WHO SPEAKS for Europe? Henry Kissinger’s question has never found a satisfactory answer, but a literalist might turn to the press room of the Berlaymont building in Brussels. Here, day after day, well-groomed spokespeople for the European Commission calmly field questions from a potpourri of journalists in antiseptic surroundings, slipping smoothly from one language to another as they address the finer points of telecoms regulation, border irregularities or fisheries law. (At least they did, before covid-19 struck.)
It is hard for such a bloodless organisation to find appropriate cultural expression. The EU’s anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, satisfies its leaders’ self-regard but is an ill fit for a club with little hold on public affection. Better, surely, to turn to Kraftwerk, the German electronic group, the death of whose co-founder, Florian Schneider, was announced last week. Kraftwerk’s albums from the mid-1970s to early 1980s may have reinvented pop, spawning half a dozen genres and helping define the digital age. But they were also perfectly in tune with the construction of contemporary Europe.
Kraftwerk were too dedicated to the craft of sound to incorporate into their music anything so banal as a vision. But parts of “Trans-Europe Express” (1977) project a certain idea of Europe. “Europe Endless” sets a vaguely decadent description of a borderless continent (“Parks, hotels and palaces…”) to a stately, arpeggiated synth-line. Eight years later the Schengen agreement made this reality. The album’s title track chronicles a continental rail journey atop a rhythm emulating the sound of wheel on track. These were themes then almost untouched by contemporary rock music.
To be sure, theirs was a decidedly “old Europe”, centred on the Rhineland, where Schneider and Ralf Hütter, his co-founder, had grown up, with the Netherlands and Belgium just across the border and France not much farther away. The romantic sojourn sketched in “Trans-Europe Express” starts on the Champs-Élysées and makes it no farther east than the Café Hawelka in Vienna. Kraftwerk never played communist East Germany (though they did make it to Hungary and Poland in 1981). Nor could their music always hope to escape the gaze of the Stasi, says Olaf Zimmermann, who ran an electronic-music radio show in the GDR. The rebel yells of Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger anyway held more appeal to those living under communism’s yoke than the stiff beats of four wealthy, clean-cut straights from Germany’s far west.
Indeed, it was precisely those foreign assumptions about what rock music should be that Kraftwerk sought to shake off when they emerged from Düsseldorf’s small avant-garde in 1970. Simply to adopt a German name, to sing in German and to devote an album to the national leisure pursuit of driving effortlessly on the autobahn marked the group out as eccentric, perhaps dangerously so in a country still grappling with the horrors of its recent history.
As Kraftwerk shed their hirsute Krautrock roots for precision-engineered synthesised music, predictable jibes followed. “The final solution to the music problem?” scoffed the New Musical Express, tastelessly, in 1975. But their European reference points—Russian constructivism, the Belle Époque, Bauhaus’s fusion of art and technology—pre-dated Nazism. Indeed, this “retro-futurism” was the answer to Kraftwerk’s problematic heritage, notes Uwe Schütte, author of a book on the band. Rather than seek liberation via Anglo-American individualism, they would raid Europe’s past for points of reference that could help assemble a better future.
To hear Kraftwerk cycle through their universal, collective themes—man’s relationship with technology, broadcast communications, mobility—often in several languages, is thus to hear pop music re-engineered for an entirely fresh set of concerns. Owen Hatherley, an author, calls it “a kind of electronic Esperanto”. This is the soundtrack of the EU, anonymous elites knitting together a continent, unafraid of complexity, grounded in a quiet optimism. Like officials fine-tuning directives in airless Brussels offices, Kraftwerk shunned publicity, instead indulging their sonic perfectionism from inside their secretive Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf. Only once, by remixing their 1975 hit “Radio-Activity” to reflect their conversion to the anti-nuclear cause, did they take anything that might be called a stand. Otherwise they preferred illumination to fulmination. Many bands seek to change the world. For Kraftwerk, the point was to describe it.
It’s more fun to curl fruit
Which Kraftwerk tune should Brussels adopt? If “Europe Endless” might sit unhappily with countries that have fallen victim to Europeans’ occasionally expansive sense of borders, what about “The Telephone Call” (1986), repurposed to celebrate the EU’s success in reducing roaming charges; “The Robots” (1978), to honour the excellent performance of Eurocrats who “are programmed just to do anything you want us to”; or “Numbers” (1981), a recital of digits in more languages than even Frans Timmermans, the commission’s polyglot vice-president, can muster, set to a savage electro beat?
Perhaps the moment has passed. Eventually, as the world Kraftwerk had divined overtook them, the music fizzled. Their disappointing last album, from 2003, was devoted to cycling. Europe, too, moved on: widening, deepening, now fracturing. Yet it is a pity Kraftwerk never found the chance to explore the themes that shaped the continent in this century: cheap air travel, just-in-time supply chains, mobile technology (“Pocket Calculator”, a hymn to the creative possibilities of hand-held devices, gets halfway there).
Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008. Since then the group, basically Mr Hütter and three friends, has toured continuously, thrilling fans with spectacular visuals. On May 16th, before the virus struck, Kraftwerk were to join the festivities for Beethoven’s 250th birthday in Bonn as they marked their own 50th anniversary. They were said to have been taken by the symbolism, as well they might: Europe’s official bard and its unofficial man-machine troubadours, united in celebration of the continent that made them possible. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Real life and postcard views”