As you wander from North Greenwich tube station around to the O2 Arena, you stroll along a wall that carries along its considerable length a timeline of pop. Among very few surprises along that wall, which contains the great and the not so great of pop – in at number 1974 – is Kraftwerk.
While they may have had limited chart success, the reach of Kraftwerk’s influence in music is immeasurable. Much like Pixies did for noisy indie music a decade later, a slightly odd bunch of unfashionable, quirky and awkward musicians just went ahead and did their own dancy, minimalist thing with keyboards, only to find themselves changing the shape of the musical landscape for good – and very much for the better.
The reason the powers that be at The O2 chose 1974 was the release of Kraftwerk’s first breakthrough release, Autobahn (actually the band’s fourth album). Now, 35 years after its release, comes The Catalogue – an eight-disc box set covering the band’s long players from then onwards.
The albums have all been digitally transferred, while much artwork meant for the original releases has been added. There has also been some remixing going on, and unedited tracks included, but not much in the way of extras. Arguments will rage about whether the new versions improve/detract on the originals and I won’t go into it here. However, I’d suggest you give it a listen before spending your life savings if you’re worried.
The two earliest albums here, the above-mentioned Autobahn and 1975’s Radio-Activity, have never really done it for me when compared to the three preceding ones. Both still seem like a band exploring their boundaries, and well they might: they were breaking new ground with every step. With the exception of the 20-minute title track of Autobahn itself, I can leave the rest. But this is the experimentation and imagination on which the later classics were built, and stand as an interesting insight into the band’s fascination with technology and Germany as themes, as well as pop as a musical medium to take in a new direction.
For me, this was first fully realised with 1977’s Trans-Europe Express. The album pioneered electronic music almost single-handedly, becoming one of the most important albums of the decade. The elegant pop of ‘Europe Endless’; the rhythmic sequencer innovation in ‘Trans-Europe Express’, and the classic synth sound of ‘Metal on Metal’ that influenced everyone from Afrika Bambaataa (and other early hip hop pioneers) to Depeche Mode.
1978’s Man Machine is home to ‘The Model’, as well as more beautifully minimalist sequenced dance pop and synthetic vocals. Its robot theme extended to actual robots for its album launch, which became a live trademark. Three years later Computer World followed, building on their reputation for flawless electro with classics such as ‘Computer Love’ and ‘Numbers’. However, I’d argue they never really reached these heights again.
After a long hiatus (that included the release of single ‘Tour De France’) Kraftwerk returned in 1986 with Electric Café (here called Techno Pop, its original name). There was no home for ‘Tour De France’, and without a theme it seemed to lack coherency or direction. The Mix followed in 1991, being a kind of remixes/best of hybrid that worked to a point. It’s inclusion here seems a little odd, to be honest, but there you go.
The last disc in the set is 2003’s Tour de France, released to coincide with the famous race’s 100th anniversary and finally giving the single of the same name a home (after a lonely 20 years), albeit a remixed one. Overall it’s a pretty solid album, proving a strong theme still brings the best from the band. But even though, electronically, both the band and the world was 30 years on – and what a 30 years in technology that was – Tour de France still sounds like Kraftwerk, but still sounded fresh and new: again, just like Pixies, a clear testament to the longevity of innovation and quality.