Going in Cold to the Kraftwerk Show? Here’s a Primer for New Fans

Kraftwerk Orientation Mix!

Greetings friends, I have created a playlist on YouTube that showcases Kraftwerk’s better-known music and its historical significance in my life. It took me a few years to become a really crazy fan, and whether you get as crazy as me or not, I’m pretty sure you’ll walk away from this mix with an appreciation for their talent.

Instead of doing something obvious like presenting their stuff in chronological order, or like a top-ten or something, I’m going to let you hear it (mostly) in the order I discovered it, and I’m going to write down some thoughts for you to read as you check out the tunes. I think this is an ideal primer for new fans who are about to go to one of their concerts, but would like to have a bit more familiarity with their music. If this is you, I strongly advise against watching any of the myriad of live videos on YouTube shot at Kraftwerk’s recent concerts! It could ruin the experience for you, as the 3D visuals do not translate well to YouTube and the sound is usually pretty crappy.

Just remember, this is not techno, and the older music in particular will lack the punch you’re used to hearing in modern recordings. Kraftwerk is very likely to perform reworked, modernized versions of almost every song I list here.

So let’s get down to it. Open this YouTube playlist on something with decent sound, set aside a few hours, and read my ramblings below at the same time:


  1. Tour de France (original 1983 mix)

    This was my first exposure to Kraftwerk. I was 15 years old in 1984, a passenger in my friend’s car, cruising in Brampton shortly after the sun had gone down. This song came on the radio, and it immediately stood out from all the other alternative and synthpop CFNY usually played.

    The drum sounds have a bright electronic character that somehow sounded more crisp and punchy than anything I’d ever heard. Then there’s the beautiful, uplifting melody played on a bright, high-pitched synthesizer, backed by orchestral strings and harps. I was hooked! And then there were the lyrics, sung in French (below with translation):

    L’enfer du Nord: Paris – Roubaix
    La Cote d’Azur et Saint Tropez
    Les Alpes et les Pyrennees
    Derniere etape Champs-Elysees

    Galibier et Tourmalet
    En danseuse jusqu’au sommet
    Pedaler en grand braquet
    Sprint final a l’arrivee

    Crevaison sur les paves
    Le velo vite repare
    Le peloton est regroupe
    Camarades et amitie

    The hell of Northern Paris – Roubaix
    The Cote d’Azur and Saint Tropez
    The Alps and the Pyrenees
    Last stage: Champs-Elysees

    Galibier and Tourmalet
    Dancing even on the top
    Cycling in high gear
    Final sprint at the finish line

    Flat tire on the paving-stones
    The bike is repaired quickly
    The peloton is regrouped
    Comraderie and friendship

  2. The Model (1978)

    A year later, in December of 1985, I got together with some friends and learned to cover about half a dozen synthpop songs for a night at a local bar. I hadn’t heard this song before, but one of the other guys suggested it. We failed miserably, but I did learn how to play this beautiful piece from Kraftwerk’s 1978 album “The Man-Machine”.

    It is a kitschy pop number, with another simple, pretty melody.

  3. Boing Boom Tschak /Musique Non Stop / Techno Pop (1986)

    Another year later, in 1986, Kraftwerk released a new album called Electric Cafe. This is the first Kraftwerk album I bought. Side 1 of the record featured a 17-minute medley of these three songs. In the version I’m sharing here, it is chopped down to under 4 minutes.

  4. The Telephone Call (1986)T

    Kraftwerk are generally unlikely to perform this one live, but I include the short version of the song (and video) because I probably listened to it more than any other Kraftwerk song when I was a teenager. I think it is best represents their beautiful, minimal melodic arrangements.

  5. Trans-Europe Express (1977)

    Here’s another track that has been shortened to fit a music video. It’s hard to believe this amazing melody (which would later be famously ripped by Afrika Bambaata to become “Planet Rock”) is from 1977! I love the TEE backbeat, which is reminiscent of the song’s subject: a high speed train, travelling long distances over tracks, without fail, without hesitation.

    Watch for the reference to (and old-school picture of) Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

  6. The Robots (updated 1991 version)

    This song is perhaps Kraftwerk’s most iconic work. In its original form it appeared on the “Man-Machine” album in 1978.

    I didn’t personally hear it until 1991, when it was updated for dancefloor friendliness and released on “The Mix”. This album is comprised of re-recordings of their earlier material, bringing a more modern sound (and a wider audience) to many of their classics.

    The Mix version of The Robots is about 7 minutes long, but for this official video it was shortened to about 4 minutes.

    Of the revised recordings that appeared on The Mix, The Robots lent itself particularly well to its new contemporary sound, as well as one other track:

  7. Radioactivity (updated 1991 version)

    This is the other song that got beautiful treatment on The Mix. Originally it was the title track on their 1975 album “Radio-Activity”, and interestingly, they changed the meaning of the song when they revised the lyrics for this 1991 version.

    The original lyrics were something of a play on words, as many Kraftwerk songs are. In this case the title referred to musical content (“activity”) on the radio:

    Radio activity is in the air for you and me
    Radio activity / tune in to the melody

    The new version represents what appears to be Kraftwerk’s only political message – a simple protest against nuclear technology. The revised version opens up with an ominous synthetic voice naming 4 major nuclear disaster sites: CHERNOBYL / HARRISBURG / SELLAFIELD / HIROSHIMA, and the old lyrics rewritten:

    Stop radioactivity / it’s in the air for you and me
    Stop radioactivity / discovered by Madame Curie
    Chain reaction and mutation
    Contaminated population

    I really feel Kraftwerk outdid themselves on this one. The melody is beautiful, haunting, melancholy. Remember as you listen that this version is from 1991, but its sonic character is not unlike a lot of the trance music that followed.

    Weird fact: the rhythmic beeps at the beginning and in the middle of this track is actually Morse Code, a series of long and short tones used in early radio communications. In this case, the tones spell out “radioactivity”.

  8. Autobahn (1974)

    OK, we need to get this one out of the way. I really couldn’t stand this song at first – I only had listened to the short edits and the new 1991 version on “The Mix” – but it wasn’t until I heard this, Kraftwerk’s epic (22 minute) coming-out single in its original, unabridged form, that I finally “got it”.

    The song really suits a nice drive on a summer day. Remember as you listen that 1974 synth technology was nothing like what we have today, but their cute interpretations of car sounds pop out everywhere through the song. Also, this early piece contains flute and electric guitar.

    Try to muscle through. The songs in German, so I offer the lyrics, translated below:

    Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn

    Vor uns liegt ein weites Tal
    Die Sonne scheint mit Glitzerstrahl

    Die Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band
    Weisse Streifen, gruener Rand

    Jetzt schalten wir ja das Radio an
    Aus dem Lautsprecher klingt es dann:

    Wir fah’rn auf der Autobahn…

    We’re driving, driving, driving on the Autobahn

    In front of us is a wide valley
    The sun is shining with glittering rays

    The driving strip is a grey track
    White stripes, green edges

    We switch the radio on
    From the speaker we hear:

    We are driving on the Autobahn

  9. Computer World (1982)

    I’m pretty sure my favourite Kraftwerk album is 1982′s Computer World, and it is likely their favorite album as well. It is a short album, with only 6 songs and a total runtime under a half hour, but makes up for its brevity with ingenuity.

    All of the songs on the album have very simple lyrics, which foretell of a world in which everything is connected with, and empowered by its computers. In typical Kraftwerk fashion, the words don’t say that a “Computer World” is bad, or good …

  10. Computer Love (1982)

    You’ll recognize the melody, which Coldplay borrowed a few years ago for their single “Talk”.

    This song leads off side 2 of Computer World, with a syrupy melody that certainly could be a love theme. There is a wonderful instrumental solo through the last half of the song.

  11. Home Computer (1982)

    Sharp, biting funk with a relentless deep swirling computer sequence. If you like electronic beats, be sure to listen to this one all the way through, and marvel at the fact that this relentless electro slammer comes from 1982!

    Home Computer adds further to the Computer World narrative with two simple lines:

    I program my home computer
    Beam myself into the future

  12. Aero Dynamik (2003, live at MTV European Music Awards)

    What a treat the MTV crowd got. Layers of projections on scrims and screens throughout the venue, with the band in then-unseen glowing outfits. This video is in hi-def. I wanted to show you a video that included the introduction by Kylie Minogue, because it’s just funny somehow.

    This song is on Kraftwerk’s last album, Tour De France Soundtracks, which wa sreleased in 2003. The entire album is based on cycling and athletic themes.

  13. Tour De France 2003

    This music video represents the second “movement” of a 3-part composition. Hi hat lovers (I’m looking at you Holly) listen closely, as the hi hat continuously changes, invoking images of pedalling and coasting.

  14. Spacelab (1978)

    I include Spacelab for completeness, and because they are very likely to perform it. It is characteristic of the sound of the “Man-Machine” album.

    Odds and Ends:

  15. The Man-Machine (1978)
  16. Neon Lights (1978)
  17. Showroom Dummies (1977)
  18. Antenna (1975)
  19. Sex Object (1986)
  20. Some dude reviews the “Trans Europe Express” album from 1977.

2 thoughts on “Going in Cold to the Kraftwerk Show? Here’s a Primer for New Fans

  1. Great breakdown Steve! Though, a minor footnote for 7. Radioactivity. It was updated again after the Japan quake to include Fukushima. Although, it seems that Ralf has opted to flip between Hiroshima and Fukushima depending on the verse.
    Regardless, as far as I’m concerned, it is their best work on all accounts: Melody, Sampling, Structure, Lyrics.

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