The piece below was written for Clash Magazine who are running articles during the London concerts Kraftwerk are playing at the Tate Modern. I was among several other artists asked to choose my favourite album of theirs and write about it.
Kraftwerk appeared in my life at the beginning of 1982* when ‘The Model’ scored a freak No.1 in the UK during the post-Xmas lull. In the middle of your Gary Numans, Human Leagues and other assorted synth pop of the day were a new band, from Germany this time. Magazines articles featured the four piece with tales of building their own instruments, mannequins on stage and turning calculators into synths. The local record shop also suddenly confronted my 11 year old self with a variety of different back catalogue LPs from this ‘new’ group, re-released to cash in on the sudden interest.
With only limited paper round funds I had to choose which one to buy first and the fluorescent yellow of ‘Computer World’ won the day (on cassette no less, with an equally acid yellow tape inside the case). It couldn’t have been a better choice because whilst ‘The Man Machine’ and ‘Trans Europe Express’ give it a run for its money it’s a scientific fact that there are no duff tracks on CW. It’s an album which starts strong with the urgent intro to ‘Computer World’ and, incredibly, retains that strength and momentum to the dying notes of ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’.
‘Pocket Calculator’ is one of my favourite songs they’ve ever written with the oft-sampled bubbling arpeggios of ‘Home Computer’ coming a close second (alongside its sudden jump-cut to a faster tempo midway). Even the sudden return of ‘Computer World 2’ out of ‘Numbers’ isn’t a cop out, rather it reinforces the overall concept and softens the impact of the melody-less countathon before it. My brother and I used to listen to the eerie blizzard of whispered voices that end side 1 and try to discern what they were saying. To this day I swear there’s a little phrase in there that repeats, “don’t say it so quick”, every so often.
That the group dispensed with minimal verse/chorus/verse/choruses quickly before taking off on an extended ‘jam’, adding layers of melody in strict eight bar measures, was something that was new to me. Having only ‘got’ pop music about two years before, I was unused to songs extending much over the three minute mark – remember this is 1982, the 12″ was still a new format and the idea of extended remixes still largely an underground club thing (and I was only 11!). Here were tracks of 5, 6 and 7 minutes in length, some blending into each other, all sounding like they were played with the precision of a factory car assembly line rather than human beings.
The sounds were gentle too, aside from the stuttering crush of the beat to ‘Numbers’ and the subtle menace of the melody in ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’, the album was most definitely not Rock in any way. Depeche Mode‘s debut, ‘Speak & Spell’ – released the same year as ‘Computer World’ and named after the children’s toy that Kraftwerk utilised on the title track, was about the nearest thing I’d heard to their softly spoken style. Later in ’82 The Human League would release their largely vocal-less League Unlimited Orchestra remix album, ‘Love & Dancing’, and by then I was completely hooked on this kind of synth pop or new wave as it became known. If I had a time machine the first destination on the dial would be one of their gigs supporting this album back in ’81. The classic line up of Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang, performing their masterpiece, even coming to the front of the stage for ‘Pocket Calculator’, the closest they would ever come to their fans before withdrawing into their own computer world.
*I was actually aware of ‘Autobahn’ in the mid 70’s via a compilation tape my dad made from the Top 40 countdown each Sunday, the track scared me whenever it appeared but I wouldn’t put two and two together until later.