftwerk albums with that pop art traffic cone motif: Kraftwerk 1 and 2.
Look the band up on record collecting website Discogs and in addition to 1970’s debut and 1972’s follow up, there’s another album from 1973 called Ralf and Florian. This is not an album you can find in your local HMV, as it has been deleted, and will probably never be reissued.
Together with that YouTube video of the Beatclub, there’s a history of Kraftwerk that doesn’t fit in with the suit and tie Man Machine image.
In the meantime, Kraftwerk’s better known LPs are a vinyl-head’s dream. They are not too expensive – original copies of Autobahn with the embossed sleeve and spaceship Vertigo labels are creeping up price-wise but you should find one for £25. Radio-Activity and Man Machine average £15. And even for those seeking the more expensive Trans Europe Express (now £33 for an original ) 2020 brought a very nice and far cheaper set of reissues.
But what about the early years? The big drawback of the early albums is that they are rare, and therefore expensive. And they’re not on Spotify, haven’t been officially released on CD, so the only way to hear these records is either on an unofficial upload to YouTube or to track down an original copy. With original copies of the first three LPs fetching £100-plus each, finding all three for less than £100 seems unlikely, but I managed to spend less than £75 (including postage) with a few work-arounds I will share…
But first of all, why bother?
Autobahn might give the impression that Kraftwerk sprang, fully formed, from the dark streets of industrial Germany, but the reality is those first three records show how Ralf and Florian developed their experimental sound.
Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider were born just after the conclusion of the Second World War and met at a summer music school in Akademie Remscheid, less than an hour’s drive from Cologne, Germany in 1968. Both had fairly wealthy backgrounds. Hutter’s father was in textiles, Schneider’s was an architect. But their lives were similar to many other kids of the day, listening to their transistor radios in bed, hidden under the pillow.
In class, Schneider studied flute, Hutter studied electric organ.
But before long, Schneider found the flute limiting. He bought a microphone, speakers, and then a synthesiser to produce different noises from the flute.
Then he realised what the problem was and threw away the flute.
They formed a band called Organisation, specialising in improvised music, hanging out in Düsseldorf at The Creamcheese Club, which boasted 24 TV screens and a 20m long bar. Pink Floyd and Deep Purple played there, and it featured modern art installations including a large nail kept in a cage alongside neon lights, an installation by Gunther Uecker called “Electric Garden”, an artist whose Wikipedia page tells us he “began hammering nails into pieces of furniture” as an artistic means of expression.
The Wikipedia page also tells us a suite of eight white paintings of his sold for more than €5m, so what do I know?
Pop art and Italian Futurism seeped into their consciousness, movements that looked to the future, something appealing as Germany rebuilt after a damaging war. While some people listened to American and British music as a way to move away from the past, Hutter and Schneider felt regret that post-war Germany had little culture of its own, aside from Christian conservatism.
Dusseldorf is an industrial city like Detroit. A city of factories. So Kraftwerk’s music took the academic electronic music made by Stockhausen, and sought to popularise it for assembly line workers. “Folk music of the factories” was how David Bowie later described it.
In 1970 they rented a room in a building in Mintropstraase, Düsseldorf, which they christened the Kling Klang studio. It served as a base and as a rehearsal room.
Germany had an under-developed rock circuit, so they played at universities and galleries as part of a series of art performances. They were part of the German art scene rather than a music scene, and that separation from the USA and U.K. music scenes added to a new sound.
While British bands typically had a blues and jazz background, two of Can had studied classical composition under Karlheinz Stockhausen. Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream had studied with Salvador Dali.
When Autobahn became a hit and Kraftwerk needed a percussionist to go on tour, they didn’t put an advert in the NME. They got in touch with Berlin’s Conservatorium, where students train for the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, and took on Karl Bartos.
Just before you think it is all a bit dull and serious, it’s reassuring to know that one of Schneider’s previous ‘60s bands was named PISSOFF, a superb effort at band-name indie points, and well ahead of drummer Wolfgang Flür’s former band The Beathovens.
All of this background helps to contextualise the apparently sudden appearance of Autobahn in 1974, or if you are of a certain age, why “The Model” suddenly appeared in the British charts in 1981 during the height of the new romantic movement, three years after being recorded. It was simply how far ahead of their time Kraftwerk were.
The first two albums, 1 and 2, and the third record “Ralf and Florian”, weren’t re-released alongside Autobahn, suggesting Kraftwerk see them as something that belongs in the past. Schneider even described the early albums as “archaeology”.
There has never been a stand-alone release in the U.K. of the first two LPs, but they were released as a double album in 1972 on Vertigo.
Those double swirls will set you back £150 for original first pressings, but happily, the package was later re-released with the Vertigo spaceship labels and this double set should cost you a more reasonable £40.
Given the experimental nature of the recordings I can’t think why anyone would need the more expensive version, save for flexing a collector’s instinct.
Ralf and Florian is the real jewell however. It’s a stronger album than the first two, and quite progressive in its way. An original German issue might set you back well over £100 and comes with an interesting comic insert. The U.K. pressing has a different sleeve, and will take work to find inexpensively. I found mine a year or so ago for £30, after searching on eBay for around two years for a copy in decent condition and which wasn’t too expensive. The current median price is £65, but keep an eye on eBay as copies do come up for sale there quite frequently (tip: use the “saved search” function when using eBay – it alerts you when an item matching your search words comes up on the auction site). US copies are less expensive, so also worth looking out for.
A 1981 compilation album Elektra Kinetik can be found for £20 which has tracks from the first four LPs for those unsure of splashing out too much.
But Ralf and Florian is a special record, bridging the gap between the early experimentation of the initial LPs and Autobahn’s fully fledged concept. Wolfgang Flur joined the band after Dinger’s departure and brought a minimal style. Although he doesn’t play on the album, he is credited with “live electronic drums”. In tracks like Tanzmusik and Ananas Symphonie, (both of which feature on Elektra Kinetik) we glimpse the birth of a band that would go on to produce more great music without ever really being the same band again.
Kraftwerk headline the Green Man Festival in August 2022