[Note: please do play the playlist below if you want to truly enjoy this piece]
I’ve been listening to a shit tonne of David Bowie.
Amongst the plethora of stellar LPs Bowie left us to enjoy, the Berlin Triptych, released over a period of 3 years and during which he lived with Iggy Pop (producing his LP, The Idiot), painted and cleaned up his coke addiction (with the help of unsung heroine, Coco Schwab), is one of the greatest. Whilst this period is widely recognised as one of Bowie’s most remarkable achievements and not worth re-hashing, it is in this context that we turn to side two of the Heroes LP for a moment and focus on one song in particular, V-2 Schneider
Bowie’s tribute to Florian Schneider – a founding member of Kraftwerk and specifically named in the track’s title – only begins to scratch the surface of his admiration for the group. Whilst it is worth acknowledging up-front that Bowie described commentary on Kraftwerk’s influence upon him “lazy” (and we wouldn’t dare to try and prove him wrong otherwise), the point is to make the connection. You see, understanding these connections is the fundamental message behind this piece: the threads that connect artists, at a time and in a place – within a context – are the key to appreciating Music. This is especially important in today’s algorithm-driven world, where tracks are intelligently connected based on statistics-driven analysis of listening habits, but the underlying machine learning misses why snobs like us tend to listen to tracks in parallel.
Understanding what V-2 Schneider represents only begins to turn over the stone on the subject of the Kraftwerk-Bowie relationship. Going down the Kraftwerk rabbit hole with respect to late ‘70s Bowie is a strangely rewarding process, be it learning of the Parisian standing ovation or the knowledge of a coked-up, Hollywood-based Bowie driving around L.A., constantly listening to Autobahn. One’s appreciation of both artists is substantially deepened as their cultural impact and importance to 20th Century Music is reinforced. Fundamentally, it makes one want to listen to more. Such is the power of a simple thread you may find yourself tugging upon.
As alluded to earlier, Kraftwerk’s impact on Bowie began earlier than his Berlin years. Bowie’s own spectacular, titular opening track to Station to Station parallels Autobahn’s honking car opener with panning stereo sounds of a train leaving the station. Bowie heard something in Kraftwerk that he knew would be fundamental to Music in the future, and he drew from it. The members of Kraftwerk would in fact meet with Bowie in Germany, and indeed name-check the experience in their own Trans-Europe Express, breaking with the Man-Machine persona for just one brief lyric to emphasise that these artists were, above all, musicians. It is this reminder which is so gleeful: these heroes, whose contribution to global culture is so significant, were just people – and they hung out together! From a 21st Century perspective, in light of the enormous impact of both Bowie and Kraftwerk, the knowledge that these artists fed off one another – that they met, chatted and shared mutual respect for each other – renders one’s appreciation of their music that much more enriched.
I also happen to really like Kraftwerk. Turning from a historical to personal perspective, multiple roads in my life have led back to this particularly odd group of musikarbeiter. As will eventually be addressed in an extensive and heartfelt piece at some point in the future, I am an enormous fan of Nine Inch Nails. To those familiar with Trent Reznor’s output, the Kraftwerk link may not be particularly special, although it is interestingly established via David Bowie (addressed later). Kraftwerk’s influence on a wide variety of artists cannot be understated: ‘80s New Wave and multiple synth-pop artists, from Gary Numan to The Human League and Depeche Mode owe an enormous debt to their realisation that synthesisers and sequencers could be popular music in the first place. The entire 1980s’ sound, House, Techno and even Rap are defined by Kraftwerk, evident in Visage’s one-hit wonder, or the rise of club Hip-Hop in Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock. We will dive deeper into this to demonstrate but, even taken as a given, this is a truly staggering achievement.
Another artist on the scene at the birth of electronic music was Giorgio Moroder, an artist similarly – albeit less closely – associated with Bowie, according to the apocryphal story of Brian Eno’s entrance into the recording studio one day, waving I Feel Love and proclaiming the future of Music. Moroder effectively pioneered electronic Disco and House and, as with so many great artists, Bowie and Moroder worked together, leaving us with the relatively unknown ‘80s epic, Cat People (Putting Out Fire), created for the film of the same name.
Just as in classical art, where aspiring painters served as understudies to the Masters (the workshops of Da Vinci, Caravaggio and so many others were also places where one could learn to paint, influenced by the style and technique of il maestro), so too do musicians develop under the influence of those that have come before: Depeche Mode’s magnum opus Violator could not have existed were it not for Bowie, Kraftwerk and Moroder, alongside their own talent. For a more contemporary example, see Prince’s influence on Janelle Monáe. It’s hard to ignore the debt New Order’s entire post-Curtis turnaround owes to Kraftwerk’s sound (their super-hit Blue Monday goes as far as to sample Uranium). Stepping into the ‘90s, Trent Reznor’s unassailable industrial work, The Downward Spiral, features a haunting, numbing instrumental track titled A Warm Place, which, on the one hand, perfectly encapsulates the raw, beaten emotion of the self-destructing protagonist’s mental state towards the end of the album, but, on the other hand, is a carbon copy of Bowie’s Crystal Japan (Reznor himself acknowledged this later and is an avowed Bowie fan).
Understanding any artist’s contextual positioning within Culture and Society is vital to both assessing and appreciating their output. It is also an immensely rewarding experience when an artist is great, deepening one’s appreciation of the music in question, but also expanding one’s sonic horizons. The Bowie-Kraftwerk thread is a particularly enriching one, given both artists’ monumental influence – and it lasts long after their “prime”:
For those readers that may have doubted Kraftwerk’s influence on Rap, look no further than Jay-Z’s Always Be My Sunshine. Whilst not his finest song (remember context – this was 1997), East Coast rap was comparatively still finding its feet and Sean Carter, via this cross-over song, was established king in a post-B.I.G. landscape. Sampling Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine (itself a seismic piece of early electronic music), Carter captures the raw vivacity of East Coast rap’s differentiation from the Dr. Dre / NWA-born California rap capitalised upon by 2pac. Referencing its roots through past masters (in this case, Africa Bambaataa) was a master stoke in maintaining credibility whilst transitioning to a more mainstream audience.
To close a related, tangential thread, the end of the ‘90s would also result in Trent Reznor finally collaborating in-studio with his hero, David Bowie, to release I’m Afraid of Americans – a vastly underrated track that, again, embodies the power of what can be accomplished when great artists, who truly respect each other, collaborate (unlike today’s Label-driven collaborations – Travis Scott and James Blake, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
However, still the influence and impact of Kraftwerk continues: during the early-2000s resurgence in Indie, under-appreciated Ladytron (who toured with Nine Inch Nails – an entirely separate thread) released break-out single He Took Her to a Movie, and Franz Ferdinand (remember them?) released Walk Away, both of which owe a sizeable debt to Kraftwerk’s The Model. This is not to criticise these songs – indeed I quite liked Ladytron, and the influence is more reverential than, say, Blurred Lines and its lawsuit-inducing “debt” to Marvin Gaye.
We close with modern music and its continued debt to Kraftwerk. Perhaps the group’s most well-known song, The Robots, is intelligently referenced by Audio Snobbery favourite LCD Soundsystem in Get Innocuous! – a timely reminder that even 21st Century stalwarts like James Murphy get their inspiration from somewhere. Other contemporary artists are more explicit in their own reverence of their heroes, like Daft Punk’s handover to Giorgio Moroder on Random Access Memories’ Giorgio by Moroder.
The point I am keen to convey, at the risk of labouring a point, is that you, our dear readers, should pursue threads when you come across them. Find an artist you love and learn their context in history; their influences, their references and their heroes. You will both appreciate said artist more and also learn about other artists to better form your own Music taste.
Intelligence over algorithm. Such is snobbery.