Karl Bartos: ‘Kraftwerk became the dehumanization of music’ | Music

When a teenage Karl Bartos told his parents that he wanted to dedicate his life to music, his father was so furious that he kicked his son’s acoustic guitar.

After listening to the Beatles at age 12, something had awakened in him: “I wanted to feel what they sounded like,” he says, and it persisted beyond that broken guitar. Traveling on LSD listening to Hendrix was another portal. “Music spoke to me in all the languages ​​of the world at once,” he recalls in his memoir. “I understood your message up to the last frequency. Never before has the essence of music been so clear.”

The memoir, The Sound of the Machine: My Life in Kraftwerk and Beyond, is an incredibly detailed book on Bartos’s life: from those pivotal moments in childhood, the years he spent at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf, where studied percussion, until his time in what is considered the classic Kraftwerk line-up – Bartos, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür – in which he played from 1974 to 1990.

Kraftwerk was looking for a percussionist for some live dates and Bartos was recommended by his teacher. Upon being summoned to his infamously secret Kling Klang Studio, he immediately clicked with Hütter and Schneider. “We were attracted to each other and it felt pure,” he remembers. “From the first meeting I knew it was something very special.”

Kraftwerk performing in Brussels in 1981. From left to right: Ralf Hütter, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür, Florian Schneider.
Kraftwerk performing in Brussels in 1981. LR:
Ralf Hütter, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür and Florian Schneider.
Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Bartos’s addition coincided with the release of Autobahn, an album, specifically its title track, often considered a benchmark for modernity in pop music, with its throbbing groove reaching into the future. Work soon began on the Radio-Activity concept album, and Bartos became more of an integrated member, collaborator, and co-writer. The subsequent albums Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (1977-1981) are an immaculate and incomparable series of records that shimmer and shimmer with metallic gleams; Equal parts meticulous pop and futuristic sci-fi soundscapes, they became the blueprint for electronic pop in the decade that followed. Bartos says that Kraftwerk’s mission was to invest technology with humanity, to make it “responsive and visible, and this was unlike all electronic pop music that was inspired by us. They just treated the electronic gear like a guitar; they simply played songs in the English pop music tradition. But Kraftwerk stayed different because we wanted people to be aware of the technique.”

Not only were the band constantly climbing creative peaks in the studio, but their dynamic was more friendly and outgoing. Some lived together in a place that hosted what Bartos describes as “legendary parties,” though he won’t dwell on the juicy details. For those, we must turn to the Flür I Was A Robot memoir. “A Super 8 projector would be playing sex movies on the wall next to the bathtub,” he wrote. “Everything would be covered in bubble bath and red wine, and candlelight would dimly illuminate the sweaty scene. These festivals were like Sodom and Gomorrah.” He seems to be at odds with a band so mysterious and secretive that it was experimenting with the use of robot aliases, and Bartos’s book plays at writing with an intense focus on working methods, creative process and technology.

In 1981 they toured successfully, despite the fact that their equipment weighed seven tons, and the following year they had number 1 in the UK with The Model. They were at their creative and commercial zenith, with Bartos writing that Computer World “was our most successful attempt at translating the man-machine metaphor dialect into music”, but Kraftwerk would not perform live for nearly a decade when they disappeared into the studio. “We slept through the entire ’80s,” says Bartos. “It really was a dramatically huge mistake.”

The next album, 1986’s Electric Café, was a drastic change. “The problem started when the computer arrived at the studio,” says Bartos. “A computer has nothing to do with creativity, it’s just a tool, but we outsource creativity to the computer. We forgot the core of who we were. We lost our physical feeling, we no longer look each other in the eye, we only look at the monitor. At that time, I thought that innovation and progress were synonymous. I can’t be so sure anymore.”

It turns out that this member of a group that heralded a new era of tech-heavy, futuristic music is something of a techno-sceptic, but Bartos emphasizes that the era most people associate as the peak of Kraftwerk was produced by a band largely analog part. They were pushing the limits of early technology to their absolute limits, and for Bartos, these limitations sparked innovation. But when infinite options were presented to him, there was nothing to rub against, only a limitless horizon. “We stopped being creative because we were solving problems,” he says.

The pace of work slowed down significantly. Hütter’s new obsession with cycling became a priority and study sessions were usually a few half-hearted hours at night. In addition, they had become obsessed with other people’s records, frequently traveling to nightclubs to play early mixes of their songs and see how they sounded against the new cuts of the day. They began to chase the spirit of the times instead of establishing it. Hearing New Order’s Blue Monday, they were so impressed that they sought out their sound engineer, Michael Johnson, and flew to the UK to have him mix Tour de France, an independent single from 1983, but decided never to release that version.

“Things started to look more and more bleak,” says Bartos. “Instead of remembering how our most authentic and successful music had been made, we set our sights on the spirit of mass market music. But comparing our own ideas to other people’s work was uncreative and counterproductive. We became music designers, making consumer music geared solely towards winning against other contestants. Our imagination lost its autonomy. It seemed like we had forgotten how our music came about in the first place.”

Flür lost his temper and went into furniture making and Bartos also prepared an exit, with mounting problems around songwriting credits and payments, as well as a refusal to tour, also being an issue. “It was a complete nightmare,” he says of that time. Although typical of Hütter and Schneider’s distant approach at this point, there was little response or drama when he finally left in 1990.

He began a period where he felt “very depressed”, but soon began working with Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, writing songs together, as well as collaborating with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project Electronic on his second album. “They saved my life,” he reflects. “Because I knew I wasn’t alone.”

Karl Bartos performing in 2014.
Karl Bartos performing in 2014. Photograph: Frank Hoensch/Redferns/Getty Images

McCluskey recalls that Bartos expressed interest in working together as “one of the 12 disciples who invite you to join their gang.” Bartos even helped McCluskey create the girl band Atomic Kitten. “I was going to retire, but I was cocky enough to think I could still write songs,” recalls McCluskey. “Karl said, ‘don’t give them to the publisher because they’ll screw you up and you’ll be a fucking songwriter.’ He said, ‘why don’t you create a vehicle for your songs?’ So I’ve always loved telling people, ‘yes, Kraftwerk created Atomic Kitten.’” Bartos also released two albums as Elektric Music in the 1990s, before releasing two solo albums in 2003 and 2013. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk put in a stellar performance. he recorded again with Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003 and, now with Hütter as the only original member, has long toured with a live 3D show.

Reflecting on Kraftwerk today, he’s not so bitter, more disappointed in what could have been, lamenting lost time, creative energy, and the hole in the shape of a decade where they could have electrified audiences with prophetic but era-defining music. That said, you don’t have long to see how Kraftwerk continued to evolve. “Society has become a conveyor belt,” he says. “You put in resources, you turn it into a consumer product, you make money and…garbage. This is what happened to Kraftwerk. They became the dehumanization of music.”

Although he still deeply loves his time in the classic analog era of the band. “I loved being a man-machine,” he says. “But we just lost the man.”

Omnibus publishes The Sound of the Machine by Karl Bartos. To help The Guardian and Observer, buy your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply

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