This month sees the release of the new album from Karl Bartos, former member of electronic trailblazers Kraftwerk. But the synth sound is no more — Bartos' new record is closer to Beatle‑esque Britpop.
It's a commonplace scenario: disillusioned musician leaves established group due to "musical differences." Said musician briefly basks in the shadow of former musical glories, but rapidly disappears into obscurity. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this unwritten rule — enter Berchtesgarten‑born 45‑year‑old multi‑instrumentalist Karl Bartos, former member of reclusive electronic pioneers Kraftwerk.
"Meine Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen, heute abend aus Deutschland, die Mensch Maschine — KRRRAFT‑WERRRK!". It's now been eight years since Karl last heard this 'Robo‑Voice'‑driven concert rallying call during five low‑key live dates in Italy at the turn of this decade, which constituted his last public duties with Kraftwerk. Despite co‑Kraftwerk founder Ralf Hütter's oft‑quoted insistence that the objective of the group is one of "working without respite toward the construction of the perfect pop song for the tribes of the global village", the reality — that Kraftwerk had only produced two albums of new material since the early 1980s — was obviously too much for Karl Bartos to bear (1991's The Mix doesn't count, as it featured re‑recorded versions of older songs). Tired of forever awaiting this "perfect" pop song's arrival, Bartos departed what he termed "the best German group ever" in August 1990, and immediately formed Elektric Music (as it was then spelt), initially in collaboration with Lothar Manteuffel from fellow German group Rheingold. Apparently the new recording project was originally going to be called Das Klang Institut [The Institute Of Sound — Middle European Ed], but this was passed over because it sounded too similar to the name of Kraftwerk's Düsseldorf‑based recording studio, Kling‑Klang, where Karl had spent so many late nights during the previous 15 years.
Although now happily residing in Hamburg, it's apt that I met Karl on his Düsseldorf 'home turf' (ironically within walking distance of Kling‑Klang) at Skyline Studios, where he was applying the finishing touches to the second Electric Music album, titled simply Electric Music. Given Karl's dissatisfaction with Kraftwerk's inactivity, it's somewhat ironic that Esperanto, Electric Music's debut platter, did not emerge until 1993, three years after the split from Kraftwerk — and it's taken five years — a distinctly Kraftwerkian, though not intentional, concept — for Electric Music to arrive.
But, as Karl amiably reasons, "When I left Kraftwerk, I had to build my own studio. Finally, I found a suitable place, and had to decorate it and make various acoustic treatments which took me almost a year. Then I started composing tracks with my ex‑partner Lothar Manteuffel, who had been a friend of mine from the very early days. When he was in school [Kraftwerk collaborator] Emil Schult was his art teacher, so he was always around. Forming a band with him was an obvious move after Kraftwerk. I did my first record in 1993, and he helped me a lot with that; now I'm doing the second one on my own."
Given the air of secrecy that enshrouds Kraftwerk and Kling‑Klang, and which has shielded the studio and its occupants from the outside world for so many years, I could not resist asking Karl if he had sneaked any equipment out from the cloistered confines of Kling‑Klang when he left the group.
"Sure. I'm collecting equipment all the time. The most famous thing I brought with me is probably the electronic voice; the so‑called 'Robo‑Voice' from 'The Robots', 'Musique Non‑Stop' and other Kraftwerk tracks. I'm not using it so much now; I've got a little sick of it!".
'Crosstalk' (Electric Music's first single release, from 1992) extensively features this long‑standing Kraftwerk staple. The album track and single 'TV' also sounded very like Kraftwerk: the string sounds are remarkably similar to those heard thoughout Kraftwerk's 1976 groundbreaking effort, Radio‑Activity, and moreover, the sampled voices from around the world and even the album title hint at Ralf Hütter's aforementioned objective of writing the perfect global pop song.
Karl confirmed that this was the intention, agreeing, "I had a lot of ideas when I was in Kraftwerk, and making a song about television was just a continuation of the same idea we had when making a song about radioactivity; that we're now living in an information society. We went through that idea when we made the Radio‑Activity album in the '70s and I thought, 'Well, nowadays it's just television, isn't it?' The lyrics were just headlines, basically; it was written with a very journalistic approach. I had this image of an information society, so I wrote a song like you'd write an article in The Times. Actually, from my viewpoint, this idea of Esperanto being the global language, and mixing elements of other languages to form a new one is what music has always been about. Music is a global language; it's understandable without words."
To all intents and purposes, the Esperanto album cover design (by long‑term Kraftwerk collaborator Emil Schult, who also assisted lyrically) is essentially the old Japanese flag. I had assumed that it signified a connection between the ever‑increasing possibilities for global communication and the influence of Japanese technology. This proved at least partly correct: "Well, you're right," says Karl, " it is an old Japanese flag, and they put it on their warships, but it's even older than that; it just represents the sun. Esperanto means hope, and the best symbol for hope is the sun, because it keeps us alive."
Karl attributes the delay in producing Esperanto's follow‑up to a number of factors: "After Esperanto, two Mancunian guys — Bernard [Sumner, of New Order fame] and Johnny [Marr, formerly of The Smiths] — came into my life, wanting me to play some percussion tracks on their second Electronic record. I went with them to Manchester and it turned out to be a two‑year project in the end! I've now written nine tracks with them, and it changed my life, in a way. Then I worked with Andy McCluskey of OMD, and we collaborated on his latest tracks. I got married and moved to Hamburg; these things take a little time!".
Of course, the phrase 'it changed my life' has become a bit of a cliché in the pop world; but in Karl Bartos' case, it would appear that the Mancunian influence truly brought about a sea change in the way he made music. It's not just the spelling of the group name that has changed; in every way, the Electric Music album bears little resemblence to its predecessor Esperanto, or indeed Kraftwerk (although the opening cut, 'The Young Urban Professional', does actually date back to Kraftwerk days, having been written in 1986 in New York, when the group were recording Electric Café there). In fact, the content of Karl's new album is much closer to BritPop. Karl explains the reason for the stylistic shift:
"When I worked with Johnny Marr in Manchester, he reminded me that I grew up with guitar playing. It reminded me that I can actually play the guitar, and watching him and how he plays was a big influence on me, because I think he's one of the coolest players around. We became friends, and I decided I should make a guitar record — not just a guitar record by putting some guys together, playing guitars, but a guitar record made using my skills with the computer, with technology, sampling, and sequencing. I wanted to make a real hybrid record. Also, it's got more songs than the last one; I'm not just going for so‑called techno sounds and structures, but real three‑minute pop songs with nice ideas in them."
Although it is of course a late '90s recording, with all the technological trappings this entails, lyrically and stylistically Electric Music features some blatant, though admittedly tongue‑in‑cheek, '60s references. For example, the line 'He blew his mind out on a bed' (from 'Shallow Grave', Karl's homage to Danny Boyle's film) bears more than a passing resemblance to John Lennon's 'He blew his mind out in a car' (from The Beatles' 1967 epic, 'A Day In The Life'). And as Karl explains, the lyric to 'The Young Urban Professional' is a little bit like The Beatles' 'Penny Lane': "'In Penny Lane there is a barber taking photographs...' is similar to 'We can see the young professional walking down the avenue...' It's like a snapshot of five minutes in the life of a young urban professional."
Again, these knowing nods to the past are entirely deliberate. Karl: "I grew up on that British and American pop sound — Motown, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Who. I forgot about them in the '70s when I went back to avant‑garde classical composers like Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and all that musique concrète stuff. In Kraftwerk, I really forgot about pop music — although of course we did do songs like 'The Model' which were in that kind of tradition. Nobody recognised it at the time, but it was still a three‑minute pop song.
"When I met Bernard and Johnny, it really brought me really back to that kind of writing. Before that, for the whole of the '70s until the mid‑'80s, I was only writing on the keyboard; after I'd found a sound. Whereas, now I just sit down with a guitar and play in my garden, and sing. For some reason, this gives me the chance to reach people's hearts musically, whereas with Kraftwerk, we reached them intellectually."
As Karl intimated earlier, although he is primarily known as an electronic artist by virtue of his Kraftwerk connection, it should come as no surprise to learn that instrumentation‑wise, the new album "is mainly guitars."
Lest fans of Karl's earlier work throw their hands up in horror at the idea of a true electronic pioneer prematurely hanging up his MIDI cables, an illustration of his new‑found working methods should prove reassuring: "There are live guitars, but also a lot of sampled guitars, which I put into the computer step by step. I play a chord and sample it, then play a lot of chords and put them in a row. Or I play in individual notes — C, E, G — in a guitar tuning. A lot of it is played originally, but then cut in pieces later. You get nice results if you have a human feel, and you add some machinery to it. It's like a patchwork or collage. The music is played, sampled, and computerised — the drums, the bass, and the keyboards are all programmed. I mean, in the end, it's all digital anyway. Whether you record a symphony orchestra or just a guitar 'unplugged', if you have it on a CD, it's all bits and bytes, so what can you do?"
I think Kraftwerk isn't really techno music in the way that the term is now used.
Many slower tracks on Electric Music begin with an apparently simple strummed acoustic guitar; although, in keeping with the album as a whole, these parts are often more complicated and densely arranged than might first appear: "The recording technique is very well‑known, but nobody does it because it's really time‑consuming. It's actually three types of guitars, and I layer them. You put a chord into a MIDI sequencer in the way a guitar player would voice it, not like a keyboard player. So for a C Major chord, the top string would be E, the next C, the next one G, and so on. If you follow that path, you have a guitar voicing.
"The next thing I do is sample the guitar C chord twice; the down stroke and up stroke. Then I sequence the whole song using that technique — and play along to that, live. I end up with this very strange feel that nobody can work out — is it artificial, or is it real? To me, it's like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. They look so damn real, you're frightened when you see them, but you know they're artificial. I'm really after that hybrid style."
Although the initial stage of Bartos' recordings now seems to primarily involve samplers rather than synths, traditional keyboards have not been entirely forsaken; Karl reveals his fondness for the sound of the Mellotron (though he actually uses samples of the original instruments, which he recorded himself), Wurlitzer pianos, Hammond organs and Theremins, amongst others.
"I always come back to my Minimoog and ARP Odyssey. I've still got them and they're collecting dust, but they're still working. Their sound is still not dated if you know how to twist them a little. The Minimoog is a nice instrument that looks good; a little like a Rickenbacker guitar.
"I've got lots of Akai samplers, but they're just like blank sheets of paper which you can fill with any sound you like. I'm also using Akai DR16 digital recorders and Logic Audio software, but I didn't use that on the new album; I programmed everything on my little Yamaha C1 music computer, which is still working. It's dated and slow, but I don't care because it's very reliable and the result is fantastic. It has eight MIDI outputs and built‑in SMPTE, but they didn't continue with it, unfortunately. It was the predecessor of all this Logic Audio and Cubase stuff, because now they've all copied this concept of having a score and a time window."
Sadly, the use of tried and tested technology like the Yamaha C1 did nothing to alleviate some truly tedious MIDI and audio synchronisation problems. Karl ruefully comments: "It was a nightmare. You know, there are all these interfaces and synchronisers, but if you upgrade to the next generation you can forget everything you've done before, because the offset is so different. We got locked in that trap when playing stuff back from tape using a different interface after the original broke down and got sent away for repair. We had to re‑adjust the offset on every track if we wanted to add more parts. This was really time‑consuming, and I'll never do it again! The problem should be solved by a technology that's been around for a year or so now called word clock, which seems to be great. If you have long digital samples, like a vocal track, within Logic Audio, it will lock up tight as a straitjacket."
Both Esperanto and Electric Music were recorded in commercial studios, Heartbeat in the case of the former and Skyline (whose client list includes such luminaries as ELO, Die Krupps, Propaganda and Karl's fellow ex‑Kraftwerk member Wolfgang Flur, with his new YAMO project) for the latter. However, pre‑production for the new album took place elsewhere: in Frankfurt, where Karl went to "a friend's studio to record really loud, screaming guitars and feedback", and at his Hamburg home: "All the vocal tracks were recorded at my place — in my library, actually. It was really nice to look out of a window, with no studio atmosphere. I'm now building a really good 48‑track digital studio at home where I can achieve almost anything."
Karl's new 'home' studio is simply based around a small Mackie console, his samplers, a pair of speakers, plenty of different guitar amps, and, of course, his DR16s. "The main thing I need is a digital machine where I can store all the recorded tracks; for this reason the Akai DR16 is incredible. It's hard‑disk based and reliable; a cheap, high‑quality workhorse. It's small, so you can easily take it and record in other places. You can also easily expand it by another 16 tracks by buying another machine. For me, 48 tracks makes a lot of sense at the moment."
With noble sentiments like, "I'm just a musician, not a technician. I couldn't say how an engine works in a car, but I can drive one," Karl is evidently not one for blowing his own trumpet technically. Yet with over 20 years of professional recording under his belt, he's perfectly capable of navigating the modern recording studio with ease...
"We recorded a lot of ambience in the live room. For example, we sent the whole electronic drum kit through there and recorded the ambience with different microphones, which adds a subtle texture. We also sent the sound of a sampled piano into a real grand piano, pressed down its sustain pedal and recorded the resultant overtones. It sounds much more real that way. So there was a lot of re‑recording involved in the new album, but it was worth it."
With many younger musicians increasingly ignoring the creative possibilities of the miking techniques employed by Karl, some might argue that a great deal of yesteryear's engineering skill is now irrelevant — after all, if you want weird sounds, you can always reach for a sample CD. Perhaps the prevalence of this outlook explains Karl's slightly scathing attitude towards the distinctive sounds which assisted in Kraftwerk's rise to fame — and his belief that the sounds he's now using have a more universal appeal. "You know, what's got me a little bit down with so‑called electronic music is that now it's all around us. The first 10 positions in the charts are always filled with crap techno sounds. They're so over‑used that I can't really work with those sort of sounds anymore; I'd rather invent my own. The Prodigy are a cool band, and they are using samples all the time as the basis of their sound, but at the moment, I personally wouldn't do this; it's like wearing somebody else's used underwear! I like creating something from scratch."
"On the new record, I did start by playing the tracks into the sequencer, like I used to do in Kraftwerk, but they turned out to be very electronic and '80s‑sounding. Then I discovered this method with layering guitars that I was talking about earlier. As soon as I put a guitar on there, it changed. It evolved from a so‑called techno track into something which girls could also relate to. I researched this with my wife."
You might raise an eyebrow at this, but Karl is at least 50 percent serious. "One of the main drawbacks with electronic music in the past was that it somehow seemed to only appeal to boys. I think it's a technical attraction thing. Guys are turned on by motorcycles or cars, and it's the same with electronic music. But as soon as soon as you put some guitars on it, girls think it's more accessible and human! Anyway, that's the sound I'm after now. Also, if you put guitars on a track, you don't have to worry about the mid‑range. You don't have to think about filling it out or creating unusual rhythms like in hip‑hop music, or whatever. You just have a really structured, singalong song, immediately. I'm already writing new songs. If I'm sitting around with nothing to do for an hour or two, I find myself sitting there with the guitar, strumming along and voila! — there's a new song."
- Neve VR72/Flying Fader (with total recall)
- Alesis ADAT x 3
- Otari RADAR digital 24‑track
- Otari MTR100 48‑track (with Dolby SR)
- Studer A820 half‑inch
- Tascam DA30 DAT
- Telefunken quarter‑inch (with Dolby SR)
- Dynaudio M1 (with subwoofer)
- Genelec 1039
- Genelec 1031A
- Yamaha NS10
- Aphex Type C Aural Exciter
- Aphex Dominator IIQ
- Behringer MkII Studio De‑Noiser
- BBS DPR402 compressor (x2)
- dbx 165A compressor
- dbx 120XP subharmonic synthesizer
- Digitech Studio Vocalist
- Drawmer noise gate (x3)
- Eventide H3000 Harmonizer
- Focusrite ISA131 EQ
- Kepex noise gates (x6)
- Klark Teknik 30/30 EQ
- Klark Teknik DN30 Analyser
- Lexicon 480L reverb
- Manley stereo compressor
- Manley LA 2A tube limiter
- Manley Pultec tube EQ x 2
- Massenburg EQ
- Rebis noise gates (x6)
- Roland SDE3000 delay
- Roland SDX330 Dimensional Expander
- SSL Logic FX compressor
- TC Electronic M5000 effects processor
- TC Electronic EQ (x2)
- Tube Tech EQ
- UREI 1176LN compressor
- UREI 1178 stereo compressor
- Yamaha SPX900 effects
It would be fair to say that Electric Music's new material is pretty densely arranged; there's a lot going on in the mix at any one time. Whilst technology enables Karl to recreate this in the comfort of the studio with relative ease, performing in a live situation may prove difficult. Karl's solution? A live band, of course!
"If I have the chance to play live — and there are already some offers to play some big festivals in Sweden next year — then I'll have a live band. I just don't care about computers anymore. They're not reliable. Also I like to be surrounded by people. It's so nice to have a couple of people around you and just have fun. That was one of the big adventures when we started off with Kraftwerk. We were four guys travelling around, having a good time, all the time! In fact, the most satisfying Kraftwerk period for me was the world tour in '81.
"Nowadays, every big so‑called synthesizer group, like Depeche Mode, use 32‑track digital machines to play back studio recordings on stage. I mean, it's cool; they can play and they are really good, but I think that way of performing is too much fuss. You need a lot of people for maintenance and two 32‑track machines in case one breaks down! Now it's getting cheaper, with all this new digital stuff, but I don't want to do it. I just want a couple of keyboards, guitars and live singing."
For a group who had supposedly used computers in their music composition from the beginning, Kraftwerk were actually relatively late in stepping into MIDI and computer‑based sequencing, as Karl reveals:
"I bought two of the first Linn MIDI sequencers for Kraftwerk in the mid‑'80s; the small rackmount units. They were terrible, though; unreliable and very expensive. Immediately after that came the Commodore 64 computers, which were also bad. It started to get easier with the Atari ST, specifically Steinberg's Pro24 software. When we went to New York and made Electric Café, I met [renowned remixer and producer] François Kervorkian, and he had an IBM‑based computer running a Voyetra sequencer program. I'm still using that today on my Yamaha C1 music computer."
Kraftwerk are often namechecked as the originators of what we now know as electronic dance music, or techno. Does Karl actively feel part of the so‑called dance movement and regularly listen to other dance‑oriented artists?
"No, not really. Although we made a track called 'Technopop' when we came back from Japan, I think Kraftwerk isn't really techno music in the way that the term is now used. I don't really see any connection to all that four‑on‑the‑floor stuff; I mean, it's programmed dance music also, but I consider Kraftwerk to be very different. I never listen to techno, anyway."
- Radio‑Activity (1976)
- Trans‑Europe Express (1977)
- The Man Machine (1978)
- Computer World (1981)
- Electric Café (1986)
When he was invited to join Kraftwerk (initially just as a percussionist for a forthcoming tour), Karl was a 22‑year‑old music student at the Robert Schumann Conservatorium in Düsseldorf, hoping to obtain a regular job as a percussionist with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. At the time — Spring 1975 — Kraftwerk had unexpectedly made it onto the charts, courtesy of a four‑minute single edit of 'Autobahn', their paean to the joys of motorway travel, which, in its original 22‑minute version, occupied the entire first side of the 1974 album with the same name. Unbelievably, for an almost entirely synthesizer‑based song with German lyrics, the single did well on both sides of the Atlantic, landing just outside the Top 10 here in the UK and at number 25 in the US. Subsequently, on the strength of the single, the album reached the Top 10 in both the UK and the States. The rest, as they say, is history...
Given his formal, classical music background and training, I asked Karl if he had had any interest in electronic music prior to joining Kraftwerk. Fascinatingly, his answer suggests that his subsequent pivotal involvement in the genre was purely coincidental...
"No. You see, when I started studying classical music in 1970, I had already spent a couple of years playing drums and guitars in bands; doing all that pop music stuff. Then there came a time in my life, during my early twenties, when I thought, 'Music should be my lifetime profession.' So, being a typical German, I started studying music seriously, because I wanted to be a professor, or at least play in an orchestra. On top of that, I also had a background in jazz, so I wasn't surprised at all when I joined Kraftwerk. It was just a normal thing for me, as I was already well into improvising, which they did a lot of then — whereas a lot of classical music people can only sight‑read.
"Also, if you start playing drums on a classical level, you are confronted by all kinds of different compositions by people like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the '50s and '60s, they were already using techniques like miking big gongs and other percussion instruments to create unusual sounds. Sometimes I had to repeatedly play one instrument for 10 seconds, constantly slowing down the beat, or whatever — so I was always dealing with these weird scores with strange graphics. I was pretty much used to it all, and knowing this, Kraftwerk had called my music professor, as they wanted a classically trained percussionist, with a rather European, German, post‑war approach; not an Anglo‑American pop music approach.
"When I first joined Kraftwerk, I found myself playing mostly improvised music on VDR radio in Cologne, where Stockhausen used to be based. The next big event was a concert at The Olympia in Paris, and then we found ourselves performing on Broadway at the Beacon Theatre! It was really cool."
Along with Wolfgang Flur, Karl undertook pioneering electronic percussive work for live Kraftwerk shows throughout the '70s, and was also credited with electronic percussion on albums as late as 1978's The Man Machine. By 1981's Computer World, his role had expanded somewhat; he was also credited with music co‑composition on all seven tracks alongside group co‑founder Ralf Hütter, while Hütter's original partner Florian Schneider was only involved with four by comparison. Karl described the evolution of his position as follows:
"When I played the American Autobahn tour in 1975, the record was already done. Next, I played all the drums on Radio‑Activity and Trans‑Europe Express — live! Until this time I was just a drummer — then I became a co‑composer with Ralf on The Man Machine, Computer World and Electric Café, where I also sang the vocal track on 'The Telephone Call'. Unfortunately, work then started on The Mix, but I had to move on."
Between the release of The Man Machine and Computer World, Kraftwerk totally rebuilt and remodelled Kling‑Klang studios. Most of the group's equipment was installed in custom portable racks (designed by Wolfgang Flur). This allowed Kraftwerk to effectively take their studio out on tour with them, so that when the group undertook the worldwide Computer World tour following the release of that album, they were able to use the same layout for the equipment on stage as they did in the new studio.
The tour was an unqualified success, both artistically and technologically. As Karl recalled, "The idea came basically from Ralf and Florian. They wanted to have a kind of musical laboratory and make the consoles look very scientific. The idea was to put everything on wheels so it could easily be taken on the road; we could now perform and record anywhere in the world. The concept was really, really good, I think, but it was very time‑consuming to put it all together — and equipment then was a lot more expensive than it is now."
Groundbreaking as Computer World was when unleashed in May 1981, some frankly ridiculous media claims were made at the time, including the idea that all the music on the album was 'played' by computers, like today's MIDI‑driven extravaganzas. In reality, however, as Karl explains, commercially available analogue polysynths of the time were employed on both the album and tour, with Ralf playing the popular Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, whilst Florian hooked up a custom‑built flute 'synthesizer' (which he had designed and built himself) to a Polymoog. Similarly, the electronic 'robot voice' on the album's title track is in fact nothing more than Texas Instruments' then popular 'Speak & Spell' educational electronic games machine — very hi‑tech!
A rare picture of the interior of Kling‑Klang from around this period reveals that the group owned at least one Roland MC8 MicroComposer, one of the first free‑standing sequencers. At the time, a Roland advertising by‑line suggested that the MC8 represented "A new concept of control for a new era in electronic music composition" — but as Karl now laughingly reveals, "It was crap! We never used it on any recordings and wasted a hell of a lot of time on it, actually. Instead, we used custom‑built, very big, analogue‑style sequencers with 32 steps. They were cool! I had something similar built for our drums; an '808‑style concept where you could watch the LEDs going along and change the rhythm as it was playing."
Much of this intriguing gear was built by the Bonn‑based firm of Matten & Weichers — or "Synthesizer Studio Bonn," as Karl affectionately calls them. "They were the only company doing this stuff at the time. They were just students; they started in a cellar under a disco, somewhere in Bonn. They sold the first Minimoog synthesizer in Germany."
Seemingly out of the blue, Kraftwerk scored their greatest commercial success to date when 'The Model', taken from 1978's The Man Machine, topped the UK singles chart in December 1981. Having inspired numerous acts, from David Bowie (an avid admirer of Autobahn) to Gary Numan (particularly his 1979 hit 'Are Friends Electric?') it seemed Kraftwerk's own synthesized vision had finally been vindicated.
However, instead of capitalising on their success, the group released no more records until July 1983, when they released the 'Tour De France' EP. The fortunate inclusion of the title track on the soundtrack to the hit movie Breakdance in the same year helped increase the group's already substantial black American following, and helped pave the way for the Chicago House music and Detroit techno explosion of the late '80s. Kraftwerk had begun down the long and winding road to becoming the 'Godfathers of Techno'...
Die‑hard Kraftwerk fans will already know that 'Tour De France' was destined to feature on the aborted Technopop album, originally scheduled for a summer 1983 release. Technopop even got as far as being assigned a catalogue number by EMI, but was never released, and there has been much debate over the reasons for its failure to appear.
Karl's version of events is that the group had simply been dealt an unfortunate musical hand: "First of all, after we did the worldwide tour in '81, Ralf had a bicycle accident, and he almost died. He fractured his skull and was away for nearly a year. He hadn't been wearing a helmet; he does now! That was the time when we did 'Tour De France', which was supposed to be the first single off Technopop. The single came out, but then this accident happened and it took us a year to continue.
"Then we got a little bit lost in technology, to be honest. Suddenly, in the mid‑'80s, all this digital equipment appeared, including sampling; and there was this fantastic record called 'Beatbox' produced by Trevor Horn [later re‑released as 'Close To The Edit' by the Art Of Noise — mid‑'80s Ed]. His drum sound blew our minds! So we had to step back and think it all over, incorporate MIDI and sampling, and a lot of other stuff.
"When the Technopop record was eventually finished, Ralf flew to New York and mixed it at The Powerstation. The sleeve and everything was done, but Ralf felt insecure about it, and thought we should do the whole production again in New York and call it Electric Café, so we did. I think it was a mistake, but that's just my point of view. I mean, it's OK like it is now; especially 'Musique Non‑Stop', which is a great song; but I think we should have released the Technopop version, because it's much better. Somehow, it's now available as a bootleg record..."
At the time of the 'Tour De France' EP in 1983, Ralf Hütter talked about incorporating cycling‑related noises like bicycle chains, pedals, gear mechanisms, and breathing into Kraftwerk's sound; an obvious reference to sampling. I asked Karl when the group become involved in sampling, and what equipment they used. Neatly sidestepping the main part of the question, Karl points out that sampling of a kind has been around since The Beatles first used tapes of flute sounds (on a Mellotron) in 1966's 'Strawberry Fields Forever', before answering the second half
"They did all that, and there's really no difference between using tapes and digital machinery. In '86, on Electric Café, we used the first Emu Emulator."
It's been suggested that Kraftwerk, after James Brown, are probably the most sampled group of all time. Certainly, the group were involved in one of the first cases of breached track copyright, when Afrika Bambaataa famously used the melody of Kraftwerk's 1977 track 'Trans‑Europe Express' coupled with the rhythm track from 1981's 'Numbers' on his proto‑hip‑hop 'Planet Rock' single.
On the issue of sample copyright, Karl philosophises, "It's really shit if somebody takes a whole record, like happened a couple of times with Kraftwerk, and just sings over the top. To do this, I think you must have clearance. It's cool if somebody calls and says, 'Can we use it?'. Incidentally, the Afrika Bambaataa guys called me up recently and I did a remix of 'Planet Rock'; that was a kind of double‑recycling situation!"
As suggested elsewhere in this piece, all was evidently not well in camp Kraftwerk even prior to the arduous five‑year production of The Mix compilation album — so much so that first percussionist Wolfgang Flur, and then Karl jumped ship prior to that record's eventual release in mid‑1991.
Karl: "I did all the programming on that record; they didn't credit me, though. The original idea was to make a 'Best Of Kraftwerk'‑type record with which to enter the '90s. This was a cool idea by Bob Kratzner from Elektra, our record company in the States; but Ralf wasn't keen on putting a record out without getting his hands dirty! Maybe he thought it was a funny business idea or something. It didn't really appeal to him, so he came up with the idea of making a remix record. He was really thinking ahead, but I think if you made the original record, you shouldn't do the remix yourself. Somebody else should have done it."
Technology, once the theme that united the group, also began to have a divisive effect as the years progressed. Karl elaborates:
"When we did the first Kraftwerk gigs in the mid‑'70s, it was all played live. Then we had a little sequencer built by a technician that could play 16‑step sequences, and that, together with a Minimoog, Farfisa organ and our little electronic drum pads, was it. With that equipment we played all over America, coast‑to‑coast. Then for the next big tour in the early‑'80s, we had little 4‑track tape recorders, and they were locked in sync with these basic analogue sequencers, and that was it.
"Maybe technology got in the way, so to speak. It gives you a big advantage, but learning all about it takes away a lot of energy. I remember a time in Kraftwerk where I just sat around for two‑and‑a‑half years reading manuals, programming a Yamaha DX7 with two Atari computers and two different types of librarians; changing envelopes or whatever, and not making one new composition!"
Eventually, matters came to a head in the '80s. When Ralf Hütter invested a huge sum of money in New England Digital's soon‑to‑become‑obsolete sequencer/sampler, the Synclavier, Karl was dismayed: "I told him not to buy it; it was so terribly expensive! I mean, he bought it himself, but you couldn't even buy a car for what it's worth now. Technology's a dangerous field.
"This whole fascination with equipment was a thing of the '80s. I mean, obviously, SOS is a music technology magazine, but back then it was like surgery somehow — electronic boffins on one side, and on the other, so‑called real musicians! People used to say, 'Those electronic artists can't play; they're just using technology to hide their disabilities' — like they were missing a limb or something!
"Now, in the '90s, everything is allowed; there's more crosstalk between musicians from different backgrounds. I mean, I can talk with Johnny Marr about guitars or synths. The separation is a thing of the past. I remember a famous quote of Ralf's; 'The guitar is an instrument from the Middle Ages'. Well, so what? Books date from the Middle Ages too!
"It took me a couple of years to leave, although I started thinking about it after Electric Café. The longer we worked on The Mix, the more I felt a little useless. I wanted to play around with new stuff, but had to work on this boring project on a day‑to‑day basis. It was unbelievable. Nowadays I think the best thing I did — after studying music and meeting my wife — was joining Kraftwerk; and then it was leaving Kraftwerk! I really enjoyed being in there, but as far as I'm concerned, every band has its limits — a certain amount of time, then they are through."