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How Kraftwerk beamed themselves into the future

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Formed among the debris of postwar Germany, Kraftwerk belonged to a young cohort of Germans that dreamt of a clean break from the country's fascist past.

Generational tensions had come to a climax in the late 1960s with the student demonstrations, in which young left-leaning Germans rebelled against a society that still contained countless Nazis among its upper ranks.

In the wake of these opinion-shifting protests, Kraftwerk helped forge a new musical and cultural movement, one that strived to estrange the nation's youth from the dark days of their forefathers. During their golden period of 1977-1981, the group's ideas, both musical and lyrical, did much more than rewrite musical history; they painted a picture of the world to come.

Newly created synthesisers were untouched by tradition and consequently used as tools to forge a new musical future by forward-thinking German musicians. In adopting such technology, Kraftwerk consciously played with popular concerns of an increasingly digital age. Could machines ever become indistinguishable from humans?

The coldly robotic beeps and whirrs of the band's greatest albums are always tempered by a minutely imperfect human touch - a beat slightly off here, a note slightly flat there. As a result, a listener can never be quite sure what's human and what isn't. But it's the imperfections of this dysfunctional marriage between man and machine that reveal a band pointing knowingly towards the future.

As well as proclaiming that a gleaming, prosperous world was within their reach, Kraftwerk also revealed the jarring effect such a world could have on people's lives and the fundamental disconnect between flesh and machinery. The vision of the future they constructed, particularly on 1981's Computer World, was bustling and seamlessly integrated and yet it remained painfully lonely.

Many of Kraftwerk's predictions have long since come true

While fellow dreamer George Orwell saw a horrifying future dominated by government surveillance and propaganda, Kraftwerk were subtler. They realised that humanity would ultimately be the victim, as well as the beneficiary, of its own progress. In 'Computer Love', possibly the band's finest moment, the narrator turns to the comfort of technology after spending another night alone watching TV. "I call this number / For a data date," Ralf Hütter sings. Tinder, anyone?

Kraftwerk were always concerned with the impact of technology on humanity as a whole, but Computer World saw the band zeroing in on the microcosmic implications this futuristic machinery would have on everyday life.

"We like to portray things we do on a day-to-day basis in our music. Other people might be fascinated by space flights to the moon and so on," Hütter explained in 1981. "We did try a space lab kind of set once, but always prefer now to relate to everyday technologies, such as cars, trains and other human-controlled machines."

It's precisely this oscillation between an international and a domestic scale that allowed Kraftwerk to create a uniquely nuanced vision of the future they anticipated. At times, their world is terrifying. 1977's 'The Hall Of Mirrors' predicted the worrying mental health implications that have arisen from overuse of social media in recent years. The lyrics are uncannily prophetic in their descriptions of our anxiety-inducing tendency to buy into the artificially-constructed lives we see today on Instagram: "He made up the person he wanted to be / And changed into a new personality / Even the greatest stars / Change themselves in the looking glass."

On other occasions though, the band are filled with boundless optimism as they look to the future. 1977's 'Europe Endless' jauntily anticipates the ever-closer alliances between the continent's constituent states. And sure enough, with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, the European Union was formally ratified, free movement of people became a reality and an endless Europe was in sight. Many of Kraftwerk's predictions have long since come true. In fact, many of their dystopian prophecies are now commonplace to the point of banality.

Today, the band are clearly attentive to this fact. Their live performances are often self-consciously tongue-in cheek, acutely aware of their own kitschy, nostalgic appeal. But Kraftwerk's music provides a rare opportunity to hold a mirror to modern times and gaze at the Man Machine that we have all become.

Harry Gold

Kraftwerk play Bluedot 2019 at Jodrell Bank Observatory between 18 and 21 July.

Next article in issue 132

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