At heart, Kraftwerk represent the amalgam of the human with the machine, of the organic with the digital.
These facets perhaps came to their apex with the release of 1981's 'Computer World'. The song titles alone display the band's rhetoric: 'Computer Love' and 'It's More Fun To Compute' suggest a way to preserve the humane amidst the galloping pace of modern technology.
Following the enormous commercial success of 'The Model' the album found a ready audience for Kraftwerk's machine like funk. Taken from 'Computer World', 'Numbers' would find itself sampled by Africa Bambaataa on his pioneering slab of electro 'Planet Rock'.
Remaining one of the group's most enduring statements, the current incarnation of Kraftwerk is set to perform 'Computer World' tonight (February 11th) at the Tate Modern as part of the 'Kraftwerk The Catalogue 12345678' series. To celebrate, we invited Ninja Tune mainstay DJ Food - aka Kevin Foakes - to describe the impact 'Computer World' has had on his own career.
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Kraftwerk appeared in my life at the beginning of 1982* when 'The Model' scored a freak No.1 in the UK during the post-Xmas lull. In the middle of your Gary Numans, Human Leagues and other assorted synth pop of the day were a another new band, from Germany this time. Magazines articles featured the four piece with tales of building their own instruments, mannequins on stage and turning calculators into synths. The local record shop also suddenly confronted my 11 year old self with a variety of different back catalogue LPs from this 'new' group, re-released to cash in on the sudden interest.
With only limited paper round funds I had to choose which one to buy first and the fluorescent yellow of 'Computer World' won the day (on cassette no less, with an equally acid yellow tape inside the case). It couldn't have been a better choice because whilst 'The Man Machine' and 'Trans Europe Express' give it a run for its money it's a scientific fact that there are no duff tracks on CW. It's an album which starts strong with the urgent intro to 'Computer World' and, incredibly, retains that strength and momentum to the dying notes of 'It's More Fun To Compute'.
'Pocket Calculator' is one of my favourite songs they've ever written with the oft-sampled bubbling arpeggios of 'Home Computer' coming a close second (alongside its sudden jump-cut to a faster tempo midway). Even the sudden return of 'Computer World 2' out of 'Numbers' isn't a cop out, rather it reinforces the overall concept and softens the impact of the melody-less countathon before it. My brother and I used to listen to the eerie blizzard of whispered voices that end side 1 and try to discern what they were saying. To this day I swear there's a little phrase in there that repeats, "don't say it so quick", every so often.
That the group dispensed with minimal verse/chorus/verse/choruses quickly before taking off on an extended 'jam', adding layers of melody in strict eight bar measures, was something that was new to me. Having only 'got' pop music about two years before, I was unused to songs extending much over the three minute mark - remember this is 1982, the 12" was still a new format and the idea of extended remixes still largely an underground club thing (and I was only 11!). Here were tracks of 5, 6 and 7 minutes in length, some blending into each other, all sounding like they were played with the precision of a factory car assembly line rather than human beings.
The sounds were gentle too, aside from the stuttering crush of the beat to 'Numbers' and the subtle menace of the melody in 'It's More Fun To Compute', the album was most definitely not Rock in any way. Depeche Mode's debut, 'Speak & Spell' - released the same year as 'Computer World' and named after the children's toy that Kraftwerk utilised on the title track, was about the nearest thing I'd heard to their softly spoken style. Later in '82 The Human League would release their largely vocal-less League Unlimited Orchestra remix album, 'Love & Dancing', and by then I was completely hooked on this kind of synth pop or new wave as it became known. If I had a time machine the first destination on the dial would be one of their gigs supporting this album back in '81. The classic line up of Ralf, Florian, Karl and Wolfgang, performing their masterpiece, even coming to the front of the stage for 'Pocket Calculator', the closest they would ever come to their fans before withdrawing into their own computer world.
*I was actually aware of 'Autobahn' in the mid 70's via a compilation tape my dad made from the Top 40 countdown each Sunday, the track scared me whenever it appeared but I wouldn't put two and two together until later.
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Listen to a special Kraftwerk inspired mix composed by DJ Food for Ninja Tune's Solid Steel series below.
A 4x12" vinyl repress of DJ Food's album 'The Search Engine' is set to be released in time for Record Store Day (April 19th).