INTRODUCTION: Yes, believe it or not, there are famous albums I have not yet sat down and paid significant attention to. Many of them, actually. Some I have in my mp3 collection while slowly gathering various band discographies, and some I’ve only read about in the numerous music biographies and histories I’ve read over the years. And some I’ve owned back in my vinyl days and only paid attention to the singles from it. This occasional series is my way of dedicating some time to focus on the album as a whole, to familiarize myself with them, get to know them a bit. These are albums that can be fan or critic favorites (or both), many of them you can probably find in Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and Rolling Stone’s varied Best Albums of All Time lists.
So why am I doing this? Well, why not? I’m always up for discovering a new (old) favorite!
Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine was released on 19 May 1978. I was seven years old, and more than likely I was listening to my older sisters’ record collection and taking out albums from the local library. (ELO’s Out of the Blue was a constant favorite at the time, I recall.) I’d also listen to whatever was playing on the radio, still wet behind the ears (*ba-doom-tiss*) when it came to finding my own musical tastes. My Beatles obsession would becoming within a few months, of course.
The new music selection that month was extremely varied. Captain & Tennille released Dream, which contained the single “You Never Done It Like That” which I thought was kinda groovy. Cheap Trick dropped Heaven Tonight, their best and rockingest album to date with the classic “Surrender” as its first track. Commodores had a chart hit with “Three Times a Lady”, as did Nick Gilder with “Hot Child in the City”; The Cars dropped their amazing first single “Just What I Needed”; Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town and Journey’s Infinity quickly became AOR radio gold; The Rolling Stones released their very first 12″ remix with “Miss You”. And on the more obscure, won’t-know-this-stuff-until-later side of things, The Go-Betweens released one of their first singles, “Lee Remick”, The Dickies covered Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and The Stranglers dropped their Black & White album.
I actually knew about Kraftwerk early on, as one of my sisters owned the “Autobahn” single, which I thought was a really neat track. I loved that it had that sort of mellow prog-rock feel to it, and that it was purely synthetic in its sound. I’d listen to that single enough that it eventually ended up becoming part of my own burgeoning collection. For me, Kraftwerk is up there with Gary Numan (and in a way, Gary Wright’s The Dream Weaver) as This Is What Science Fiction Music Sounds Like in the 70s and early 80s, before I discovered post-punk. [Side note: I’ll be listening to the English version here.]
Track 1: The Robots — I know this one well as it’s an AOR classic and one that KEXP plays every now and again. It’s kind of funky, isn’t it? It has a bit of a late 70s disco groove too. I recently learned the Blitz Kids in London loved dancing to this track. I love how the R’s are rolled on purpose like it’s some kind of We Are Aristocracy type of thing. It’s also very bloopy — I can see where early Depeche Mode picked up on this style on their early albums. It’s deliberately synthetic in its completeness.
Track 2: Spacelab — Have I heard this before…? I think I have! Hooray! It’s this series’ first example of “Oh THAT Song”! And there will be many, I’m sure. The opening is like that cool spacey intro to the album version of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, which I love so much! Nice use of rippling ascending keyboards to signify liftoff. Kicking in now…a high meandering melody with a driving yet primitive drumbeat. Kinda groovy! I’m picturing this as a music bed under some PBS film I might have seen as a kid, or one of those long bumpers that MTV used to play in their early days, you know, the ones with a bunch of NASA and public domain films. This totally sounds like something off of Duran Duran’s first album…one of their deep cuts. Martin Gore must have taken a page from this song as well, as it kind of sounds like something from A Broken Frame! Looking at Discogs, apparently this was a single in the UK and the US, so maybe that’s why I recognize it…I must have heard it at some point in the past.
Track 3: Metropolis — The Depeche Mode comparisons continue…this plodding, plonky opening is straight off Construction Time Again, and that one bass note that’s keeping the beat sounds like water droplets on a PVC tube, doesn’t it? Very Blue Man Group there. Ah, there we go…song kicks in, and now it’s got a bit of Thomas Dolby beat to it. Minor key, high flanged chords shimmering in the background. Okay, I see what they’re doing here…kind of going for an aural poem of 70s urban tension, with maybe a bit of a wink to the 1927 movie of the same name with its dramatic delivery. Not exactly a memorable track, but it’s an interesting deep cut.
Track 4: The Model — I definitely know this one. Their Other Big Hit here in the US. I remember seeing the video for this on MTV, which I learn was made because of its resurgence with the English version as a 1981 single. It’s kind of sad sounding, isn’t it? Comparing this to Air’s Moon Safari this time, with some pretty nifty use of mellotron-like chords and delicate high melodies. But yeah…it’s kind of an odd song, isn’t it? It’s definitely got radio potential, though.
Track 5: Neon Lights — Longest song on the album. so I’m going to assume this is the centerpiece. It’s kind of a counterpoint to “Metropolis” I think…definitely lighter and dreamier in its delivery. I can see where M83 stole a bit from them here! I do like the shift two minutes in…a change in key to a motorik-style single chord groove (which makes sense, considering Neu! was formed by two ex-Kraftwerk guys with similar musical ideas). I like that this has suddenly become an extended jam for the main melody synths. Okay, yeah…this song is in my wheelhouse as Possible Writing Session Soundtrack material!
Track 6: The Man-Machine — And we’re back in early Depeche Mode territory again. Like “Metropolis”, it’s not entirely memorable as a song, but the parts that make it are kind of neat. Programmed drum loops, vocoderized voices, and the classic high dissonant bloops to hint at Big Computer Technology. Kind of an odd, anticlimactic way to end the album (this feels more like a denouement than a climax point), but it does work in its own way, pulling the rest of the album together as a whole, as it’s a more humanlike response to the cold and clinical “The Robots”. This song’s less about the song and more about the What Have We Learned Here summary of what we’ve just heard.
Thoughts: I can definitely see now how all those early 80s synth bands like DM, OMD, Visage and so on were highly influenced by this record and others like it. A lot of them had their minds blown by this stuff, realizing that not only could they write and play this sort of thing that was so different from the pop charts of the time, the newest much smaller keyboard models were actually becoming quite affordable — or alternately, they were learning to kludge together their own electric bits and bots to make the same or similar unnatural sounds and beats.
There’s also the fact that this stands out separate from other experimental bands at the time, in that they’re supremely melodic. They’re not hard on the ears like Throbbing Gristle, or hypnotic like Neu!, or weird like Einsturzende Neubauten. Each of these bands would inspire other bands in some way, and Kraftwerk, to my opinion told these new groups that electronic music can be enjoyable as much as it is experimental. It’s the appeal of the passive listener as well as the big music nerd.
Final Opinion: I think it might take me a few more listens for most of the album to stick with me, but it’s definitely something I’ll listen to in the future!