When Heldon Met Kraftwerk

Heldon guitarist and electronics innovator Richard Pinhas reflects on some memorable encounters with Kraftwerk 

One afternoon in 1976, Richard Pinhas was at home in Paris minding his own business when the telephone rang. The French musician remembers taking the unexpected call in the same week his band Heldon’s now-classic fifth album ‘Un Rêve Sans Conséquence Spéciale’ was released. Few people had his number at that time, so a call out of the blue elicited mild bemusement. The Frenchman picked up the receiver and was greeted by an unfamiliar female voice at the other end. 

“Hello,” said the disembodied voice in a posh German accent. “Kraftwerk want to meet you.”

Sensing he was about to become the victim of an elaborate blag, Pinhas politely informed the woman he was aware he was being wound up and swiftly ended the call. Shortly afterwards, the phone rang again and the same thing happened. Then several minutes later, the phone started again and the ringing persisted. 

“This is a joke,” he stated firmly, hanging up for a third time. 

He was considering dispelling the nuisance caller with stronger words on a fourth attempt, but this time he heard a different voice on the other end of the line.

“It was not the lady this time,” says Pinhas, still sounding surprised. It was Ralf or Florian. “Their secretary had tried to speak to me, and when I kept putting the phone down they decided to call themselves. Whichever one it was, was talking in fluent French. Great French! He said, ‘It’s Ralf’ or ‘It’s Florian’, I can never remember which is which, to be honest…”

While Florian Schneider was born in what is now Baden-Württemberg in the French Occupied Zone on the German border, we’ll assume it was Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s last man standing. Ralf conducted many eloquent interviews in France at the time of ‘Tour De France’ in 1983, which he’d also originally written in the language of the country that hosts the world’s most famous cycling race. 

“After several minutes on the phone, I realised it wasn’t a wind-up,” says Pinhas. “They really did want to see me.”

At this time in musical history, Pinhas was only aware of about nine bands in the world making “music with a computer”.

“England, Japan… most were based in Germany, actually,” he recalls. “In France, we only had the Moog and E-MU Systems.” 

He hadn’t paid much heed to most of his electronic competitors, though Kraftwerk were unavoidable – ‘Radioactivity’ was a big hit in France in the summer of 1976. Moreover, he was a fan. The idea that they could be calling him seemed preposterous – Heldon had been making waves, but Pinhas was just starting out, having recently chosen rock ’n’ roll over lecturing in philosophy at the Sorbonne. 

“Because for me, you know, electronic music is still rock ’n’ roll!” he adds, emphatically. 

Aged 25, he’d been eking out a living playing synth sessions for other artists at Studio Davout in Paris, with Heldon making records in the downtime thanks to him having a key to the building. Access to the 16-track gave the band thousands of pounds worth of recording time that he never would have been able to afford ordinarily. 

And now, here he was on Kraftwerk’s radar. Not only that, they’d been interested enough to track down his personal telephone number. Pinhas never found out how they obtained it, but assumes it was via management. Whatever the reason, Hütter and Schneider were rapacious for electronic music in the 1970s. Once, when visiting New York, they insisted Lester Bangs hand over his copy of ‘Suicide’ by Suicide on the spot, after he’d just introduced them to it. 

Pinhas met Hütter and Schneider at the Pavillon de Paris in Pantin a few months later. Kraftwerk were performing for French national radio (a bootleg of that show proved hugely popular and can now be found on YouTube). Pinhas had brought along a copy of Heldon’s new album as a gift, though the pair had already purchased the record at a megastore in Paris and were carrying it in a white canvas bag. There was embarrassed laughter, and the men became friends immediately. Kraftwerk even invited Pinhas to visit them at Kling Klang in Düsseldorf, an offer he was unable to take up because of work commitments. 

The next time they got together was 1981, when Kraftwerk were playing a promotional show at the intimate Captain Vidéo, a venue inside Studio Gabriel off the Champs-Élysées, that briefly put on special concerts by Ultravox, Duran Duran, King Crimson and ‘Computer World’-era Kraftwerk. Around 600 lucky punters had been able to see the show, and afterwards, Pinhas was beckoned upstairs for an after-party, expecting to see a swathe of industry bods getting quietly hammered on EMI’s hospitality.

Pinhas wandered into a huge empty room, where there were just the members of the band, a few friends and four conspicuous automatons. He was gobsmacked.

“They’d just played Paris and we were on this floor that stretched about 100 metres, and here was this tiny committee and four robots. Wow! It looked like it was supposed to be a big party with these robots, but nobody saw them except us.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Pinhas saw Kraftwerk once more as a punter, when he performed at Sónar Festival in Barcelona with Pascal Comelade. He remembers flying back to France from the US and being diverted to Germany because of a national strike in France, and making it on stage just in time for a line check. He and Comelade played to around 1,000 people, then his comrade went off home. 

“So I stayed with my girlfriend, and we went to the Kraftwerk concert the next day and had some mushrooms.”

The then-62-year-old had the time of his life watching with 20,000 others whilst hallucinating out of his gourd.

“It was gorgeous, immense, colossal!” he exclaims. “Everything was atomistic. You know, like quantum perception. I hadn’t taken mushrooms for 20 years, but I was with my girlfriend and I didn’t have to work, so why not?”

Slightly broadening Guy Debord’s sprayed Situationist manifesto, he adds…

“Never work on drugs. It’s very bad.”

Pinhas says he was very impressed at the stamina of Ralf Hütter, a man five years his senior, performing for two hours and playing many of the parts live, a fact often lost in all of the spectacle. 

“Or was it Florian?” he says. “I can never remember which one is which.”

Heldon’s ‘Antelast’ album is out on Bam Balam

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