Book Review: Kraftwerk – I Was a Robot by Wolfgang Flüh

HAVING been a staunch fan of Kraftwerk’s incredible videos as a child, not to mention their ground-breaking music, I was obviously very eager to get my hands on the first autobiography to emanate from among the closed ranks of Germany’s foremost electronic pioneers.

Indeed, the Dusseldorf quartet have always remained an enigma for fans and critics alike. Locked away in their infamous Kling Klang studio and constantly tinkering around with a variety of home-made synths and percussion machines. Wolfgang Flüh, originally a drummer with the obscure ’60s Mod band, The Beathovens (although, to be fair, on one occasion they did actually support The Who), here readily dismantles the myth behind Deutschland’s most indisputably original and innovative musicians.

Formed in the early-1970s, when it was common to listen to rock or guitar-based music, Kraftwerk (originally formed in 1968 as Organisation) began experimenting with synthesisers which, in those days, was still an extremely rare and expensive instrument. Kraftwerk’s hits included singles like ‘The Model’ (since covered by Snakefinger and Rammstein), ‘Autobahn’, ‘The Telephone Call’, ‘Antenna’, ‘Pocket Calculator’ and ‘Computer World’, and stunning albums such as ‘Trans-Europe Express’, ‘The Man-Machine’ and ‘Electric Cafe’. Flüh takes us upon a fascinating journey which saw Kraftwerk circle the globe in a successful and ground-breaking attempt to change the face of modern music forever. There were the wild parties at Emil Schult’s flat in the Berger Allee; the early sexual encounters between these middle-class Germans and their increasing army of adoring fans; Flüh’s near-seduction at the hands of homosexual film director, Helmut Berger; and his surreal encounter with the late and much-lamented Ian Dury.

Kraftwerk’s videos were also a revelation. Whether it was the calculated automaton gestures in ‘The Robots’, the life-assuming creepiness of ‘Showroom Dummies’ or the calm minimalism of ‘Radioactivity’, the so-called Mensch-Machine that was Kraftwerk was always impeccable in its red shirt and black tie. But it certainly wasn’t ‘fah’n, fah’n, fah’n’ all of the time. There were bad times, too. Such as the period when most of the band and its entourage became seriously ill in Bombay, or when Florian Schneider-Esleben almost flipped during a tour of Australia and was found sitting in the back row of a Kraftwerk concert when the band were immediately due to appear on stage.

This book is a fascinating read and very entertaining, but towards the end Flüh launches into what I consider to be a thinly-veiled attack on the group’s main protagonists, Ralph Hutter and the aforementioned Florian. In 1991, Flüh and Karl Bartos – who has since launched his own solo career – suddenly left the group due to the fact that Ralph and Florian (herein dubbed ‘the Kraftwerk Brothers’) had such a stranglehold over the band and had apparently become less interested in creating new music and far more obsessed with cycling (something reflected earlier in the single, ‘Tour de France’). In 2000, after Flüh had originally released his book, the pair’s lawyers began legal proceedings against the publisher in order to prevent the disclosure of specific passages and their use in subsequent editions. Flüh also alleges that Ralph and Florian cashed-in by secretly patenting his unique electronic drum-pad in America, despite the fact that Flüh himself claims to have come up with the original design. Consequently, however, the legal proceedings were dropped and Flüh’s book was republished – in this extended and updated format – in 2003.

Perhaps Ralph and Florian really did try to steal Flüh’s invention, or even regard the role of Flüh and Bartos as little more than ‘band workers’ and ’employees’ as the former claims (it is certainly a fact that their names have since disappeared from the credits on later Kraftwerk album pressings), but it’s the way the author presents his case that leaves me with mixed feelings. Flüh’s family background was comprised of an unloving and unappreciative father encased within a stuffy atmosphere of middle-class sterility. His attack on Ralph and Florian, depicted here as cold and inhuman machines (which, incidentally, is an image the fans adore), is contrasted with Flüh’s own rants about Turkish earthquake victims and the plight of children during the Balkans conflict. In other words, he is trying to present himself as the liberal, caring, human antithesis to the robotic misanthropes which continue to head Kraftwerk and its two additional members. Indeed, the final section of the book is a blatant advertisement for the author’s latest project, Yamo, which has released the EMI Electrola albums ‘Time Pie’ and ‘Musica Obscura’. Flüh deliberately attempts to counter what he perceives as the clinical Kraftwerk machine with his own emerging passion and creativity. Meanwhile, of course, as the ‘Expo 2000’ single demonstrated only too well, the Kraftwerk automobile currently making its way back along the autobahn today still has some fuel left in the tank. By all means buy a copy of this highly readable book (if only for its superb photographs), but like most things, it is perhaps best to reserve judgement until the other side of the story has finally emerged from the closeted bunker that is Kling Klang.

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