2 May, 2011Issue 16.1MusicThe Arts

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Controlling and Composing

Alex Niven

Kraftwerk: Music Non-StopSean Albiez and David Pattie (eds)
Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop
Continuum, 2011
256 Pages
£14.99
ISBN 978-1441191366

 


At some point in the last ten years, Kraftwerk became one of the “consumer products” they had satirised in “Das Model” way back in 1978. Ironically, a band that had always sought to re-appropriate the subversive potential in pop artefacts—the record package, the gig-spectacle, the publicity photograph—were themselves re-appropriated as a cornerstone of noughties fashion culture. Austere shirt-and-tie combos of the kind modelled by the band on the cover of The Man-Machine (1978) became a high-street commonplace. Post-punk revival bands half-inched the group’s neo-constructivist aesthetic. Even the new celebrity aristocracy was keen to be associated with the Kraftwerk brand. Chris Martin was reportedly fond of listening to their greatest hits in the bath; so much so, in fact, that he used the synth riff from 1981’s “Computer Love” as the basis for “Talk”, a centrepiece of Coldplay’s multi-million-selling 2005 stadium rock travesty X&Y.

The reduction of Kraftwerk to an aesthetic commodity was unfortunate, not least because the group might have acted—might still act—as a reminder of the seminal importance of context and ethos in pop music. Although the group’s name seems to bear connotations of fashion and lifestyle-cool, “Kraftwerk” actually translates in English to a rather unglamorous-sounding appellation: “power station”. This allusion to an industrial, factory-style utopia recalls the group’s desire to create a “new Bauhaus” for the computer age by reinstating the principles of the early 20th-century German avant-garde, an artistic tradition that they felt had been derailed by the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. From the beginning, then, Kraftwerk was an ethical and ideological project as well as an exercise in pop-art-style surface manipulation.

With this in mind, it is refreshing to encounter Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop, a new collection of academic essays on the band, which spurns fashion and firmly returns the emphasis to ideas. Editors Sean Albiez and David Pattie have assembled a compendium of rigorously argued and illuminating discussions of the band, one that more than compensates for the shallower latter-day ramifications of what Alex Seago termed in 2004 the “Kraftwerk-Effekt”.

For a first major academic study on a pop subject, Music Non-Stop establishes a solid foundation for further research in the field. The book is divided into two halves: the first, “Music, Technology and Culture”, focuses on the band itself, while the second looks at their cultural legacy. As David Pattie points out in his introduction: “the sheer range and scope of the band’s influence seems to suggest something more than the refining of a style; it suggests that there is something endlessly generative in both the band’s music and its image.” The essays that follow are a fitting tribute to the full scope of Kraftwerk’s enduring significance.

A usefully historicist opening essay by Sean Albiez and Kyrre Tromm Lindvig looks at the contexts underlying the band’s formation in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany, and at the band’s attempts to exploit and detourn some of the parlous national identities they inherited in this setting. In West Germany, Albiez and Lindvig argue,

[t]here appeared to be endemic amnesia whereby 15 years of Nazi history had been wiped from the collective memory, while the post-1871 German nation was viewed by some with nostalgia and by others with blame…Keenly aware of the FRG’s inherent problems, [Kraftwerk] began to address some of the internal conflicts between past and present, technology and nature, the rational FRG and irrational Nazi and Romantic past, folk and mass culture, conservatism and progress, between old and new and between “man” and machine in their music and art.

This cultural project was a serious undertaking, though the band were not averse to introducing an element of play into the dialogue. Albiez and Lindvig quote from a 1975 interview for the British music paper Sounds, in which band members Hütter and Schneider describe music as “a process of brainwashing and manipulation”, and claim they “have the power to push the knobs on [their] machines this way or that and cause damage…It can be like doctors with patients.” Although remarks like this were often taken at face value and contributed to the standard view of Kraftwerk as cranky pseudo-scientists, for Albiez and Lindvig, the band were clearly “toying with widely held Nazi-related German stereotypes concerning technological control and mastery”.

In perhaps the standout essay of the collection, “Kraftwerk and the Image of the Modern”, David Cunningham assesses the notion of Kraftwerk as a modernist band. For Cunningham, “few artists of the late 20th century have so emphatically or radically embraced…modernism as Kraftwerk.” However, the band’s willingness to make it new was complicated by an emphasis on “the recovery of a lost, or at least catastrophically interrupted central European culture of pre-war modernism.” From Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West to T.S. Eliot’s theory of a 17th century “dissociation of sensibility” in poetry, European modernism was famous for advancing elaborate theories of catastrophic interruption in the distant or recent past, against which the modernist artist could then pose as a messianic redeemer. But locating the historical rupture within modernism itself, as Kraftwerk did, was something of a new development. At a time when modernism is increasingly subject to heritage industry retrospection, perhaps this interest in the recovery of lost futures accounts for the band’s continuing popularity: Kraftwerk were pop’s original retro-modernists.

But if Kraftwerk were among the first artists to go “back to the future” in the late-70s, they were also forward-looking innovators in a more genuine, prosaic sense. As Carsten Brocker’s comprehensive survey of the band’s creative processes demonstrates, this was a band that was both responsive to, and responsible for, many of the major technological innovations that enabled the development of electronic pop music in its infancy. And as David Pattie argues elsewhere in the collection, Kraftwerk’s cyborgian live shows were similarly prescient for offering an ongoing commentary “on our evolving relationship with technology”. Pattie points to the band’s mobile touring studio as “a performative environment which prefigured the world of work, the social world and, gradually, the cultural world.” Long before the laptop became a ubiquitous focal point of contemporary labour practice, Kraftwerk were perceptive enough to highlight the increasingly porous boundaries in latter-day culture between work and play, leisurely and professional spheres.

Of course, the generative, progressive features of the Kraftwerk project can be seen most clearly in the group’s vital influence on almost all of the most meaningful futuristic tendencies in pop over the last 30 years. In a second essay Albiez maps the English translation of Kraftwerk via British synthpop records of the late-70s and early-80s—electronic works like David Bowie’s Low, Brian Eno’s Another Green World, and the early oeuvres of Ultravox and Gary Numan—while Richard Witts extends this discussion of the “British fixation with Germany” to look at Kraftwerk’s interest in Gilbert and George and their influence on northwestern British post-punk bands. Notable among these was Joy Division, whose Nazi-fixated singer Ian Curtis was not quite as alive as he might have been to the ironies that underpinned Kraftwerk’s über-Teutonic presentation.

Most remarkable of all, though, is the story of the group’s legacy in hip-hop and dance music, which provides the subject of the final three chapters. Mark Duffett’s discussion of racial identity in American and European music offers a thoughtful corrective to the orthodox view that “the whole process of cross-racial inspiration was a mysterious miracle”, but there is surely something miraculous and inspiring about the way in which Kraftwerk came to be championed by the proponents of genres like electro-funk, Detroit techno, and acid house. For many of us, growing up all across the planet, musical sub-cultures such as these provided an early point of contact with avant-garde aesthetics and ethos, so it remains something of an ennobling experience to be able to trace their lineage through Kraftwerk all the way back to the Bauhaus. Not many bands in pop history were able to establish a praxis for formal innovation at the same time as creating a humane, educational framework to contain their sublime pop productions. This approachable and necessary study provides a timely reminder of the utopian message of a band whose progressive-modernist legacy is still just about salvageable, despite the cosmetic devaluations of the last decade or so.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. Alex is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.