TO most rock fans, the idea that Kraftwerk are more influential than the Beatles is more controversial than John Lennon’s claim that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. But it’s an idea that’s losing its blasphemous edge, as electronic music’s hold on popular culture becomes all-consuming.
Electronic music is now pop’s lingua franca – dance culture has been co-opted by the charts and the mainstream, Kraftwerk almost exclusively play concerts in museums and galleries, and techno pioneer Jeff Mills is currently artist in residence at the Louvre.
One man who’s qualified more than most to ponder on Kraftwerk’s influence is Wolfgang Flür — the drummer of Kraftwerk from 1974-87, when Germany’s own Fab Four rewired popular culture in their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf.
Kraftwerk’s albums Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World are for many electro-pop’s year zero, when Ralf, Florian, Wolfgang and Karl streamlined electronic influences from prog, krautrock and electronic composition to create a new man-machine syntax that informs the majority of current pop music.
Speaking on the phone from his home in Dusseldorf, Wolfgang says the sound of Kraftwerk never leaves him, and he hears the influence in pop and electronic music every day. “Oh it’s everywhere,” he says. “It’s like you go into the forest and you see all the little mushrooms coming out everywhere. Everywhere in the world it sounds like Kraftwerk music.
“I was in Mexico last month for some gigs with my wife and we went to Guadalajara, and in the hotel they were playing Kraftwerk as lounge music in the lift. If you hear ‘The Model’ and ‘Autobahn’ by orchestras or lounge music, it really is something. It’s like with the Beatles, the famous melodies, they will never die.”
Flür adds: “But without the Beatles I don’t know what would have come out of me, maybe I’d be an architect.” He learned to drum by “copying Ringo Starr’s style”, and in 1966 formed the Beathovens, “maybe the best Beatles band in all of Germany… we had to have that ‘beat’ inside like the Beatles, and Beethoven comes from Germany so we made that synonym”.
So Wolfgang is an avowed Beatles fan. he’s even reading a Beatles retrospective at the time of our chat, but he says it’s too hard to compare the two revolutionary bands. He adds: “We were four guys too, maybe that’s the only thing similar, and nearly the same age when we were going on stage with ‘Autobahn’ and starting the first set of Kraftwerk. The Beatles did something brilliant, but in the end it was not new music, they came from rock and blues and they liked Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and everything else. It’s not a new invention in music I must say, even though they are amazing musicians, with their melodies and themes of course.
“But Kraftwerk did something more. We developed a completely new music, a new style. The press called it krautrock, but it’s not krautrock really, it is electro pop.”
After Wolfgang progressed beyond Beatles covers, he formed the Spirits of Sound in the late-60s with guitarist Michael Rother, who later went on to steer the iconic motorik act Neu! along with Klaus Dinger. Rother and Dinger also had a stint in the fledgling Kraftwerk with Florian Schneider during a brief period when Ralf Hutter had left, in their freewheeling improv period that could’ve slotted next to Can at any of the student counterculture happenings of the time.
In 1973, Wolfgang says he was feeling jaded after the Spirits of Sound had split up two years previously, saying: “It was a hard break for me, I loved Michael, he was one brilliant guitarist… for two years I went to my architect office, and my father thought, ‘He’s becoming a good architect’, and interior design was my plan.”
Just as the idea of a music career was being rubbed out on a technical drawing table in the office, Wolfgang says “Ralf and Florian knocked on the door of the office and pulled me out into the rehearsal room”. At first he found Ralf and Florian’s music “weird and crazy”, and adds: “I thought, shit, I couldn’t understand this music, it was too different. It was not the same as what we played later. The experimental music they hired me to play for a TV culture show, it was not the music Kraftwerk is known for now. So I had my problems, but I was well paid and had the first flight in my life, from Dusseldorf to Berlin – and I was 27.
“But then we made that interesting new drum kit from metal plates. We had to build our electronic drum device and that made me proud. And suddenly during this TV show it made that historical click in my brain. I thought this is new to Wolfgang, this is the future of electronic music. Not Krautrock — but electro-pop.” He adds: “When we went to America and presented Autobahn then I realised this is the future, I wouldn’t go to any other band.”
The rest as they say is electronic music history, and Flur is presenting some of this history on Sunday with his Musik Soldat performance as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival – in an underground car park a stone’s throw from the Irish M1 Autobahn. He’ll obviously be playing Kraftwerk classics and remixes, as well as solo work from his acid-influenced 1997 Yamo album Time Pie, collaborations with Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto and Nitzer Ebb’s Bon Harris, and selected techno, electro and industrial cuts. His new album Eloquence is out this year and he’ll be playing ‘Cover Girl’ – a sequel to Kraftwerk’s iconic chart hit ‘The Model’.
“Others would say it’s a DJ show but I’m not really a DJ, I’m more of a music presenter, he says. “I have my own style, I’m very movable. I bring some songs that are very hard in parts, but I like it, I was a drummer, I need hard beats. They are soundtracks and fit to my projections.”
Wolfgang’s accompanying visuals include personal photos from the Kraftwerk vaults you won’t find on Google images, as well as album graphics and industrial films he has shot with his wife. The Musik Soldat (Music Soldier) theme is ironic, as he says he’s been a “pacifist since the age of 15”. Part of the show involves Wolfgang donning a Kaiser Wilhelm helmet while Howard Hughes’ WWI movie Hell’s Angels plays behind him. He says it’s an anti-war statement, as “I think it’s the very first anti-war movie.”
He says Musik Soldat “is meant ironically of course”, adding: “I was a robot, remember, and soldiers are also robots, and they must take their orders… at the end I will shout ‘Jawoll’ and it’s like ‘yes my general’ in the military. It’s also a little bit funny of course, and we make scenes when we are on tour. Even in London in front of Buckingham palace, I put my helmet on and started marching in front. Or sometimes in a hotel I’ll march on the balcony, sometimes the people are wondering what is happening because it looks a bit crazy!”
The Kraftwerk of Wolfgang’s slide show from his personal collection is a world away from the current line-up, with the only founding member Ralf’s vision of automatons in a row as vector graphic avatars. No offence to Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and the other constantly revolving one in Florian’s place, but when we think of Kraftwerk, we see the four faces of Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang on a crude computer screen, in arch string quartet poses or marching in their red shirts. The current Kraftwerk live show is one of the most beautifully realised bonds of music and visual art in popular culture right now, and deserves its performances in art galleries and museums, but Flür always maintains that he’s more man than machine. His slides and snapshots show a young unassuming band backstage, at airports, restaurants and clubs, just going about their everyday business of changing the world.
In a brilliantly droll guest review of their 2013 3D show in Dusseldorf for the Quietus, Wolfgang praised the “brilliant, crispy and digitally clear sound” and “sensational” graphics but felt saddened at the four stationary members, writing: “We used to move; these robots didn’t.”
He elaborates to me: “Kraftwerk has changed several times and this latest one is Kraftwerk Mark III. I compare it with the big Hollywood movie with the shark [Jaws]. Steven Spielberg was the first creator of it and it was brilliant, then they made Sharks 2, and when the third one came they had to have 3D to get people to go. Go to Kraftwerk and you see them playing 3D movies, but where’s the band?”
Wolfgang, who only had his first flight aged 27, says he “absolutely loved touring”, but it was one of the main sources of friction between the Robots. He recalls: “I Liked to travel, Karl liked to travel. I think Ralf also liked to travel but we had a lot of problems on longer tours with Florian, he was always happy to be back home. One time in Melbourne, he did not appear in the evening and we found him in the audience, saying, ‘I’m not necessary, I just want to listen like the audience, you don’t need me on stage’. So we had big problems sometimes, yeah. We can laugh today but we wanted to throw him out of the band in Melbourne, we wanted to break the whole tour and send him home, then go to the beach!”
As the interior designer and architect, Wolfgang assumed the role of crafting Kraftwerk’s increasingly elaborate stage sets, including the mother ship style Computer World design.
“We had all that cases from aluminium and steel, and everything was shining and brilliantly made. But then in Bombay the rain came through the roof and splashed on our instruments,” he says.
Wolfgang laughs when he recalls another daft stage disaster the first time Kraftwerk were in Liverpool, and the pilgrimage to the home of the Beatles had a technical hitch.
“That was the end of 1975 after our first US tour,” he says. “We had already recorded Radio-Activity and that starts with with the ‘Boom boom tschak, boom boom tschak’ beat. We had planned not to start with my electronic drum kit but with a drum cage that we built specially for that tour, with electronic sensors, I would make the sounds by moving my arms. Well sometimes our brilliant toy didn’t work and that night I was waving my arms and nothing was happening. They thought I was a mime artist!
“But then after the show in Liverpool, there was a knock on our door backstage, it was Andy McCluskey and his friends, which I later found out were the band OMD. They said to us, ‘You showed us the future… we’re throwing away our guitars and buying synthesisers tomorrow!’”
These chance meetings, ramshackle stage fumbles and sitcom squabbles are the lifeblood of all young touring bands, and Flür has no problem admitting pangs of nostalgia, saying: “During those years we were meeting late, around 4-5, till 1 or 2, but also we had a lot of ice creams and coffees in between, in restaurants, and going to the cinema and very often to clubs dancing. I felt we really became friends to each other. It was a fantastic time, as long as it could last.
“The peak for me was 81 on our Computer World tour. This was the last album of my former band seen from my view… the last one Electric Cafe was cold coffee for me, it was the end.”
Unfortunately for Wolfgang and Karl Bartos, who soldiered on til 1990, this end dragged for years. Ralf and Florian’s work rate seized up through the 80s, as inertia crept in with a new generation of electro-pop acts standing on the shoulders of the German giants, taking shortcuts into the charts with new cheaper commercially available synths. Albums were scrapped, and Kraftwerk struggled to conceptualise the present they’d predicted in the previous years.
“There was less and less work, because they had new devices — and these new devices were not synthesisers but bicycles,” says Flür.
“There were the 24-gear bikes and the clothes and the crew. They would go to the nature site south of Dusseldorf with mountains and hills and not come back to the studio. Karl and I were waiting and waiting and waiting, maybe they’d come, maybe not. Then we’d go to a restaurant and after a while it was too late, we could only go home. There was no music-making, only bicycle racing. I don’t want to be a bicycle racer. Myself, a sportsman? I did it only twice or three times just for the video of ‘Tour de France’.
“This was the reason nothing more happened. I had to do something else, anything. I didn’t quit the band generally, I went less and less to the studio, till no more.”
Flur says that upon leaving, he had a “big depression for nearly three years”, adding: “I didn’t know what to do. I was so used to going to the studio to meet my friends. I’m at the beginning of my 40s, so what shall Wolfgang do in the future? With what could I pay my rent? For what should I live?”
Wolfgang fell back into his trade of interior design and architecture, and “made a little workshop with two other guys”, until the Bosnian War in 1993 inspired him to write his first set of lyrics for a song called ‘Little Child’, and it re-stoked his artistic urges again, collaborating on the Yamo project with Andi Toma of Mouse on Mars, which has led to “a life of cooperations” with other artists since. He says after years of just being the “little drummer boy”, the Yamo album in 1997 was an epiphany: “Looking at the record, seeing composed by Wolfgang Flür, lyrics by Wolfgang Flür… this development was very important to my life, to find my artistic talents, much more than only drumming. In Kraftwerk I lived in a ‘golden cage’. I had a lot of money maybe, but the fee is not so interesting. I haven’t been a drummer for 10 years or so, I’m more of a lyrics writer now, a storyteller kind of guy.”
Of course Flür has been a known raconteur and storyteller for years, and his memoir I Was a Robot is part cultural analysis, part autobiography and part tall tale take-down of the impeccably curated image of the artificially intelligent automatons charging their batteries. I Was a Robot isn’t so removed from a regular ramped-up rock’n’roll biography, with plenty of party passages, groupies and a few details that pissed off Ralf and Florian enough to secure their removal after a lawsuit.
This lads on tour version of Kraftwerk may get further weight in the near future. When I ask if he’s still good friends with Karl he says immediately: “Absolutely! I phoned him this morning, and all the time. He’s writing his own book by the way. It’s coming out soon, we are all looking forward to it. Very often he calls, ‘Wolfgang, can you remember this date, what about the girls afterwards, and so on. Yeah we were not only robots I can tell you!”
The ship has long since sailed with his other former bandmates, but he does recall the last time he saw Florian: “It was standing on a crossroads in Dusseldorf at a red light and he was passing by in this tiny English green car. He saw me and waved the hand grinning to me, and I waved back and shook my hand. That was the last time.”
It’s touching that Flür can laugh at the absurdity in these little instances. Kraftwerk Mk I has disassembled, but he recalls the Kling Klang days with genuine fondness and plenty of hearty laughs about their friendship. Even if some of the personal relationships soured, he still maintains total respect for Ralf and Florian’s original artistic vision. When pushed for a proudest moment, he says simply: “I am proud that I said yes to them… that I understood the future in this music they showed me. We built so many things together, and we became friends then. It’s a very good part in my life history.”
- Wolfgang Flur plays Western Motors in Drogheda as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival on Sunday, May 3. Tickets €25 from here (advance booking only)
Original Version in Irish Daily Star