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Kraftwerk are the godfathers of man-machine music. But their current crisis is all too human
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In a recent poll conducted by NME, the German synthesiser group Kraftwerk were voted the sixth most inspiring pop performers of all time. The fact that Kraftwerk have released only one new record - the "Hanover Expo 2000" jingle - in the past 14 years, and made maybe a dozen public appearances during the same period, has only served to raise their status and credibility from cult group to iconic.

In a recent poll conducted by NME, the German synthesiser group Kraftwerk were voted the sixth most inspiring pop performers of all time. The fact that Kraftwerk have released only one new record - the "Hanover Expo 2000" jingle - in the past 14 years, and made maybe a dozen public appearances during the same period, has only served to raise their status and credibility from cult group to iconic.

Over a career spanning nearly 30 years, the Düsseldorf "godfathers of electro'', die mensche Maschine, have achieved a towering significance in modern music, as important, to some critics, as Elvis or the Beatles. One strand of pop history credits Kraftwerk with more or less inventing modern dance music, by virtue of their being the most sampled group in the history of pop.

During the past 12 months, however, there have been reports that something is rotten in the state of Kraftwerk. It all begins with rumours. The group's founders and controllers, the breathlessly stylish Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider-Esleben, have always maintained a rather glamorous secrecy about the group, avoiding nearly all media (there hasn't been a noteworthy Kraftwerk interview for nearly a decade) and zealously guarding their privacy. Their studio, Kling Klang, is known as a secret sanctuary where the cogs and wheels of robotkultur ("Mother Kraftwerk'') whizz and whirr to create the Kraftwerk sound.

Such a tactic of reclusion and inaccessibility works brilliantly for pop stars who have achieved iconic status. From Phil Spector through Prince to Morrissey, Shakespeare's line on how to succeed as a monarch - "My presence, like a robe pontifical, ne'er seen but wondered at'' - has translated well into making rumour do twice the work of a press campaign. In the case of Ralf and Florian, the rumours are almost too good to be true.

Having spent nearly 30 years perfecting their robot music, they have now become too robotic to cope with human inefficiency: Ralf and Florian (the rumours suggest) can be reached on only one telephone, which has no ringing tone but only a flashing light, and they only watch the one phone at seven o'clock in the evening. Probably all myth, of course, but a delightful myth.

But now, a sadder side to the Ralf and Florian enigma is emerging, which seems to owe more to the traditional peevishness of superstars than the behaviour of men-machines. Wolfgang Flur, Kraftwerk's percussionist (remember those heavenly opening beats of "Autobahn'', played with metallic drumsticks on percussion pads?), left the group in 1996 (soon to be followed by the other drummer, Karl Bartos), feeling largely unwanted and increasingly out-of-patience with what he regarded as Ralf and Florian's single-minded control of the group. He subsequently embarked on his own musical project, the beautifully sensuous and deeply humanistic Yamo. He has now written a book, I Was a Robot, which is a generous and fascinating account of not only his career with Kraftwerk, but also his own spiritual journey through music and celebrity. And it is at this point that the writs begin to fly, with Ralf and Florian seeking (and obtaining) orders through the German courts for phrases and passages in the book to be deleted. An edited version is about to be published in the UK, although fanatical Kraftwerk fans are somehow obtaining a "prohibited'' German edition on the internet.

Were I Was a Robot some lurid kiss-and-tell book with embarrassing recollections and wild accusations, then his former colleagues' anger could easily be understood. But the book is in fact a very gentle and informative read, beautifully pitched between classic autobiography and cultural analysis and often making delightful detours into speculations over the whole mythology of Kraftwerk as a kind of robotic extension of German Romanticism. Given the appalling quality of most books written by pop stars, Flur proves himself to be a naturally gifted storyteller, capable of placing the reader - not simply the Kraftwerk fan - in his role as a former celebrity robot and architect of the electro-industrial pop sensibility, which stretches from David Bowie to hip-hop and contemporary electronica.

So fearful was Flur of his former colleagues sending spies to infiltrate and videotape his few public events in Germany around the book (thus providing the courts with more "evidence'') he had to request a total ban on cameras and tape-recorders. Communicating by e-mail, however, he offers an insight into his current position as a musician trying to shed the dehumanised image of Kraftwerk for a far more politicised and spiritually led idea of creativity. In practical terms, he saw writing his autobiography as his only means of promoting his new music.

"The more I wrote, the more it opened up old wounds,'' he says. "The best therapy was making music again - music of my own, outside of Kraftwerk. I had waited for long enough - it was nearly 10 years, in fact, before I started my own project with Yamo. It wasn't planned in this way, but I felt that it was an act of extreme liberation from a stigma of inactivity and unkindness. It wasn't an act of revenge; more a kind of self-defence.

"I dedicated my first song to Bosnian orphans. I thought, 'How can I spread personal thought and human emotion to people; stories which are different from the technical themes of Kraftwerk?''

That could not be farther removed from the electro-pop monolith of his former group. Musically, Kraftwerk could be called the doo-wop of the German economic miracle, or the Beach Boys of post-industrialism, hymning the efficiency of industrial and service technology in the form of pure electro-minimalism. From their 1975 chart-topper "Autobahn'', their mesmeric bleeps, squeaks and beats have always been recorded and performed as part of Ralf and Florian's determination for the group to become Die mensche Maschine, half-human, half-robot. A determination, perhaps, that Flur and Bartos found too much to cope with. It is tempting to see Kraftwerk as an allegory of Western computerised society, finally overloading on its own technology. From the beginning, the fact that Hutter and Schneider were from monied backgrounds seemed, in Flur's eyes, to emphasise the duo's distance from the rest of the group and the financial instability of pop bohemia.

"During my last years with Kraftwerk, I realised that we would finally end up unhappy because of our social-class differences and our robotic behaviour with each other. Although I enjoyed Kraftwerk, I realised that the founders led the group like a classic capitalistic company, and I had to leave.''

In his analysis of Kraftwerk, Man Machine and Music, the French music historian Pascal Bussy likens Ralf and Florian to Gilbert and George, radical artists armoured by an image of über-respectability. The duo created an image for Kraftwerk that mixed archaic notions of the future and a self-creation as "men machines'', which, given its ambiguous relationship to Germanic ideals of efficiency, could be seen to ride a perilous back curve of ambiguity. It is to Kraftwerk's credit that the group has always played with the German racial stereotype - efficiency, punctuality - with great wit. Billed to perform at the Brixton Academy at 8pm one night, the group took to the stage at 7.55, waited for five minutes and then, bang on 8pm, announced, "We start now.''

Currently, Ralf and Florian are "in the studio". There may or may not be a new Kraftwerk album. There may or may not be a Kraftwerk tour. They may or may not have turned into robots. But sadly, Flur's former colleagues are no longer his friends. In the mire of secret histories, personal feelings and court cases, it's impossible for anyone outside the inner circle of Kraftwerk to know what the fuss is all about. "What can I tell you? It isn't just that they're not happy about the book. They do not seem to tolerate the slightest criticism. In the beginning I dedicated my book to Kraftwerk, but they don't see it that way. They are not happy that I speak about my feelings. But remember - I was a robot!''

'Kraftwerk - I Was A Robot' is published next week by Sanctuary, £14