Karl Bartos: “Kraftwerk became a dehumanization of music” | Music

When a teenager, Karl Bartos, told his parents that he wanted to devote his life to music, his father became so enraged that he smashed his son’s acoustic guitar to pieces.

Hearing The Beatles at age 12 awakened something in him — “I wanted to feel what they sounded like,” he says — and so he held on to that broken guitar. Another portal was getting tripped up on LSD while listening to Hendrix. “Music spoke to me in all the languages ​​of the world at once,” he recalls in his memoirs. “I understood her message down to the last frequency. Never before has the essence of music been so clear.

Memoir The Sound of the Machine: My Life. Kraftwerk and Beyond, is an incredibly comprehensive book on Bartos’s life, from those pivotal childhood moments, his years at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Dusseldorf, where he studied percussion, to his time in the classic group Kraftwerk – Bartos, Ralf. Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür – in which he played from 1974 to 1990.

Kraftwerk were looking for a drummer for some live dates, and Bartos was recommended by his professor. Invited to their infamous and secret Kling Klang studio, he immediately connected with Hütter and Schneider. “We were attracted to each other and it just felt pure,” he recalls. “From the first meeting, I knew it was something very special.

Kraftwerk concert in Brussels in 1981. LR:
Ralf Hütter, Karl Bartos, Wolfgang Flür and Florian Schneider.
Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

Bartos’s arrival coincided with the release of Autobahn, a record, particularly its title track, often held up as a benchmark for pop modernity, with a pulsating groove that stretches into the future. Work soon began on the concept album Radio-Activity, with Bartos becoming an embedded member, collaborator and co-writer. The subsequent albums Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (1977-1981) are a flawless, peerless series of records that shimmer and shine with a metallic sheen; equal parts gritty pop and futuristic sci-fi soundscapes, they became the blueprint for electronic pop for the next decade. Bartos says Kraftwerk’s mission was to invest technology with humanity, to make it “felt and visible — and that was different from all the electronic pop music we were inspired by. They just treated the electronics like a guitar; they just played songs in the English pop tradition. But Kraftwerk remained different because we wanted to introduce people to the technique.

The group not only reached consistent creative heights in the studio, but also had the most friendly and sociable dynamic. Some lived together in what Bartos calls “legendary parties,” though he won’t go into the juicy details. Instead 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 bathroom,” he wrote. “Everything would be covered in bubble bath and red wine, and candlelight would dimly illuminate the sweaty scene. These parties were like Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems counterintuitive for such a secretive and secretive group that experimented with robot aliases – and Barta’s book takes you to typewriting with a focus on working methods, creative process and technology.

in 1981 they toured successfully – despite their equipment weighing seven tonnes – and reached UK No. 1 the following year with The Model. 1. They were at their creative and commercial zenith – Bartos wrote that Computer World was “our most successful attempt to translate the dialectic of the man-machine metaphor into music”, but Kraftwerk hadn’t played live for almost a decade before they disappeared. studio. “We slept through the ’80s,” Bartos says. “It really was a dramatically huge mistake.

Another album, 1986. released Electric Café was a drastic shift. “The problem started when the computer arrived at the studio,” says Bartos. “The computer has nothing to do with creativity, it’s just a tool, but we have transferred creativity to the computer. We forgot about the center of who we were. We lost the physical feeling, we no longer looked into each other’s eyes, we just looked at the monitor. At the time, I thought innovation and progress were synonymous. I can’t be so sure anymore.”

It turns out that this band member who heralded a new era of futuristic techno music is something of a technoskeptic, but Bartos points out that the era most people associate with Kraftwerk’s greatest work was produced by a largely analog band. They pushed the limits of primitive technology to the absolute limit, and for Bartos, these limitations fueled innovation. But when presented with endless possibilities, there was nothing to rub against but a limitless horizon. “We stopped being creative because we were solving problems,” he says.

The pace of work has slowed down significantly. Hütter’s new obsession with cycling became a priority, and studio sessions often lasted several hours in the evening. They were also obsessed with other people’s records and would often go to discos to play early mixes of their own tracks to see how they sounded compared to the new stuff of the day. They began to chase antiquity, not to establish it. After hearing New Order’s Blue Monday, they were so impressed that they sought out his sound engineer, Michael Johnson, and flew to the UK to mix Tour de France, a separate 1983 album. single, but decided never to release that version.

“Things were starting to look more and more run down,” says Bartos. “Instead of remembering how our most authentic and successful music was made, we looked to the zeitgeist of mass market music. But comparing your ideas to other people’s work was anti-creative and counterproductive. We have become music designers producing custom music focused solely on winning over other competitors. Our imagination has lost its autonomy. We seemed to forget how our music came about.

Flur lost patience and left furniture production, and Bartos was also on the verge of quitting due to mounting problems with songwriting credits and payments, as well as refusal to perform. “It was an absolute nightmare,” he says of that time. Although Hütter and Schneider’s separate approach is currently typical, in the 1990s he there was no backlash or drama when he finally quit.

A period began when he felt “very low”, but soon began working with Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark’s Andy McCluskey, writing songs together, as well as collaborating with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project Electronic on their second album. “They saved my life,” he reflects. “Because I knew I wasn’t alone.”

Karl Bartos performance in 2014.
Karl Bartos performance in 2014. Photo: Frank Hoensch/Redferns/Getty Images

McCluskey recalls that Bartos expressed interest in working together as “one of 12 students inviting to join their gang.” Bartos even lent a helping hand to McCluskey in the creation of the girl group Atomic Kitten. “I was traveling until I retired, but I was cocky enough to still be writing songs,” McCluskey recalls. “Carl said, ‘Don’t just give them to a label, they’ll screw you up and you’ll be a songwriting whore.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you create a vehicle for your songs?’ So I was always happy to tell people, ‘Yeah, Kraftwerk did Atomic Kitten.'” Bartos also released two albums as Elektric Music in the 90s, and in 2003 and in 2013 released two solo albums. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk was great. in 2003 returned to recording with Tour De France Soundtracks and – now with Hütter as the only original member – has been touring in 3D live for a long time.

When he thinks about Kraftwerk today, he’s less bitter, more disappointed in what could have been, lamenting the wasted time, creative energy and decade-shaped hole in which they could have electrified audiences with old but era-defining music. This means he doesn’t have much time for how Kraftwerk has continued to evolve. “Society has become an assembly line,” he says. “You put in a resource, turn it into a consumer product, make money and… garbage. That’s what happened to Kraftwerk. They have become the dehumanization of music.”

Although he still has a lot of love for his time in the band’s classic analog era. “I loved being a human machine,” he says. “But we just lost a man.”

“The Sound of the Machine” by Karl Bartos was published by the publishing house “Omnibus”. To assist the guardian and observer, buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply

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