Kraftwerk, The Model (1981)

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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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The Fall, L.A. (1985)

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Artist: The Fall
Title: L.A.
Description: B-side, Cruiser’s Creek; album track, This Nation’s Saving Grace
Label: Beggars Banquet
Release date: 1985
First heard: 1985

To put this choice into context, here are 32 other songs by The Fall which might equally occupy this hallowed seat, and in fact, do:

Cruiser’s Creek
Muzorewi’s Daughter
Totally Wired
Living Too Long
Lucifer Over Lancashire
C.R.E.E.P.
Australians In Europe
Hit The North Pt 2
Guest Informant
The Container Drivers
Black Monk Theme Pt 1
Hilary
British People In Hot Weather
Ride Away
What About Us
I Can Hear The Grass Grow
Early Days Of Channel Fuhrer
Mere Pseud Mag Ed
Who Makes The Nazis?
New Big Prinz
Bad News Girl
Cab It Up
Glam Racket
I’m Going To Spain
A Past Gone Mad
Garden
Barmy
Spoilt Victorian Child
Couldn’t Get Ahead
Gut Of The Quantifier
My New House
There’s A Ghost In My House

And even that’s not a definitive list. I could draw up another 32 right now. I don’t think I need state which late-nite DJ introduced me to The Fall. I am certain it was in 1980, when I had just turned 15, and lived the cliché of the kid listening to a transistor radio after dark, under the bedsheets, with a single waxy earpiece in. (Within a few years, I would be listening with parental permission, with my finger hovering over the pause button on a tape recorder. I wish I still had those cassettes, with their occasional disembodied intro or outro from Peel, although the songs on them are forever burned into my brain’s own internal hard drive.)

I don’t know it if was the screeching, dual-speed Musorewi’s Daughter from 1979’s Dragnet, or the stuttering, beguiling The Container Drivers from 1980’s Grotesque, or whether it was the original or a Peel Session version, but whichever song came first floored me at once. I was Mark E Smith’s forever. The more beaty Totally Wired, in its scribbly sleeve, was my first Fall purchase, in 1980, and it led to a lifetime of future purchases. I believe my Fall collection is the largest of any artist. They must be my favourite band.

Why L.A.? Well, This Nation’s Saving Grace abides as my favourite album, maybe because it was the first one I’d purchased the week it was released, like a real fan. My friends at the time were not Fall fans. My devotion was one that defied peer pressure. Some nights I felt it was between me and John Peel. And then I arrived at the NME in 1988 and found a modest but passionate support group. When features editor James Brown whisked Mark E Smith through the art room where I worked and I was suddenly breathing his Rothmans air, I was dumbstruck. He asked, out loud, “How do you spell ‘appalling’?” and I opened my mouth and something came out. It was this: “A.P.P.A.L.L.I.N.G.”

Why L.A.? Because it’s driven by a chuffing synthesised sound and a keyboard pulse, and some of Karl Burns’ heaviest but metronomically tumbling drums, and most of it feels like an instrumental, with that dirty twanging guitar and guttural bass, the vocals more of a wash than a foregrounded detail: Mark E Smith sort of coughing along and occasionally spelling out the title: “L – L – L – L – A – A – A – A – A- A …” He squeals in the distance, then intones words and phrases that add up to little more than “Odeon … sky … canny … bushes … something something … heat”, after which Brix drawls something garbled about a “happening” that “freaks me out“. And yet, for all its confusion and smoke and blurgh, it says Los and it says Angeles. It’s certainly a long way from Salford and the dark, satanic mills on the sleeve illustration. This is a cool group.

I’ve always defined Mark E Smith as a beat poet, but with a trucker’s beat (a trucker’s beat poet), and one who knows the value of a good riff.

Why L.A., above all others? Why the fuck not? It is my happening, and it freaks me out.

 

P.S.: It has been pointed out to me that L.A. was Peel’s least favourite Fall track. That’s rather poetic.