“Forgive and forget, Major. Or at least pretend that we do.” (Basil Fawlty)
My mother never quite forgave the Germans after “they” killed her cat in the Blitz. That sad event occurred in November 1940, but growing up in ‘70s Britain felt like the war had just ended. My uncle meanwhile was taught in a playground after the obliteration of his school in the same raid, which made him rather resentful towards Germany as well. Comedy goose-stepping on ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Colditz’ on Monday nights, ‘The Great Escape’ on Boxing Day. Annoyingly Bayern Munich and West Germany had mastered the game “we” had introduced to the world, which only deepened our misgivings towards “them”.
So, as a kid, a vague mistrust of Germans was in all us kids’ DNA.
Which might explain why the Krautrock of Can, New and Faust rather passed us by. The arty kids swapped Genesis and Yes albums, the angry ones wore jackets with Deep Purple written on the back. Those crypto-communists who sat at the back in Biology meanwhile had started getting into punk rock; they wore torn t-shirts and ripped jeans to the Youth Club disco. No love for any Germans anywhere here. Certainly not for a bunch of keyboard players from Dusseldorf.
You might say that the Beatles were unique but that someone else would have invented the “machine music” of Kraftwerk. In a way, that’s true. The motorik beat which Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider established is instantly recognisable, like the Bo Diddley riff. But it’s not impossible to imagine a world which would have found out about the potential for electronically driven beat-rock through other means. Like the theory of evolution, Wallace and Darwin were getting there at the same time.
However one thing that does get sometimes missed in tributes to the group is how they harnessed the rhythm of automation to the melody which sat on top. Kraftwerk in fact gave us great tunes. But they also invented a new language in which to hear them, the language of technology (analogue back then). When samplers and synthesisers and other production aids became affordable and more widely available a little while later, the template Kraftwerk had established proved endlessly fertile, through to the present day. Then came computers for all.
New wave and post-punk kids got into them early. Simple Minds, The Associates, The Human League, Joy Division/New Order, and onwards. Bowie had got there first, naturally, writing V2-Schneider in ‘77. White men with machines. But the law of unintended consequences had an amusing trick up its sleeve. Those haughty Germans who we all thought we knew, with their dubious beliefs and Aryan arrogance, turned out to be far more ethnically malleable than Emerson Lake and Palmer, Black Sabbath or even The Ramones.
Hip hop and house music owe a major debt to Kraftwerk: all the way back in 1986, Africa Bambataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ sampled Numbers and Trans Europe Express. I guess it’s quite a neat little reversal that the whites finally gave black people something back, musically. And then it got passed back to the white people again - Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, LCD Soundsystem, and on it goes.
I’ve just done some online fossicking and unearthed a rather startling - to my mind - statistic. In a recent survey, citizens of various countries were invited to give their views on Germany’s influence, whether positive or negative. The U.K. has a net positive score of 77%, trailing only South Korea and Australia! Not something my mother would have predicted when she was burying Tibby.
Trans Europe Express, Kraftwerk
Travel, Simple Minds
Cars, Gary Numan
Tell Me Easter’s On A Friday, The Associates
Incubation, Joy Division
Seconds, The Human League
The Model, Kraftwerk
Your Silent Face, New Order
Planet Rock, Afrika Bamabataa
Xtal, Aphex Twin
Roygbiv, Boards of Canada
Harder Better Faster Stronger, Daft Punk
Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem