The Sound of the Machine - My Life in Kraftwerk and Beyond
by Karl Bartos
After publishing the first edition of 'Man, Machine and Music' his biography of Kraftwerk, author Pascal Bussy received a late-night phone call at his home in Paris.
The call came from the late Florian Schnieder, co-founder of the band, who opened their two-hour-long conversation with the words: 'Le livre, c'est de la merde' (do you really need me to translate for you?). Although he had been interviewed for the book, the founder member of the band was now keen to point out to the author that the majority of the biography was a fabrication.
Bussy was, of course, not the first to find difficulty in trying to take a closer look at the inner workings of Kraftwerk. Schnieder and fellow co-founder Ralf Hutter had spent years perfecting that air of mystery and unapproachability, the masks of the showroom dummies or the robots became the band themselves. There was also the veil of secrecy under which they worked at their exclusive Kling Klang studio, it was all part of Kraftwerk's well-maintained man-machine image. To reveal something that the gatekeeper of a carefully curated persona doesn't want to be aired is to risk humiliation and the harshest ridicule.
But what if the tale of a band were told by an actual insider? And that tale was told without self-indulgence, distortion, and ego? Is that even possible? Well, yes, and 'The Sound of the Machine' by Karl Bartos is a fine example. It is that rare thing, a memoir that creates a tangible sense of being in the band, whether that be in the Kling Klang studio, in the media, or on tour.
Bartos's brilliantly detailed memoir is an honest, thoughtful, intelligent, and engaging view of life inside (and later, outside) the band. As a former member, Bartos was the closest to Ralf Hutter & Florian Schneider, the musical and ideological core of the band. And, as someone who co-wrote all the tracks on three of their classic late 70s/early 80s albums, he was far more than an observer or 'musical worker' (Hutter and Schneider's term for those they worked with), he was essential to the (for use of a better term...) machine.
From his early fascination with The Beatles through to his years studying percussion at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Dusseldorf, Bartos is immersed in music. As well as classical performances as a student he is also a jobbing musician, playing improvisational jazz with Sinus and, what the young pre-Kraftwerk Wolfgang Flur would sniffily dismiss at 'light entertainment music, of the frequent bow-tie wearing Joker (see picture - Bartos is second left).
Bartos vividly describes the music that he loves, whether it be Shönburg, the Futurist movement (...whose manifesto was The Art of Noises) Delius and, most importantly, Karlheinz Stockhausen. His enthusiasm naturally extends to the music he is writing and performing with Kraftwerk, notably 'Man Machine' (1978), the first album where he had a role in the composition of all of the tracks, and 'Computer World' (1981). In reflection, he feels that the latter was probably Kraftwerk's '...most successful attempt at translating the dialectics of the man-machine metaphor, as I understand it, into music'. He's probably right.
For a band that was so inspirational and so ahead of any other artists, it is frustrating to read of how the false starts and creative cul-de-sacs that followed 'Computer World'. Kraftwerk's only other release during the 80s would be the Tour De France single ('83) and the hollow 'Techno Pop' album ('86). The band now seemed to be in the shadow of those that they had influenced, the band of the future now sounded dated. Despite assurances that there would be new projects forthcoming after the digitally enhanced best of 'The Mix' the wait was agonizing.
Throughout the book the divisions between Bartos (and, as detailed elsewhere, Wolfgang Flur), and the dominant Hutter and Schneider feel like a dripping tap, starting quietly and building to an intolerable level. It would be the financial inequalities in the band that eventually causes Bartos to quit. In the stasis following 'Computer World', he found himself as a freelancer who could only work for one employer. He also questioned whether the licensing fees were being shared fairly or whether his bosses were being totally honest about record sales and why so many agreements were made verbally and not in writing. But Bartos does not allow his tale to be bogged down in bitterness, he's too well mannered to descend into such mud-slinging Legal action against the former bosses took place, that is all we need to know.
The post-Kraftwerk Bartos is a contented soul. As well as writing and performing on his own, there have been also been collaborations with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner's Electronic and with Andy McCluskey of OMD. Although he has been able to move on from Kraftwerk, the most tender moment occurs in November 2008 when he and Wolfgang Flur are unexpectedly visited by Florian Schneider with the news that he had left the band. It feels like an attempt at some form of closure but sadly it would be the last time he would see Schneider before his death in 2020. (In my mind, a touring Kraftwerk that does not, and now cannot include Florian Schneider, just isn't Kraftwerk).
The '...and Beyond' part of the title of Bartos's memoir is significant. His wise observations on culture, history, art and the future of music are well considered. But it is, obviously, his time with Kraftwerk that dominates the book. Furthermore, there is also a sense that with Schneider now gone, Hutter still too busy controlling the machine (and Flur having published his rash 'I Was A Robot' memoir), it has fallen to Bartos to write the most authoritative account of the band. It is something that he has done with great precision and care.
Cherish this book, is the closest we will ever get to the heart of Kraftwerk.