All About Kraftwerk

Kraftwerk helped make synthesized music mainstream and created the basic foundation for electronica, impacting modern music.

Last Updated: 2009-08-20
Kraftwerk (German for "power plant"), formerly Organisation, are the fathers of electronica and one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century. With many lineups spanning their entire career (typical in rock bands), they started out as a krautrock band before they became experimenal-avant garde and eventually electronic, a journey that would forever impact electronic music.

Emerging from the experimental rock seeds of German bands Can and Tangerine Dream in the late 60s and educated in the classical music world and diving into the progressive rock era, Florian Schneider Esleben and Ralf Hutter of Dusseldorf, Germany were the principal members of the group, debuting in 1970 with their RCA records album Tone Float under the moniker Organisation. However, album sales flopped, and it wasn't before long when they changed their name to Kraftwerk and began to delve more into minimal electronic music, a time when most other artists stayed with their traditional instruments.

Kraftwerk's 1970 debut album Kraftwerk 1 really scratched the surface, but it was the 1974 single "Autobahn" from the album of the same name that got heads looking their way (by this time, important members Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder joined the duo). A track comprising 22 minutes and 30 seconds, the song had to be shortened down to 9 minutes to be released as a single and the results proved fruitful: an international Top 10 smash. The song became a breakthrough in music history because for one it established a pop-structured electronic song and helped boost their album Autobahn into Top 40 chart success.

"Autobahn" paved the way to 1975's Radioactivity (boasting the hit single "Radio-Activity"), Trans-Europe Express (boasting the seminal title track), and their masterpiece, the 1978 album The Man Machine.

This particular album was the height of their career in terms of musical performance and was the inspiration for their robotic image which they fully showcased to the public, be it through photo sessions or concerts.

After a nearly three year hiatus from The Man Machine, Kraftwerk came back in 1981 to release Computer World just as the new decade was overtaken by the Electronic a.k.a. Computer Age. Their double single "Computer Love" b/w "The Model" may have topped the British charts in December of that same year, but the most important song off the album was "Numbers" which many songs, including Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock", sampled from.

In 1986, Kraftwerk came back to release Electric Café, an album that fared well in sells. However, the music world was already deeply immersed in electronic music for Kraftwerk to really make any impact or concoct any recording novelties and from their disappeared from the scene.

By the late 90s, Kraftwerk began to tour again and worked on new material, releasing their first single in 13 years by the end of 1999 titled "Expo 2000". In August 2003, the band released their first album in more than 15 years. Despite the longevity and significance of the band's career, Kraftwerk has remained an underrated and underappreciated fixture in music history as a whole. Although some do acknowledge Kraftwerk's importance, many can't explain how and why they are truly one of music's most important artists. They helped make synthesized music mainstream and created the basic foundation for electronica, impacting modern music alongside giants such as Igor Stravinsky. The biggest genres, from rock, rap, R&B, and dance, owe some of their success to these legends.
Kraftwerk group photo

Kohoutek 7 inch single cover from 1973
7" single 1973

Autobahn - 1974 Kraftwerk album cover

Trans Europe Expresss - 1977 Kraftwerk album cover
Trans Europe Expresss
Musically, Kraftwerk dealt with postwar European urban life and technology, celebrating (such as in the beautiful track "Neon Lights") but at the same time cautioning the world about machines' advantages and disadvantages. Through their lyricism, rhythms, and vocoder-processed voices, they tried to reflect the minimalism and lackluster characteristics of machines into their works. They were one of the several people who predicted that technology would dominate the world and were surely way ahead of their time musically.

During Kraftwerk's beginning stages, their music was known as "techno" (which the band used for a while) or "robot pop". However, purists also called it "robo sh*t" or "noise", a term that would later affect hip hop and dance/electronica.

Using their skills, creativity, and talent, Kraftwerk created a fundamental electronic track with "Autobahn". This song incorporated sounds from their drive in an auto-bahn recorded through a microphone which they later synthesized to give their record a more crisp and pleasant sound. Breaking through internationally, this is the song (or one of the songs) that gave dance/electronica its basic structure.

Also, another important fundamental electronic track was Hot Butter's 1972 summer anthem "Popcorn" which also broke through and helped set the basic foundation for electronica. However, Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" really gave the music more of a strutcture which would virtually rule all of dance/electronica in the coming decades.

Although only a moderate hit during its 1977 release, this is still another brilliant record that has stood the test of time. More electronic than "Auto-Bahn", this would become one of Kraftwerk's most sampled records alongside giants such as "Numbers" and "We Are the Robots". Afrika Bambaataa and The Soul Sonic Force used the song's beat to as the backbone for their hit "Planet Rock".

Another important and sampled record, "Numbers" has also stood the test of time. Afrika Bambaataa also used the beat and certain phrases from the song in "Planet Rock".

Yes, there were several other artists in the late 60s and 70s experimenting with electronics such as Yes, Frank Zappa & The Mother's Invention, King Crimson, Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, Gary Numan, Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, David Bowie (he even created a tune called "V-2 Schneider" in honor of Florian), Genesis, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles (their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band contains electronic manipulation and samples), and Pink Floyd (whose influential The Dark Side of the Moon included loops, synthesizers, and sampling), but Kraftwerk was a band that fully dealt with electronics and took it beyond human thought with their skills and music innovation, bridging the classical music of Karlheinz Stockhausen with electronic music and became important avant-garde enthusiasts. Therefore, they are the fathers of dance/electronica.
First LP - 1970 The Man Machine 1978 Electric Cafe 1986 Minimum-Maximum 2005
(First LP) 1970
The Man Machine 1978
Electric Cafe 1986
Minimum-Maximum 2005

Kraftwerk influenced many artists. In the 70s, it was rockers David Bowie, Gary Numan, Giorgio Moroder, and Iggy Pop and DJs such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash who played their records before interested black audiences. Later, artists such as Herbie Hanock, The Human League, Depeche Mode, OMD (Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark), Michael Jackson, Whodini, The Balanescu Quartet, New Order, Bauhaus, Throbbing Gristle, and Arthur Baker also began to be influenced by them.

The secret to Kraftwerk's sound lies in their inspirations from classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, rock outfits Tangerine Dream and The Beach Boys, and the influence of Art Deco (a major style/decorative art movement in Europe from the 1920s that particularly affected architechture).
Kraftwerk is the most sampled band of all time with James Brown being the most sampled artist of all time. In artists being sampled as a whole, they're still second place to James Brown.
Notable tracks:
Artists that sampled Kraftwerk:
Artists that covered Kraftwerk:
Trans-Europe Express
Showroom Dummies
Computer Love
The Model
Pocket Calculator
Tour De France
(We Are) The Robots
Neon Lights
Musique Non Stop
The Telephone Call
Expo 2000
Afrika Bambaataa
The Fearless 4
The Treacherous 3
Depeche Mode
De La Soul
The Bloodhound Gang
Big Audio Dynamite
Information Society
New Order
P.M. Dawn
Meat Beat Manifesto
The 2 Live Crew
The Village People
J.J. Fad
Sir Mix-A-Lot
MC Lyte
Biz Markie
Wyclef Jean
The Orb
Fatboy Slim
The Chemical Brothers
The Prodigy
Kerri Chandler
Utah Saints
Balanescu Quartet (classical group)
The Cardigans
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Simple Minds
Siouxsie and The Banshees
PLACEMENT ON DDD LISTS (as of 01/2016):
100 Greatest Electronic/Dance Recording Artists - #1
100 Greatest International Rock Artists - #9
100 Greatest Electronic/Dance Albums
  #1. Trans-Europe Express
  #3. Autobahn
  #5. The Man-Machine
  #18. Computer World
  #41. Radio-Activity

More Tribute Pages
More Music Lists