Electronic music currently enjoys a cushy relationship with the members of the rock press, but it wasn’t too long ago when anything produced with an instrument that wasn’t a guitar was met with suspicion by critics whose point of reference was blues-based rock ‘n’ roll. So you’ll understand why our eyes widened when we stumbled upon a 1975 interview with Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider published in Creem magazine conducted by bad-ass writer Lester Bangs. A notable “gonzo” rock journalist/musician who lived hard and famously inserted himself into his stories (try doing that with Diplo), the freewheeling Bangs’ biting prose and often confrontational personality made him a cult hero among readers. Here is Bangs’ interview with the seminal German band — who were recently awarded with a Grammy lifetime achievement award — in its original and unedited form.
Some skeezix from one of the local dailies was up here the other day to do a “human interest” story on the phenomenon you’re holding in your hands, and naturally our beneficent publisher hauled me into his office to answer this fish’s edition of the perennial: “Where is rock going?”
“It’s being taken over by the Germans and the machines,” I unhesitatingly answered. And this I believe to my funky soul. Everybody has been hearing about “krautrock”, and the stupnagling success of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” is more than just the latest evidence in support of the case for Teutonic raillery, more than just a record, it is an indictment. An indictment of all those who would resist the bloodless iron will and order of the ineluctable dawn of the Machine Age.
THEY USED TO CALL CHUCK BERRY A “GUITAR MECHANIC” (at least I heard a Moody Blues fan say that once).
Why? Because any idiot could play his lines. Which, as we have all known since the prehistory of punk rock, is the very beauty of them. But think: If any idiot can play them, why not eliminate such genetic mistakes altogether, punch “Johnny B. Goode” into a Computer printout, and let the machines do it in total passive acquiescence to the Cybernetic Inevitable?
As is well known, it was the Germans who invented methamphetamine, which of all accessible tools has brought human beings within the dosest twitch of machinehood, and without methamphetamine we would never have had such high plasma marks of the counterculture as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Blue Cheer, Cream, and Creem [T]he Reich never died, it just reincarnated in American archetypes ground out by hollow-eyed, jerky-fingered mannikins locked into their typewriters and guitars like rhinoceroses copulating….
But there is more to the Cybernetic Inevitable than this son of methanasia. There are, in the words of the Poet, “machines of loving grace.” There is, hovering dean far from the burnt metal reek of exploded stars, the intricate balm of Kraftwerk.
When was the last time you heard a German band go galloping oft at 965 MPH hot on the heels of oblivion? No, they realize that the ultimate power is exercised calmly, whether it’s Can with their endless rotary connections, Tangerine Dream plumbing the sargassum depths, or Kraftwerk sailing airlocked down the Autobahn.
In the beginning, there was feedback: the machines speaking on their own, answering their supposed masters with shrieks ot misalliance. Gradually, the humans learned to control the feedback, or thought they did, and the next step was the introduction of more highly refined forms of distortion and antificial sound, in the form of the synthesizer, which the human beings also sought to control.
In the music of Kraftwerk, and bands like them present and to come, we see at last the fitting culmination of this revolution, as the machines not merely overpower and play the human beings but absorb them, until the scientist and his technology, having developed a higher consciousness of its own, are one and the same.
Kraftwerk, whose name means power plant, have a word for this ecstatic congress: Menschmaschine, which translates as “man-machine.” I am conversing with Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, coleaders of Kraftwerk….
“I think the synthesizer is very responsive to a person,” says Ralf, whose boyish visage is somewhat less severe than that of Florian, who looks, as a friend put it, “like he could build a computer or push a button and blow up half the world with the same amount of emotion.” “lt’s referred to as cold machinery,” Ralf continues, “but as soon as you put a different person in the synthesizer, it’s very responsive to the different vibrations. l think it’s much more sensitive than a traditional instrument like a guitar.
I asked Hütter if a synthesizer could tell what kind of person you are and he replied: “Yes. lt’s like an acoustic mirror.” I remarked that the next logical step would be for the machines to play you. He nodded: “Yes. We do this. lt’s like a robot thing, when it gets up to a certain stage. lt starts playing…it’s no longer you and I, it’s lt. Not all machines have this consciousness, however. Some machines are just limited to one piece of work, but complex machines…
“The whole complex we use,” continues Florian, referring to the Equipment and headquarters in…Düsseldorf, “can be regarded as one machine, even though it is divided into different pieces.” Including, of course, the human beings within….
I told them that I considered their music rather anti-emotional, and Florian quietly and patiently explained that “emotion’ is a strange word. There is a cold emotion and other emotion, both equally valid. lt’s not body emotion, it’s mental emotion. We like to ignore the audience while we play, and take all our concentration into the music. We are very much interested in origin of music. the source of music. The pure sound is something we would very much like to achieve.”
They have been chasing the p.s.’s tail for quite a while. Setting out to be electronic classical composers in the Stockhausen tradition, they grew up listening on the one hand to late-night broadcasts of electronic music, on the other to the American Pop music imported via radio and TV-especially the Beach Boys who were a heavy influence, as 5 obvious from ‘Autobahn’, although “we are not aiming so much for the music, it’s the psychological structure of someone like the Beach Boys.” They met at a musical academy, began in 1970 to set up their own studio, “and started working on the music, building equipment,” for the eventual rearmament of their fatherland.
“After the war,” explains Ralf, “German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it. I think we are the first generation born after the war to shake this off, and know where to feel American music and where to feel ourselves. We are the first German group to record in our own language, use our electronic background, and create a Central European identity for ourselves.
So you see another group like Tangerine Dream, although they are German they have an English name, so they create onstage an Anglo-American identity, which we completely deny.
We want the whole world to know our background. We cannot deny we are from Germany, because the German mentality, which is more advanced, will always be a part of our behavior. We create out of the German language, the mother language, which is very mechanical, we use as the basic structure of our music. Also the machines, from the industries of Germany.”
As for the machines taking over, all the better. “We use tapes, prerecorded. and we play tapes also in our performance. When we recorded on TV we were not allowed to play the tape as a part of the performance, because the musicians union felt that they would be put out of work. But I think just the opposite: With better machines, you will be able to do better work, and you will be able to spend your time on energies on a higher level.
“We don’t need a choir,” adds Florian. “We just turn this key, and there’s the choir.”
I wondered aloud if they would like to see it get to the point of electrodes in the brain so that whatever they thought would come through a loudspeaker.
“Yes,” enthused Ralf, “this would be fantastic.”
“The final solution to the music problem, I suggested.”
“No, not the solution. The next step.”
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