PETER SAVILLE / ON KRAFTWERK
The early 1970s was really the first time that, en masse, British youth realised that they didn’t have to do what their parents had done. There was real social emancipation for young people. And pop music was really the crucible for that in this country, the cultural fuel.
For me, record covers and magazines were my art gallery. And I have to say that I had three tutors when I was young; Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and David Bowie, who really introduced the idea that you could completely invent yourself. And then completely reinvent yourself again.
Then, there was Kraftwerk, who introduced me to the idea of the European cultural life, another kind of culturally informed life. I bought the ‘Autobahn’ single and then the album in 1974. I think it was the first album I bought for myself, rather than music my older brothers were listening to. And it delivered something that pop had not delivered before; it delivered the European canon. At that stage I really knew nothing about European culture, few of us did. We knew about American culture of course.
But I got into classical music because of Kraftwerk. I picked up a Deutsche Grammophon record at my friend’s house. I did that because of Kraftwerk, because they seemed to point in that direction. Luckily, it was Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. And then they pointed towards Stockhausen. Kraftwerk sent you down all these tributaries. You liked Braun because of Kraftwerk, and then you started to find out about Dieter Rams and the design of the era.
Kraftwerk led you in all these different directions. More crucially for me, the UK cover for Autobahn was the German road sign. And that was my formative introduction to semiotics, though not a term I knew then. That was the first time I had thought about an image as a sign, as a trigger for all sorts of other visual readings.
This symbol led to the European motorways, and so to the whole European landscape. Five years later, when I used the ‘Hearing Protection’ symbol for Factory Records, that was my Autobahn sign.
And you have to realise that we weren’t being taught about the Bauhaus and modernism or constructivism in college. We were being taught Milton Glaser and Saul Bass and midcentury American graphic design. I felt that had become rather banal and I wanted more than that. Kraftwerk were the ones who pointed the way to the European art and design legacy.
After I’d bought Autobahn, I went back and bought the previous two albums. And the second was Ralf and Florian. On the back there was a picture of them with their neon boxes. I realise in retrospect they had given a part of their world. They had given you this collectible thing.
And of course that’s what Tony Wilson helped me do at Factory Records. As there was really no profit agenda, it was more – if we can afford to give this, let’s give it. It was all about giving people something.
Kraftwerk really showed you how to follow the signs, to get the references, to learn your history. And when you are young, you do that, because you want that special knowledge, you want to understand those references. Kraftwerk made having a cultural intelligence cool.
In the 1970s, things were analogue, night followed day, Monday followed Tuesday. If you looked for a reference on page 203, you saw what was on page 202. And then you turned over and saw the context, how things fitted together.
Now, with digital, everything is atomised, just thousands of separate bits. You have little idea of the context, of what came before, and what came after. In 1974, what Kraftwerk were all about for me, was finding out what came before and what would come afterwards.
Kraftwerk were really not a popular band in South Bavaria at the time when I grew up, no umpah, no endless guitar solo, no long curly hair. Their outlandish appearance was never geekish or pretentious, it was ice cold and not looking for emotional support – which was slightly frightening. So was their apparent lack of explanation or cultural critique, as they seem to embrace the mechanic future rather than warn about its chuckholes. The idea of the ‘artificial’ as the new ‘natural’ however was so fundamentally inspiring that generations of creatives navigated their route with their road map.
Kraftwerk are outstanding contemporary artists. They were way ahead of their time both musically and artistically and had a massive influence on the current generation of artists and musicians. I have been haunted by their music ever since I first heard Autobahn and Tour de France. It is only more recently that I had the privilege of experiencing them live, in Kiev, thanks to the initiative of Victor Pinchuk. A crowd including other artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Andreas Gursky was mesmerised by the originality, beauty and also humour of their performance.
It all started with Creamcheese – I mean the way to everlasting freedom and my interest in music. Then came Ratinger Hof and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf with Kraftwerk always smack in the middle of everything. Since then, Kraftwerk and their influence on the techno scene, whether in Ibiza, Tokyo or Frankfurt, is always with me.
My first encounter with Kraftwerk’s music was in the late 1980s, at the municipal baths in Radeberg, a backwater town in Saxony. I remember it as if it were yesterday. One of my friends proudly showed me his first-ever cassette player – battery-operated, of course – and we sat there in a mundane outdoor setting listening to a very muffled and hissy tape. The only song that could be made out at all on this cassette, which had probably been recorded over hundreds of times, was ‘The Model’, but we immediately sensed that this was something new – Kraftwerk’s minimalist style was like nothing we had ever heard before. This band was in a different league. No one captured the spirit of the time better than they did.
‘Tour de France’ is an iconic tune, one of the few things that makes us cyclists feel related to something properly cool. When we played it in the team bus before a Tour de France stage this year, our Canadian, Ryder (yes he’s called that), captured our sentiments exactly when he said, ‘Oh man, that should be playing in our earpieces all day. Every day.’
I did one of my first ever spreads for The Face magazine in March 1992, and it was for an article on Kraftwerk. I was so lucky – here was a band whose electronic experimentation I was really influenced by, and who had paved the way for many of the industrial bands I was working with at the time – like Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle – and who had themselves also been as deeply influenced by the same Soviet graphics and propaganda that, together with punk and Dadaism, had been so fundamental for me at college. It was a kind of test, and my passion for this project led Nick Logan to give me the visual design of the magazine to do from that point on. Thanks, Kraftwerk, or my career might have been very different.