Meaningless German Robo-Drivel

One TV clip I’ve seen a million times (although it must have been solely on documentaries etc. since I was only 3 when it aired) is from the BBC technology program Tomorrow’s World and it features this strange bunch of wacky Germans who don’t use proper drum kits and want to invent jackets with musical lapels that can be played by touch … the sub-text is very much, ‘Strange bunch of fellas, those German coves – not at all like us’.

But for me the two most striking things about the clip are the post-apocalyptic / salvaged-from-the-ruins look of the drum synths and that smile from Florian Schneider at the end of the clip. I love it because it clearly shows that despite all their studied innovation and influence, Kraftwerk were clearly taking the piss on certain levels. I know the clip is ‘Autobahn’, but the Kraftwerk LP I’ve been listening to today is 1981’s Computer World. I only picked this up in 2010, I’m a bit of a late developer Kraftwerk-wise. I’ve heard Kraftwerk described as the only band who could conceivably claim to challenge the Beatles in terms of the extent to which they have changed and influenced popular music and I agree wholeheartedly.

It's as close as I can get in Lego form
It’s as close as I can get in Lego form

Mrs 1537 very kindly bought me a scholarly tome on Kraftwerk on a recent trip to the Tate Modern in London and it is a straight-ahead, meticulously-referenced and well-researched book, if a bit dry at times. Today I read that the reason there was a three-year delay between The Man-Machine and Computer World because the available technology had changed so much between the LPs and, whether true or not, I think you can hear it. The virtual Babel of synthesized voices, vocoders, Speak & Spell machines and pocket calculators are in some ways only the window-dressing. The really interesting bits of this LP lurk away from the foreground in the textures and beats. Again it’s a thought stolen from the book, but it’s also postulated that Computer World‘s sound is a product of the dance floor popularity of Kraftwerk and subsequent US recognition. The beats and textures are far more pronounced on this LP, just listen to ‘Numbers’ and ‘It’s more fun to Compute’ for all the beats you could possibly have needed in 1981 (no wonder future hip-hop pioneers were listening) or the lush colouring behind ‘Computer Love’.

Kraftwerk: tirelessly forging the sounds of the future in one of their patented techno-urinals (Das Pissen-komputen, in German)
Kraftwerk: tirelessly forging the sounds of the future in one of their patented techno-urinals (Possibly translated as Das Pissen-komputen, in German)

Another facet of Computer World I really like is that it’s just a big, broad, obvious LP – perfect for a sunny day’s listening like today and a direct contrast to Radioactivity which is one of the most bafflingly sad things I’ve ever heard.  Or maybe it’s just because it has a nice yellow cover.  Who out there doesn’t smile during ‘Pocket Calculator’ ?*  as they deadpan ‘By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody’, followed by various old-skool calculatory beeps. ‘Computer World’ positively rocks, by Kraftwerk standards anyway, and who can argue with the lyrics^

Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Computer World
Computer World

Okay so I’m a geek but I just totally dig the way Kraftwerk play on the lines of banality, boredom and profundity**, that whole meaningless German robo-drivel  / Stark reminder of our increasingly tech-alienated times, divide.  I’ll stop hectoring you and leave you alone in a minute but I’m increasingly impressed at how Kraftwerk wring scraps of emotion and feeling out of non-organic sources and instrumentation.

My kids love bits of this LP too, which I think is a good sign – especially when 98% of dad’s music is just sooo old.  There you go, Kraftwerk connecting to the future again,

I program my home computer
Beam myself into the future

209 Down.

Vocoder built for Kraftwerk (stolen from Wikipedia)
Vocoder built for Kraftwerk (stolen from Wikipedia)

*that’s one of those fancy rhetorical questions – as used during interrogation by law-enforcement officials / wives etc.

**or tip all the way over it according to Mrs 1537.

^especially when formatted like this they look like a pair of Y-fronts – surely not accidental. I demand answers!

15 thoughts on “Meaningless German Robo-Drivel

  1. Enjoyed your Kraftwerk piece. Having loved them since Autobahn (yes, THAT old) I take absurd pleasure in connecting with converts. And yes, kids love Kraftwerk. My son’s fave is ‘Man Machine’. Mine probably the suburb analogue romanticism of ‘Trans Europe Express’. Mrs VC loves the later ‘Tour De France’. And please take a bow for this pearler: ‘Kraftwerk wring scraps of emotion and feeling out of non-organic sources and instrumentation’.

    1. Thank you, you’re very kind Mr VC. Sadly I fear Mrs 1537 is a lost cause as far as Kraftwerk are concerned, she regards them with the same suspicion she usually reserves for Belgian metal bands.

      I love all their stuff I’ve heard (haven’t got their first, or The Mix yet), but I’m a sucker for the heartbreakingly sad Radio-activity.

      Ive come to think of them as a far more influential band in 75/76/77 than any of the punkers.

  2. I heard this while new and I just didn’t get it then. It sounded so simple, to me, almost like a simplified parody of real music (I was young and arrogant). Now it sounds like a bunch of electrical engineers founded a band designed to meet the appropriate building code. It doesn’t reach my heart, but it’s obviously the original collection of traits from some of the best bands of the last 30 years.

    Btw, I actually never considered their lyrics ’til now. They make more sense as a band now!

    Are they not Devo?

    1. No: they are mensch-maschine.

      I know what you mean, but about 6 years ago I almost stood up on the morning train into work and shouted ‘Eureka!’. Not sure if I suddenly got ‘it’, or just that they suddenly got me.

      PS – I’m egotistically very proud of coining a new German noun in my post.

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