Kraftwerk

Time keepers … Kraftwerk perform The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at London's Tate Modern.

Four Germans walk into a bar … ''and they change music forever''.

The punchline to that imagined gag, delivered here by the head of contemporary music at the Sydney Opera House, Ben Marshall, is entirely serious.

Marshall is not alone in this assessment of the four self-described ''musik arbeiters'' - or music workers - of Kraftwerk. The band's announcement this week of a concert series at the Opera House during the Vivid LIVE festival in May will have international reverberations. In The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 shows, which have been performed to sell-out crowds at New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Modern gallery, they will perform eight albums over four nights.

The band, formed in 1970 by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, ''created their own clockwork universe of sound'', which became the template for others, says Kate Crawford, visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab in Massachusetts and an electronic musician who admits to a Kraftwerk obsession. ''They had an unwavering sense of what 'machine music' could do,'' she says. ''And created spacious beats and synth sounds that are distinctively Kraftwerkian.''

Although the quartet have released only two albums of new music in the past 30 years, the legacy of the five albums they released between 1974 and 1981 - Autobahn, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine, Computer World - is peerless. They didn't just ''perform a significant suture between rock music and avant-garde experimentation'', as a lecturer in music at the University of Western Sydney, John Encarnacao, puts it, they became ''an integral strand of DNA'' for almost all music made since.''

These albums of coolly delivered, technology-based and highly rhythmic songs spoke about the new Europe and an even more idealised future society, and of the interaction between humans and machines. It was a slice of prescient, science-fiction-like imagining that had producer Brian Eno describe Kraftwerk as sounding ''nostalgic for the future''.

From these albums sprang inspiration for the alternative pop of David Bowie and some of the experiments of Neil Young; the electronic underground of Britain and Australia in groups such as Cabaret Voltaire, the Human League and Severed Heads; the clipped, yet impassioned, techno scene that would develop in American cities such as Detroit and New York; and the foundation beats of what turned into hip-hop.

In other words, pretty much the basis of any music you'll hear on the radio or at a venue any day of the week in any Western city. All this from albums that were initially greeted in British music magazines with headlines along the lines of, ''this kind of music is what your father fought to save you from''.

In fact, Kraftwerk made the kind of music that changed lives, including that of Paul Mac, now one of Australia's most successful electronic producers and composers but, 30 years ago, a piano student and ''alienated teenager'' at the Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. Kraftwerk helped him realise that ''with this cheap gear, I could make an alternative universe''.

''The space and atmosphere of it means once you take out actual drums, it leaves this hole that you can fill any way you like and can become this cathedral of reverby sound that bounces,'' Mac says.

The appropriation of the band's drum-machine beats by hip-hop was the introduction to Kraftwerk for another leading Australian electronic musician, Julian Hamilton of the Presets. He heard Kraftwerk's Tour de France accompanying an iconic dance sequence in the 1984 film Breakdance: The Movie and thought it was ''so funky and soulful and made you want to move, but it sounded like it was made by robots. It sounded like the future.''

It wasn't just the chilled electronic sounds that appealed to Hamilton, but ''some really romantic, beautiful songs'', and the lesson that using technology did not mean losing humanity.

''We could never play bass and we could never play guitars but seeing someone like Kraftwerk makes you realise that you can still make music that's beautiful,'' he says. ''Even if it's trapped inside the computer.''

Non-electronic musicians were also paying attention, recognising the pop appeal of the tunes, the hard percussion sounds unlike regular drum kits, and the simple and direct lyrics. Among them were Simple Minds and U2, Icehouse and Midnight Oil and, more recently, Silverchair's Daniel Johns, introduced to Kraftwerk by his friend, Paul Mac.

Midnight Oil's Jim Moginie remembers being impressed by the ''strangely quite emotional'' effect of ''downward-spiralling melodies and counter-melodies, with robotic dehumanised voices sounding like they were trapped, for better or worse, in a world not of their own making''. But, like many, Moginie also remembers that amid the monochromatic colour schemes, the deadpan performances and stark simplicity of lines, there was the pleasure of discovering a bone-dry sense of humour.

It's something singled out by Dee Thrussell of Melbourne experimental techno outfit Snog, who says it's easy to be enraptured by Kraftwerk's technical mastery, ''but I like Kraftwerk because they are fun and funny''.

''Computer Love and It's More Fun to Compute are love songs about nerds, by nerds, for nerds. That takes a certain humility and humour that goes a lot deeper than slapstick and fart gags,'' Thrussell says. ''Naturally, this sub-glacial humour needs to be delivered in the drollest fashion possible. Don't ask me why, but it's just better that way. And, indeed, Kraftwerk have always been about as automated and droll in performance and presentation as is imaginable.

''All the better to silently chuckle along with them.''

The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 is at the Sydney Opera House from May 24-27.

Riding the autobahn

''We drive drive drive on the autobahn. The fun fun fun of the autobahn.'' Not exactly high art, on the face of it. But listen closely.

I'm at the Tate Modern in London, its yawning Turbine Hall converted to an electronic-music venue for 10 days as Kraftwerk play their Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 series of concerts having returned from the world of festivals and dance halls to the art world that spawned them, and soon to come to Sydney.

Tonight it's Autobahn (followed by more than an hour of highlights from the rest of the catalogue). The songs are updated with modern beats and spread around a 3D surround system that swooshes the audience through a silicon landscape.

We wear 3D glasses to see satellites, vitamin pills and, of course, the autobahn and Trans-Europ Express flowing out from the screen behind the band.

And there's the band itself. Four men in glowing suits, standing almost motionless behind desks of unclear purpose. Are they playing this live? Certainly, judging by the all-too-human timing of the notes. Are they having fun? They're German. It's hard to tell.

You can almost hear the 1980s being born. It's the wellspring of trance, house and the electronica hooks that infiltrate the top 40. This is what the future used to sound like.

Nick Miller