At the beginning of last year I knew very little about Kraftwerk, only that they were German, electro-rock pioneers, very reclusive and had hits with ‘Autobahn’, which I loved when I first heard it in 1975, and ‘The Model’. Now I’m an expert, not just because I edited an Omnibus book on them by David Buckley but because along the way David sent me 10 KW CDs, and I listened to their music again as I worked on the book. The three tracks that I like the most are ‘Europe Endless’ with its lovely choral backdrop and travelogue lyrics, ‘Neon Lights’, whose melody is simply beautiful, and the fugue-like instrumental ‘Franz Schubert’. I’d been under a misapprehension that KW were merely creators of sonic blips on computers but in reality they are modern German composers inspired by European romantic classical traditions. I know they’ve been credited with having pioneered the repetitive sequencing on which so much modern dance music is based but for me it was the luscious, trancelike melodies that turned me into a fan. These three are among the songs that, as David correctly observes, are “a sonic refutation of allegations that Kraftwerk had no soul”.
An unusual inspiration for Kraftwerk was cycling, not the most obvious stimulus for musical creativity, but along the way KW supremo Ralf Hütter suffered a terrible cycling accident that he took pains to hush up as best he could. In many ways Hütter’s devotion to cycling was responsible for the break-up of the classic Kraftwerk line-up of himself, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. In this extract from his book Publikation, David looks at KW’s cycling habit, its effect on the group and into the mysterious crash.
You’re fairly young, you’re very rich, you’re not sure what to do next musically, you’ve already written your page in the annals of rock-and-roll lore. Most musicians in that position get lazy, or release substandard records which tarnish their legacy, or become actors; or all three.
Ralf Dörper, by then a recording musician in his own right with the groups Die Krupps and Propaganda, was also a keen cyclist in the eighties but insists no one was in Kraftwerk’s league. ‘The only chance to meet any of Kraftwerk outside of, say, a coffee shop that was near to Kling Klang, would have been at one of these cycling shops. But then they got more and more into it, and they went to the really specialist shops outside of Düsseldorf which really sell equipment for professionals. That is something I think Wolfgang didn’t take part in, and I guess Karl not too much either. They would probably easily do 50 to 100 kilometres a day. And I thought, very well, I’d cycle, but OK, I’m working, so there’s a time limit. But normally I wouldn’t do much more than 20 to 30 a day, so they were in a completely different league!’
By the mid-eighties there would be a group of riders who would cycle with Ralf and Florian. ‘They had a crew which became bigger and bigger. They used the weekends to be in the countryside in the hills in the surrounding area,’ remembers Wolfgang. ‘There was an architect friend of ours, Volker Albus, and an orthopaedic professor, Willy Klein. Then there was the barber who always cut our hair in those days, he was such a nice guy. All in all, there would be five or six men cycling off into the hilly country, the wonderful “bergisches Land” around Solingen and Remscheid. I like it there too, but I prefer to go walking there, with my wife.’
Wolfgang for one could see Kraftwerk’s focus shifting away from music. He was becoming increasingly dissatisfied, marginalised. As a non-writer, he needed to keep working, and touring. ‘The side-effect of this was that they were not in the studio. Ralf felt his muscles shaping up, his body growing. His face took on a kind of beauty which I can’t describe. If you see the riders on the Tour de France or other high-tech bikers or sportsmen generally, the look in their eyes when they just finished a fight or a race, they are so enthusiastic, even ecstatic. I’m looking for another word which was on the tip of my tongue: “fanatics“- or even better: “insane”! This is what I realised and I don’t like it. I don’t like fanaticism at all, especially not in politics, religion or sport. Speaking for me and for Karl, the result was that they didn’t go to work enough, and they gave us even more bad feelings because the studio was always full of piles of bicycle chains, tyres, biking clothes stinking of sweat. We had a little workshop where I used to build things for studio design, stage design. It became more and more a workshop for preparing and repairing bicycles. That’s the reason why I went there less and less, because I couldn’t stand it. It had nothing to do with music any more for me.’
Wolfgang is convinced that cycling went far beyond being a hobby, certainly for Ralf if not Florian as well. He believes it became an addiction. In fact, cyclists, like runners, can become ‘cardioholics’. Today’s obsessive cyclists blog about how they feel too tired to get to work in the mornings unless they cycle there, and that cycling is like alcohol, or nicotine to them. Runners speak of a state of peace, an almost trance-like state which can be attained during prolonged, extreme physical exercise; maybe even a state of grace. ‘He wanted it more and more. It was a kind of drug for him,’ says Wolfgang. ‘The bike-riding, the racing, feeling nature, the wind, everything, not sitting in a car on the Autobahn, sterile inside. Now his body was feeling everything, and he became just like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, who could not stop doing what he was told to do. Cycling was the master, it was the sorcerer who told him what to do, and he couldn’t stop it anymore. That is why I say “saucerer’s apprentice”. It was a kind of magic. Karl and I realised that he was never going to stop with that. He couldn’t come back as the musician he was before, with all that passion and zeal and music-making and sound-creating and travelling and music-presenting with us as his friends.’
Was this wrong of Ralf? What was bad about being fit and cycling with chums? Should he have had a responsibility, particularly to Wolfgang, to keep touring? It should be remembered that Kraftwerk was his and Florian’s original concept and in their eyes, on a level above personal likes and dislikes, personal friendships or animosities, Kraftwerk was a business which they ran on business-like lines. Ralf and Florian created the music when, and if, they wanted. Ralf had become someone who was deeply committed to cycling. He wanted to be healthy. What, in a sense, was wrong with that?
There was another shift within Kraftwerk’s inner workings; the increasing importance of Karl Bartos. Recruited for the 1974 tour, he had been a credited co-composer on the last two Kraftwerk records. A glance at the credits of Man-Machine and Computer World indicates that Bartos had written a not inconsiderable part. Karl and Wolfgang had to keep playing and performing to live (in the manner to which they were accustomed, of course). In 1984 and 1985, such discontents were shared privately but not publicly. But this would change. If not a catalyst, then certainly a step toward the next stage of the Kraftwerk saga – the inaction that befell them in the eighties – was a serious cycling accident suffered by Ralf.
‘I wasn’t actually with him, so I can only tell you what I was told,’ says Wolfgang. ‘They were on the left bank of the Rhine, on a path off a dyke with a hard surface covered in gravel. They didn’t ride with helmets: and they had reached a high speed. They were riding in Indian file, and Ralf – “I want to be the best, I want to be the first” – sped up and went faster and faster and let his front wheel touch the rear wheel of the rider in front of him, rubber against rubber. He fell and landed on his head on the concrete, without a helmet. He was immediately knocked unconscious; he didn’t react, so I’ve heard. His cycling friends tried to wake him up but he didn’t wake up, and there was blood flowing out of his ear. So then they were very afraid. They managed to stop a car. I don’t know how they managed to get an ambulance, because the road wasn’t open to traffic. They drove him to Krefeld, to hospital, where he spent four days, I think, in a coma. The doctors said it was very serious. We and his family thought he wouldn’t get up again. But he regained consciousness, and the first thing he asked was, “Is my bike OK? What happened to my bike?” That’s really true! Everyone tells me that. There is no reason for them to lie. We know how fanatical he was. He was in hospital for two, maybe three weeks, but he was back on a bike soon afterwards, I think.’
Although in later interviews, Ralf was either cryptic about, or keen to downplay, the severity of his accident – ‘No. It was just a very normal fall and a couple days in the hospital. It was nothing to worry about… I just forgot my helmet. That's the real story’, is one such matter-of-fact reply – the truth seems to be that Hütter was in a coma and dangerously ill for a period of days. Nevertheless, Ralf is adamant that the seriousness of his accident has been blown up out of all proportion in the telling. In 2009 he told John Harris, ‘It didn't affect me. I got a new head, and I'm fine. It was a few days in hospital, and that's it. A very normal accident. It's one of those things where somebody tells a story, and the next guy adds another story, and in the end ... like I say, I got a new operation, and I got a new head. I just forgot my helmet, and I was in hospital for three or four days.’
This is one part of the Kraftwerk story which seems destined to remain clouded by conflicting testimony. ‘It might sound pretentious to say today but after the bike accident Hütter was not the same,’ says Karl Bartos. ‘He changed.’