The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum sits on the shore of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. It’s an oddly shaped triangular building between a science center and an airport. The official reason this building sits in Cleveland is that local disc jockey Alan Freed coined the phrase “rock n’ roll.” The unofficial reason is that the city put up $65 million of public money for the construction of the I.M. Pei designed museum. Like a lot of rock n’ roll myths, the reality tends to be a lot less exciting.
The museum houses thousands of artifacts donated and obtained over the past 30 years to honor almost every genre and era in rock n’ roll history. Visitors can stroll past Elvis Presley’s car, through sections of “The Wall” used for a Pink Floyd tour, and view Jerry Cantrell’s “Rock n’ Jock” softball jersey. For fans of rock n’ roll, it can be a very entertaining reason to visit Cleveland.
The Hall of Fame itself is small compared to the remainder of the building, housed in a dark room with past induction ceremonies playing on a screen. Visitors stroll up a slight incline and view the signatures of inductees. The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame may be a tiny portion of the entire building, but it is rife with controversy. Whether it’s the induction process, ignoring entire genres, or inducting non-rock n’ roll artists like Miles Davis and Johnny Cash, no one appears to actually like the Hall of Fame.
In recent years, the Hall of Fame appears to have noticed this dissatisfaction by inducting fan favorites Rush and Black Sabbath along with recognizing genres like rap and disco. This year’s inductees continue this trend with the long-awaited inductions of KISS, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, and Hall & Oates on Thursday (April 10). Nirvana is the only first-time eligible inductee.
While things appear to be moving in the right direction, there are still many artists that could be inducted to, in the words of the Hall of Fame Foundation, “recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.” Artists like The Smiths, Deep Purple, Roxy Music, The Replacements, and Sonic Youth all deserve to have their signatures added to the wall of that darkened room. Most likely they all will someday, but the exclusion of one of the most influential acts of the past 40 years will be the focus of this post.
Odds are that the average music listener has little knowledge of Kraftwerk, or dismiss them as an eccentric German electronic band from the 1970s. What they may not understand is that Kraftwerk has influenced much of what we listen to today over their illustrious career, from hip-hop to dance to pop music.
Kraftwerk was started by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1970. Labeling their early sound as “Krautrock” would be a somewhat accurate description, and it wasn’t until they released Autobahn in 1974 that Kraftwerk found the sound that would make them famous. A string of classic albums, Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981), cemented Kraftwerk’s status as electronic pioneers.
The band’s sparse lyrical content (sung in both English and German) dealt with modern man’s growing need for continued technological advances, even if he was fearful of it. Their music, some of which was recorded on self-made electronic instruments, was repetitive and driven by rhythmic beats, But it was also very melodic. The songs are minimalist and inorganic, every one recorded entirely on electronic instruments.
Critics of the group have called them cold, which isn’t all that surprising considering they stand behind synthesizers while on stage, and rarely give interviews. Mannequins are often used as stand-ins for group members during photo shoots and videos. But criticizing Kraftwerk for their appearance and attitude dismisses the fact that the group has influenced nearly every electronic performer for the past 40 years.
In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force started the trend by sampling “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers” for their influential hip-hop classic, “Planet Rock.” A few years later, when Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May were developing the techno sound in Belleville, Michigan, they were heavily influenced by Kraftwerk. In his book More Brilliant Than the Sun, writer Kodwo Eshun wrote, “In techno, Kraftwerk is the delta blues. Kraftwerk is where it all starts.” Nearly every group that ventures even close to the edge of electronic music states Kraftwerk as an influence on their work.
Hall of Famers Blondie and David Bowie have stated the impact that Kraftwerk has had on their music. New Order sampled “Uranium” from Radio-Activity for their hit song, “Blue Monday.” To date, hundreds of popular acts have sampled Kraftwerk including Madonna, Jay-Z and Mos Def. Whether you know it or not, you have most likely have a snippet of a Kraftwerk song somewhere in your music collection.
So why has Kraftwerk not been inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame? An obvious answer is that Kraftwerk has never been widely popular in the United States. They have developed a loyal cult following, but have achieved little to no commercial success. The group is much more successful in Europe, where it continues to influence groups like Daft Punk and Coldplay. Much like the American techno scene, Kraftwerk is largely attributed for creating the French techno movement.
Also, the Hall of Fame tends to be slow to induct music from outside the normal definition of “rock n’ roll.” It has been a struggle for artists in heavy metal, hip-hop, prog rock or disco to gain acceptance by the committee in charge of voting for induction. Only within the past decade have artists begun to receive induction from these genres. To date, no electronic artist has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. But Kraftwerk may be the only eligible electronic candidate to meet the “25 years after the release of their first album” criteria for induction. Kraftwerk was nominated in 2013, their only time on the ballot.
Kraftwerk lyrically doesn’t compare to Bob Dylan. Their sound doesn’t compare to The Beach Boys. On stage, they are a far cry from the Rolling Stones. But Kraftwerk are original. The family trees of electronic music and hip-hop have their roots in Dusseldorf and Kraftwerk’s Kling-Klang Studios. Until Kraftwerk is inducted, the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame will continue to dismiss a group who has helped rock n’ roll evolve, develop, and perpetuate into something new and exciting over the past 40 years.