Kraftwerk are a German electronic music band formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970 in Düsseldorf, and fronted by them until Schneider's departure in 2008. They were one of the first groups to popularize electronic music and are considered pioneers in the field. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Kraftwerk's distinctive sound was revolutionary, and has had a lasting effect across many genres of modern music. The signature Kraftwerk sound combines driving, repetitive rhythms with catchy melodies, mainly following a Western classical style of harmony, with a minimalistic and strictly electronic instrumentation. The group's simplified lyrics are at times sung through a vocoder or generated by computer-speech software.
Their first three albums were free-form experimental rock without the pop hooks or the more disciplined song structure of later work. Kraftwerk, released in 1970, and Kraftwerk 2, released in 1972, were mostly exploratory jam music, played on a variety of traditional instruments including guitar, bass, drums, electric organ, flute and violin. Post-production modifications to these recordings were used to distort the sound of the instruments, particularly audio-tape manipulation and multiple dubbings of one instrument on the same track. Both albums are purely instrumental. Live performances from 1972 to 1973 were made as a duo, using a simple beat-box-type electronic drum machine, with preset rhythms taken from an electric organ. These shows were mainly in Germany, with occasional shows in France. Later in 1973, Wolfgang Flür joined the group for rehearsals, and the unit performed as a trio on the television show Aspekte for German television network ZDF.
With Ralf und Florian, released in 1973, Kraftwerk began to move closer to its classic sound, relying more heavily on synthesizers and drum machines. Although almost entirely instrumental, the album marks Kraftwerk's first use of the vocoder, which would in time become one of its musical signatures. Kraftwerk's futuristic and robotic sound was influenced by the 'adrenalized insurgency' of Detroit artists of the late 60's such as MC5 and the Stooges.
The release of Autobahn in 1974 saw Kraftwerk moving away from the sound of its earlier albums. Hütter and Schneider had invested in newer technology such as the Minimoog and the EMS Synthi AKS, helping give Kraftwerk a newer, disciplined sound. Autobahn would also be the last album that Conny Plank would engineer. After the commercial success of Autobahn in the USA where it peaked at number 5 in the Billboard top 200, Hütter and Schneider invested money into updating their studio. This meant they no longer had to rely on outside producers. At this time the painter and graphic artist Emil Schult became a regular collaborator working alongside the band. Schult designed artwork in addition to later co-writing lyrics and accompanying the group on tour
After years of withdrawal from live performance Kraftwerk began to tour Europe more frequently again. In February 1990 they played a few secret shows in Italy. Karl Bartos left the band shortly afterwards. The next proper tour was in 1991, for the album The Mix. Hütter and Schneider wished to continue the synth-pop quartet style of presentation, and recruited Fernando Abrantes as a replacement for Bartos. Abrantes left the band shortly after though. In late 1991, long-time Kling Klang Studio sound engineer Henning Schmitz was brought in to finish the remainder of the tour and to complete a new version of the quartet that remained active until 2008. In 1997 they had a famous appearance at dance festival Tribal Gathering held in England. In 1998, the group toured the US and Japan for the first time since 1981, along with shows in Brazil and Argentina. Three new songs were performed during this period, which remain unreleased. Following this trek, the group decided to take another break.