Jan Svenungsson

"Robot–Pop", un-published


In the mid-eighties Robert Longo stood at the peak of his career. In interviews he used to say that an artist had about seven years – then his work would lose interest and could no longer be cutting edge. The remark was very pertinent to Longo himself, and today we don’t hear any more statements from him.

It seems likely that an artist has a limited number of themes that will be determined quite early, after which his or her activity will consist of the repetition and development of these themes. If you don’t want to share Longo’s fate you’ll need both intelligence and persistence – and a tough minded determination to run your own race without making compromises.

For somebody making pop music the conditions are similar, if not harder. Since the Beatles it has been expected that the artist will perform his own material. The commercial apparatus demands both development and recognizability, from record to record. Then there are the concerts, and in these too there should be development. The hardest part for the successful artist is probably having to see his or her private life constantly reflected in the media. That anybody is able to make timeless pop music seems to be the perfect paradox.

Since 1986 Kraftwerk haven’t released any new music on record. But interest in the (in)activity of these German synthesizer pioneers has not lessened – rather the opposite.

During the 12 years that have passed, Kraftwerk have released an album, but it consisted solely of re–recordings (now digital, it’s true) of old material in new arrangements. At the time when The Mix was released in 1991, the group also did a short tour. Since then and until recently there has been an almost total absence of signs of life from Kraftwerk.

In Kraftwerk’s universe time actually seems to stand still, which is both logical and paradoxical. It’s logical in the light of their stated goal: to create an “Industrielle Volksmusik” that will appeal to everyone independently of their cultural background. It’s paradoxical if you consider each album’s ambition to push forward the technology for making music with electronic instruments. The albums also have themes and concepts based on communication and movement. They have usually been considered ‘ahead of their time’.

As a consequence of their interest in technology, in the first half of the eighties the group began the process of digitalizing their complete sound archives. This work could still be going on; nobody knows for sure. Even though the founding members of Kraftwerk – Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (both now into their fifties) – do give interviews at long intervals (most recently some 6-7 years ago), and always declare that they work hard every day in their Düsseldorf Kling-Klang studio, nobody ever gets a clear idea of what they actually do there. And when it comes to information about the lives of Hütter & Schneider, the absence of information is even more total. Nobody in the media world, and thus nobody in the rest of the world either, seems to know anything for sure about the private lives of Hütter & Schneider. They’ve managed the trick of helping to inspire the wider application of information technology to music – and at the same staying totally outside that development. They have no manager and no publicist. Nobody has their telephone and fax numbers. Nobody even knows if they use e-mail. Simply put, they remain invisible to the world. In discussions of Kraftwerk it isn’t uncommon to hear the question “Kraftwerk, do they really exist?”

At the end of 1996, without any warning, a site suddenly appeared on the Internet: www.kraftwerk.com. To begin with, it consisted of just one page. Against a black background the name was written at the top of the page in neon–green, and below it you could see a green radio mast drawn in the most primitive pixel style. From the top of this mast, which had been positioned diagonally over the page to save space, radio waves were emitted in the form of gif-animated rings. A music-loop of four seconds was played. At the bottom of the page was written ©Klingklang®. That was all. No links, no information, nothing.

On the e-mail list that has now been convening for several years to discuss Kraftwerk’s work, feverish activity now ensued. First the code behind the site was studied in detail. Then attempts were made to make contact with the (hitherto never heard of) person who was listed as responsible to the server company. This person actually did answer at one point, but his one word message made no one any wiser. The members of the e-mail list, several of whom appear to be computer experts, now started to discuss whether the site was a hoax. Was it really credible that Kraftwerk – these technological visionaries – would choose to make their entry to the Internet this way? The site was practically empty! It did nothing – it just existed. For some people, this was in fact the main argument for acknowledging – and admiring – the site. For others it remained a low-tech fiasco, and they now saw the proofs multiplying that Kraftwerk had finally lost it.

During the spring of 1997, the temperature of the debate heated up considerably when various release date rumours surfaced and were then found to be false. One rumour said the group would even play a concert at Tribal Gathering in England, but few dared to believe this. The inhabitants of the e-mail list had now directed search robots towards www.kraftwerk.com, and because of this the news spread immediately when the site was finally updated and a second page was added. A robot appeared behind the radio mast – and performed a little dance! A dot turned out to be a link out into the world, to Tribal Gathering’s homepage: the concert had been confirmed, or so it seemed. For the first time in four years Kraftwerk would show up in public. And perhaps they would even play some new material?

The concert happened.

Kraftwerk played one (1) new song – the first in twelve years.

Except for this, the concert was largely similar to the ones on the ‘91 tour. Except when he sang, Ralf Hütter didn’t open his mouth. No interviews. The new song was an instrumental and quite long, but... didn’t it sound kind of... ordinary? Like something you could throw together in your home studio in an afternoon, somebody dared to say. New discussion: was it possible that the fast development of music technology had eliminated Kraftwerk’s advantage and made them irrelevant? Or could you say that in spite of their technological credo they could be considered to stand above the medium they were working in? A bizarre discussion for any other art form – but with some relevance here, when you consider the oft repeated Kraftwerk statement that in the studio they let the machines play by themselves.

If you look at the development of the group from their breakthrough with Autobahn in 1974 to Electric Café in 1986 you can easily follow a growing technical perfectionism in the sound itself, combined with a slightly melancholic air in the melodies and some texts, as well as undisguised nostalgia in the visual framework. When they released Computer World in 1981 and sang about how computers were taking over our everyday life – in a way that can now only be seen as visionary – they chose a cover for the album that looked slightly outmoded even at the time of its release. This combination of seemingly radically contrasting elements gave the work of Kraftwerk a very special character. You could imagine the group members trying their very best to be like machines, but failing – they can’t deny their human origin.

Already in the seventies Kraftwerk built robot copies of themselves. These were used for photo sessions and TV, and in live concerts. It was said that one day the robots would be able to do concerts on their own. The human members of the group would no longer have to be present.

If you disregard the rhetoric, it’s easy to see that Kraftwerk more than anything work with ‘images’ of machine music and machine behaviour. And that contrasting images are never far away. The famous computer voice that opens the concerts and introduces “Die Mensch Machine” isn’t a synthetically constructed voice, but a human voice that has been recorded and synthesized. Their music is constructed from a mix of ‘figurative’ sounds that ape the sounds of non-synthetic instruments like drums, and ‘non-figurative’ sounds that have no references to anything outside themselves. All the sounds, however, are electronically generated – all but Hütter’s voice, which – especially in the live context – can sound very human indeed...

On the e–mail list, after the concert, there was a lot to discuss. The concert had been taped and broadcast by the BBC. Except for the new song – of course. But after a while somebody was able to record a fragment of about 40 seconds that for some reason was played once on MTV. This fragment now quickly spread as a sound file all over the world. Once again voices were heard saying this must be a hoax, etc., etc. But people who had been present at the concert confirmed that the fragment actually belonged to the new song that had been played. Then something strange happened: exactly the same fragment that had been circulating for some time appeared on www.kraftwerk.com – but as part of a 40–second video. They must be watching us! Or perhaps www.kraftwerk.com is really a fake, and now the faker is desperate to catch up? No answer was given. Is it possible that Hütter & Schneider themselves are members of the e-mail list, using pseudonyms? Some practical jokers manipulated their sender addresses and sent false messages to the list from Schneider, but were soon exposed.

At the beginning of the autumn new information appeared saying that Kraftwerk would play two more concerts, in Linz and Karlsruhe, in October. The information was confirmed by a new link on the homepage. Great turbulence: trips and meetings were planned. Some people would travel all the way from Singapore, others from the USA. Expectations rose: new material simply had to appear. The relative anonymity of the people in the discussions, the shared interest, and the actual existence of these people somewhere out in the world – all this combined with the utter lack of communication created a strange pseudo-religious atmosphere on the list. The people were waiting for a sign, a concert, and a gift from the gods in the form of a record.

The concerts take place. Just a few hours after the first one finishes, I am able to read on my computer the list of songs that were played. And look! Two more new songs have been added. How do they sound? People disagree on whether they’re good or bad. It’s agreed to classify them as ‘dark techno’, whatever that means. I don’t think techno existed as a label in 1986 ... some see a bad sign here. One very happy e-mailer tells the story of how he and a couple of others met Florian Schneider after the concert. Is it true? What did he say? But even though the informant carefully lists the people present at the meeting, what was actually said remains rather vague. Nobody seems to have said very much of interest at all, and certainly not Herr Schneider. Except for one thing: he is said to have denied knowing anything about our – the e-mail list’s – existence. Was he the real Schneider?

Three new songs have been played, and they already appear on some bootlegs from the concerts. Nobody knows what it is we have here: whether they are finished compositions or sketches, whether it’s music that will be provided with a concept or not.

In the older material a strong tension was created when four living people tried hard to make music as robots would have done – but still left a residue that pointed in the opposite direction, towards the romantic. This time – at least as viewed from today’s perspective (one fascinating thing about writing this article is that my speculations could be overturned at any time) – the group, without any comment, performs new music that comes with no singing or text, music that is somewhat anonymous in its structure – and at the same time adheres perfectly to what we could expect from the dance music of today. There’s a groove, yes – you can hum some almost jazzy little figures after a couple of listen throughs – but the music seems a bit aimless. (If I didn’t know any better...?) I could imagine these pieces being improvised in the Kling–Klang studio in the weeks before the concert. In fact they sound a bit like the improvisational pieces on the Kraftwerk albums preceding Autobahn.

Asked once what he would like as a label for Kraftwerk’s music Ralf Hütter answered “Robot–pop”.
Imagine that this time the robots have actually taken over, and that they’re secretly responsible for the new songs. If this were the case they would surely have tried to sound as human as possible... but perhaps without being entirely successful. Maybe they’ve left a trace that will give them away...

Days pass. Weeks and months pass. Somewhere out there Ralf Hütter is having breakfast, reading the newspaper, like the human being he is, after all. At the same time the excitement generated by his virtual existence is growing all the time. The less Kraftwerk do, the stronger their influence. The antithesis of Robert Longo. Like the black hole of pop music they dominate through non-activity. Imagine breaking this rule! Imagine the risk it would involve! Imagine the terror they must feel!


The above was written in March this year. At about the same time rumours appeared that Kraftwerk would go on a short summer tour. The excitement has been rising ever since. Maybe this will be the last opportunity to see them play live! Maybe a record will be released after the tour.

From Kraftwerk themselves not a word, of course.

The same night as this newspaper goes to print, Tuesday 2nd June 1998, the first concert of the tour will be played in Tokyo. All over the world we sit by our computers waiting impatiently for the first reports from our reconnaissance team.

Jan Svenungsson
(translation: JS)