“I program my home computer. Beam myself into the future“. So the prophets and influencers of all things techno, acid house, electronic music, and Coldplay (!) sing in the synthesised voices on ‘Home Computer’.
It’s 1981, and one year before the release of the ZX Spectrum, my first home computer which I got as a present on my 10th birthday. I was too young then to know about Kraftwerk, and certainly not aware of the potential of computers to infiltrate, underpin, and govern the world and how it works today. Not so for one Florian Schneider (RIP; 7th April 1945 – 21st April 2020) and Ralf Hütter, on this their 8th studio album, and arguably (for me) at the height of their powers. They were predicting the future not just of technology on this album, but shining a light for a whole new form of electronic music. You might argue that had done that already through much of the mid to late 70s, on Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Radioactivity, but it’s here that it takes full flight in beautiful electronic gold plated glory.
I came to Kraftwerk through my church. I was brought up in a sometimes strange Christian sect (The Christadelphians). Some members shunned music, and especially anything that might deviate or challenge the faith. There was a member of our church who however revealed to me that he had quite a vast music collection, and he invited me to his house. His son also possessed a rather encyclopaedic knowledge of all the music he owned, and between them they had developed a cataloguing system of vinyl, CDs, tapes, and open reel tapes (they said this was audibly by far the best format – so there you go @sickmouthy). Anyway, to cut a long story short he taped a whole load of albums for me (Can, the Fall, Richard Hell and the Voidoids), including a complete set of Kraftwerk albums. I was smitten, but especially by Computer World. For me the rhythms, the beats, the clarity, timing, all had a purity and such a futuristic sound that it was hard not to fall in love with this rather iconoclastic group of Germans. By this time (around 85/86) I had stopped playing computer games, and had found a new love – music and in particular, record collecting. I bought a copy of Computer World, and Radioactivity (which I later sold and have only just recently replaced).
Computer World begins on the opening title track with a beat to die for and a sublime keyboard sequence that sings – without words – computer world (dee-dee-dah-dee). It’s subtle, but an Ohrwurm (‘earworm’ in German), that keeps coming back, time and time again throughout the album. I think is why, above all else, I love this album. The mere repetition of that sequence of notes….
Pocket calculator is also all electronic joy. The track had such a profound influence on Detroit techno, and subsequently dance and rave music over here in the UK. It was a few years later, after getting into Kraftwerk, that I heard A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ and felt like it was the same music being beamed back to me from outer space. It’s easy to understate and underestimate how influential Kraftwerk were on black African American audiences, and later the early UK scene by Gerald and the like. But as a clip demonstrates (at the bottom of the page…), ‘Numbers’ had such a huge important influence on the club and dance scene emerging out of Detroit, Chicago, and New York in the mid to late 80s.
The sound of Kraftwerk, because of their influence, can be found amongst the ‘bleeps and bloops’ of countless techno artists. But here on Computer World it also has funk. Kraftwerk were first through the door on this combination, and nobody at their time could replicate their sound, despite its simplicity. Perhaps that is why they are so heavily sampled. The sounds on Computer World are simple, and yet so complex. ‘Numbers’ segueways seamlessly back into the Computer World keyboard sequence to die for. It’s beautiful. ‘Computer Love’ is incredible too, with overlapping melodies and some timeless prophecies of ‘data dates’ to come. It’s no wonder that Bowie loved them, he too taking their cue to predict a computer age – we’ve all seen that clip of him predicting the internet. This album opens the door on that world. On the last track “It’s More Fun to Compute” I swear it says “It’s nearer to compute”, as opposed to “It’s nearer to commute” – and here we are, all joining each other virtually as Covid-19 continues to bear down and restrict our movement, at least for those of us who are privileged enough to be able to work at home and avoid the “unnecessary travel”.
In summary, I simply love this album. It’s certainly one of my favourites of all time. Let’s not get into that ‘top 10 albums that made me’ schtick though, but if we did, it would be in mine! We’ve not covered Kraftwerk before at DRC (I don’t think). For a band that is arguably more influential than the Beatles that seems strange. Paul Morley, who I normally don’t have much time for, contests in a Kraftwerk documentary on the BBC that they are more influential than the Beatles. He does this by dismissing the mop-tops’ musical influence (he asks ‘Who have the Beatles actually influenced? Elton John, ELO, Gary Barlow, and the Spice Girls’). The truth of it is the Beatles stole the sounds of Black African Americans and pretended it was their own. Whereas, he contends, Kraftwerk gave a unique sound back to black African American artists (e.g. Derrick May, Afrika Bambaataa), who adapted it and in turn gave back a whole new genre, and the love of which, for me, will never die. RIP Florian.