Kraftwerk – The Man Machine

Part 11 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

Automation. At some point in your life you have probably heard this word. The latest, greatest way to maximize your efficiency. As a professional office worker, there are dozens and dozens of ways to automate your day. Get your email via Microsoft Outlook? You probably have it set to automatically come over via your company’s server – automation (though I always change it so I can Send / Receive at certain times of day). Going on vacation? Of course you set up your automated “Out of Office Assistant”. An official definition of automation can be read as:

Automation is the use of control systems and information technologies to reduce the need for human work in the production of goods and services. In the scope of industrialisation, automation is a step beyond mechanisation. Whereas mechanisation provides human operators with machinery to assist them with the muscular requirements of work, automation greatly decreases the need for human sensory and mental requirements as well. Automation plays an increasingly important role in the world economy and in daily experience.”

Kraftwerk are the quintessential automated band – so much so that they have referred to themselves as “The Robots” for over 35 years. My history with this band is somewhat convoluted. In the mid to late 90’s I was basically of a split personality when it came to music (although…what am I now, multiple personalities?). On one hand, I was looking for the noisiest, harshest records I could possibly find. I basically wanted everything to reach that heavenly red lined white noise. On the other, I was seeking out the roots of hip-hop. Two records that are seemingly unrelated but changed my life were Big Black‘s Songs About Fucking and Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock. The highlights of both of these records (for me, anyway) were Kraftwerk related. On Big Black’s record, they tackled “The Model”. One of my favorite covers in history – a noisy, noisy song drenched in feedback but layered with the original melody. If you have ever questioned whether Steve Albini is really a genius – listen to this, then drop me an email to let me know what you think. The Afrika Bambaata song isn’t a pure cover – his 1982 single “Planet Rock” features a sample (and re-recording) of the most evocative part of “Trans Europe Express”. Absolutely stunning.

So me being me – I set out to buy each Kraftwerk record based upon those two songs. I have to be honest – even though most critics and books will tell you to seek out Autobahn I found it to be a nice listen, but it didn’t put me over the top. There are bits of the early albums that I enjoy (even the one record they put out as Organization in 1970), but for me the 3 records they issued from 1977 to 1981 are the masterpieces of their catalogue (Trans Europe Express – The Man Machine – Computer World). On these records, you can hear the birth of modern electronic music. The beats may strike you as a bit minimal (or as those of us in the know may say MNML), but the melodies are so catchy you will be humming (or buzzing) along in no time at all. As a whole, I find The Man Machine to be the strongest record from start to finish.

The Robots and their tunes: 

The Robots starts out with a bleating single electronic refrain, with dramatic synths entering the song 30 seconds in. The beat is repetitive as a keyboard plays a catchy melody over top of this. Repetition is the name of the game here. The singing begins in a distored, uh..robotic voice “We’re charging our battery / And now we’re full of energy / We are the robots / We’re functioning automatik / And we are dancing mechanik / We are the robots”. The catchy keyboard refrain offers up a very strong melody and an uplifting feeling. The music breaks away at times to give the listener a peek at some muttered German phrasing “Ja tvoi sluga (=I’m your slave) / Ja tvoi Rabotnik robotnik (=I’m your worker)” A very strong start to the album, a distant cousin to 1977′s Showroom Dummies. 

Spacelab is one of those songs that transports you away from the present day into some imaginary universe. The song begins with chiming electronic noises in the background with a synthesizer melody coming in over top of it. We are treated to robotic voices chanting “Spacelab…spacelab” – the only lyrics on the song. Once those voices fade away, a more intense keyboard refrain fills my speaker, sparking an emotional reaction – floating away, the music taking over. There is no describing how amazing this song is to be honest. Perfect.

Metropolis I’ve often thought of this song as related to the earlier song. A slow start, keyboards almost mimicking guitars for over a minute. Dark sounding keyboards coming in, a robotic, militant beat. Emotionally resonant, very strong melody. The future and the past merge within these 6 minutes. The only lyrics (as with the previous song) are the title repeated over and over.  “Metropolis…metropolis”. Less processed vocals, letting the German accents hang in the atmosphere, lending a mysterious vibe to the proceedings. Another masterpiece.

The Model Catchy as hell keyboard refrain to start the song, very simple 808 beats. The keyboards / synths take the song to another level at about the 1:50 mark – a 2nd melody refrain. Absolutely must be heard to be believed. Lyrics are amazing on this song and have stood the test of time – is Kraftwerk mocking the model? Adoring the model? Your perception is all that matters “She’s a model and she’s looking good
I’d like to take her home that’s understood / She plays hard to get, she smiles from time to time / It only takes a camera to change her mind She’s going out tonight, drinking just champagne / And she has been checking nearly all the men / She’s playing her game and you can hear them say / She is looking good, for beauty we will pay / She’s posing for consumer products now and then / For every camera she gives the best she can / I saw her on the cover of a magazine / Now she’s a big success, I want to meet her again”

Neon Lights has a bit of a lighter vibe. A slower start than the previous songs. It took me a few listens to appreciate the beauty of this song to be completely honest with you (but I’ve listened to it dozens of times since then). Features a soft vocal “Neon lights / Shimmering neon lights / And at the fall of night / This city’s made of light” Those are actually the lyrics to the entire song – all 8 minutes of it. Absolutely a moody, evocative piece. Features yet another “2nd melody” keyboard piece that really lends to the atmosphere.

The Man Machine begins with a catchy synth / keyboard piece…vocals fade in, almost sounding as if they are being beamed in. Repetitive, catchy (the motto for the album). “Man Machine, pseudo human being / Man Machine, super human being / The man machine, machine….” A fitting conclusion to this perfect album.

If you have any interest in Kraftwerk I’d start with this one, then Trans Europe Express, and finally Computer World. I’d also pick up The Mix as it features remixed and in some cases, drastically shorter versions of very, very long songs (I’m looking at you Autobahn). You can’t really go wrong with any of these selections. The rest of their albums are hit or miss, but all have at least something to enjoy and fall in love with. Automation can be frightening – in the late 70’s, Kraftwerk were embracing automation with pure joy and excitement over new technology. Timeless records.

Join me next week as I discuss Kanye West’s 808 & Heartbreak 

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