When a teenager, Karl Bartos, told his parents that he wanted to devote his life to music, his father was so furious that he tore his son’s acoustic guitar to pieces.
After hearing the Beatles at 12, something stirred inside him – “I wanted to feel how they sounded”, he says – and so he persisted beyond that broken guitar. Tripping on LSD while 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 his message down to the very last frequency. Never before has the essence of music been so clear.
Memoirs, The Sound of the Machine: My Life in Kraftwerk and Beyond, is an incredibly detailed book about Bartos’ life: from those pivotal moments in his childhood, his years at the Robert Schumann Conservatory in Düsseldorf where he studied percussion, to his time in what is considered the Kraftwerk’s classic line-up – Bartos, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flür – in which he played from 1974 to 1990.
Kraftwerk was looking for a percussionist for a few gigs and Bartos was recommended by his teacher. Summoned to their infamous and secretive Kling Klang studio, he immediately clicked with Hütter and Schneider. “We were drawn to each other and it was pure,” he recalls. “I knew from the first meeting that it was something very special.”
Bartos’ membership coincided with the release of Autobahn, a record – particularly its title track – often seen as a benchmark for modernity in pop music, with its throbbing groove that stretches into the future. Work soon began on the concept album Radio-Activity, and Bartos became more of an embedded member, contributor, and co-writer. Subsequent albums Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World (1977-1981) are an immaculate and unmistakable series of discs that glisten and sparkle with metallic luster; Equal parts meticulous pop and futuristic sci-fi soundscapes, they became the blueprint for electronic pop over the next decade. Bartos says Kraftwerk’s mission was to engage technology with humanity, to make it “sense and visible — and that was unlike any electronic pop music that was inspired by us.” They just treated electronic equipment like a guitar; they just played songs in the tradition of English pop music. But Kraftwerk stayed different because we wanted to educate people about the technique.
Not only were the band hitting consistent creative heights in the studio, but their dynamic was at its friendliest and most outgoing. Some lived together in a place that hosted what Bartos describes as “legendary parties”, although he was not drawn to the juicy details. For those, we must instead turn to the memoirs of Flür I Was A Robot. “A Super 8 projector would play sex movies on the wall next to the tub,” he wrote. “Everything would be covered in bubble bath and red wine, and candlelight would dimly illuminate the sweaty scene. These feasts were like Sodom and Gomorrah. This seems at odds with such a mysterious and secretive group experimenting with the use of robot aliases – and Bartos’ book plays on type by focusing intensely on working methods, the creative process and technology.
In 1981 they toured successfully – despite their equipment weighing seven tonnes – and had a UK No. 1 the following year with The Model. They were at their creative and commercial zenith, Bartos writing that Computer World “was our most successful attempt to translate the dialect of man-machine metaphor into music”, but Kraftwerk would not perform live for nearly a decade so that they disappeared into the studio. “We slept through the whole 80s,” Bartos says. “It really was a huge, dramatic mistake.”
The next album, 1986’s Electric Café, was a sea change. “The problem started when the computer arrived in the studio,” explains Bartos. “A computer has nothing to do with creativity, it’s just a tool, but we have outsourced creativity to the computer. We have forgotten the center of who we were. We lost our physical sensation, no longer looking each other in the eye, only staring at the monitor. At the time, I thought innovation and progress were synonymous. I can’t be so sure anymore.
This member of a band that heralded a new era of futuristic, tech-heavy music turns out to be something of a techno-skeptic, but Bartos points out that the era most people associate with the heyday from Kraftwerk was produced by a largely analog group. They were pushing the limits of primitive technology to its absolute limit, and for Bartos, these limitations sparked innovation. But faced with endless options, there was nothing to rub against, only a boundless horizon. “We stopped being creative because we were solving problems,” he says.
The pace of work slows considerably. Hütter’s new obsession with cycling became a priority, and studio sessions often lasted a few unenthusiastic hours in the evenings. Additionally, they had become obsessed with other people’s records, frequently going to nightclubs to play early mixes of their tracks to see how they sounded compared to the new cuts of the day. They started chasing the zeitgeist rather than defining it. Upon hearing New Order’s Blue Monday, they were so impressed that they sought out its sound engineer, Michael Johnson, and flew to the UK to have him mix Tour de France – a standalone 1983 single – but chose never to release this version.
“Things started to look more and more desolate,” Bartos says. “Instead of remembering how our most authentic and successful music was created, we set our sights on the mainstream music zeitgeist. But comparing our own ideas to the work of others was anti-creative. and counter-productive. We became music designers, making mainstream music solely geared towards winning against other competitors. Our imagination lost its autonomy. It seemed like we forgot how our music was born in the first place. venue.
Flür lost patience and left to pursue furniture making and Bartos also plotted an exit, with growing issues around songwriting credits and payments, as well as a refusal to tour, also being an issue. . “It was a complete nightmare,” he says of that time. Although typical of Hütter and Schneider’s detached approach at this point, there was little response or drama when he finally left in 1990.
This began a period in which he felt “very low”, but he soon began working with Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, writing songs together, as well as collaborating with the side project of Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr Electronic on their second album. “They saved my life,” he recalls. “Because I knew I was not alone.”
McCluskey recalls Bartos expressing his interest in working together as “one of 12 disciples inviting you to join their gang.” Bartos even helped McCluskey start girl group Atomic Kitten. “I was going to retire but I was pretentious enough to think I could still write songs,” McCluskey recalled. “Karl said, ‘don’t just give them to the publishing house because they’ll bother you and you’ll be fucking songwriting.’ He said, ‘why don’t you create a vehicle for your songs?’ So I’ve always been happy to tell people, ‘yes, Kraftwerk created Atomic Kitten.’ Bartos also released two albums as Elektric Music in the 1990s, before releasing two solo albums in 2003 and 2013. Returned to recording with Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003, and – now with Hütter the only original member – have long shot a 3D live show.
Reflecting on Kraftwerk today, it doesn’t seem as bitter, more disappointed in what could have been, lamenting the wasted time, creative energy and decade-shaped hole where they could have electrified audiences with music premonitory but which defines the time. That said, he doesn’t have much time to see how Kraftwerk has continued to evolve. “Society has become a treadmill,” he says. “You put resources into it, you make a commodity out of it, you make money and…garbage. This is what happened to Kraftwerk. They turned into the dehumanization of music.
Although he still deeply loves his time in the band’s classic analog era. “I loved being a man-machine,” he says. “But we just lost the man.”