October 1973 saw the release of Kraftwerk‘s third album (that is to say, their third under that name, anyway) Ralf und Florian. It’s strange to think now of these two young Germans, one in a suit and the other with a mullet and side parting, at a time in their career when they were just messing around and didn’t entirely know what they were doing. Later Kraftwerk albums built a reputation around being polished and robotic, but the early releases couldn’t be more different.
Ralf und Florian opens with Elektrisches Roulette, an explosion of unmelodic and largely randomly timed hitting of things. It’s not as electronic as the title suggests, and that’s hardly surprising really – the synthesisers of the early 1970s were pretty crude by modern standards. There’s a bit of the typical early electric flute work, but in general, this is little more than a jam.
If there are parallels to Kraftwerk‘s later career, these tracks are probably closest to Autobahn, particularly the second half of the album, but even there, the focus was much more on melody and much less on just noodling. Tongebirge is evocative and gloriously Alpine, but it’s also lacking in any of the tight hooks that you might associate the Düsseldorfers with nowadays.
They were always undeniably and gloriously Teutonic, but what’s fascinating about Ralf und Florian is that it’s much more of a backwards, inward-looking Germanic feel, as opposed to the futuristic, efficient sound that typified them later. Kristallo is a pleasant piece, much more electronic than either of the earlier tracks, with a warbling deep electronic bass part and some pleasant chord noodling, and this is very clearly the work of two people rather than the four that we would come to know and love.
Heimatklänge translates as something “the sound of home,” and maybe this is just because of the long-running television series Heimat, which came much later, but it does seem to evoke a strong pre-war German feeling for me. It’s very rural, with the flute and piano work, and generally pretty nice. This album could definitely do with a proper remaster, though – the vinyl-sourced bootlegs are pretty fuzzy – as with much of Kraftwerk‘s history in the last couple of decades, it feels as though they’re trying to whitewash their past with über-perfektionism rather than accepting the albums as a produkt of their time.
In that context, Tanzmusik is all the more interesting – it’s definitely a dance track, but in the style of something that was already at least three or four decades old by the time this album came out. It’s nice, and I can see people dancing to it at the duo’s early avant-garde concerts, but it is a little strange.
Finally, right at the end of the album, we get the fourteen minute Ananas Symphonie (“pineapple symphony”), with some intriguing early vocoder and synth pad work that definitely foreshadows some of their later hits. In keeping with the title, it’s less Germanic, and more tropical, almost Hawaiian at times. As with much of this release, it’s intriguing as a preview of the eight exquisite albums that would follow. Unless you were being intentionally perverse, I think most people would be unlikely to call this one release out as the one Kraftwerk album that you have to own, but it’s definitely good to hear, and I’m honestly a little disappointed that it has never received the remastering and reissuing treatment.
As with all of their early material, Ralf und Florian has been out of print for several decades now. If you search, you’ll find original vinyl, bootlegs, and a confusing Soundcloud account called “Kraftwerk official”, which is different from the official Kraftwerk account, so probably isn’t official.