Some of the most influential musicians of our time are among the least-known.
For instance, imagine I walked up to you on the street and asked: "Who is Ralf Hütter?" Assuming you suppressed your initial impetus to eye me suspiciously, run away and look for a police officer, would you know the answer?
If you do, you're probably one in a thousand - and your knowledge of Hütter probably means you're an electronica buff. But even if your tastes run toward hip hop or other more modern styles of music, chances are the music you listen to owes a huge debt to Hütter and his colleagues in the band that some have called "the second most influential band ever (after the Beatles)."
Yeah, that's how important Kraftwerk was. The German band best-known in this country for their 1974 Top 40 hit, "Autobahn," is still performing to this day (although Hütter is the last original member standing). Without Kraftwerk, there never would have been a Skrillex, an Aphex Twin, a Daft Punk or a Devo. Without Kraftwerk, electronica would have never plugged in. We would never have had a bounce in our dubstep. And, perhaps more surprisingly to some, without Kraftwerk, we might not have hip hop as we know it today. When it comes to electronic music and beats, Kraftwerk was the Singularity, the Big Bang that not only transformed everything that came before but also begat a new universe of pop music.
No one would have predicted their exalted place in the pantheon back when the band came together 43 years ago. Originally formed around the duo of Hütter and Florian Schneider, the group then included a drummer and a guitarist, and Schneider often played violin or flute. But Kraftwerk always evinced a keen interest in what electronics could bring to popular music, and even in the early days, the band submitted their analog instruments to every form of processing they could imagine. By 1973, the band had moved almost exclusively to synthesizers and drum machines.
A year later, when Kraftwerk released "Autobahn," their fourth album, with its 22-minute title track (truncated to just under four minutes for its American single release), they found international fame - although not all who heard their music understood its importance still. Britain's influential music publication, NME, on the event of Kraftwerk's first British tour, notoriously called their music: "Garbage floating down the polluted Rhine," and decried their "'40s decadent look," which stood in sharp contrast to the long-haired look adopted by progressive rock bands of the era, like Pink Floyd and Yes.
But subsequent albums like "The Man-Machine" and "Computer World" (the latter of which introduced what would become one of the most ubiquitous hip hop freestyle beats in the song, "Numbers," which was sampled for the pioneer single, "Planet Rock," by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, and scores of subsequent hip hop songs as well) created a tsunami of influence that far exceeded Kraftwerk's popular fame. No other band (besides the forementioned Beatles) can claim to have influenced so many acts so far afield than the German nerds who acted like robots onstage.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.