Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos Brings Us His Autobiography ‘The Machine Sounds Good’

Kraftwerk isn’t a band. It’s a concept. We call it ‘Die Menschmaschine,’ which means ‘the human machine.’

One of Kraftwerk’s mainmen, Florian Schneider, talking of the electronic music pioneers. And this is the way people have thought of the band for years, but it also throws up a dichotomy; the man v machine.

For Kraftwerk always wanted to meld the two, they had robots of themselves made of course, and it was always a question of whether they made the music or whether the music made them.

It was partially marketing of course, no band who want to sell albums are immune from that, but Kraftwerk appeared, in the early years certainly, to want to mechanise themselves out of the process.

Kraftwerk's Karl Bartos
Credit; Bureau B

Karl Bartos was Kraftwerk drummer for 16 years, through their years of pomp, through ‘The Model’ and ‘Tour De France’, but just after ‘Autobahn’ and this autobiography, with Katy Darbyshire, ‘The Sound Of The Machine’, is full of compromise and dichotomy.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Musical Dichotomy

Karl Bartos came to Kraftwerk, more than electronic music, from classical music. He was studying it, he talks with real care about getting into schools, about classes, learning at home and opera gigs.
In each case, although music is mentioned and so is the enjoyment of being able to spend, this isn’t the main driver, but it highlights another dichotomy, Art v Commerce.

And yet there are moments here when Bartos is describing reinterpreting music or creating it with Kraftwerk. These are the tenderest parts of the book, which are both lovely and disturbing.

The Style Dichotomy

This book isn’t businesslike as such, but there’s often a brusqueness isn’t egregious, it’s just keen to get things done and certainly keeps the energy up.

There is a clear admiration and warmth for his wife Bettina, but there isn’t so much about her, it bears the hallmarks of keeping some of his personal life private and rightly so.

And what of those bandmates? This is one of the sweetest strands of the book, Bartos was joining a band who were already famous and there is a junior member feel to a lot of this book, not in an alarming way, Bartos seems to deal with everything lightly, but this would become much more of an issue when business reared its head – skip to the next section if you like – but there is no real closeness in the band.

Perhaps I’m seeing it through the ‘a band is a gang’ school of thought; Kraftwerk was an enterprise, more than a band, the lovely thing here is that even if they got on but never enough to rely on each other, Bartos has the feeling of a younger boy in a gang, he admires his musical partners.

‘Kraftwerk isn’t just the godfather of electronic music, the band practically created a brand new musical vocabulary in the process.’

W Magazine might have it right; the most beautiful, natural, wonderful moments in the book are when Bartos and the band are making money, jamming really, his descriptions of the instruments which joined the sonic stew meticulous yet made of love.

Credit; Classic Album Sundays

The Art v Commerce Dichotomy

This is the sadness in the book, Bartos screwing up his courage to tell his bandmates he wanted publishing, his descriptions of the musical conceptions here show his central part in it.

Then there’s the seeming expectation that members of Kraftwerk weren’t expected to want to play anywhere else, the robot band were more than a band, they were an ethos, a style, and a business in the business world.

Bartos’ book has a second part, his leaving Kraftwerk and working with so many people and projects, including Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr in Electronic. And yet in this retelling of so much work, of freedom to do his own thing, there’s a sense of things being done to him, he doesn’t take control, seemingly sticking with the situation he was in before.

This is a lovely telling, not over emotional, not gossipy , finely balanced between a recounting of events and a love of music in so many forms. The Robot? Not at all…

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