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.
The book functions nicely as an introduction for newcomers to Kraftwerk’s history. It becomes a brisk compilation of references, interviews, anecdotes, theories and well-worn critical summaries, which ends up categorising a little too much a group instinctively suspicious of categorisation. It is not so useful for those who have a working knowledge of Kraftwerk and are looking for new ways of understanding how and why the group inhabited a new space and time, and what will happen to them as 20th-century pop culture recedes into a digitised hall of mirrors.
For the most part Schütte eschews a biographical approach, denigrating Flür’s gossipy memoir I Was a Robot. So the reader gets only a limited sense of the personalities behind the band, and it remains unclear whether Kraftwerk’s relative silence post-1981 is due to indolence or a strategy of mystery-building to drive boxset sales. (Here’s Flür on the bike-obsessed Hütter and Schneider: “They would prefer to study cycling catalogues ... than think up ideas for new songs.”)
As this strange, slightly jumbled, rather intense book notes, ‘music is the movement of sound through time’. It’s a good line. And as the music of the 20th century fades from our ears, Kraftwerk’s sound is still moving.
Schütte teases out the many ambiguities in these concepts: trains, autobahns, radioactivity, men-machines. All have distinct negative connotations within Germany in particular. Yet Kraftwerk proposed a positive view. Their rigorous determination to deny autobiography forced listeners to focus on the ideas and the music, where apparent contradictions – local/global, human/machine, past/future – were resolved in a sparkling, crystal-clear sound-world. This was not submission but interaction: as they said, “we are playing the machines, the machines play us”. Indeed, Kraftwerk’s greatest achievement was to imagine a future that refused dystopia.