The city of Düsseldorf has spawned some of the most iconic German acts of the 20th century – Neu!, D.A.F., Die Krupps and, arguably to a lesser extent, Die Toten Hosen. 🙂
But few groups are as synonymous with North Rhine-Westphalia’s ‘second city’ as Kraftwerk, the electronic benchmark-setters that are celebrating their fiftieth year on the road in 2020.
Indeed, there was something about the industrial energy of West Germany’s urban heartland at the time that fostered the artistic mindset of Kraftwerk’s core custodians, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider (RIP), as author David Stubbs noted in Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music.
“Hütter had once spoken of Kraftwerk as having ‘no fathers’, and the generational tension that came from growing up during the late 1960s, an era of dawning consciousness for young West Germans, was palpable within the group, as they emerged from the fog of secretiveness in which their parents and grandparents had voluntarily hidden themselves.
“Both Hütter and Schneider came from well-to-do families who expected their children to follow in their high-achieving footsteps. One imagines his family looking on stiffly and aghast as Kraftwerk went through their formative years, when, despite their early adoption of drum machines and minimal synths, they dressed very much as bohemian longhairs, who an older generation regarded not merely as scruffy layabouts but as potential terrorists.”
Before the self-styled robots gained prominence, Kraftwerk’s core custodians, Hütter and Schneider, were in the experimental group Organisation (or, to give it its full title, ‘Organisation for the Realisation of Common Music Concepts’), where hints of the electronic odyssey to follow were evident on the group’s only album, Tone Float.
Released in June 1970, Tone Float was an early example of the musical genre that would become colloquially known as ‘krautrock’, or as the Germans dubbed it, ‘kosmische Musik’ (cosmic music), later espoused by the likes of Can, Tangerine Dream and Faust.
Indeed, Can’s existence owes a lot to Organisation’s presence on the scene – as the former’s Michael Karoli noted in Pascal Bussy’s Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music, the group met Hütter and Schneider for the first time in the summer of 1968. “Ralf was very communicative, but Florian didn’t speak much. We were to play at the preview of a painting exhibition. We had not brought many instruments, so we played one long piece on their instruments for about 15 minutes.
“As far as I can remember, this was Can’s first public appearance.”
Produced by legendary sound engineer Konrad “Conny” Plank, Tone Float saw Hütter and Schneider team up with musicians Basil Hammoudi, Butch Hauf, and Fred Monicks for a double sided album dominated by the eponymous opening track, a 20-minute plus psychedelic journey that takes over the whole of side A.
A largely haphazard affair, the album’s opener seeps into a repetitive mantra about five minutes in, amidst the crashing cymbals – resonant of the computerised rhythms that would emerge in the years to come (as well as the work of minimalist Steve Reich). Eastern tinges also permeate the track, particularly on Florian’s flute work, which is bathed in ring modulation.
The opening track of side B, Milk Rock is probably the album’s stand out, a proto-electronic stomper that delves into seriously experimental territory, while the following piece, Silver Forest, sounds like the soundtrack to a psychedelic horror movie.
The boys get the bongos out on Rhythm Salad, arguably the weakest track on the album, before closer Noitasinagro is a slow-builder that has hints of Pink Floyd’s Pompeii jam sessions, with a nod to John Cale’s Velvet Underground-era viola work.
It’s also the only track to feature vocals, albeit in the form of some whooping and hollering near the track’s conclusion.
Later releases of the album also included Rückstoß Gondoliere; taken from a live performance in May 1971, by which time Organisation had disbanded to form Kraftwerk.
Another nod to the group’s future incarnation is the presence of a traffic cone on the album’s back cover – the symbol would go on to grace the cover of Kraftwerk’s under-appreciated (in our opinion anyway) first two albums, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2.
So why haven’t we heard more about Organisation?
Following the group’s release, the band were offered a chance to tour England and the US, but Hammoudi, Hauf, and Monicks were less than enamoured with the idea – as the latter noted in 2003, “The three of us wanted to finish our studies. Ralf and Florian did their tour alone.”
In addition, sales of the album were poor, and following a limited release, record label RCA dropped the band.
As Hütter explained in Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music,, while Organisation had enjoyed some success, there was little in the way of a ‘grand plan’ for the group.
“We didn’t really have a strategy, we rushed into making industrial music, abandoning all our other activities from before – our education, our classical background. It was a total rupture for us. Neither then or now did we think about the future, or about some strategy. Why would we think about the future?”
By mid-summer 1970, Ralf and Florian had formed a new band, taking their name from a symbol of German industry, the power station (Kraftwerk), with the group making its live debut at the Tivoli Popfestival, Aachen on 11 July 1970.
Debut album Kraftwerk, which would feature a former Organisation live favourite, Ruckzuck, would follow in November of that year.
Within a year or two, the band had also shed their ‘student’ look in favour of a more refined, fashionable approach. As Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flür wrote in his autobiography, I Was A Robot, by the time Autobahn rolled around in 1974, the group had “adopted the ‘German’ image, at Florian’s suggestion, based on his love of the fashions of the 50s.
“It was like The Beach Boys, who represented an American prototype with their ‘All-American Dream’.
“Ralf and Florian bought suits from a Düsseldorf bespoke tailor, but even then they paid for off-the-peg suits because they were work clothes, as it were. We just wanted to stop being compared with the English pop scene of with bluejeans-clad American rock bands.”
Organisation’s last live appearance came at the 1970 Essener Pop & Blues Festival in April of that year, under the moniker Organisation Ralf Hütter, alongside the likes of Black Sabbath, Marsha Hunt and the Keef Hartley Band.
A single clip of the group survives from that performance, with Ruckzuck getting the full hippie freak-out treatment – check out Schneider’s epic flute work.
But it was Hütter, the de factor bandleader (and today, the single remaining member in Kraftwerk), who appeared to be singled out for the most attention – as the programme from that concert put it, “Ralf Hütter is always angry when you say Organisation Ralf Hütter and not just Organisation. Because Ralf Hütter is against the idea of a personality cult. But Organisation Ralf Hütter sounds better than just Organisation.
“Their special charm comes from the Oriental melodic and exotic timbre of Hütter’s music, the use of old Indian ragas, pentantonic ranks and church modes, the lack of major-minor harmony and dissonance richness, and Ralf Hütter’s penchant for Phrygian cadences.”
Within a few years, that versatility would help Hütter and his Kraftwerk ensemble make electronic music history.