Song of the Day: Billy Sedlmayr Weighs in on Kraftwerk's 'Radioactivity'

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Germany was ground zero for the avant-garde. Electronic exploration by students and artists, working in mediums music and visual arts. A sort of Euro Popular Mechanics for oddballs, if you will, following the leading figures of a burgeoning scene. Amongst them John Cage, Wendy Carlos, and fellow statesman Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose heady subject matter in the ‘50s included directionless sound, temporal field and controlled chance with applications to forward-thinking musical and non-musical endeavors. Both groups Can and Kraftwerk studied under his tutelage.

Kraftwerk had little modern gear in their early efforts and they so hit up IBM for use of their computers. In fact, their first recordings were constructed using the electronic junk-pile left behind by the Third Reich’s war machine, whose practice of stealing timeless works of music, books and prestigious art had been geared to crush peoples’ cultural identities.

Kraftwerk’s minimalism rose heavy on repetitious "click tracks" used as rhythm machines, which can be heard on their first U.S. breakthrough, '74s hyper-hypnotic "Autobahn," which hit No. 3 on the U.S. pop charts.

Ralph Hűtter and Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk's main songwriters, along with Flur and Bartos, would catch up to their own shadow, building the Kling Klang Studio in Dűsseldorf, re-upping the stakes of information and instrumentation via Moog, ARP Odyssey and their own computer systems. It all led to a robotic pop whose technology had been waiting for a purpose. Along with Can, Tangerine Dream and other likeminded groups, Krautrock was born.

In 1975, Kraftwerk released the mechanized record Radio-Activity, a black album cover with a radio speaker, a concept of all things static. Geiger counters, S.O.S. blips and bleeps, the HAM radio operator gone to heaven with hooks, melody, and vocals fed into vocoders—an early cousin of today’s overused and abused Auto-Tune, heard on four out of five pop hits today.

The title track has the signature Kraftwerk sound, a simple keyboard pattern with countless layers of ghost frequencies, and the sounds of machinery bleed through channels, the words repeating like a mantra—“radioactivity, it’s in the air for you and me.”

The album was released in both English and German editions, and although it didn't find any sweet spots on the U.S., charts, it hit well in Europe and became the sound to emulate by artists and producers in disco and funk recordings. Brian Eno and David Bowie among them. (Bowie even wanted Kraftwerk to open his Station to Station tour, but they turned him down!) Kraftwerk would later be sampled on countless records in the post-punk and hip-hop era, and there'd be little or no EDM without them. Forget Detroit techno.  

Kraftwerk put out four more albums that hit in all the right places. They're a true German brand and have yet to be replaced in the unfolding search for unchartered sound in an age of DIY technology that brings not only movement but humanity to turntables and dance floors.