An incredibly rich vein to mine
Ben Willmott
15:09 30th June 2020

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If there’s one image that really sticks in the mind from Kraftwerk’s 3-D shows in the UK in 2017, it wasn’t the computer that floated above the heads of the audience or robots taking the band’s place for the first encore.

In fact, it was an old bit of black and white newsreel footage from the 1930s or 1940s projected onto a massive screen as the German legends played their tribute to the most famous cycle race in the world, Tour De France.  The footage showed cyclists negotiating a perilously thin mountainside path at full pelt.  Ahead of them, obscuring both the way ahead and the deadly drop that surely awaited anyone slipping up even slightly, was a thick fug of impenetrable grey cloud.  Nevertheless, onwards the cyclists hurtled.

If you were looking for a metaphor for the state of Britain at the time, speeding towards the Brexit cliff edge, you couldn’t really ask for more.  In fact, Brexit cast a long, dark shadow over this celebration of Kraftwerk’s rich catalogue of work.  Tracks like ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Autobahn’ and ‘Tour De France’ were all about Europe moving on from and transcending the traumas of World War II to create a new, harmonious future.  Suddenly, it felt more like a sad elegy for a moment in time when that had seemed possible, a moment now passed.

While undoubtedly this legendary band’s  best known recordings are their English language versions, in keeping with their continent-wide vision they have used French, Spanish and German in their lyrics as well as our native tongue.  Now, for the first time, the group generally acknowledged to be The Beatles of electronic music are issuing their five previously highly collectable German language albums in digital form worldwide.

Four of the five albums are culled from the band’s most productive period, starting with 1977’s Trans-Europa Express then taking in Die Mensch-Maschine the year later, Computerwelt from 1981 and Techno Pop from 1986.  An alternate German version of The Mix, their 1991 re-polish of former highlights completes the set.  An incredibly rich vein to mine, it details their subtle evolution from eccentric prophets using rudimentary – indeed, at times homemade - analogue equipment to their place at the very cutting edge of the digital technology that would shape music from the 80s onwards. 

You’d have to be one of those pretentious pseuds who believes you can only truly read Homer or Sophocles in the original Greek, to claim that these are the definitive versions of such famous songs.  Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to encounter these alternate versions and, given that the band have always used their nationality as a key part of their personality, there is definitely something here that sounds even more Kraftwerk than the versions we already know so well.

Obviously, it’s the more vocally-slanted songs, of which there are plenty to choose from, that are the most different and therefore delightful to behold.  ‘Taschenrechner’ – or ‘Pocket Calculator’ – from Computerwelt skips along so playfully, ‘Die Roboter’ (‘The Robots’) from Die Mensch-Maschine sounds even icier and cool than ever, as does the latter’s title track, which draws the album to a whole.  We can’t not mention the catchily titled ‘Schaufensterpuppen’ – ‘Showroom Dummies’ – from Trans-Europa Express either.  This one really does sound like it was made to be sung in German, even more deadpan and even more gently hilarious as a result.

While The Mix marks the beginning of Kraftwerk’s consolidation period, one that’s lasted 30 odd years with only a couple of new tracks to speak of, this album of re-workings with one eye on the dance market still sounds pretty grand too.  The differences, apart from a remastering job, with the original UK release are much smaller, but when it sounds this good it’s hard to quibble.  This rendition of ‘Music Non Stop’, switching between English and French, is the one the band have closed their live set with for years now and it is about as classic as electronic music ever gets.

So, while the long and painful drought of new Kraftwerk material continues without much sign of relief, this is at least a pretty hefty and fascinating diversion to lose yourself in.  Indeed, nice ‘Werk if you can get it – and now you can.

All five albums are released on 3 July 2020 via Parlophone.

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