Kraftwerk: where to start in their back catalogue

While many of us worldwide are unable to experience live music during the coronavirus crisis, or even socialise as normal, we can still use streaming services. Now is the time to delve into that artist you’ve always wanted to check out more deeply – but where to start?

This week we’re starting a new series to run during the outbreak (and potentially beyond it) called Listener’s Digest, in which our writers guide you through the back catalogues of various musicians. These aren’t designed to be exhaustive or definitive, but helpful signposts to get you started in some of the world’s most exhilarating bodies of popular music. We kick off with Kraftwerk, and coming up in week one we will have Rihanna, the Fall, Alice Coltrane and Sleater-Kinney. We’ll include a 10-song primer playlist with each, in Spotify and Apple Music.

The album to start with

Computer World (1981)

Kraftwerk, who formed in 1970 in Düsseldorf and were a major force in making synths and drum machines the lingua franca of pop, dance and hip-hop, are often named alongside the Beatles as the world’s most important and influential groups. In a UK still guilty of stereotyping Germans as efficient and cool – and the group themselves slyly playing up to that – they are also often dismissed as a heritage act of eccentric boffins. But these reputations belie what is actually a playful, romantic, rapturously melodic body of work, exemplified perfectly by Computer World.

With only seven tracks – six really, with the title track in two parts – it is one of the greatest albums of pop melody ever. These tunes are so satisfyingly sturdy and logical – reminiscent of the ringtones and corporate sonic motifs that they helped to usher in – but also spectrally beautiful.

As a kind of concept album imagining, and indeed enacting, a digitally mediated future, there are moments of disquiet. Computer Love pre-empts the eerie contradictions of online dating; the title track coldly lists “Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard”, the lack of explanation hinting at the rampant subterfuge of the information age.

But it mostly acts as techno-evangelism. One track title announces It’s More Fun to Compute, like a bumper sticker; vocalist Ralf Hutter notes with childlike glee on Pocket Calculator, “by pressing down a special key it plays a little melody”. On Home Computer, he sounds like a dad unboxing his first PC: “I program my home computer / beam myself into the future”, he murmurs wondrously. The music, of course, is already there.

The three albums to check out next

Trans-Europe Express (1977)

Listening to this album post-Brexit is deeply poignant. The opening track, Europe Endless, like their first hit Autobahn, evokes a freedom of movement that was then so deeply cherished after the second world war. The title track (plus its clattering counterparts Metal on Metal and Abzug) celebrates the unstoppable force of cross-continental rail travel, though its sterner mien hints at noirish escapades. Elsewhere there is psychological horror, done in pure pop (Showroom Dummies) and drifting ambient (The Hall of Mirrors). Again, the melodies have a purity that harks back to the classical era of Franz Schubert, namechecked here.

The Man Machine (1978)

If they were previously Showroom Dummies coming to life, now they were The Robots, “dancing mechanik”: an announcement of their growing sophistication. Just as on Computer World and Radio-Activity (1975) – which found communication and nuclear technologies both fascinating and troubling – the tension is in their simultaneous enthusiasm and wariness of technology. The Robots’ promise – “We are programmed just to do / anything you want us to” – feels like a malevolently taunting lie, but Spacelab and Neon Lights are beautifully benign. The Model, meanwhile, suggests that there is only melancholy to be found in flesh and blood.

Tour de France Soundtracks (2003)

One of Kraftwerk’s greatest triumphs is to move with the times, keeping their Kling Klang studio updated rather than becoming a nostalgic analogue synth museum. They returned 17 years after their previous album for this ode to their beloved Tour de France, rendered in sparkling digital sound. Any paranoia has disappeared entirely: the whole album whirrs with happy industry, and a wonder in the blend of science, topography and physical effort that makes up the Tour.

One for the heads

Dentaku (taken from Minimum-Maximum, 2005)

Kraftwerk have spent the post-Tour years touring themselves, with a superb 3D setup for the greatest hits. This recording from first live album Minimum-Maximum sees them play Dentaku – a higher-tempo, Japanese-language version of Pocket Calculator – to an adoring Tokyo crowd. Their chanting along with Hutter, whose composure cracks into audible glee, is one of the most powerfully human moments in the whole catalogue.

Further reading

Man, Alive to Machine Possibilities, by Jon Pareles
There are not many Kraftwerk interviews and they can tend towards the brittle, but this New York Times piece with Hutter from 2012 is a good, swift grounding in the group’s ethos – “In classical music there is drama. That’s not our thing” – and their notion of itself as a “living organism … We’re the antenna catching information, the transmitter giving information, back and forth.”

It’s No More Fun To Compute! by Wolfgang Flur
Published in English by the Quietus is this wonderfully catty German review of a 2013 Kraftwerk live show by former Kraftwerk drummer Wolfgang Flur (whose memoir resulted in a lawsuit from Hutter). He praises the sound quality and 3D visuals but says “the lust seemed gone”, makes Mean Girls-worthy comments about the band’s appearance, and has a go at a woman next to him who “kicked me hard on my left foot, so I shouted at her to be calm and mannered. After all, we were in a museum, not in a rock concert. She apologised, but soon went on with bawling. The smell in that area was such a ghastly mixture – disgusting! I know why I normally avoid such events.”

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

• What are your Kraftwerk favourites? Share them in the comments below.