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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Sparks, The Number One Song In Heaven (1979)

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Artist: Sparks
Title: The Number One Song In Heaven
Description: single; album track, No. 1 In Heaven
Label: Virgin
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it …

Some people actually change music. Chuck Berry is one. Bob Dylan is another. Dee Dee Ramone is another still. Many are called “pioneering” and “influential”, but few will be left standing come the revolution. Music is sometimes changed by accident. It is rarely changed in a vacuum. In terms of pop and rock, it has been most evidently changed by Americans, primarily, and by the British, in spurts. In 1976 it was changed by an Italian working in West Germany.

I speak of Giorgio Moroder, who programmed, sequenced, sampled and synthesised the track that would become I Feel Love for Donna Summer in the year of punk. According to the sleeve notes to the 1989 box set Sound + Vision, Brian Eno ran into the studio in Berlin where he was working with David Bowie and declared, of I Feel Love, “I have heard the sound of the future.”

Fast forward, as they say, to 1978. Sibling Los Angelinos Ron and Russell Mael haven’t had a hit for three years. After an incredible, head-turning entrée in 1974 when they first appeared on Top Of The Pops looking and sounding like nothing else on earth with the hysterical This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, they had enjoyed a through-wind of similarly high-pitched, low-riding constellations of camp throughout ’75 – Amateur Hour, Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth, Something For The Girl With Everything, Get In The Swing and Looks Looks Looks (not all of which made Top Of The Pops) – and then the signal went dead.

Criminally unappreciated in their own country – and thus perfectly used to being ignored – they’d emigrated here to bask in European appreciation of their wild cocktail of Weimar song-and-dance and Glam pomp, but two albums made in LA, Big Beat and the ironically titled Introducing Sparks, yielded not a hit. What had seemed like a pop revolution led by one curly haired man shrieking melodically into a mic and another with a Chaplin moustache and a tie either glaring or grinning from behind a keyboard, needed a kick up the seventies. And Giorgio Moroder was the studio mandarin to provide it.

Apart from clean live drums by the great Keith Forsey, the album they made in Musicland Studios in Munich was entirely created on keyboards and synths (the polar opposite of a Queen LP). In streamlining to the duo most people thought they already were, Sparks set the template for a decade’s worth of electric double acts with no penis substitutes. All three hits from No. 1 In Heaven, with its saucy, nursey sleeve (hey, I was 17 at the time) are top of the shop. The resolute even-bigger-hit Beat The Clock hypnotises me still (“ba-ba-bye!”), and Tryouts For The Human Race is an abandoned groover, but there is nothing to ace Number One Song In Heaven.

It’s like an album condensed into one track, at least it is in the symphonic, seven-and-a-half-minute 12-inch version. (Was it the 12-inch or the album that came as a picture disc? It was mine and Craig’s dedicated disco-kid pal Andy who owned the product; his was the first singles collection I’d encountered that was kept in an albums case. I rather suspect he had the 12-inch of I Feel Love, too. If he was gay, we were too provincial at that stage to appreciate just how cool that might have been. He certainly had a best friend who was a girl. What a guy.)

It’s Sparks, but not as we who enjoyed the brisk pop of Amateur Hour knew it. The defining executive-length version of Number One Song In Heaven is more than a song. It begins, alluringly, with a prelude, motored by a snare rhythm and heralded by angelic hosts proclaiming and syn-drums (as they were regrettably trademarked) calling like space-age seabirds. Although stick is definitely striking some kind of polymer here, the soundscape is essentially binary code. But when Forsey clumps epically around his possibly hexagonal kit and the 7-inch version blooms into effervescent life, the world stands still. We all stood still.

This is pop music to inspire awe. Gabriel plays it, God, how he plays it. Russell sounds boyishly engergised by the new, electronic place he’s found to dwell – no more “West Coast” sound; no more touring band – and Ron, a future collector of Nike trainers (or so he told me when I met the superhuman pair in 2002), was already about the keyboards in 1974, so he’s in his boffinly element. Moroder simply thrills, providing a safe place and a new frontier for our old pals from the City of Angels. There’s a bridge where all futuristic bleep-and-booster hell breaks loose, and it sounds for all the world less like a number 14 pop hit and more like the machines have taken over. The Terminator, but benign, and catchy.

It makes perfect sense that the Maels re-emerged in the 21st century as orchestral chamber-pop stylists; had they been born a couple of centuries earlier they’d have been writing concertos for kings and queens.

After this phenomenal rally, Sparks slipped out of the UK charts that had suckled them for so long, finding sanctuary in the US Club Play chart right into the 90s. Sparks always made sense; it was the rest of us that had to catch up and align with their way of working and wry sense of humour (“Written, of course, by the mightiest hand”). I’m stupidly proud that “we” appreciated them when their countrymen didn’t (and it’s not like me to discover national pride). Although their last actual mainstream Top 10 hit was in Germany, where all this began.