5 songs producers need to hear by… Kraftwerk

(Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

With the death of founding member Florian Schneider earlier in 2020, it's important to look at his legacy with the group. Here are five Kraftwerk songs you really should check out if you want to understand why the German electronic outfit are considered to be one of the most influential bands of all time...

1. Autobahn (1974)

You simply have to include Autobahn in a ‘tracks you must hear by Kraftwerk’ piece, if only because it’s nearly 23 bloody minutes long.

Autobahn is not just ridiculous in length, it’s ridiculous in concept (yes, it’s about a motorway/freeway/autobahn) and it has ridiculous lyrics like “we travel, travel, travel down a motorway”.

But there’s something about its eeriness, electronic-ness and, OK, general length that sucks you in and keeps you bobbing along for the ride, in the back seat, as it chugs though riffs, sequences and electronic snares, while car doors slam, engines roar and synths toot. 

Indeed, it’s simply so beguiling and so baffling that rather than ask, ‘are we there yet?’ you’ll instead wonder how on earth it ever became a hit (albeit in edited form) on both sides of the Atlantic?

Top Kraftwerk fact: buy the album of the same name for the full-length version and get the glorious track Kometenmelodie 2 which is - whisper it - even better.

2. Radioactivity (1975)

Kraftwerk were predicting that radioactivity would “be in the air, for you and me” in 1975, well before Chernobyl and other such incidents would cause terror around the world. Yes, Kraftwerk might be a power station everything but name (OK, in actual name), but a nuclear-fueled one they are not, and this song has become one of the band’s most poignant. 

It has all the K ingredients - simple melody, sparse electronics and the odd key change - that have become the band’s signatures, but here we also have a layer of sadness weighing heavily throughout. It might be the slow pace, the haunting synth pad, the geiger counter intro, or even the Morse code that apparently spells out several of the lyrics (yes, we just learnt that from YouTube).

But really it’s the fragile Kraftwerk lyrics that get you, and it’s almost like Ralf is beaming the future to us through his words. Well, hopefully a future, not the future.

Remixed Kraftwerk fact: 1992’s The Mix album by Kraftwerk is a now largely forgotten collection of remixes that sound more dated than the originals (largely down to how good the originals were) but the updated version of Radioactivity is not half bad.

3. Trans-Europe Express (1977)

OK, OK, we get the point now. By this stage you might be asking if Kraftwerk were simply better at producing glorious synth tunes than they were at devising proper themes to hang them on. Anyone who gets away with writing about a motorway and radiation must surely be short of actual human-based love and experiences, right? Whatever next?

Why, trains, of course! Trans Europe Express is lauded as another of the band’s tracks that helped launch many a genre, but really its most memorable moments - again, like those in Radioactivity - are those sparse, naive and almost apologetic lyrics. They really shouldn’t work, and when they nonchalantly chant “Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie” it could seem like they’re showing off, only you know they aren’t.

To Kraftwerk it probably really was ‘well we went out, bumped into Pop and Bowie down the cafe, and then went back to Kling Klang Studios and invented techno. Which was nice’. Extraordinary lyrics delivered in an everyday fashion because this really was Kraftwerk’s ‘everyday’.

Argumentative Kraftwerk fact: Trans-Europe Express the album was described by The Observer as “the greatest album by the second most influential band of all time”, which is absolute bollocks. It’s the second best album by the most influential band of all time.

4. The Model (1978)

Mysterious, groundbreaking, legendary, robotic and seminal. That’s Kraftwerk, so how come one of their tunes gets played more at weddings than Abba’s Dancing Queen? You may well ask that question, but The Model has become that Kraftwerk song, and the answer is really because it is the band at their glorious, camp and melodic best.

The late ‘70s was the band’s golden period, with more polished synth noises emanating from Kling Klang studios in Dusseldorf than ever before or since, and The Man-Machine album, from which The Model comes, is one of the slickest slices of synth sugar ever released.

But the track would take years to reach its destiny, eventually outshining the band’s Computer World album, and reaching number one in the UK in 1982 almost by accident. Since then it’s become Kraftwerk’s intro song. You still might ask yourself - as with so many Kraftwerk songs - if they were being ironic with the lyrics, but, honestly, after a few bars, you’ll just go with it, and grab your pissed-up aunt Mavis’s hand for a dance.

Gear geek Kraftwerk fact stolen from the internet: The Model possibly employs three Moog synths - a Micro for the bass, a Poly for the lead and Mini for the melody. The band have never confirmed this, nor will they ever.

5. Numbers (1981)

By the time 1981’s album Computer World came to pass, those of us in the know (and I count 14-year old me sitting in Hammersmith Odeon, goggle-eyed and weeping at the altar of Kraftwerk playing live as one of them) were thinking that Kraftwerk might well be past their best. They’d announced an album about computers and released a record about calculators – what were they thinking this time?

But then track three from the album, Numbers, came crashing through the speakers and everything changed. Its massive beat would be heard chiming around the world as the numbers within it - all ‘sung’ in a vocoded style in different languages - effectively counted out the number of genres the track eventually spawned:  techno, breakbeat, hip-hop… Yes, according to many, Kraftwerk unwittingly invented everything that happened after 1981, even the Breville Deep Fill sandwich toaster, and the huge, simple, electronic beat in Numbers was at the heart of much of it.

Linguistic Kraftwerk fact: The numbers in Numbers are ’sung’ in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Russian, and the Russian ‘singer/robot’ sounds stoned. 

Andy Jones

Andy has been writing about music production and technology for 30 years having started out on Music Technology magazine back in 1992. He has edited the magazines Future Music, Keyboard Review, MusicTech and Computer Music, which he helped launch back in 1998. He owns way too many synthesizers.

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