~ Posted by Hazel Sheffield, March 1st 2012
Though Kraftwerk has long been celebrated for its formative influence on black electronic music in America—from Detroit techno to New York electro—their albums were slow to chart in the America on release. How times change. When tickets went online last week for a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in April, the eight-night run sold out in an hour.
Only one original member of the band remains. Despite the departure of his founding partner, Florian Schneider, in 2008, Ralf Hütter (now 65) has shown considerable dedication to touring with three new members. Recently, Kraftwerk supported Radiohead in Latin America, performed with robots and four gold-winning British cyclists in the Velodrome at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and opened an exhibition of some of their visual work in Munich last October.
But the MoMA retrospective is the first time eight of Kraftwerk’s albums have been presented, with 3D visuals and lighting effects, in chronological order. The concerts start with “Autobahn” (1974), the record that introduced Kraftwerk’s vision of a connected electronic universe, through to “Tour de France” (2003), a celebration Hütter’s love of cycling.
Kraftwerk has had a long complicated relationship with America. Hütter and Schneider much admired Brian Wilson’s portrait of Sixties California through intricate, sunny harmonies, but instead of stealing his surfer guitars, they created propulsive, mechanical music in homage to their industrialised homeland in the Rhineland and the Ruhr.
After touring America for the first time in 1975, Kraftwerk released “Radio-Activity” (1975), which combined static and synthesisers to explore two distinct themes: American commercial radio and nuclear power. It was after this tour that Kraftwerk began to retreat from the celebrity culture they discovered across the Atlantic, fearing, as Hütter told MOJO in 2005, “The enormous prejudice of the outside music world in the 70s about our coldness or lack of emotion.”
“Showroom Dummies” from “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) shows them grappling with this predicament. They refused interviews, preferring to be identified as auteurs of a complete package of sound and images that they developed, incrementally, with each release.
Almost 30 years since “Autobahn”, the MoMA seems a natural place for the latest line-up of a band whose career is based on the idea that pop music is, in itself, art.
Hazel Sheffield writes for the NME. She is the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Scholar at Columbia University, New York