When a teenager Karl Bartos told his parents he wanted to devote his life to music, his father was so furious that he kicked his son’s acoustic guitar to pieces.
After hearing the Beatles at 12 noon, something in him had awakened – “I wanted to feel what they sounded like,” he says – so he persisted past that broken guitar. Tripping on LSD listening to Hendrix was another portal. “The music spoke to me in all the languages of the world at once,” he recalls in his memoir. “I understood the message down 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 about Bartos’s life: from those pivotal childhood moments, years spent at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf, where he studied percussion, to 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 professor. When he was called up to their infamous and secretive Kling Klang Studio, Hütter and Schneider clicked right away. “We were attracted to each other and it just felt pure,” he recalls. “I knew from the first meeting that it was something very special.”
Bartos’ entry coincided with the release of Autobahn, a record – especially the title track – often regarded as a benchmark for modernity in pop music, with a pulsating groove that stretches into the future. Work soon began on the concept album Radio-Activity, and Bartos became more of an embedded member, contributor, and co-writer. Subsequent albums Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (1977-1981) are an impeccable, unparalleled set of records that shimmer and glisten with metallic brilliance; equal parts meticulous pop and futuristic sci-fi soundscapes, they became the blueprint for electronic pop over the next decade. According to Bartos, Kraftwerk’s mission was to invest technology in humanity, to “make it palpable and visible – and this was unlike any electronic pop music that was inspired by us.” They just treated the electronic equipment like a guitar; they just played songs in the tradition of English pop music. But Kraftwerk remained different because we wanted to make people aware of technology.”
Not only did the band consistently climb creative peaks in the studio, but their dynamics were friendly and sociable at their most. Some lived together in a place that hosted what Bartos describes as “legendary feasts,” though he isn’t swayed by juicy details. For that we have to turn to Flür’s memoir I Was A Robot. “A Super 8 projector would play sex movies on the wall next to the bathtub,” he wrote. “Everything would be covered with bubble bath and red wine, and candlelight would dimly illuminate the sweaty scene. These feasts were like Sodom and Gomorrah.” It seems to be at odds with such a mysterious and secretive band that experimented with the use of robotic aliases – and plays Bartos’ book to type by intensely focusing on working methods, creative processes and technology.
They toured successfully in 1981 – despite their gear weighing seven tons – and the following year they had a UK No 1 with The Model. They were at their creative and commercial peak, with Bartos writing that Computer World was “our most successful attempt at translating the dialect of the man-machine metaphor into music,” but Kraftwerk wouldn’t perform live for nearly a decade when they disappeared. in the studio. “We slept through the 80s,” Bartos says. “It really was a dramatically big mistake.”
The next album, Electric Café from 1986, was a drastic change. “The problem started when the computer arrived at the studio,” Bartos says. “A computer has nothing to do with creativity, it’s just a tool, but we outsourced creativity to the computer. We forgot the center of what we were. We lost our physical sense, stopped looking each other in the eye, just staring at the monitor. I thought then that innovation and progress were synonymous. I’m not so sure anymore.”
It turns out this member of a group that ushered in a new era of futuristic, tech-heavy music is something of a techno skeptic, but Bartos stresses that the era most people associate with peak Kraftwerk was produced by a largely analog band. . They pushed the limits of primitive technology to the limit, and for Bartos these limitations led to innovation. But when given endless options, there was nothing to rub against, just a limitless horizon. “We were no longer creative because we were solving problems,” he says.
The pace of work was considerably slower. Hütter’s new obsession with cycling became a priority and studio sessions were often a few half-hearted hours in the evening. In addition, they had become obsessed with other people’s records and often made trips to discos to play early mixes of their songs to see how they sounded against fresh records of the day. They started chasing the zeitgeist instead of defining it. When they heard New Order’s Blue Monday, they were so impressed that they sought out the sound engineer, Michael Johnson, and flew to the UK to have him mix Tour de France – a standalone single from 1983 – but opted never to release that version.
“It started to look more and more desolate,” Bartos says. “Instead of remembering how our most authentic and successful music was made, we turned our gaze to the zeitgeist of mass-market music. But comparing our own ideas to the work of others was anti-creative and counterproductive. We became music designers and made consumer music aimed only at winning over other contestants. Our imagination lost its autonomy. It was as if we had forgotten how our music came about.”
Losing his temper, Flür left to make furniture and Bartos was also preparing an exit, with mounting issues surrounding songwriting credits and payments, as well as a refusal to tour, also an issue. “It was a complete nightmare,” he says of that time. While typical of Hütter and Schneider’s aloof approach on this point, there was little reaction or drama when he finally left in 1990.
It started a period where he felt “very low”, but he soon began working with Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, writing songs together and collaborating with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project Electronic on their second album. . “They saved my life,” he recalls. “Because I knew I wasn’t the only one.”
McCluskey recalls how Bartos expressed an interest in working together as “one of the 12 disciples you invite to join their gang.” Bartos even had a helping hand in creating McCluskey’s girl band Atomic Kitten. “I retired, but I was cocky enough to think I could still write songs,” recalls McCluskey. “Karl said, ‘Don’t just give them to the publishing house, because then they’ll make a mess of you and you’ll be a songwriter whore’. He said, ‘why don’t you make a vehicle for your songs?’ So I always liked to say to people, ‘Yeah, Kraftwerk made Atomic Kitten.’” Bartos also released two albums in the 1990s as Elektric Music, before releasing two solo albums in 2003 and 2013. Kraftwerk meanwhile had a great time back recording Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003, and – now with Hütter the only original member – have toured for a long time with a 3D live show.
When he thinks about Kraftwerk today, he doesn’t come across as bitter, more disappointed with what could have been, bemoaning wasted time, creative energy and the decade-shaped hole where they could have excited audiences with prescient but time-defining music. That said, he doesn’t have much time for how Kraftwerk has continued to evolve. “Society has become an assembly line,” he says. “You put resources into it, you turn it into a consumer product, you make money and… junk. This is what happened to Kraftwerk. They turned into the dehumanization of music.”
Though he still loves his time in the band’s classic analog era. “I loved being a man-machine,” he says. “But we just lost the man.”