Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Albums of Influence: "Computer World" by Kraftwerk

Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk died today, after a short battle with cancer. He was 73 years old.

Florian Schneider
Schneider was a co-founder of Kraftwerk, which started in 1970, not long after I was born. Schneider and the early version of Kraftwerk were part of a famously creative nexus of musicians in Germany known as "krautrock" or kosmiche musik that would spawn bands like Neu!, Harmonia, Cluster, Can, and Faust, as well as more synth-driven groups like Tangerine Dream, and eventually, what we think of as mature Kraftwerk. You may not be too familiar with them, but your favorite bands are.

Kraftwerk has been called "The Beatles of electronic music", which is apt. Their influence is profound, and any electronic musician, even if they've never heard or heard of Kraftwerk, is following in their footsteps. And in the same way, from our current vantage point, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss was about.

I first remember hearing Kraftwerk on the radio not long after "The Man-Machine" came out in 1978. It stopped me in my tracks. I only heard perhaps the last third of "The Robots", but I was immediately transfixed. It was like the spacey sounds of Tomita and Jean-Michel Jarre but wrapped up in a catchy pop song, with dark overtones and what sounded like Cylons singing.

As was often the case with pre-internet music discovery, the radio didn't tell me who the artist was or the song. I had no idea, but I never forgot that sound, and assumed I'd never hear it again.

Years later, I was in a record store. The punk girl behind the register put on a record, and I went up and asked her "who and what IS this?". She smiled and said "It's Kraftwerk. 'Computer World'." It had just come out. As soon as I had saved up enough allowance, I bought it. On vinyl.

"Computer World" front cover
Kraftwerk's "Computer World" was released in 1981. Computers, particularly home computers, were still rare and magical things. The world was still blurry analog. Society was just beginning to understand how computers would be permeating all aspects of our world. Even music prominently featuring synthesizers was still a novelty, and considered something between lame and outright cheating.

The album was one of the first that registered for me as a complete artistic experience, with every aspect considered.

Take the cover, for example. It's an eye-searing yellow-green, the color of early CRT computer displays. Against that field is a black-and-white photo of a computer, and on the computer screen, the image of the band, done in period-accurate graphics with what passed for computer typography in those days (and for my younger readers, seriously, computers looked like this, both the hardware and the screen, and we still thought it was mind-blowingly futuristic and cool). This was powerful iconography, and also had the advantage of making the album stand out in record stores.

The back of the album featured the band...or was it mannequins?...posed in front of computery-looking machinery, shaded green and black, with computer text across the bottom (including being in all upper case).

"Computer World" back cover
The band isn't getting the spotlight -- the computer is. And it is worth noting that, if anything, the band is somehow reduced by the computer on the cover.

Drop the needle on side one. A robotic but funky groove (Kraftwerk's specialty!) starts off, with catchy percolating synthesizers, before a tranquil string pad wafts over the top. You immediately notice (particularly in 1981!) what's missing, what you're not hearing: No drums. No guitar. No electric bass. This is all synthesized. But it is full and engaging.

Over the groove, the singer chants clipped and minimal phrases: "Interpol and Deutsche Bank. FBI and Scotland Yard." He is answered by what sounds like a Speak N' Spell: "Business. Numbers. Money. People." Or "Time. Travel. Communication. Entertainment." Each line repeated twice, before the vocoded chorus simply notes "Computer world." You can almost hear the period at the end. Not an exclamation, or a lament, or a joke. A fact. Computer world.

Side one then moves to the album's "hit singles", "Pocket Calculator", which features tones that sound like they're from a Merlin game, and somewhat cute lyrics that are again as merely descriptive as they can be -- "I am adding and subtracting. I am controlling and composing. By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody". Seems harmless enough.

The other single on the album was "Numbers", a typically Kraftwerk-y beat with typically Kraftwerk-y lyrics -- in this case, just recitations of numbers from different languages, rendered with a variety of techniques ranging from purely synthetic to vocoded to spoken and sung. There's hardly any "music" to it, no bass riff, no chords, just an odd, echoey synthesizer sequence bending and bouncing, and that's only present for about 1 of the song's nearly 3.5 minutes. The rest is voices and drums, minimal and primal. How could they leave so much out?

This segues into a reprise of "Computer World", with the counting returning before it all fades out in a blur of robots reciting numbers.

Side two kicks off with perhaps the most beautiful song in Kraftwerk's catalog, "Computer Love". It has beautiful and simple synthesizer melodies rendered in twinkling tones or silky strings. It is remarkably expressive for all its restraint, and Ralf Hütter's wobbly singing.

It is hard not to hear this now (and perhaps, RIGHT NOW) and not feel how prescient it is:

Another lonely night
Stare at the TV screen
I don't know what to do
I need a rendez-vous

Computer love.

At the time, the idea of computer dating seemed weird and futuristic. From the vantage point of 2020, it is hard to imagine a time when people didn't find dates through the internet, through computers.

The music manages to convey both the sense of loneliness and a sense of beauty. Observing, not judging. And it stretches out, for a glorious 7 minutes and 20 seconds, floating, gliding.

This is followed by "Home Computer", which has a much more sinister groove, and lyrics that simply state "I program my home computer, beam myself into the future." That's it. They're sung by a human who sounds focused but disinterested, as the track's groove splinters into percussion and bubbling computer noise.

The album closes with the starker and darker "It's More Fun To Compute". No human sings on this track -- the album closes with a robotic voice intoning the title over a bass drone and an alarm. The silky synths and percolating grooves of "Computer World" return, but somehow feel desolate and disconnected. Computer world.

The total effect was potent at my young age. This wasn't just a bunch of cool songs, this was an album, with an arc and purpose from song to song, and arranged in a specific way. But it was also cool, catchy, easy to enjoy, different from what was on the radio, and not just modern, but futuristic.

Also, only 7 songs and 35 minutes. They said what they needed to. No filler. No pandering.


This was Kraftwerk's last great album. It would be a long time before they would put anything else out, and aside from the odd single, they haven't done anything truly new since, mostly re-hashing or re-mixing their old work.

I would go back and discover all their great records -- the arguably even-better "The Man-Machine" (which had the song I'd first heard those years back - "The Robots"), the sublime and influential "Trans Europe Express", the primitive "Radio-Activity", and their foundational "Autobahn". I'd even track down their earlier work, which feels much less vital but is still interesting and creative.

Those records were all great, but were just furthering the impressions and understanding of things I had gleaned from living in "Computer World": Make total statements. Consider all aspects of your album. Be creative. Be restrained. Don't be afraid of technology.

Thank you for the music, Florian. And thank you for the music, Kraftwerk.

No comments: