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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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Electricity (1979)

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Artist: Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Title: Electricity
Description: single; track, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Label: Dindisc
Release date: 1979, 1980
First heard: 1979

It seemed so radical, appearing on TV with a TEAC reel-to-reel tape machine in place of a backing band, a stunt both Dadaist and practical that many of the modern bands pulled at the turn of the technological decade. The Musicians’ Union took a dim view of synthesisers and samplers, as well they might; these clever boxes signalled a march of industrial automation whose jackboots were already being heard around the corner. Indeed, the Rossini-scored Fiat advert that boasted about the Strada being “handbuilt by robots” debuted in the same year as Electricity’s first outing on – ha! – Factory records. (The pioneeringly callous ad was the first to occupy an entire ad break during News at Ten. Apparently the factory where the ad was shot in Turin by Hugh Hudson was being picketed by its own soon-to-be-redundant workers at the time.)

Elec-tricity
Nuclear and HEP
Carbon fuels from the sea
Wasted electricity

But Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys weren’t moving parts. They were flesh and blood in pleated trousers and tank tops; living, breathing musical maestros from the port city with the magic water who weren’t above using occasional drums and guest saxophone in the studio, and augmented the tape player (nicknamed “Winston” in Orwellian tribute) with an actual drummer and auxiliary second synth-player on tour, initially supporting Gary Numan, thereafter headlining. They were handbuilt for the top, playing pure pop of an almost educational bent, packaged with corporate sheen by Peter Saville, and advanced enough by Dindisc to build their own studio in Liverpool, thereby seizing the means of production.

Our one source of energy
Elec-tricity
All we need to live today
A gift for man to throw away

It’s the single beat between the second and third syllable of “electricity” – elec-tricity – that holds the secret to the debut single’s genius. Such control. Such command. To tame a synthesiser takes more than a soldering iron, and these two “geography teachers” as they were later thumbnailed in a Smash Hits world, not only brought the noise, they brought the expertise. Outfits like OMD, and the Human League, and Soft Cell – not to mention the second tier of Eyeless in Gaza and Naked Lunch and B-Movie and Modern Eon – were not slaves to their machines. These people could still organise a singsong in a power cut. They simply channelled electricity into more than jack-plug sockets, and their revolution would be synthesised.

The alternative is only one

There are four, if not five recorded versions of Electricity. The version I love, and which was enshrined on their first Best Of in 1988, as well as the debut album, starts with what sounds more like a giant marshmallow being struck twice – squoosh-squoosh – between alternate percussive bass notes – bom – and a presumably synthetic snare tap – crack. It’s like being counted in by a spaceship. That amorphous bass slinks into a secret melody while another, shriller riff chimes xylophonically over the top in tandem. If you’re not already dancing with your elbows, you never will be. (I’m secretly doing it right now, and I’m in a Caffe Nero.) This is one of the most infectious intros in post-analogue dancevision. Though McCluskey hogs the spotlight in formation, he and Humphreys share the vocal chores and forge a distant dual lament about mankind’s profligacy. A synth wash sustains the entire three-and-a-half minutes, and it mesmerises.

Electricity is elemental; somehow apocalyptic and yet also hopeful, ancient and modern. And from this short, sharp power surge a legend would emerge. It wasn’t a hit on its first, limited Factory release in 1979, nor its second, and nor its third in 1980. The honour of breakthrough would belong to a, yes, re-recorded Messages, after which the charts would find it hard to shake them for the next five years with their homework about the first atomic bomb, genetic engineering, Joan of Arc, Vorticism, telescopes, architecture and morality. Their LPs were still shifting silver, gold and platinum into the early 90s.

They made their Top of the Pops debut in 1980 on the same show as The Human League. Nice grouping. To love them is to love possibility. Conditions normal and you’re coming home.

The final source of energy
Solar electricity

 

Blondie, Heart Of Glass (1978)

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Artist: Blondie
Title: Heart Of Glass
Description: single; album track, Parallel Lines
Label: Chrysalis
Release date: 1978
First heard: 1978

Soon turned out to be a pain in the ass …

The plain paper sleeve with the record company logo doesn’t quite do justice to the delights contained therein. But this was 1978, which was just before punk in Northampton, and the picture sleeve revolution was still in its pupal stage. (Although punk “exploded” in 1976 in London after the Sex Pistols swore on a local news magazine programme, and thereafter in other major cities that were plugged into the zeitgeist, it didn’t arrive in the provinces until two years later, and I didn’t latch onto it until 1979.)

When Heart Of Glass – underwhelmingly the third single from Blondie’s third album – was purchased “for the house” in 1978, I must have been aware that it was a cool record by a cool band with a cool singer, but how it slotted into “punk” was probably too nuanced for my 13-year-old brain. That it was essentially a disco record (working-titled The Disco Song when first demoed in 1975) didn’t seem that important to my young ears, suddenly pricked on a regular basis by so many noises coming out of the radio in Mum and Dad’s “music centre”, whose built-in space-age cassette deck was pressed into service every Sunday in order to cherry-pick the Top 40. The essentially American schism between rock and disco held no sway at 6, Winsford Way.

Blondie were quite the package, whose sex appeal to a 13-year-old slotted in with Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman and Legs & Co. It is with infinite sadness that I accept that 13 year-olds today are already mainlining hardcore porn; for my generation, a lot more was left to the imagination, and Debbie Harry’s come-hither eyes, forces’-sweetheart looks and diaphanous dresses were the height of confused arousal. The blokes in their black suits and skinny ties looked aspirational, too, with their New York states of mind, and the sleeve of Parallel Lines was something you had to own. (I didn’t own it – we hadn’t really moved into LP ownership at that age – but you always knew someone who did.) They were a supreme singles band. But Heart Of Glass shines harder for many reasons.

One of the reasons is Clem Burke. I have retrospectively learned to appreciate the sheer craft of this most imaginative of timekeepers – able to twirl his sticks and keep the beat, but capable of what are disparagingly called “fills” that light up the room. Listen to Heart Of Glass through to its protacted fade and you will hear variation upon variation rattled out across snare and tom toms in a way that mocks the metronome of dance music. (He is said to have disapproved of the song initially.)

In the hands of hitmaking producer Mike Chapman, who’d co-authored so much dazzling British glam with Nicky Chinn, the whole of the stompy, poppy, bubblegummy Parallel Lines lifts off, but examine the way he runs Blondie’s brash new wave through a car wash and wax: a bubbling Roland CR-78 backbeat that ought to have been anathema to the CBGB gang paves the way for the intro, for which the individual components are neatly arranged in perspective. The smell of repetition really is on them. Bass, guitar, that Moroder-like pulsing synth, Burke’s whooshing hi-hat, the whole thing pre-programmed to shift key but in hybridising the synthesised and the organic it’s alive with personality and possibility. Debbie Harry’s diaphanous, triple-tracked vocal, all hard edges removed, actual words tricky to pick out, is more of a cloud than a statement. A kind of magic.

Blondie were apparently mainlining Kraftwerk during the recording, putting them well ahead of the pack in terms of the New Romantic regeneration, but it was never the song’s technical specs, nor its pioneering place in pop history, that took it to number one.

I went to CBGB in the early 90s. I’m glad I did. But it was dirty in there. Blondie did well to sell out.