Sometimes I look around at band names and think it’s a tragedy that some of the best names have ended up attached to some of the worst groups, bands that maybe produce one dodgy single and are then forgotten about; yet the name – often the most inspired thing about said failing group – is then taken, unavailable for use by anyone else unless you’re prepared to expend major legal effort to prise the name from the corpse of that band.
Anyone in the early Seventies may have been forgiven for thinking that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider had nabbed a really powerful name – Kraftwerk – that really didn’t match their music. The name has connotations of a powerful source of energy, and yet their lightweight music, with flutes and guitar sat alongside primitive synths, sounded like it was stranded in among a weird hints and between formal classical music, jazz improvisation and weed-shrouded Haight-Ashbury hippyishness. It was certainly not immediately obvious that the duo would go on to become the influential unit they would ultimately be.
1973’s abysmally unimaginatively named Ralf & Florian continued the theme of their previous two albums but at least moved the duo into a proper studio, which may have had the effect of making their sound a little more structured. With the guidance of engineer Konrad ‘Conny’ Plank, Ralf & Florian was a more polished affair, utilising nascent rhythm generators alongside EMS and Moog synths, yet still retaining the jazzy oddness of previous records. The rear sleeve of the album showed the pair working in an early version of their as-yet-unnamed Kling-Klang studio, smiling and obviously having a laugh amidst an unholy mess of a workspace; part of me thinks that this period shows the pair to have an undisciplined approach, something that feels like it was eliminated when Kraftwerk really became Kraftwerk.
Ralf & Florian, for all its oddness, does at least garner a hint of what would emerge with 1975’s Autobahn. The attempt at greater synchronicity between the instruments – something of a challenge in the early Seventies – is a direct precursor to the more solid rhythms that would coalesce on that album thanks to the recruitment of Wolfgang Flür (he joined Hütter and Schneider for a German TV performance to promote Ralf & Florian). The languid and beautiful ‘Ananas Symphonie’ has sounds and textures that would appear again on that album’s ‘Kometenmelodie’, though here those sounds are augmented by guitarwork that is somewhere between a slowed-down Neu! and a Hawaiian beach performer.
On the whole, Ralf & Florian still sounds a little twee compared to where Kraftwerk would ultimately settle. However, if you try to listen to the album without any sort of reference to their future greatness, this remains an interesting hybrid album full of organic, carefully-composed moments and early synth sounds that remind you of how unearthly and exciting it must have been to hear such noises at the time. Opening track ‘Elektrisches Roulette’ might sound playful, but with its proggy lead synth line, rapidly played piano line and ricocheting drums, it bears a striking similarity to the first few bars of Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’, rising out of messy beginnings into a solid piece of infectious music. ‘Kristallo’ fizzes with dark energy, with jagged arpeggios cutting through the haphazard harpsichord riffing (though the high-speed conclusion is a bit daft), while ‘Heimatklänge’ bears a striking resemblance to the Eno track that was used as the title music to Arena (just without the droney guitar). ‘Tanzmusik’ is infectiously bouncy primitive synth pop mixed with classical motifs but still sounds like a world apart from, say, ‘Europe Endlos’; it’s the kind of piece you could imagine Mike Oldfield coming up with along the way to Tubular Bells. On the whole it’s an interesting collection of songs, and one that requires a degree of deep listening and immersion to appreciate.
Despite achieving some critical and commercial acclaim in Germany – presumably not because of the college yearbook-esque sleeve used in that country – the album has been out of print for many years. Kraftwerk indicated it might emerge in remastered form following the re-release of their classic albums in the late 2000s, but so far nothing has seen the light of day. I bought a bootleg CD copy in the pre-Internet mid-Nineties, from a record stall that used to set up shop in the central courtyard at my university campus, and at that time I didn’t even know if it was an album proper or just a collection of random old Kraftwerk songs compiled together. I roundly hated it the first time I heard it, but in my defence, at that time in my musical education I needed music that was squarely attached to a grid, whether that was synth pop, techno or punk, and had no appreciation whatsoever of looseness or space in music.
Various different bootleg versions have emerged over the years; mine was not on a label at all and bears a buried ‘WERK3’ catalogue reference. The original LP came with a comic from collaborator Emil Schult, but that was not reproduced with my CD. The CD came with a bonus track of a live version of ‘Autobahn’ from Cologne in 1975; though terribly recorded, the addition of the track does go to some lengths to bridge the gap between Ralf & Florian and Autobahn since it shows that their sound may have become more robust by that time, but the playing was still just loose enough to sound human.
(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence