Kraftwerk in a 2015 performance | Credit: weeklydig

A 2005 review in England’s influential NME (New Musical Express) laid down a startling gauntlet in answer to the question “What are the two most important bands in music history?” The answer: the Beatles and Kraftwerk. Not the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin but Kraftwerk.

You can make a very strong case for the band from Düsseldorf, now commemorating 50 years since breaking through to the vast American market with a totally out-of-left-field hit single and album called Autobahn. Kraftwerk influenced a large number of bands, composers, and acts, yet that doesn’t fully encompass the group’s reach.

Kraftwerk’s legacy is nothing less than the overall sound of popular music itself in the late 20th and early 21st centuries — with synthesizers and software defining the textures, sequencers and rhythm machines dictating the rhythms and flow, and expressionless vocals paving the way for countless young singers of an ironic point of view. The beat became rigid and insistent, cutting off the blues and R&B roots of rock and the will to swing that came from jazz. The seeds of techno-pop, hip-hop, house music, Auto-Tune, all kinds of dance idioms, and electronica can be found on Kraftwerk’s albums. The band’s use of repetition most certainly affected the minimalist movement in classical music or, at the very least, ran on a parallel path.

And Kraftwerk is still out there touring, now in the midst of a nine-concert residency at Walt Disney Concert Hall through May 30 while the usual occupant, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is absent, on its own European tour.

Kraftwerk in 1975: (from left) Karl Bartos, Ralf Hütter, Wolfgang Flür, and Florian Schneider | Credit: Maurice Seymour Studio

In English, “kraftwerk” translates to “power station,” yet the earliest records of the band had little to do with electronics. In the beginning, it was mainly just classically trained co-founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider experimenting with free-form improvisations on acoustic instruments treated with signal processing, influenced by German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and Düsseldorf’s krautrock community. The first two albums, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2, were never released in the U.S. and hardly got out of West Germany. The third Kraftwerk album, Ralf and Florian, which added more electronics and an early vocoder into the mix, did get a U.S. release — but only after the band’s fourth album, Autobahn, broke onto the charts in 1975.

These first three albums seem to have been disowned by Kraftwerk; they are rarely, if at all, included in the band’s live shows, and they aren’t in the official canon of albums. Perhaps the reason is because the group’s signature robotic style had not quite crystallized.

“Autobahn,” which took up all of side one of the LP of the same name, was the breakthrough, a 22½-minute journey along Germany’s speedways that is every bit as much a tone poem as any by Richard Strauss. It includes an engine starting up, speeding cars, and a catchy refrain on just one note — “Fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der Autobahn” (Driving, driving, driving on the highway). Many American listeners, including me, thought the band was chanting, “Fun, fun, fun on the Autobahn” — and when Hütter was quoted as saying he was influenced by the Beach Boys, that sealed the interpretation. Side two of Autobahn continued the abstract experimentation of the first three albums, but Hütter and Schneider now knew that they were onto something different and more accessible for a mass audience.

With Radio-Activity (1975), which didn’t do as well in English-speaking countries as Autobahn, Kraftwerk edged closer to what would become its signature sound, finally achieving it with the next album, Trans-Europe Express (1977). The band was now all electronic, with Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur on electronic percussion, and the idiom was established — catchy tunes, electronically treated deadpan vocals, and propulsive, repetitive, and square-cut grooves — words and music speaking a post-industrial future-world dialect.

Yet Kraftwerk could also be sublimely lyrical in a classical minimalist way, like in the gently revolving electronic underscoring of Trans-Europe Express’s closing track, “Franz Schubert.” The band’s influence on mainstream pop was growing. After Kraftwerk name-checked David Bowie and Iggy Pop on the album’s title track — a trip on the European rails, complete with the electronic Doppler effects of passing trains — Bowie returned the favor on his 1977 album “Heroes” by naming one track “V-2 Schneider.”

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine (1978) continued down the Trans-Europe Express route, scoring a No. 1 hit in the U.K. with “The Model” — a Euro electronic equivalent of “The Girl From Ipanema” — and also featuring the ironically self-defining song “The Robots.” Three years later came Computer World, a wry, percolating look at then-current technology, made more ironic by the fact that the members of Kraftwerk still didn’t own computers, though, as always, they were busy researching and experimenting with new electronic instruments.

When the world of electronic music started to go digital in the early 1980s, Kraftwerk was at the forefront, and the pace of its recording releases became slower. Electric Café (1986) — now retitled Techno Pop — was the band’s last album of all-new material of the 20th century; the next one, The Mix (1991), was, as its title indicated, a complete remix of earlier tracks, with a pronounced turn toward more danceable rhythms, for Kraftwerk records had become staples on dance floors around the globe.

The group would not make another new album until Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003, partly a smooth-riding extrapolation of Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” a 12-inch single issued in 1983, and partly mesmerizing new tracks, like the laundry list of diet supplements, “Vitamin.” It’s the band’s most European-sounding album, the chill of earlier albums warming up slightly into something that could be called cool, physically and culturally.

Since then, it’s been live albums, lavish reissues, and more remixes of old material as the group seems content touring and tinkering with its eight-album catalog, altering and sometimes improving the originals while inserting ever more astonishing video displays into its live performances. Hütter, now the only remaining original member of the band (Schneider left in 2008 and died in 2020 at age 73), has periodically sent out signals that a “ninth” Kraftwerk album (actually the group’s 12th) is in the works, but nothing has emerged. One wonders if the Germanic superstition about ninth symphonies being the end of the road for composers is keeping Hütter from putting out a ninth album.

Returning to the original question: While the Beatles and Kraftwerk were tremendously influential, there was one big difference between them. The Beatles constantly reinvented themselves and their music; every single, every album, was a switch in direction. The basic model for Kraftwerk was essentially set with Trans-Europe Express, and however more sophisticated its means have become over the decades, what the band does hasn’t fundamentally changed.

This seemed clear during Kraftwerk’s residency at Disney Hall in 2014 as the opening act of the LA Phil’s Minimalist Jukebox festival — and again when the band returned to Disney Hall this month. I attended the first of the Kraftwerk concerts, on Tuesday night, May 21, and it proved to be mostly a rerun of the shows I saw in 2014.

Kraftwerk in a 2015 performance | Credit: weeklydig

As before, each concert in this residency centers around one album from the official eight, along with selections from the band’s other records. A ninth concert, May 30, will offer an assortment of excerpts from all of them. The Catalogue, as Kraftwerk puts it, has become a brand in itself; the merchandise stand in front of the LA Phil Store was selling eight varieties of shirts, refrigerator magnets, and even skateboards.

Rerun or not (different in 2024 is that 3D glasses weren’t handed out to concertgoers, as they were in 2014), a Kraftwerk concert continues to be a mesmerizing, joyous experience: two hours of nonstop music accompanied by dazzling computer videos displayed on a giant screen. The four current members of the band — Hütter, Henning Schmitz, Falk Grieffenhagen, Georg Bongartz — remain stationary in front of their illuminated digital consoles controlling the sound, with Hütter picking out some of the lead lines on a keyboard.

While the first show celebrated Autobahn’s 50th anniversary, Kraftwerk did not perform the entire album, just a 14-minute edited version of the title track and one other piece, “Kometenmelodie 1” (Comet melody 1). The tempos seemed a little bit slower, but the textures were smoother, richer than the original recording. The computer-animated trip through the German countryside in a good old Volkswagen Beetle or a vintage Mercedes-Benz with an in-dash, push-button, shortwave radio oozed nostalgia.

Selections from the other seven albums in the canon bracketed the central Autobahn segment, each excerpt with its own custom video — stunning or fanciful displays of digits, musical notes, and comets, a flying saucer orbiting the globe and eventually touching down in front of Disney Hall, ancient black-and-white images of glamour girls for “The Model,” and bicycle races for “Tour de France.”

The Germans might call this show a Gesamtkunstwerk, a unified multimedia work of art. In this sense, and also because the band’s repertoire seems to be permanently frozen in place, Kraftwerk has become a quasi-classical act, one well suited for a concert space like Disney Hall that preserves the past while maintaining a futuristic outlook. No wonder the band keeps coming back.