Kraftwerk’s crystal balls

The seminal German outfit had arguably been following their own advice for much of their career: “I programme my home computer, Beam myself into the future”. On two rather prescient albums, they considered what effect technology and innovation would have on society, with conclusions that are relevant today.

Some of the last words you hear on the last truly great Kraftwerk album constitute a darkly intoned prediction: “I programme my home computer / Beam myself into the future”. Arguably, the seminal German outfit had been following this advice throughout their career: gallantly riding machines in order to foretell tomorrow’s world.

The obvious grouping of albums by Kraftwerk is what I would term the ‘Transport Trilogy’: Autobahn, released in 1974; Trans-Europe Express (1977); and Tour de France Soundtracks (2003). These are albums that capture motion and emotion, mostly with a sense of joy. But the more interesting combination is that of Trans-Europe Express and Computer World (1981): a pair of albums bestowed with oracle-like powers. Kraftwerk’s theory, I would argue, was this: cross-border infrastructure would play its part in spreading the message of peace through Europe; its digital equivalent would open even more possibilities of unification, but would also be more dangerous and fragmenting. This was the message, these two albums served as the medium.

Let’s unpack my argument.

Trans-Europe Express sets itself up somewhat in opposition to Autobahn, an album which transposed the Beach Boys’ thrill of the open road onto the reality of Teutonic motorways. Where there was previously a naïve patriotism, here there is “Europe Endless”, the dismantling of borders and difference, and the digesting and cross-fertilising of cultures. The opening number rides a jaunty rhythm, and is propelled by a chirpy lead part, played on a synthesiser from which is extorted an extremely naturalistic timbre—the gentlest hint of vibrato, a slight straining in its uppermost register. The effect is somewhere between a clarinet and a violin. Underpinning this rather baroque arrangement are occasional, warm, caressing bass tones. The mood is infectiously optimistic.

There follow two more reflective songs, “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies”, which seek to dismantle any ego the band members might have built up—just as Kraftwerk believed their duty was to create an egoless national art form. The droll count-in of “Eins, zwei, drei, vier” on the second of these tracks is particularly self-deflating, a comparison with The Ramones that can’t help to underwhelm a tad.

Side B is given over to the title-suite. In the space of one epic, cross-continental journey, Kraftwerk bump fists with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, they give a shout-out to Franz Schubert, and they enjoy a “late night café” in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The two lead synthesiser motifs, one reminiscent of the Doctor Who theme, the other a repeating interval in successively higher octaves, are relentlessly forward-looking, as if they are a vanguard of space explorers. In the movement entitled “Metal On Metal”, words become unnecessary, supplanted by machine-made approximations of bogeys on rail, plumes of steam, and smears of train horn.  By the album’s conclusion, place-names are not required either: the new, unified territory is merely “Endless Endless”.  What is the conclusion Kraftwerk lead us to? That an answer to the fallibility of mankind is the march of technological progress: mass transport, travelling on a common gauge, pulling us into rationality and advanced culture.

“Interpol, and Deutsche Bank / FBI, and Scotland Yard”. Oh, how we sniggered at the back of the classroom when M.I.A. claimed Google was reading your emails and passing them on to the U.S. government. Had we forgotten the opening prediction on Computer World? “Endless / numbers / Money / People… Computer world”. The interconnectedness of data must have seemed startling and devoid of basis at that time.  The hovercraft was cool, but the air was so putrid.

“Time / travel / Communication / Entertainment”. Slowly, by degrees, a cautious optimism unfurls. Could this innovation instead benefit the consumer?  The answer, in Kraftwerk’s estimation, is uncertain: throughout the album, we hear playfulness repeatedly in conflict with danger. “Pocket Calculator”, for example, seems a harmless ditty until the narrator presses “down a special key / It plays a little melody”—the melody in question is atonal, demented and worrisome.. The nagging quality of the rhythm beneath it resembles Blur’s “Girls And Boys”, a disco number which made light of holiday-hedonism, and then pinched it in the midriff.

One track later, “Numbers” rides a quivering, unresolving synth flutter—uncertainty, in contrast to the solidity of the synthesised cardinal numbers which reside in the bedrock of the track’s rhythm. The electronic percussion reminds your correspondent of Muse’s “Supermassive Black Hole”, in terms of texture and scale. The closing tracks are populated with sounds of data transmission (a digital facsimile of shattering glass, in Kraftwerk’s approximation); harsh, thrusting offensives of sound; and punishing phrases that repeatedly try to puncture your lungs. The title of the concluding track may be a playful pun on pinball machine slogans, but the music is straight out of nightmarish video games.

And then there is the centrepiece, “Computer Love”. Imagine you’d never heard Coldplay’s “Talk”. This is a gorgeous, seven-minute plea of yearning for companionship from a tender soul marooned amidst cables and terminals and the unending yawn of data. The “data date” itself seems to prefigure Tinder, sexting, the facets of modern romance that render my generation empowered and yet impotent.  One can’t help but turn gooey for the central melody, which shifts every few minutes into a new modulation or solo,  or is gently overlayed with counterpoint. You fall for it, in spite of the lonely glow that bathes our narrator. You fall for it, in spite of yourself.

The group’s lessons and warnings on these albums adumbrate recent events. The frontier of peace Europe defended is crumbling, unable to fend off tyrannical threats and actions. The internet is increasingly a shield, from behind which the alt-right lob “alternative facts” at a confused, post-truth society whose faculties have been eroded by a decade of social media enabling us to create our own fictionalised realities, rather as David Byrne imagined on “Seen And Not Seen”, a querulous song on 1980’s Remain In Light.

Listening to these albums, remastered majestically, it is hard to ignore the fact that, as sonic architects, Kraftwerk were untouchable during their Imperial Phase. Consider the deft touches on the mixing desk, the gutsy splicing of rhythms between the two audio channels, and the groundbreaking synthesis of speech. These works are Mutter A and Vater A. Disruptive technology: they learnt to conquer it. But they also feared it might conquer lesser souls.

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