When teenage Karl Bartos told his parents he wanted to devote his life to music, his father was so angry that he kicked his son’s acoustic guitar to pieces.
After hearing the Beatles at the age of 12, something woke him up — “I wanted them to feel like they sounded,” he says — and so he kept getting past that smashed guitar. Stumbling on LSD and listening to Hendrix was another portal. “Music spoke to me in all the languages of the world at once,” he recalls in his memoirs. “I understood her message to the last hesitation. The essence of music has never been so clear.”
The memoir, The Sound of the Machine: My Life in Kraftwerk and Beyond, is an incredibly detailed book about Bartos’ life: from those pivotal childhood moments, his years at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf where he studied rhythm, to his time in what is considered The classic Kraftwerk lineup – Bartos, Ralph Hutter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Fleur – in which he played from 1974 until 1990.
Kraftwerk was looking for a percussionist for some live dates and recommended his teacher Bartos. Called into the infamous and secretive Kling Klang studio, he immediately clicks Hütter and Schneider. “We were drawn to each other and felt pure,” he recalls. “I learned from the first meeting that it was something very special.”
Bartos’s joining coincided with the release of Autobahn, a record – and specifically his main track – often considered the benchmark for modernity in pop music, with its pulsating groove extending into the future. Soon starting work on the concept album Radio-Activity, Bartos became more than an included member, contributor, and co-writer. Subsequent albums Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine and Computer World (1977-1981) are an unparalleled series of records that shimmer and sparkle with a metallic luster. Equal parts subtle pop music and futuristic sci-fi soundtracks, it became an e-pop chart of the following decade. Bartos says Kraftwerk’s mission was to invest technology with humanity, to make it “feel empowered and visible – and this was different from all the electronic pop music that inspired us. They treated electronic equipment like a guitar. They just played songs in the English pop tradition. But Kraftwerk remained different because we wanted to educate people about the technology.”
Not only were the band climbing consistent creative peaks in the studio, their dynamic was at its most friendly and sociable. Some would live together in a setting that housed what Bartos describes as “legendary parties,” although he wouldn’t be drawn to the juicy details. For those we should turn instead to Fleur’s memoir “I Was a Robot.” He wrote: “The Super 8 projector was showing sex movies on the wall next to the bathtub.” “Everything would be covered in a bubble bath and red wine, and candlelight would dimly illuminate the scene filled with sweat. These parties were like Sodom and Gomorrah.” It seems to be at odds with such a mysterious and secretive band that has been experimenting with robot aliases – and Bartos’ book juggles the writing by focusing intensely on business methods, the creative process, and technology.
In 1981 they toured successfully – despite their equipment weighing seven tons – and achieved No. 1 in the UK the following year with The Model. They were in their creative and commercial prime, with Bartos writing that Computer World “was our most successful attempt to translate the dialect of the human-machine metaphor into music,” but Kraftwerk did not give a live show for nearly a decade as they disappeared into the studio. “We slept through the entire ’80s,” Bartos says. “It was a really big mistake.”
The next album, 1986’s Electric Café, was a dramatic turnaround. “The problem started when the computer came into the studio,” Bartos says. “A computer has nothing to do with creativity, it’s just a tool, but we outsourced creativity to the computer. We forgot the center of what we were. We lost our physical sense, we no longer look each other in the eyes, we just stare at the screen. At that time, I was I think innovation and progress are synonymous. I can’t be sure anymore.”
This member of the group who heralded a new era of futuristic heavy music turns out to be a bit of a tech skeptic, but Bartos maintains that the era most people associate with Kraftwerk’s heyday was produced by a largely analogue band. They were pushing the limits of primitive technology to their absolute limits, and for Bartos, these limitations ignited the spark of innovation. But when presented with endless options, there was nothing to emulate, just an infinite horizon. “We stopped being creative because we were solving problems,” he says.
The pace of work slowed down significantly. Hütter’s new obsession with cycling became a priority, and studio sessions were often a tepid few hours in the evening. In addition, they became obsessed with other people’s records, often taking trips to discos to run early mixes of their tracks to see how they sounded against the day’s new pieces. They started chasing the zeitgeist instead of laying it down. Upon hearing New Order’s Blue Monday, they were so moved that they sought out its sound engineer, Michael Johnson, and traveled to the UK to mix Tour de France – an independent song from 1983 – but chose never to release this version.
“Things are starting to look more and more desolate,” Bartos says. Instead of remembering how our most original and successful music was made, we set our sights on the ethos of mass market music. But comparing our ideas to the work of others was anti-creative and counterproductive. We became music designers, making consumer music geared solely towards winning against other contestants. It was like we had forgotten how our music originated in the first place.”
Fleur lost his patience and quit to pursue furniture making, and Bartos set up a director as well, with growing problems over songwriting credits and payments, as well as tour refusal, also a problem. “It was a complete nightmare,” he says of the time. Although Hütter and Schneider’s separate approach is typical at this point, there was little response or drama when he finally left in 1990.
It started as a period when he felt “too 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 Maar’s Electronic side project on their second album. “They saved my life,” he ponders. “Because I knew I wasn’t alone.”
McCluskey recalls that Bartos expressed his desire to work together as “one of the twelve disciples who invite you to join their gang”. Bartos even had McCluskey’s hand in creating the Atomic Kitten girl group. “I was about to retire, but I was cocky enough to think I could still write songs,” McCluskey recalls. “Don’t give them to the publishing company just because they’re going to mess you up and you’re going to be a songwriting bitch,” Carl said. “Why don’t you make a craft for your songs? So I’ve always been happy to tell people, ‘Yes, Kraftwerk created the Atomic Kitten album.'” Bartos also released two albums as Elektric Music in the ’90s, before releasing two solo albums in 2003 and 2013. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk had a great back-to-record album with Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003, and now – with only original member Hütter – they’ve toured a long live show Three-dimensional.
Thinking of Kraftwerk today, he wasn’t bitter, or more disappointed than he could have been, lamenting the lost time, creative energy, and decade-shaped hiatus where they would have stunned audiences with era-defining insightful music. Having said that, he doesn’t have much time for how Kraftwerk will continue to evolve. “Society has become a conveyor belt,” he says. “You put resources into a consumer product and you make money and… rubbish. That’s what happened to Kraftwerk. They dehumanized music.”
Although he still deeply loves his time in the band’s classic analog era. “I loved being human,” he says. “But we just lost the guy.”