On the autobahn; to ruin

Electronic dance music probably wouldn't exist without them. Their 25-year love affair with the synthesiser is legendary. But should uber- experimentalists Kraftwerk really be playing in a tent this weekend? John McCready reports
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It is inevitable and it happens to everyone. James Brown's new bag is now full of holes. David Bowie, a former ideas factory, is reduced to shoplifting second-hand jungle rhythms to plaster his corny cockney choruses to. And Stevie Wonder? Lost to mindless swingbeat, the last time he made a good record we were all in short trousers. But Kraftwerk? Not Kraftwerk. Could the pioneers of an elusive electronic future have run out of steam? Could the leaders of a rhythmic revolution be content to provide a sideshow to the cutting-edge innovations of a new generation of technology obsessives who make Ralf and Florian's pocket-calculator nursery rhymes seem like a sealed compartment of the past? Could the group who once seemed so far ahead they must have needed binoculars to see the rest of us, now be cruising their own creative autobahn?

Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider are about to play in a tent in Luton. Their appearance at this year's Tribal Gathering is being seen as a celebration of their all-pervading influence. There are rumours that their eight-hour show will include cameos from vogueish figures on the house and techno scene, pupils and relative showroom dummies in truth not fit to share the same synthesiser.

Time was Kraftwerk were so far ahead; so confident of their ability and the potency of their vision that they had no time for tents. In 1975, David Bowie, having just completed the Young Americans LP and on a scarily creative pharmaceutical roll, spent most of his time driving around Germany in a Mercedes listening to Autobahn and very little else. Obsessed, legend has it that he virtually begged Kraftwerk to work with him. It apparently took them some time to return his calls. Kraftwerk had already proved themselves light years ahead with the unique Trans-Europe Express in which they almost namecheck their famous fan.

Later and more amusingly, the group received a series of telephone calls from a stricken Michael Jackson suggesting mind-boggling collaborations and requesting the multi-track tapes of The robot-fixated Man Machine LP to muck about with. Hutter remembers a subsequent meeting with the moonwalking barmpot and remarked that his apparent obsession with robotics was "very Kraftwerkian".

Perhaps they will be flattered that the Detroit techno tent at this weekend's Tribal Gathering will, as an over-serious mark of respect, be empty for the duration of their performance. In the Seventies and Eighties, busy making the records of the decade, they would hardly have noticed or cared.

In a memorable 1975 interview with the group, Lester Bangs tries to empathise, suggesting that in the future we might be able to fit electrodes to the brain for a more direct man / machine communion. Ralf Hutter matter of factly points out that as far as he is concerned, this is not a distant solution but the next step. When asked about others using electronic instruments at the time Hutter disdainfully points out that people like Rick Wakeman are not concerned with electronic music but "circus tricks on the synthesiser". He adds that the only other groups Kraftwerk really respected were the MC5 and The Stooges. With this in mind, it is no surprise to find out that the "ein zwei drei vier" count in on "Showroom Dummies" was inspired by their love of similarly rigorous idealists The Ramones.

It's clear now that by the mid-1970s Kraftwerk, regardless of their almost academic experimentalism were, to those in the know, the hippest thing around. Alan Vega of electronic punks Suicide (themselves steeped in the influence of Kraftwerk) describes driving through Harlem in the late 1970s and hearing their music bleeding out of tenement blocks. While doing nothing more than pleasing themselves, Kraftwerk laid the roots of several revolutions. A whole school of European industrialists like Front 242 took the Metal On Metal sections of Trans-Europe Express to forge a scary new shop-floor sound. American dance producers like Arthur Baker were transfixed by the effortless binary funk that characterised other sections of the record. Kraftwerk, like perhaps only the Beatles before them, had proved themselves a truly influential group. Singular sparks from their phenomenal machine generated new musical movements in much the same way as the Fabs' Helter Skelter single-handedly "invented" heavy metal.

The subsequent Man Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981) albums underlined their unique vision. But the five-year gap between Computer World and 1986's Electric Cafe LP suggested all was not well. It's now clear that Electric Cafe was one brush stroke too many on a painting by then complete. Kraftwerk had begun to repeat themselves: seeming to have been so precise, so clever and so driven that they had actually arrived somewhere near the goals they had originally set themselves. There are few artists who can claim that. Perhaps more importantly, the rest of the world, and dance music in particular, had started to catch up.

Before the release of Electric Cafe, Kraftwerk, devoted clubbers for some time, had been flattered by the adoring attentions of the New York dance scene. They called New York remixer Francois Kevorkian after seeing his name crop up on "20 or 30" 12in dance records they had bought and enjoyed. Kevorkian, who had cut his teeth DJ-ing and remixing some of the great Prelude label disco records was flattered and, while mixing tracks planned for the aborted Techno Pop LP during the period before Electric Cafe, showed the group around clubs like The Loft and The Paradise Garage. Much has been written since this period about Kraftwerk being the originators of house. This was (and is still) a nice idea but the truth is far more complex. Due to the relatively cheap availability of drum machines and synthesisers from Japanese companies like Roland, something was bound to happen anyway. Add to this the fact that many of the early DIY house records were electronic by default - made by disco-obsessed producers who would really have preferred a 50-piece orchestra had they been able to afford it. A misleading but none the less appealing picture started to build up. In 1987, enjoying the association and, for the first time, following instead of leading, Kraftwerk's 12in US release of "The Telephone Call" had an unremarkable remix called "Housephone".

Electric Cafe itself followed, banging on at length about the telephone and making musical use of dialling tones and exchange voices. For once Kraftwerk seemed adrift, unoriginal and unable to match the genuinely humorous and ironic absurdity of something like The Robots or Computer World. The trademark rhythms now seemed just clever; no longer the breathtaking mesh that had hypnotised dance producers in the past. To date this is the last genuinely new record Kraftwerk have made.

The five-year period after Electric Cafe was taken up with retreading old ground, endlessly remixing their own music for 1991's The Mix - a thinly veiled greatest hits project. During this time they lost long-standing (but never more than junior) group members Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur. Bartos freely admitted to frustration and boredom as computer disc after computer disc filled up with miniscule changes and re-edits of old music. Apart from a general house-friendly sheen to proceedings, you will need a good ear to pinpoint the real changes made to the originals on the Mix. Emil Schult, an artist and friend who had contributed to the phenomenal visual impact of Kraftwerk since 1974 (he was instrumental in the design of the stage shows, did most of the sleeves and even wrote some of the lyrics) had disappeared too. Pointing out that he had not really lost touch with Ralf and Florian ("they know my telephone number and I know theirs") he commented that he wasn't sure about the value of The Mix. Quoted in Pascal Bussy's useful biography of the group, Man, Machine and Music, he remarked, "Would Da Vinci have taken the Mona Lisa back and painted over it? I guess not. Autobahn didn't need a remix by Kraftwerk". Interviewed around the time of the release of The Mix, Hutter himself, questioned about the by then "commonplace" nature of their working methods sounds exasperated. "How can we change now? We've put 20 years into this kind of thing". This is the response of a man trapped by his unique ability.

Despite this, fuelled by nostalgia and the desire to construct a history for recent electronic music, we are desperate to see things in Kraftwerk that may not be there anymore. Tribal Gathering and the expected robot fest that the stage show will once again inevitably consist of, underlines their latter-day role as icons for those who believe that old keyboards and drum machines are a real expression of some vague techno / futurist ideal.

As someone remarked on the release of The Mix, "Kraftwerk should be astounding". With the best will in the world and even a committed fan's blindness, you would have to concede that, for the time being, they are no longer that. Perhaps their performance at Tribal Gathering will prove otherwise. It would be great if it did. My money is on electronic circus tricks for an audience awestruck in advance

Tribal Gathering '97: Sat / Sun, the Luton Hoo Estate. Info: 0181-961 5490