Self-styled “Man Machine” Milo McLaughlin delves into The Catalogue, a box set of 8 remastered versions of classic Kraftwerk albums from 1975’s Autobahn to 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks.
Note: This was originally written in November previous to the release of the box set but was held back for the January 2010 issue of The Skinny Magazine to coincide with Kraftwerk’s 40th anniversary.
Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter, known for his perfectionism and ruthless revisionism, would no doubt consider The Catalogue to be the ultimate upgrade, with each track ‘reconstructed’ from scratch using the latest musical technology. But some fans and reviewers are already complaining that subtleties have been lost from the original recordings.
Other bones of contention are that the first three albums recorded by Hütter and original bandmate Florian Schneider (who left the band in November 2008) and the brilliant 2005 live double-album Minimum-Maximum are absent and there is only a single bonus track (Techno Pop’s House Phone).
What is contained here however is a stunning, pristinely produced collection of Kraftwerk’s most iconic albums. Even as a casual fan it’s impossible to discount the scale of their influence on modern electronic music. With an unparalled insight into modern Europe and a stylish, uniquely German symplicity, Kraftwerk created the future sound of music – their mantra: progress. Whether it be technological or geographical, Kraftwerk’s ethos from 1974 to 1981 was one of constantly moving forward.
The collection begins with 1974‘s Autobahn and the rev of an engine and a motorcar speeding off into the distance. The 22 minute title track, which brought them their first international hit in its edited form, is as far-reaching as the vast German motorway itself. With its ambient gear shifts and hypnotic rhythm it’s a highly effective audio recreation of long distance driving, with a compelling sequence of instrumentals, each with a distinct mood, making up the rest of the album.
1975’s Radio-Activity was the first to feature Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, cementing the classic Kraftwerk line-up. The title track, with its memorable synth motif and funereal aura, is the most foreboding of their various odes to man-made technology. But the album also celebrates the transistor radio as a communication tool, with its music as elemental and alluring as the radio signals themselves.
Trans-Europe Express two years later was the sound of Kraftwerk hitting their stride, bringing a more solid pop/dance sensibility to tracks like the tongue-in-cheek, malfunctioning rhythms of Showroom Dummies. Whilst the overarching themes were around transportation and communication, that track shares the theme of superficiality with the glacially minimalist Hall of Mirrors. Some of the albums’ lyrics were said to be partly inspired by conversations with Bowie and Iggy Pop, also name-checked in the title track.
By 1978’s Man Machine, the showroom dummies had become fully blown Robots. Another key song was inspired by a different kind of mannequin, model Christa Becker, with whom Schneider and Hütter were reportedly obsessed. The more traditional subject matter of sexual attraction, plus a perfect pop melody combined to make The Model their most accessible and popular track, reaching number one when it was re-released as a single in the UK in 1982. Factor in the gleaming urban audioscapes of Metropolis and Neon Lights, and this album can probably be considered the pinnacle of the collection.
Few concept albums have been as prescient as 1981‘s Computer World. In the title track,with its roll-call of organisations of international espionage and finance, Kraftwerk foresaw the blueprint for the world’s future communication network, with its “business, numbers, money, people”. Pocket Calculator displays a genuine fascination with what now seems an unspectacular and simplistic piece of gadgetry, accompanied by a sample-led groove. Even Coldplay’s pointless appropriation of the melody from Computer Love can’t ruin such a perfect collection of classic electro-pop.
It took Kraftwerk five years to release another album and many would say they shouldn’t have bothered. Techno Pop, as it’s called here, which is a weak enough name in itself, was originally released under the cringeworthy title of Electric Cafe in 1986. Where the band once led, the likes of Detroit Techno and affordable samplers and drum machines meant they were now reduced to playing catch up, and they seemed to be lost when it came to an overarching theme too. Musically it’s not appalling by any means, but the lack of conceptual inspiration seriously undermines its credibility.
What followed are best seen as footnotes when judged against the albums that preceded, and for a new listener could stand in for that missing bonus material. 1991‘s The Mix does what it says on the tin, with some excellent modern remixes of their most accessible tracks, and would serve as an enjoyable greatest hits package or introduction for new listeners. The Tour de France Soundtracks emerged in 2003, reflecting Schneider and Hütter’s obsession with cycling (Bartos and Flür were now long gone). It’s an efficient, decent attempt to represent their sport of choice, but it’s merely a competent addition to the techno genre, from musicians who once defied such easy classification.
It’s clear that through the course of Autobahn to Computer World Kraftwerk were at the top of their game and well ahead of everybody else on the musical autobahn. But eventually, and perhaps inevitably, they were overtaken by the very thing they appeared to worship – progress. Then again, perhaps it was simply because Kraftwerk had so succinctly predicted the future that there was little else left to say once it became a reality.
And if that didn’t sell you, this cool unboxing video ought to do the trick..
Buy The Catalogue on Amazon