Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany 
by Uwe Schütte.
Penguin, 316 pp., £9.99, February, 978 0 14 198675 3
Show More
Show More

Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin on 16 January 2015

Inthe autumn of 1977, sober-suited Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider of the German synthesiser group Kraftwerk entered a New York nightclub and were surprised to hear an apparently endless version of a track from their newly released album Trans-Europe Express. Hütter was at first delighted to hear ‘Metal on Metal’ ringing out in the spangly air, then baffled as it marched on past its recorded length. ‘I thought, “What’s happening? That track is only something like two or three minutes.” Later, I went to ask the DJ and he had two copies of the record and was mixing the two.’

There’s a lot happening in this moment: an unlikely discotheque facelift of Henry James or Alexis de Tocqueville, in which polite European experiment is replanted in a fatigued American demos and reborn as a paradox – a musical doppelgänger, only strikingly different. From the New York rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa (whose ‘Planet Rock’ in 1982 swiped its beat from the title track of Trans-Europe Express) to successive waves of Detroit electro-dreamers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, Drexciya and Underground Resistance, Kraftwerk’s synthetic drumbeats opened up parallel sonic worlds to young Americans of colour living airless, no-exit lives in run-down housing projects. Where Kraftwerk evoked a lush, orderly, almost classical European landscape, these brash young Americans conjured fantastic dreamspaces with their beat-pocked, zombie-glare instrumentals. ‘Techno’ was also deeply political in its own opaque, anonymous way, as suggested by the drolly and/or gravely ambivalent title of Drexciya’s ‘Drifting into a Time of No Future’. This dark inner-city torque of the (very white) Kraftwerk aesthetic was a wild cyberpunk flourish, remixing a moribund culture and conceiving in its place more febrile, oneiric worlds.

It’s this passing of the baton, as much as any merit their own music may possess, on which Kraftwerk’s inviolable reputation now rests. The young Americans who heard something in Kraftwerk didn’t identify with the moneyed ease and ruffled shirtfronts of mainstream disco, or see any kind of career in old-school supper-club soul. In the era of Star Wars and click-addictive video games there had to be another way, and Kraftwerk revealed a path out of the labyrinth. From this a whole new sound was born: a kind of post-industrial Motown, made for and by assembly-line robots; soul music which, to many, sounded distinctly lacking in its traditional qualities – no sky-tickling vocal melisma, no obvious messages of love or protest or woe, mostly no vocals at all. The sound of techno was both lush and brittle, gnomic and expansive, the lingo used for song titles and labels signalling its origins in crossed-wire transplantation: Shifted Phase, Waveform Transmission, Submerge, Clone, Ground Zero. Drexciya explicitly acknowledged Kraftwerk’s breakthrough track ‘Autobahn’ with their own ‘Aquabahn’ – the sound of privileged white Europeans out for a motorway jaunt spun into a ghetto fantasy of life unmoored, unsurveilled, lived beyond any conceivable mainstream horizon.

‘Autobahn’ starts with the heavy, reassuring clunk of a car door closing, then an engine revving up. (It was later discovered that these everyday sounds – Alltagsmusik, as Kraftwerk preferred – were an early example of sampling, found by Kraftwerk on a ‘library music’ album of the kind often used by film production companies.) A vocoder-treated voice surveys the road ahead – nature sieved through technology, a Mitteleuropean take on the Beach Boys’ ‘I Get Around’ or ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, only less blithe, cheeky, compressed. Most pop/rock songs follow a firework template, but the title track of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974) heads, as it were, down the other lane: monotonous, droning, potentially endless. (The 23-minute track takes up the whole first side of the LP; an edited version, three and a half minutes long, got to number 11 in the UK singles chart.) ‘It’s basically the musical description of a car journey from Düsseldorf to Hamburg,’ Kraftwerk’s former percussionist Wolfgang Flur has said.

The mechanical sounds represent the industrial Ruhr valley, the conveyor belts of the mining towns of Bottrop and Castrop-Rauxel. Then you have the stretch through the rural Münsterland … In short, VW and Daimler, Thyssen and Krupp, beautiful landscapes, and in between the long and winding Autobahn – a late classical German tale.

The vocalist throws out curt nugget-phrases in place of traditional lyrics: ‘Autobahn’ is as much about the childish joy of repeating one hypnotic phrase over and over again as it is the reality of purring along German motorways.

Scroll through comments about Kraftwerk on YouTube and you’ll find young fans blown away by how fresh this synthesiser hymn still sounds: they can’t believe it was made in a 1974 usually presented to them as wall-to-wall stadium rock, loon pants and corkscrew perms. Yet listen to ‘Autobahn’ with a strife-riven Eurozone in mind and it can sound disturbingly quaint. That may be a clue as to why it got under people’s skin in the first place: the sound of two young Germans itching to leave behind the suspect insularity of their parents and grandparents; simultaneously safe at home and on the move; an unheimlich transposition of an everyday activity; the bewitching sound of a faraway near.

Also lurking on YouTube is a great clip from 1975 of Kraftwerk playing ‘Autobahn’ on BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World. This plinky and perky robo-bop may have been shockingly avant-garde back then, but now it looks beguilingly clunky: Kraftwerk’s home-made ‘drum pads’, their tin foil ruffs giving them the look of old camping stoves, triggered by gran’s cast-off knitting needles. Compared with today’s Mac culture it all feels a bit Lost in Space, with the klutzy atmosphere of a school science project. ‘Kraftwerk have a name for this,’ the presenter tells us. ‘It’s machine music. The sounds are created at their laboratory in Düsseldorf.’ Everything in the emergent Kraftwerk mythos is already here: non-expressive live performance; natty anti-bohemian garb; tensile electricity music – futuristic but a bit garden-shed, sci-fi with a good Viennese tailor, polymorphous electronica with lots of straight lines. ‘Next year Kraftwerk hope to eliminate the keyboards altogether and build jackets with electronic lapels …’

The UK sleeve for Autobahn featured an angular icon in white on blue, drawn from German motorway semiotics, rigged up by the art department at the Vertigo label. The original cover art was more seductively ambiguous: a road-trip collage featuring a black Mercedes Benz heading towards us and a white Volkswagen rumbling away into lush green hills, lit by the glare of a rising (or dying) sun. In the group photo on the reverse, Kraftwerk could be any 1970s rock band driving to a Saturday night pub gig, cracking each other up; by the time of the Tomorrow’s World spot, a year later, they are a shorn, besuited, studiedly neutral collective. It wasn’t just the sound they’d decided to strip down: their early exposure to fine art (Joseph Beuys was a frequent visitor at Florian Schneider’s family villa) had instilled in them a respect for every aspect of self-presentation. In contrast to the flowery baroque of prevailing rock fashion at the time, they look as spiffy as Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. On Tomorrow’s World they’re a new brand advertising itself, complete with chummy little neon name plates: Ralf | Karl | Wolfgang | Florian. It’s surprising they didn’t think to use ‘Vorsprung durch technik’ as a slogan before Audi did: ‘Advancement through Technology’ is Kraftwerk to a T.

We never quite get a sense, from Uwe Schütte’s account of this cusp moment in Kraftwerk: Future Music from Germany, of how or why Hütter and Schneider took their new pan-European direction. There’s a lot of boilerplate about starting from scratch and looking for a new identity, but few details of Sisyphean slog or Eureka! moments in among the shiny new electronic gear. Even a Kraftwerk sceptic like myself finds their mid-1970s reinvention pretty impressive, and I’d like to have known more about how their new streamlined sound came together. Did the synth music they were making suggest pan-European themes? Or did they start with a grand Euro-vision and develop the soundtrack accordingly? To be fair, Kraftwerk have always tended to tell nil when it comes to specifics (even today, their official website is an artfully crude, tight-lipped blank), so Schütte is forced to lean on previous commentators.

For those of us who get Kraftwerk’s historical importance but find their music only mildly diverting, Schütte’s core idea – that Kraftwerk’s every particle of sound, image and concept adds up to a towering Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘total work’ – seems a bit of a reach. I do like some Kraftwerk. If I had to pick one track it would be ‘Neon Lights’ off The Man-Machine (1978); if it was one album, Trans-Europe Express (1977): smart, soothing, sublimely pretty wallpaper muzak for an Alpine sanatorium, redolent of clean white walls, dandelion salad, mineral water, quiet cerebral games of chess – plenty of luxe and calme, but not much volupté. I don’t get the obsessive fandom Kraftwerk generate, which seems only to increase by the year. The mass freak-out among people I knew over Kraftwerk’s gigs at Tate Modern in February 2013 left me baffled. I saw them live in the 1980s and thought the We Are All Robots Now schtick a great straight-faced gag for about ten minutes; for the remainder of the performance I was twiddling my thumbs while they twiddled their knobs on stage. Thirty years later, Kraftwerk’s live performances remain pretty much unchanged, albeit amped up with superior tech – though some of the future shock has inevitably receded, since the entire audience now has near identical tech sitting at home. (There was a minor controversy after one recent performance in 2015, when an eagle-eyed audience member caught one of the ensemble desultorily checking his email on his K-console, mid-performance.)

More than once, Schütte holds Kraftwerk up against the great sprawling horizon of the Beatles: ‘Whether Kraftwerk or the Beatles were more influential has long been a bone of contention among journalists and fans.’ Not to mention that other lot of sulky layabouts: ‘Hütter/Schneider would one day be recognised as belonging in the same league as Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards.’ Really? Up to and including Kraftwerk’s – um – madly variegated songwriting? And their strikingly discrete individual talents? And the way their music helped foster a revolution in sexual mores, politics and drug consumption? Schütte thinks they may be even more important than that. ‘Could, for example, techno have emerged from inner-city areas of Detroit without them?’ The link can’t be denied, but it’s something else to claim techno wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Kraftwerk. Techno (or something similar) would have emerged from Detroit (or somewhere similar) at some point, no matter what. To claim that Kraftwerk alone triggered this revolution is pushing it a bit, and perhaps even risks cultural imperialism. (In a moment of idle reverie the five early adopters of synth/beat-box tech I personally called to mind weren’t so pale: Timmy Thomas, Shuggie Otis, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Lee Perry.)

But Schütte isn’t finished yet. Kraftwerk’s influence, it seems, also determined every molecule of 1980s electro-pop. They ‘set the blueprint for all later bands and musicians working in the area of electronic music’. I do get twitchy around value judgments like this. At one point Schütte even refers to Kraftwerk having ‘long left behind the context of mere pop music’. Mere pop music, sir?! A lot of my own favourite tracks from the 1970s and 1980s are on the trashier side of the Pop/Art binary. I get that Kraftwerk were ‘historically important’, but what if we prefer Sparks, or Suicide, or the Pet Shop Boys, or Human League, or Iggy Pop’s The Idiot? Kraftwerk have a track called ‘Numbers’, but I prefer Soft Cell’s John Rechy-inspired single of the same name, one of the great lost 45s of the 1980s, which involves an entirely other (and far less hygienic) form of accounting. And I haven’t even mentioned that other great pre-techno German dance classic, ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer (and Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and Robby Wedel and a Moog Modular 3P synthesiser), which still takes my breath away in ways I can’t honestly say Kraftwerk ever have.

RalfHütter and Florian Schneider were born in 1946 and 1947 respectively, both of them into a ‘wealthy upper-middle-class background’ in the staunchly Catholic Rhine-Ruhr region.* The parents of both men benefited from Germany’s postwar Wirtschaftswunder, or ‘economic miracle’: Hütter’s father was a businessman from Krefeld, near Düsseldorf, who traded in textiles; Schneider’s father was a renowned German architect, responsible for, among others, the modernist Cologne/Bonn airport and, in Schütte’s description, the ‘purist steel-and-glass skyscraper’ of the Mannesmann engineering company HQ. Presumably there were a lot of commissions to juggle, as nearby Cologne, like so many other postwar European cities, was ‘one vast field of ruins’.

Hütter and Schneider would later talk as if the classic Kraftwerk sound had arrived in one glorious emanation, like some deft sonic refit of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow: a perfectly realised vision of eros and thanatos, tech and pastorale, drift and grid. But in fact this ‘new, genuinely autonomous … music’ had to be ‘constructed from scratch’. So, at the same time, did Kraftwerk’s own Kling Klang studio, which they stuffed with vocoders, drum pads and newly available synthesisers like the Minimoog and the suitcase-sized EMS Synthi AKS. On their first three albums (released between 1970 and 1973, and never officially reissued), Kraftwerk were a far more outré, scattershot proposition. There was very portentous organ. There were loooong ‘space jams’. There were extended flute solos. It would be easy to mock such apprentice finger-daubs in light of the duo’s later control-freak tendencies, but Kraftwerk weren’t the only ones exploring tentative bricolage of this sort. Also to be found in that time and place were Can, Cluster, Faust, Neu! and Popol Vuh, some of whom otherwise had such dissimilar outlooks it boggles the mind: you’d be hard-pressed to find any common ground between, say, Faust’s sweaty balls-out commune and Kraftwerk’s spartan, schmutz-free lab. Why was 1970s Germany the seedbed for all this prophetic play, taking in gentle ambient soundscapes, electronic beats, experimental film soundtracks, and the studio used as an instrument in itself? For one unlikely moment, it was as if all the bad neoteric technology of Germany’s war effort had been repurposed to create a vast Apollonian glade.

When I moved to London in the summer of 1978, it wasn’t just the bright constellation of Krautrock that was in the air, but a whole extraordinary flowering of German creativity: films, books, music, art. I remember my first sight of a huge canvas by Anselm Kiefer, hung high up in the old Tate, and seeing films by Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog for the first time. (I recently rewatched Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, from 1979, and its jangled montage of competing images and sounds still looks unnervingly bold.) I vaguely recall one all-night event at (I think) Screen on the Green, which mixed rad new post-punk bands with Herzog films. (Memo to my younger self: really not a good idea to take amphetamines before going to see 16-rpm directors like Herzog and Tarkovsky.) Artists like Fassbinder and Kiefer also aimed for something like Schütte’s beloved Gesamtkunstwerk, but theirs was a far messier business; it manifested no fear of the epic, the self-flagellating, the forbidden. Kiefer photographed himself giving a Nazi salute, and invoked dark myths slumbering in the German psyche; Fassbinder, in his manic cinéma vérité contribution to the omnibus protest film Germany in Autumn (1978), snorts drugs, is stricken by paranoia, strips completely naked, tyrannises his partner, ridicules his mother’s political naivety. He was cravenly attracted to popular culture, but with a knowing twist: ‘I want to be ugly on the cover of Time,’ he proclaimed, not long before his pore-clogged death aged 37. You’d think Fassbinder would be a big fan of Can or Faust, but it’s the cold white shimmer of Kraftwerk which occasionally appears on his dolorous soundtracks; not, though, to signify some fresh new outward-bound national spirit, but as a marker of numb hedonism, affectless passivity, defeated psyches on the edge of self-willed extinction.

In​ October 1963, the artists Konrad Lueg and Gerhard Richter put on an exhibition called Living with Pop: A Demonstration for Capitalist Realism, at the Berges furniture store in Düsseldorf. In a room heavy with air freshener, scattered with home décor magazines and tomes by Winston Churchill, loudspeakers broadcast muzak while the artists sat in comfy armchairs, one of them reading a cheap thriller, the other watching a TV news report about the resignation of Konrad Adenauer, the chancellor of the Federal Republic. Richter, Sigmar Polke and others set out to distil a homebrew version of Pop Art, marked by an obsession with the new postwar landscape of desirable goods, knowing adverts and imported American glamour. Everyday objects were raised to the status of fetishes, in the capitalist miracle’s own version of Socialist Realism. The art was simultaneously shiny and flat – a ghost camouflage of commodified desire.

Hütter and Schneider hung out on the fringes of this gallery scene, and namedropped artists in their early interviews. The breakthrough music of Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975) and Trans-Europe Express (1977) is like a silky, op-music recast of Richter’s icily ambiguous cod realism. Kraftwerk caught the last receding wave of an exhausted modernism, amid the first smoke-signal sightings of the term ‘postmodernism’ in popular media. They may have been using tough new electronic hardware, but the resulting mood music echoes the lush sublimities of a previous age, transferred into night-lit industrial landscapes. A pastoral rendition of the urban, or an urbanisation of the pastoral. Snug journeys in automobile and train, the passing scenery lit by the dying rays of modernist romanticism, as per Baudelaire’s ‘dandyism’: a setting sun, singularly striking, but lacking heat or warmth and ‘full of melancholy’. The stylised group portraits of Kraftwerk on the sleeves of Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine (1978) are self-conscious quotations of dandiacal design modes from a recent European past. ‘It is precisely the interplay between a bourgeois hanging on to an ageing modernity and the counter-culture,’ Philip Mann writes in The Dandy At Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the 20th Century (2017), ‘that makes the 1970s.’

As Kraftwerk developed their new, distinctive sound, they also evinced a talent for supplying quotes of the sort that on-the-make young music critics hyperventilate over. Sometimes they styled themselves as folk artists, sometimes as a species of music-guided performance artist, sometimes as Musikarbeiter or ‘industrial music-workers’. Like many post-Warhol artists half in love with easeful ambiguity, they were mostly just having a ball talking up their product, using a gauzy syntax equal parts art-speak and modish advertising. But there is also a slightly embalmed feeling, familiar from such artists as Warhol, Helmut Newton, Gilbert & George: not a hair out of place in what Mann describes as a certain ‘“romantic sterility” that characterises the best of postwar German modernism’. Sometimes they presented their music as ethnically German (at first they called it Heimatklange, ‘home sounds’), sometimes as regionally specific (Industrielle Volksmusik – ‘We like to think of it as ethnic music from the German industrial area’), and sometimes as a way of creating ‘a Central European identity for ourselves’. What might this reassuring Euro-Deutsche essence consist in, exactly? Schütte approvingly quotes another German academic’s claim about the terminally catchy ‘Autobahn’: ‘It created a soundtrack that could potentially stand in for the Federal Republic of Germany’s tainted national anthem, and that confidently represented the modernising, rationalising and progressive industrial intent of the emerging but fragmented nation.’ I’ve read that line dozens of times, and am still no clearer if that ‘modernising, rationalising and progressive industrial intent’ is meant to be a good thing.

The Gesamtkunstwerk aside, the nearest Schütte gets to a defining concept in thinking about Kraftwerk is ‘retro-futurism’, by which he means a form of nostalgia for a ‘future that was never realised, or to put it another way, a future whose unfulfilled promises haunt the present’. This feels a bit retro itself – it’s almost exactly how ‘hauntology’ was posed on blogs written by Mark Fisher and others circa 2003. Kraftwerk’s ‘futurist’ vision can now look passingly timid: the robots they sometimes use to substitute for themselves on stage are palpably pre-digital, and today we have an entirely other sense of ‘bots’ and their malign outreach. One of the snags of their career after Computer World (1981) is that Hütter and Schneider spent vast sums of money on spanking new tech that all too soon sounded date-stamped. They went to great trouble to retouch classic tracks but the new versions sounded a bit naff and self-conscious, like groovy dads trying to drop it with far younger, hipper kids. If Kraftwerk’s inarguable four album apex – from Autobahn (1974) to Computer World (1981) – does stand up, one of the reasons is that its unique sound hasn’t noticeably aged. For whatever reason, the more Kraftwerk upgraded, the less relevant they sounded. (See also: Brian Eno.)

From all Schütte says about Kraftwerk’s ‘total work’, you’d think the K-bots would be barely distinguishable from the real thing – but instead they look a bit tacky and amateurish: middle-aged, mothballed Thunderbird puppets. As David Stubbs puts it in Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany (2014), there is ‘the air of belonging to some bygone astronaut era, veterans of an abandoned space project.’ The fact that Kraftwerk have produced so little since the mid-1980s, he adds, ‘only exacerbates this sense’.

This hints at a problem that Schütte drives straight through, albeit in a rather high-flown syntax: ‘Linear progress gave way to a modus operandi that focused on retrospective elaboration, expansion and evolution.’ But if Kraftwerk weren’t just lucky chancers or lazy geniuses, then how to square all the grand talk of a world-encircling Gesamtkunstwerk with the fact that Kraftwerk’s last truly essential work was Computer World? That’s nigh on forty years of growing their brand and cultivating their garden. Is yer actual Gesamtkunstwerk usually distinguished by quite so much ‘legacy statement’ tinkering and off-road longueurs? (During the 1980s, Hütter and Schneider spent something like a million pounds installing the new digital sampling system Synclavier II, only to discover it was such a faff to operate they promptly went on a long cycling holiday, leaving a more patient studio engineer to square everything in their absence.)

Kraftwerk, Hütter once said, was all about ‘bringing man and machine together in a friendly partnership’. Schütte: ‘The notion of connecting, even hybridising, the human and the technological represents the central artistic tenet of their oeuvre from Autobahn onwards.’ But what’s actually lurking behind this po-faced desire to be perceived as robotic? To present yourself as blankly impersonal, a mere switch-human? I would have liked more of a critical scrap with this idea of becoming one with the Machine. The music machines Kraftwerk jerry-rigged were strictly on/off; today, the digital permeates us all, all our hours through. Doesn’t Kraftwerk’s vision of human subjectivity as a branch of technology now look like a rather dainty form of fetishism? Schütte several times quotes Kraftwerk’s preferred self designation as ‘music workers’ and their view of the Man-Machine as ‘halb Wesen und halb Ding’ (‘half a living being and half a thing’) – but where is the presence anywhere of good old-fashioned alienation? The old dream in which the machine will free us from nine-to-five labour has resulted not in endless leisure time for all, but a new global proletariat, terminally nomadic, unsupported and unrepresented, lucky to have a zero-hours contract or a food bank to queue at. In the Kraftwerk dream of unfettered movement we are trans-European flâneurs, but never refugees or ‘guest workers’.

Schütte is so consumed with his dream of a towering new Gesamtkunstwerk that he can miss some of the smaller, more human things that do make Kraftwerk click. Most rock music is based on a model derived from the Blues; the grainier, more pleading, more full and ‘authentic’ the singer’s voice the better. Now listen to the lilting ‘Neon Lights’ from The Man-Machine, in particular Hütter’s trembly wisp of a voice: imperfect, barely there, making the enveloping city sound like a halo-limned, drowsing beloved. Future Music could also have done more to set Kraftwerk in context. Not only is there no mention of all the others who were making magick with the recording studio in the 1970s, there’s zero sense of any life outside Kling Klang, nothing about parallel lives, relationships, enthusiasms, the dust and drift of life. In the end, I had no clearer sense of Hütter and Schneider as discrete human characters than when I began: they remain indistinguishable, a sweat-free tag team, two minds working as one. This is a book about ‘future shock’ that pivots on a rather staid, old-fashioned concept. So Kraftwerk are a total work of art? Well, these days so are Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé, and Lana Del Rey, among many others.

Kraftwerk​ sang the praises of a ‘continent without borders’, and Schütte’s devotion to them is indistinguishable from his feelings about the ‘wider political development of European integration after the Second World War’. As with the man-machine merger, there’s a smooth consonance implied between Kraftwerk’s ‘total work’ and the European Union project. Sometimes, though, Schütte’s optimism wavers: ‘Today, when thinking about tomorrow, we see more threat than opportunity.’ As he surveys the ‘current climate of economic crisis, global warming, political demagogy and the erosion of democratic values,’ he wonders: ‘How could we possibly imagine building a better future?’ Thus Kraftwerk are artfully posed as our last great modernists, serene ‘retro-futurists’ whose late 20th-century vision seems now to glow with melancholy for the harmonious collective future we failed to secure.

No one treating such topics before early 2020 could have known how certain sentiments would sound in the shadow of Covid-19. Where Schütte’s description of the German ‘vision of a peaceful Europe with open borders and free movement and a spirit of mutual co-operation towards an ever closer union’ might once have seemed unexceptional, now it appears ashy and forlorn. Thus far, Europe’s ‘spirit of mutual co-operation’ in response to the virus hasn’t been much in evidence. North sneers at South; South fumes about being caricatured and neglected by North. Glancing through yet another report on EU infighting – ‘the former Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem appearing to suggest that his southern European neighbours had wasted their money on “booze and women”’ – I suddenly had a vision of Kraftwerk as calm, logical figureheads of the ‘frugal’ North, with some cheesy, remorseless slice of Italo Disco representing the ‘profligate’ South. When Schütte approaches the question of just how German Kraftwerk are, he can get a bit – intolerant. ‘The notion of “ethnic music” should under no circumstances be understood as crypto-nationalist.’ What’s unnerving here is his certainty. Where did I hear this same tone recently? Of course: in the ‘debate’ over Brexit. When Schütte self-righteously takes a poke at what he calls the ‘bleak reality of Brexit and the foolish determination of Europhobic sections of society to sever political and economic ties with Europe’, you get the impression he assumes none of these villainous folk could possibly be readers of his book or fans of Kraftwerk.

You do finally have to wonder: is Gesamtkunstwerk such a good word to be throwing around, right now? In the past, faith in such totalising impulses has more than once led to something rather fearsome and ugly, and what Schütte calls Kraftwerk’s ‘artistic will to unify, simplify and integrate’ can now sound just a tiny bit creepy. With the old project of open borders already badly compromised by Covid-19, and re-emergent nationalisms singing loud everywhere, the European dream no longer feels quite so endless.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 42 No. 19 · 8 October 2020

Ian Penman writes that Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ (1982) ‘swiped its beat’ from Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (LRB, 10 September). In fact ‘Planet Rock’ quoted the melody from that track; the (much faster) beat was a re-creation of the beat from ‘Numbers’, which appears on Kraftwerk’s later album Computer World. Accuracy matters here, given that Karl Bartos’s objection to Bambaataa’s (and his producer Arthur Baker’s) use of the beat was their failure to observe academic referencing conventions. ‘We felt pissed off,’ Bartos said (quoted in Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music from 1993). ‘If you read a book and you copy something out of it, you do it like a scientist, you have to quote where you took it from, what is the source of it.’ They settled out of court.

Martin McIvor
London SW17

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences