It took a concert to learn impeccable posture and choreographed non-movement were all that separated Kraftwerk from the post-hippie seventies guitar bands to whom the German synth act were often contrasted. At the former Jackie Gleason Theater on November 2004, Kraftwerk jammed, man, extending tracks beyond their album lengths with parsimoniously dispersed curlicues of melody atop a groove as tight as a gearshift. The show, one of the only two in this hemisphere, peaked early with eight minutes of pippety-poppeting “The Man-Machine”; the audience rewarded the act’s almost total immobility with its own. Toying with their image as interchangeable showroom dummies, Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider may have been in their hotel suites drinking chilled Weissburgunder while robot doubles worthy of Doctor Doom mimed the tapping of a laptop key that may or may not have played a thing.
The wonder of Kraftwerk is the degree to which they educated their audience in how to respond to sounds this clean and an anonymity so implacable it acquired, if not flesh and blood, sinew. Cheerful not cold, their albums realized the ambitions of Continental Futurists and postwar mid twentieth century capitalist liberalism, whether a car by General Motors or an ideal kitchen presented by Walt Disney in his Carousel of Progress: hokey by design, fleet as a matter of course, suffused with a romanticism as committed as Bryan Ferry or Dionne Warwick’s. “Kometenmelodie 1,” “Autobahn,” “Tour de France” — in these and a dozen others Schneider and his colleagues fused their Weimar chic and a winsomeness they didn’t try hard to quash into odes of joy. Sun and downy flakes held no appeal; in “Neon Lights” a shimmering cityscape is the new pastoral reverie. “Computer Love” to my ears is one of the century’s supreme love songs as well as clever Pop Art predicting our man-machine new normal. Listening to that track and, say, “Pocket Calculator” Kraftwerk anticipates a millennium’s language of love: do our phones create the desires that we need to fulfill or act as vehicles for their fulfillment? It’s more fun to compute!
Each clink-clank triggered new compositional approaches in whichever artist had ears to listen. Enough about Brian Eno, David Bowie, Devo, Gary Numan, and Daft Punk. What about Kevin Saunderson? Derrick May? The South Bronx’s Afrika Bambaataa knew. I have an early memory of hearing “Computer Love” and “Tour de France” on South Florida R&B radio, and why not? That year, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” was the next step after 1977’s “Metal on Metal” on Trans-Europe Express. American white boys have trouble suppressing the tumult of their feelings; imagine one of them titling a debut The ArchAndroid like Janelle Monae did. We know little of Florian Schneider’s biography, hence this obituary’s recourse toward metonymic shorthand; but Kraftwerk weren’t arch. Theirs was a teleological sensibility of genuine optimism. By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody or launches nuclear warheads. Kraftwerk weren’t moral blackguards — listen to their songs and you know which result they preferred. But what pleasure in security. You build things and they work as intended. The neon lights dim at dawn. Trains pull into stations. To savor an ephemeral pleasure is to live more fully.