You already know Kraftwerk, of course. That’s right, the robot guys. Techno pop and “fahren, fahren, fahren on the autobahn”. Even if you’ve never heard the music, you’ll know the image: four implacable, identical robots lined up behind banks of computers.
Given that this career retrospective box set has been some six years in development, you could be forgiven for thinking that it might play with that image a little. Maybe show another side of the band with unreleased material. Or, like The Beatles reissues, make it all sound box fresh and brand new again.
Well it won’t. Not even a little.
Sure, the remasters are nice, but these records were so crisp in the first place that the difference is slight. No, what we have here is a straight-up reissue of the canonical Kraftwerk; the eight core albums, including ‘The Mix’, but not a trace of their long out of print first three records. And don’t go expecting any unheard material. This ain’t no Neil Young ‘Archives’, son. According to the band this is all they have.
Still, “all they have” is some of the finest electronic music ever recorded. And unlike those £200 mono Beatles box sets, you can buy these albums separately.
From ‘Autobahn’ through to ‘Trans-Europe Express’, Kraftwerk are simply unbeatable, meshing musique concrète with radio friendly melodies. Autobahn’s title track roars along for twenty-plus minutes, but it stands out because of that Beach Boys chorus, not the bursts of noise that punctuate it. ‘Radio-activity’ is more subdued, but every bit as essential. In its ghostly electronic whispers, generations of techno artists found their voice. But it’s with ‘Trans-Europe Express’ that the band reach the pinnacle of their gleaming, metallic krautpop. From the euphoric ‘Europe Endless’ to that grinding, gorgeous title track, this is machine music at its most evocative and accessible.
‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Computer World’ move in a different direction: shorter, more direct songs. Fans may have been shocked when Flür’s biography revealed that Kraftwerk weren’t really androids, but a gang of horny young men, but it’s obvious here. From longing for a “rendezvous” on ‘Computer Love’ to the model about to be taken home, this is sex pop for robot romps. If ‘Computer World’ is slightly less engaging that its predecessors, it’s simply a matter of familiarity starting to set in.
Even so, by the time of ‘Electric Café’ (here renamed ‘Techno Pop’ for lengthy and confusing reasons) something is definitely up. Recorded over five years, it sounds like a band running on empty. ‘Musique Non Stop’ is jolly enough, but did it really need stretching across half the album? Shortly after its release, their Kling Klang studio went into lockdown. Members drifted away. Aside from the odd live show and ‘The Mix’, a pointless exercise in remixing the hits, Kraftwerk was over.
And then it wasn’t. A 1999 single, ‘Expo 2000’, heralded their return. Hot on its heels, a mere three years later, ‘Tour De France Soundtracks’ is no classic, but it’s better that its rep would suggest – and a considerable improvement on ‘Electric Café’. At times the slick, anonymous beats could be anyone, but the old magic is still there on ‘Vitamin’ and ‘Aerodynamic’.
It’s hard not to feel disappointed with the gaping holes in ‘The Catalogue’. You can already pick these albums up for a fiver a pop, while the early records remain frustratingly out of print. But the music endures, as timeless and of its time as ever, and as playful, sexy and strange. Just shy of forty years after their formation, they’re still required listening.
Words by Ed Salmon