First Listens: Kraftwerk’s ‘The Man-Machine’

Image courtesy of Discogs

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!

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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.

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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!

Getting into (the) Spirit and other classic rock bands

First off, my apologies for that terrible pun.

Lately I’ve been reading Kent Hartman’s Goodnight, L. A.: Untold Tales from Inside Classic Rock’s Legendary Recording Studios, and it’s quite an interesting read.  The 70s was definitely an interesting and extremely varied decade for music, that’s for sure.  But what struck me was that this is yet another music biog where I’m quite familiar with the titles of the albums mentioned from this era and the surrounding years: The Family That Plays Together, TapestryEverybody Knows This is NowhereRumoursTea for the Tillerman, and so on.

But how many of them have I actually sat down and listened to?  Sure, I know Rumours and Hotel California and Fly Like an Eagle from my preteen years listening to the radio and getting records from the library.  But I know only two Spirit songs: “I Got a Line On You” and “Nature’s Way”, and I only know the latter because This Mortal Coil covered it in 1991.  I know tons of Carole King songs (and I just recently read her autobiography, Natural Woman) but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any of her albums, including her most famous one.

I’m thinking I should change that.  I mean, sure, do I really have enough time in the day to listen to streaming radio stations, new releases, and older favorites on top of listening to classic albums for the first time?  Well, maybe.  I have Amazon Prime so I can give a lot of these a listen essentially for free.  And this is back when full albums lasted maybe thirty minutes, forty tops.  I can fit in a few a day, I think.  I’m always up for expanding my musical knowledge.

It’ll be a long-term project, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun to finally give these a listen and figure out what all the buzz was about.

Listening to the Seventies

You know, for all the classic rock I’ve listened to over the years, I haven’t really focused too closely on the 70s other than the hits.  I’ve got a decent mp3 collection that covers a lot of discographies, but I’ve always tended to limit my ‘classic’ listening to the 80s (my teen years) or the 90s (my college/post-college/HMV years).

Granted, my age was in the single digits in the seventies, so my familiarity with the music from that era comes from the listening habits of my older sisters, the records I took out of the town library, and the usual culprits you hear on classic rock stations like Springsteen, Elton John, Billy Joel and Led Zeppelin.  The rest of it tends to be filled with easy listening pop that we escaped like Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, and variety specials filled with corny humor and the same central casting guest stars.

It is kind of fascinating, though, when you realize that this song..

…and this song…

…came out in the same month, November 1977.

I’m thinking it’s time for me to do another decade overview, this time of the decade where I was the bratty little kid brother.  I mean, going past hearing “The Piano Man” for the 1,485,035,436th time.  Expanding the genres between punk and sunshine pop, prog rock and early metal.  If there’s one thing I enjoy immensely when listening to music, it’s listening to it within the context of its history.  I’m curious to hear how they all intertwined.

Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra

This past week, Jeff Lynne released the first single from Electric Light Orchestra’s first album of new tracks in fourteen years, and fans have been squeeing with delight at the new song “When I Was a Boy”, because it sounds so much like the classic ELO from the mid to late 70s that we all know so well.  Lynne will totally admit to being heavily influenced by the Beatles during his initial 70s tenure, and you can definitely hear it in their songs.  It’s no surprise he was tapped by George Harrison for the Traveling Wilburys project as well as the Beatles Anthology.

I remember hearing some of the singles early on, like “Showdown”, “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”, “Evil Woman” and “Telephone Line” on the family stereo, but it wasn’t until 1977’s Out of the Blue that I realized how much I liked the band.  One of my sisters had picked up the single for “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” (which was pressed on clear pink vinyl!) and soon after my parents bought us the album for Christmas.  It’s a classic double-album with solid songwriting throughout. It also contains a “mini-opera”, entitled “Concerto for a Rainy Day”, which takes up Side 3 of the album and ends with one of their most well-known hits, “Mr. Blue Sky.”

From there I followed the band to their next album, 1979’s Discovery, with the hit single “Don’t Bring Me Down”, as well as their inclusion in the latter half of the Xanadu soundtrack the next year.  [The movie was interesting in idea but is deeply flawed in delivery, and has not aged well at all.  All that aside, ELO did manage to score some excellent Don Bluth animation with the “Don’t Walk Away” segment!]

The next album, 1981’s Time, was quite the departure from all of the above, and thus was a bit of a headscratcher for many, but I’ve always considered it one of my favorite ELO albums, just below Out of the Blue.  It’s a concept album about a man time-traveling over a hundred years into the future, unable to return to his own timeline, and coming to terms with this unexpected change.  There are a number of great tracks on this one, including the top-ten single “Hold On Tight”:

Another single worth noting is “Twilight”, which only hit the lower half of the charts in most countries.  I for one hadn’t known about it until I heard it way on the back end of a radio station’s year-end countdown, and thought…how the hell did I miss this one??  It’s a fantastic track with crashing drums, a driving beat, and sci-fi tinged lyrics.  In Japan it became a cult favorite as it was used (without permission, though I believe Lynne thought it was awesome and let them fly with it) in 1983 for the opening animation for that country’s science fiction convention, Daicon IV.

The animation was done by a group of diehard SF fans who soon became the anime company Gainax, now known internationally as the production team behind Neon Genesis EvangelionGunbuster and FLCL, just to name a few.  It’s a classic piece of Japanese animation worth watching.  Try to see how many well-known SF characters (and tropes, and spaceships!) you can recognize here!

ELO’s last few albums, Secret Messages (1983) and Balance of Power (1986) did not fare nearly as well as their previous output, but they’re still solid albums with the signature Jeff Lynne sound, with songs such as the twangy “Rock and Roll Is King”, the dreamy “Secret Messages”, and their last hit of the 80s, “Calling America”:

Lynne would retire the ELO moniker after that album (drummer Bev Bevan would continue with Lynne’s okay as “ELO Part II” for most of the 90s) and would turn to music production (and releasing two solo albums).  He briefly reignited the ELO name in 2001 with the Zoom album with the minor single “Alright”, but returned to producing soon after.

Over the years I managed to pick up their back catalog, and found it just as intriguing as their more well-known tracks.  The first three albums (The Electric Light Orchestra, ELO 2 and On the Third Day) are more prog-rock affairs that featured a mix of baroque strings, electric blues and lengthy suites, but it was the fourth album Eldorado that attracted the attention of new fans, with its more Beatlesque pop balladry.  Their star would continue to rise with Face the Music and A New World Record, until finally hitting it big internationally with Out of the Blue.

There are countless album tracks worth seeking out as well from this band:  Eldorado’s “Mister Kingdom”Face the Music‘s “Fire On High”Out of the Blue‘s “Summer and Lightning” and even the light and fanciful “The Diary of Horace Wimp” from Discovery are just a few of many great tracks from the band worth checking out.  They’re always entertaining, and always creative.