Kraftwerk, The Model (1981)

kraftwerkTheModel

Artist: Kraftwerk
Title: The Model
Description: single; track, The Man-Machine
Label: EMI Capitol
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1981

She has been checking nearly all the men …

Any documentary about the music scene of the 1980s is good news for Rochdale’s Kieran Prendiville, whose your-favourite-teacher bulletins from the wild frontier of electronica on BBC’s cutting-edge crystal-ball science fair Tomorrow’s World gave elbow-patch life to the brave new world of computer love.

In a piece to camera from 1980 about the bleeding-edge Fairlight synthesiser, Prendiville admitted, “We’ve never been very good at electronically creating sounds that sound real.” Until now, that is. He bangs a timpani for real – bom! – then asks us to “cock an ear” to the sampled sound of a timpani triggered by his finger on the key of a keyboard. “That’s almost perfect isn’t it?” It had better be: a computer has “mathematicaly worked out the incredible complexity of the soundwave a timpani makes” – bom! And that, he vouches, is just the beginning. It’s played for laughs, but it’s popular science.

Talking of which, Kraftwerk, the avant-boffin synthesis pioneers from Dusseldorf, emerged from the indelicately categorised Krautrock wave of the late 60s and early 70s, and embraced the circuit board with all of their hearts, with founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider actually filing the patent for an early, electronic drum machine that you hit with metal sticks in 1975. They got their big break in 1975 not on The Old Grey Whistle Test, or Cheggers Plays Pop, but Tomorrow’s World.

In the witty words of Andrew Harrison in the Guardian, looking back from the advantage of 30-odd years, Tomorrow’s World showcased “four young Germans dressed like geography teachers, apparently playing camping stoves with wired-up knitting needles,” performing (a verb suddenly in need of an upgrade) a song (another one) called Autobahn. Whereas rock and roll sang of cars, Kraftwerk genuflected towards the motorway itself. The clip nudged the world off it axis. Drummers ran for their lives.

In 1991, Kraftwerk were back on Tomorrow’s World, this time in robot form before their tour. But their innovation was part of the furniture by then. It’s not the law to appreciate Kraftwerk only for their Vorsprung durch Technik, but it’s tricky to separate the scientific advance from the artistic endeavour. What I find myself constantly knocked out by is how popular they were from such fundamentally radical roots. Autobahn was a hit in 1974, Top 10 in West Germany and New Zealand, Top 20 in Canada, the Netherlands and the UK, the parent LP likewise, which was Top 5 in the United States. But The Model, a jauntily fizzing if deadpan pop single from 1978’s rather severe-looking The Man-Machine, topped the UK charts when belatedly issued as a single in 1981. It was the b-side to the more melodic Computer Love, which was mercenarily flipped by EMI after it stalled at 36 and it went to the top of the shop. Sometimes there’s a reason to like being beside the b-side.

Chips with everything! To file The Model (or Das Model) under “disarmingly simple” is not to denigrate but to admire. The beat, created by either man (Wolfgang Flür), machine or a fusion of the two (it doesn’t matter), is as formal as a click-track and its double snare-snap is as close as it gets to abandon; Hütter’s vocal and the foreground riff almost rhyme with each other; but the pulsing bass beat is actually rather athletic if you tune into it, the song’s secret ingredient. There’s not much room for analysis, but that just reflects the machine-tooled surfaces of the music. It’s hard not to admire the sustained drone that announces the run-out at the end of its three-and-a-half minutes. A little dose of psychological warfare not usually applied to perfect pop (unless you count the “neighing stallion” keyboard sound in Crazy Horses by the Osmonds).

Check the lyrics, delivered with neither irony nor public display of affection by Hütter. They are enough to make you wonder if he’s talking about a flesh-and-blood human mannequin, or a robot with a model number:

She’s a model and she’s looking good
I’d like to take her home, that’s understood

That she “plays hard to get” and “smiles from time to time” is a direct hit, as descriptive as a magazine profile of many hundreds of words. “It only takes a camera to change her mind,” has a dystopian ring, shades of the robotic machinemensch in the German silent Metropolis, who leads a revolution, driving men to distraction. Our synthetic femme fatale “goes out to nightclubs, drinking just champagne,” but when she’s said to be “checking nearly all the men,” is she actually ogling them, or more methodically checking them off a list? She is, after all, “playing her game.” The line, “for beauty we will pay” doesn’t accidentally bespeak pimps and johns. For all its brushed-steel precision and antiseptic sheen, The Model is as wayward and fatalistic as any Weimar cross-dresser pushing a wheelbarrow of hard currency before the youth start singing about tomorrow belonging to them.

It was a rare chart-topper recorded in the 70s that referred to “consumer products” but Kraftwerk were part of the future and they did things differently there. The model is “a big success,” which is why the song’s protagonist wants to meet her again. The 80s apparently came early to Dusseldorf. To keep things corporeal and human, let us pay tribute to the song’s writers, as, contrary to the national panic, hit tunes didn’t write themselves: take a stiff bow, Hütter, Karl Bartos and Emil Schult.

Back on a more conventional kind of screen from before the dawning of a new era, Kieran Prendiville boasts in 1980 of his hard drive having “barks, cannons, creaks, footsteps, miaows, oinks, quacks …” For Kraftwerk, true pioneers, such fripperies seemed much smaller in the rear view mirror.

Bom!

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Simple Minds, Theme For Great Cities (1981)

SimpleMindsSisterfeelingscall

Artist: Simple Minds
Title: Theme For Great Cities
Description: track, Sister Feelings Call
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1981
First heard: 1981

Here comes the flag …

Until I found my feet at the NME in 1988, aged 23, my only experiences of foreign travel were a school exchange trip to Normandy in 1977, by ferry, and a couple of family holidays to the Channel Islands, again by ferry, no passport required. I was not alone in this unworldliness. From the perspective of this island, it was not yet a small planet. Which is why, I think, in the early 80s, so many of our more inquiring and knowledge-thirsty bands of the day were fixated on faraway cities. In 1981, something of a flashpoint, Ultravox hymned the capital of Austria in Vienna; Duran Duran randomly included the instrumental Tel Aviv on their first LP (good track, actually); Japan, who were already named after Japan, used their Orientalist fifth album Tin Drum to cast their net towards Visions of China and a Cantonese Boy; even Gary Numan’s Dance contained the mixed-up Slow Car to China. Our dreamers were chasing the travel-broadened Kraftwerk, who’d found inspiration in the Autobahn and the Trans-Europe Express, and would soon release Tour de France, and Roxy, who’d vicariously flown down to Acapulco and Rio on Virginia Plain a decade before, spoke of grey lagoons, songs for Europe and a prairie rose.

But no post-punk band was as brochure-gazing as Simple Minds. Pale-faced residents of Glasgow south and students of – yes – Roxy, Bowie and the Velvets, these five young self-abusers established the first Simple Minds line-up in 1978, and took their influences into the Top 30 with first album Life in a Day. Seven months later, Real to Real Cacophony set out their stall with a series of borrowed keywords: naked, citizenchangeyouth, factory, film and perhaps most tellingly, suitcase. That these starry-eyed Scots saw beyond their borders was paramount. Bowie didn’t stay in Bromley. John Cale put the Amman Valley behind him. Ferry didn’t hang around in Country Durham for long. The key track on Real to Real was Veldt, an instrumental imagining of the southern African plain. The first single from breakthrough LP was I Travel. Their case was made.

Empires and Dance was Simple Minds’ boarding card, a whistle-stop tour of the world of their imagination: Capital City, Constantinople Line, Kant-Kino (the Berlin nightspot) – who needed stamps on passports when vicarious movement was free? The band’s hunger for the great beyond eclipsed the sun in 1981, with two travelogues for the price of one: Sons and Fascination, and its sister album Sister Feelings Call. Whisking The Boys from Brazil to The 20th Century Promised Land, via Sound in 70 Cities, the League of Nations and The American, with progressive producer Steve Hillage of Gong at the controls, this double photo-album was a voyage around the imagined world.

I loved then, and I love now its glistening surfaces and machine-tooled glamour, and the blurred, Ballard-esque freeze-frames of airports, concrete, bodywork and skylines on the twin sleeves (Sons and Fascination in colour, Sister Feelings Call in blue-tint and black-and-white). Simple Minds were a band you could lose yourself in; pack up your troubles and go places. The second album came free with the first 10,000 copies of the first. I was at the front of the check-in queue with what would’ve been my wages from a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s, where shelf-stacking gave me time to imagine. I’m drawn back to this bonanza of sound – 15 brand-new tracks in one hit – as I reduce my appreciation of Simple Minds down to one number.

Theme for Great Cities is a disloyal choice, in that it’s an instrumental, and thus locks the mighty, air-chopping Jim Kerr out of the mix (he wrote and sang all of Simple Minds’ lyrics, while the whole band were credited as songwriters; these days, it’s Kerr and the conjoined Charlie Burchill). But as a theme, it still stands supreme, 40 years after it was conceived on the anvil of cinematic evocation. It wasn’t a single, because it was wordless, but it wasn’t just me who singled it out for special measurement; it “defined Balearic for a generation of clubbed-out Ibiza party-goers”, according to simpleminds.org, as it found itself remixed for the dance floor.

Jim tried to pen a lyric for keyboardist Mick MacNeil but gave up. It was known as The Third Track in demo. The image you want is Kerr walking around Glasgow listening to it repeatedly on his new-fangled Sony Walkman device. All concerned seemed happy with it going out wordless.

Despite the lack of a vocal, it sings loudly of the implied sophistication of travel: the Grand Tour of 18th century gentlemen, but reclaimed by people who lived in the long shadow of tower blocks. It hovers in over an eerie MacNeil synth-wash, which almost sighs before Brian McGee’s snareless drums, bendy bass from Derek Forbes and percussively choppy guitar from Birchill fall into step. The keyboards provide the riff, but from a distance, followed by a harder-edged electronic moan over ever-decreasing ripples of atmosphere. Still, the moans and howls emerge from the hinterland, like diamond dogs, or rats the size of cats. It’s sleek and slick, but there is something in those bushes.

It’s closer to music for a film, or an undiminished symphony, and that’s Simple Minds. The lack of a Kerr vocal is the ultimate sacrifice from a general to his troops. It is a great theme for cities, and a theme for great cities. Simple Minds peaked over and over again in the 80s. When Mel Gaynor joined, with his tree trunks for drumsticks, he panel-beat the band’s sound into new, harder, rockier shapes, and just in time for stadia to beckon. The world finally lay at their feet.

But they’d been around it plenty of times in their minds.

 

Pigbag, Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag (1981)

Pigbag

Artist: Pigbag
Title: Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag
Description: single
Label: Y Records/Rough Trade
Release date: 1981; 1982
First heard: 1981

Dang dang-dang dang-dang-dang bah-bah-baaah-bah!

No need to consult Smash Hits for the lyrics. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag, from the gap between the disco boom and the post-New Romantic Oxfam-Latin explosion, was the instrumental that mattered. Now, hear its voice.

If I may whisk you, like some pleated-trouser ghost of functions past, back to the Marina Bar in Billing, East Northamptonshire, the default hired-hall for birthdays, parties, anything, in the very early 80s. It was a working part of the 235-acre leisure park Billing Aquadrome, in those days mostly about caravans and car shows, in the modern day built in a more cosmopolitan fashion around static holiday chalets, pleasure boating, soft play, “splash zones” and a “Hovercraft School”. For those of us at Weston Favell Upper School, on the cusp of becoming legal drinkers, Billing was like a second home. It was, as the poet said, very heaven to be going-on-eighteen in 1981-83. Drinks weren’t free and you couldn’t exactly suntan, but in March 1982, “sixth-form band” Absolute Heroes made their debut at the Marina – and so did I, the henna-haired drummer. However, the usual order of things was a disco, and with low lighting and loud Stacy Lattishaw, it was easier to get served at the bar than not get served at the bar.

Battle lines were forged. The unselfconscious would dance to anything; the more pretentious would pick and choose. That was us. The emergence of the overcoat as a fashion item had painted some of us into a corner. You couldn’t dance all evening in a donkey jacket (my own outerwear of choice), so you waited, and waited, and waited for one of “our songs.” There were sometimes three or four a night, so you made the most of them, getting angular and elbowy in a moving clique, then repairing to the margins once Shack Up or Mad World ended. Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag, by a group we didn’t even know that much about but who turned out to be a pricklier co-operative of art-school parpers than their biggest hit promised, was like striking gold. It had one instruction: shut up and dance.

There was a 12-inch, but our gang knew it as one of the most tightly-packed calls to arms-and-legs ever squooshed onto a seven-inch. Packaged in a DIY sleeve bearing rudimentary cave-drawings of musical stickmen, I hadn’t even heard James Brown’s Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag in 1982, so the central pun flew over my auburn head (the “pigbag” was, it transpires, a bag with a picture of a warthog on it, carried by Cheltenham Art College fashion stude, Birmingham native and group founder Chris Hamlin). This song, their signature tune, works at three minutes or twenty, powered by layered percussion and impatient but drum-tight brass, and broken into movements like a spidery symphony. Even the intro is like a call and response between a conga and a timbale, precision-played despite the group’s roots as avant-garde jazzers.

A well-drilled squad of seven, Pigbag were dedicated musicians disguised as busking layabouts, at least two of whom (Hamlin and – yay! – donkey-jacketed drummer Roger Freeman) quit the band even before they made their Top of the Pops debut in April ’82, feeling that even recording a three-and-a-half-minute version of Brand New Pigbag had been a sellout. (Imagine a band with that much idealism and artistic integrity in 2018. It will come as no surprise that Pigbag left Brand New Pigbag and more languid follow-up Sunny Day off their debut LP.) Dick O’Dell, boss of Y Records and discoverer/enabler of the band, withdrew Pigbag from sale and reissued it in 1982, catapulting the cult dancefloor smash to Number 3 through sheer force of demand and supply.

No instrument is relegated to backing in this art-funk anthem; Simon Underwood’s bass is played like a lead guitar; the horn section (Ollie Moore, Chris Lee) do not simply enhance, they provide riffs; they are also soloists; the sax talks to itself and sounds like it would never sound the same way twice; the percussion is great, it sounds like an earthquake, and shuts out everything else (except a funky whistle) on a passage so long it must constitute another solo. I have read that the band, shedding principled members like a stripper sheds garments, grew bored of playing their signature tune while it lurked at the bottom of the actual chart before taking off into its highest echelons and crossing the Atlantic. This has happened to bands before and it will happen again.

Pigbag have continued in name and vibe, but only in recent years have original members like Moore and Lee returned to the administration, bringing some of what they had back home. One assumes and hope they still play Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.

The song remains the same. A siren pulsing away from the year of living dangerously close to illegal consumption of alcohol.

Bah-bah-baaah-bah!