Birmingham & Black Country

Autobahn Expressway: First Kraftwerk conference held in Birmingham

Kraftwerk in Berlin 2015 Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Event organiser Dr Uwe Schütte, reader in German at the university, said a conference on Kraftwerk 'was long overdue'

Often described as one of the most influential groups in the world, electronic pioneers Kraftwerk can claim another world-first more than 50 years after their inception.

The first ever international conference on the minimal German maestros is being held - not in their native Dusseldorf, but in the rather unlikely venue of the UK's second city of Birmingham.

Professors, fans and contributors from the US and Europe have gathered in a small room at Aston University for two days to discuss and dissect the group's raison d'etre and the music they produced in the 1970s and 80s.

Their seminal albums include The Man Machine, Autobahn and Trans Europe Express and their cool and unique Teutonic sound influenced the likes of David Bowie before going on to permeate hip hop, dance music and techno.

Indeed, the lead singer of 80s electronic group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark believes they changed the world more than The Beatles.

Topics that are being debated, with the help of power-points for the largely white, male middle-aged audience, include the cultural and historical origins of the Man-Machine and post-human authenticity.

Stephen Mallinder, from Sheffield's Cabaret Voltaire, kicked off the event with his talk entitled Modernity and Movement, explaining how Kraftwerk directly influenced them when they formed in 1973.

Image caption Aston University is perhaps an unlikely venue for the two-day conference
Image caption Stephen Mallinder from Cabaret Voltaire kicked off the event on Wednesday
Image caption Matt Springer and Andy Channelle were part of the 170 members of the audience

"It's really interesting talking about music from the early days," he said.

"It's reinforced thoughts I already had and what it meant to be making music at that time and growing up listening to Kraftwerk.

"It was an introduction into a different world. We listen to music, we dance to music, why not get together like this and discuss music?"

But why Birmingham?

"Well, I've ended up driving around the Bull Ring [shopping centre] a few times... but, really Birmingham has a good electronic scene. The label Network helped that in the 90s.

"It's got a long history of music here."

The rhythmic and repetitive beat of the single Autobahn, released in 1974, set out to capture the monotony of driving along one continuous road.

Birmingham's own Autobahn, the M6, is well known for providing a monotony all of its own.

"I have been to many gigs in London and in Manchester and I've certainly experienced the M6 - I am familiar with the concrete around here," said Professor Hillegonda Rietveld, who talked about retro-futurism at the conference.

"The familiar bump and rhythm of that motorway, I won't forget."

Image caption The A38 tunnel leads to Birmingham's own Autobahn, the M6

Author David Stubbs said he had always had a sense of an avant garde music scene in the city, helped by experimental pop group Pram in the 90s and later electronic band Broadcast.

"It's always had a foothold for that. It's got a good reputation," he said.

Kraftwerk fan Matt Springer, who works in Digbeth, said he was surprised to see upwards of 170 people at the event.

"I'm really into electronic music and punk and what I've heard so far is really interesting.

"You think of Birmingham and the Midlands and then heavy metal and you can sense how that came about with the industry that was here, but here are loads of people wanting to know about Kraftwerk."

Audience member Andy Channelle, a web manager from Bristol, said he did not realise he was part of a world-first.

Image caption Author David Stubbs looks on as Stephen Mallinder responds to questions as event organiser Dr Uwe Schütte, on the right, listens

"It's just good when people have such a passion about something and put something on like this.

"I have been enjoying it and will sit here and take it in and think of interesting questions that I probably won't be brave enough to ask."

As for organiser Dr Uwe Schütte, reader in German at the university, the undeniable appeal of the kraut rockers will never abate, despite Wolfgang Flür, a member of the feted group between 1973 and 1987 missing his scheduled appearance.

"I am amazed that no one else has done this before, that is the reason why I organised it - a conference was long overdue," he said.

"They are the most important band in the world in the way they changed music. They called it future music and their future is our present."

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