KRAFTWERK IN THE 1970S AND 80S
by Mark Nobes, chief editor
For those of you who don't already know, Kraftwerk are a German synth act who have often been described as the Godfathers of electronic music. They often sing their vocals through a vocoder, or use computer-generated vocals.
Of course, there are plenty of critics who simply don't understand the minimalist, emotionless, robotic sound, but this was exactly what Kraftwerk were trying to achieve. They were not interested in the big productions and excessive reverb that many other 70s and 80s acts relied upon.
Formed in 1970, the name Kraftwerk is German for "Power Plant". The quartet's first hit single in the UK was "Autobahn" which reached #11 in 1975. The band had to wait until the 80s for their next hit, though. In 1981 their "Pocket Calculator" single managed to just break into the Top 40, peaking at #39. This was the first track to be released from the album Computer World.
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Studio Album Discography
1972 Kraftwerk 2
1973 Ralf And Florian
1974 Autobahn #4
1977 Trans-Europe Express #49
1978 The Man-Machine #9
1981 Computer World #15
1986 Electric Cafe #58
2003 Tour De France Soundtracks #21
Highest UK chart positions are shown
The cover from the Computer World album (2009 re-master). The original album was released in 1981.
The Autobahn album was a top five hit in the UK, U.S. and Canada and the title track last for 22 minutes. This was, obviously, shortened considerably for the single release. The album isn't 100% electronic and actually features a violin, flute and guitar.
Original 1974 LP (UK)
Radioactivity is a regular feature at Kraftwerk's live concerts and was originally released in 1976 as the only single from the 1975 album Radio-Activity. The song topped the charts in France, but wasn't a hit in the UK. The previous single Autobahn - this was the title track from the band's debut album - had reached #11 in the UK and #25 in the U.S.
Radioactivity was remixed an re-released in 1991 as the second track from the remix album The Mix and reached #43 in the UK. A new version of The Robots was also re-released prior to this to promote the album and reached #20.
Radioactivity French 7" single (1976)
1991 single with A-side remixed by Francois Kevorkian and B-side remixed by William Orbit.
TRANS EUROPE EXPRESS (1976)
The Trans-Europe Express video featured an
extravagant train journey which used as a press conference by EMI France.
The track was the lead single and title track from the band's third album (released later in 1977) but failed to chart in the UK, although it was a minor hit in some European countries. Two more singles were released from the album which were Showroom Dummies, the only hit single from the album in the British singles chart reaching #25, and Europe Endless.
THE ROBOTS (1978)
Original 1978 single sleeve
NEON LIGHTS (1978)
Neon Lights is from the 1978 album The Man-Machine, which also featured the No.1 single The Model. Neon Lights has been covered by Simple Minds, OMD and U2. The song failed to break the UK Top 40, peaking at #53. Quite surprising considering that the previous single, The Model, had topped the UK charts and this was a decent tune.
THE MODEL (1982)
The song was originally released as a B-side to Computer Love which reached #36 in 1981. However, DJ's decided to start playing The Model instead of the A-side Computer Love, and this led EMI to re-release the single in December 1981 with The Model as the A-side, which was, apparantly, against the band's wishes.
The Model reached #1 in February 1982 (four years after the original release of the Man Machine album!) and stayed inside the Top 75 for 21 weeks.
Das Model (German) single sleeve (1978)
TOUR DE FRANCE (1983)
Featuring a combination of mechanical and vocal sounds and samples, and an electro drum/percussion beat, the original release of Tour De France (June 1983) reached #22 in the UK and #47 in the band's home country of Germany.
The breakdance remix was released in August 1984 and peaked at #24 in the UK, but did well on the US Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart reaching #4.
A completely new recording of the Tour De France album was issued in 2003 and was based on the original 1983 album. A re-release of the single in 1999 failed to break the Top 40, stalling at #61 in the UK singles chart.
POCKET CALCULATOR (1981)
Now before you get confused, this video features the German electronica band performing Pocket Calculator in Italian. Actually, it works really well in Italian!
The Telephone Call (1987)
There were only six tracks on the original album which had a very typical minimalist sound, with electronic synthetic sounds and computer generated voices that are completely devoid of any emotion, which is what they were setting-out to achieve, of course.
The main problem, however, was that there was nothing really new here, and many critics argued that there was a lack of focus on the album, with no real stand-out track and the band not knowing quite which direction they were taking. But it has many fans, and what Kraftwerk do best is not try to be too clever and keeping everything simple, not adding too many layers, and allowing each part of the song to be clearly heard. This was starting to sound dated (at the time!) with many other artists using up-to-date or over-the-top production techniques in their work, and so the critics were expecting more. Whether the German group had run out of ideas, or were simply sticking to what they know will always be up for debate, but I admire them for not pandering to the demands of others.
It would be another four years before the release of another Kraftwerk album, although The Mix (released in 1991) wasn't an album of brand new material, but remixes of already released tracks. It was commercially successful, though, with the remix of The Robots reaching #20 in the UK and the album itself peaking at #15.