The boys from Dusseldorf, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schnieder were both in a group called Organisation before they formed Kraftwerk in 1969. But the electronic pioneers that we now know and love were quite a different beast in the early 1970's, and its not just in their haircuts and choice of clothes. Hutter appears now to acknowledges this difference by refusing to allow the re-release of their first three albums, or even include them in Kraftwerk's discography. So if you want to hear their early work it can only be found in bootleg versions and the ubiquitous You Tube videos.
Here's a live performance recorded in 1970 of Ruck Zuck the opening track of Kraftwerk's first album. Schnieder plays a muti-tracked flute which lends it a folky air of 'Jethro Tull' . Every now and then you'll recognise a particular music cadence or rising tone sequence on the flute that you realise gets re-used in later Kraftwerk. The band also features Klaus Dinger on drums who is the originator of German 'motorik' drum beat.
On first hearing they are hard to define This isn't really trad rock but neither is it avante garde modernism. The final track on Kraftwerk 1 is Vom Himmel Hoch its an altogether darker doom laden affair that bears comparison with the bleak industrial sound of early Cluster.
As a second album it is admittedly a strange one. It opens with the track KingKlang ( later to be the name of their studio) which starts with an oblique percussive overture of ringing bell noises similar to a Stockhausen piece, which then it settles into a groove that has hints of the future Kraftwerk, but its sparser and often veers closer to minimalism than a piece of pure pop music.
The album comes across as though its a series of exercises in paring down musical structures. Its all getting rather arid and conceptual, even down to re-referencing the Warhol inspired road cone on the cover, this time in green. They use no pure synthesiser sound, every sound continues to be generated from actual instruments electronically treated. No rhythms from conventional drums and still no vocals. On this album Hutter & Schnieder sound like two men in search of a fresh direction, but not finding it.
The album is though full of rather delightful informal gems, and with these they begin to catch the attention and influencing of other musicians. David Bowie citied R & F as one of the influences he drew on for his Berlin trilogy. Brian Eno borrows ideas from it, on Discreet Music, made two years later, he uses a very similar taped looped tonal sequenc as Heimatklange the fourth track on the album. They remain just Hutter & Schnieder, they still don't have a drummer and often settle for flicking the rhythm switch of an electric organ on. However, it does feature on Ananas Symphonie their first use of a proto-type voice vocoder. It is with the fifth track Tanzmusik that you get the first appearance of a piece of music that can be considered the genuine progenitor of the future classic Kraftwerk sound. Slightly sloppier in its rhythm section, with wobbly ethereal backing vocals, but a real charmer nonetheless.
Its unusual in popular music for a band to find their signature sound so late. A third album is usually where they achieve their most fully realised and polished version of it, which they struggle thereafter to quite match or exceed. Kraftwerk seemed to have to get all their hippie and arty pretensions out of their system before they were able to create that definitive album. Autobahn (1974) is a record that is really worthy of being called groundbreaking and proved to be the starting gun for a whole new chapter in popular music.
So what happened to resolve all those conflicting ideas and bring this accelerated rate of change about? No one really knows except Hutter & Schnieder I guess, and they're not saying much that is enlightening about this period. But if you're looking for external influences I'd point you in the direction of the track Hallogallo from 1971 by Neu! who are Klaus Dinger & Micheal Rother remember, both ex-Kraftwerk collaborators. That's where the 'motorik' beat sound that Autobahn' features originates. But also catch a listen to the track Krautrock, from Faust's 1973 album Faust IV. Both tracks are featured on previous posts.
Even on Autobahn there is still the odd bit of fluffy flute around, but the direction was now set. Here is a music with a distinct individual vision behind it. Gone are most of their self-indulgent exercises in arty farty notions. Kraftwerk's sound becomes more and more stylistically and electronically pure, with its simple, almost Bach like, melodies gliding over a backing track that is crystal clear with not one single note out of place. Plus vocals ' Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der autobahn' with lyrics. But then words were never their strong point.