It's almost impossible to imagine how striking, how daring Kraftwerk would have seemed to their contemporaries.
The 70s found British music (largely) waltzing up a dead end, with prog, folk rock and glam all enjoying brief flourishes before their energy dissipated. Rooted in rock mythology, each genre seems to stand in sharp contrast to the vivid Modernism portrayed by Kraftwerk's relentless electronics.
Yet the country quickly caught up. A trimmed down version of 'Autobahn' began a hit single, leading to a small if energetic cult following. Ideas were swapped, bands were formed and - once the punk explosion had dissipated - some real, palpable changes could be discerned.
Within a few years the synthesiser would briefly displace the guitar as the focal point for British music, with labels such as Factory and Mute paying homage to Kraftwerk.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were clearly in thrall to Kraftwerk when Factory released their debut single 'Electricity' and - some thirty years later - the band remain a key touchstone. Founding member Andy McCluskey explains why.
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If Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn' single was the 'Eureka' moment that made the teenage Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys first begin to think about making electronic music, the 'Radioactivity' album would become our bible, hymn book and manifesto all in one. This was a new type of popular music: no longer based in Anglo American blues tradition or guitar hero cliches. It was a conceptual art project in the form of a pop record.
Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider obviously knew their avante garde music and had come through their own ambient jazz beginnings and the tone poetry of the 'Autobahn' album to reach the point that would take then into a future entirely of their own making. The 'Radioactivity' album is the bridge to the perfection of 'Trans Europe Express' and the reductivist electro Cubism of Man Machine and Computer World. It's their Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Bold and beautiful. Rather crudely executed. Not quite fully formed…. But all the better for it!
It is an often overlooked fact that, despite Kraftwerk’s intellectual pedigree, their work would never have been so adored by the wider record buying audience had it not been presented in such a listenable form. Experimental music seldom contains such melodic hooks as are to be found on the tracks Radioactivity, Antenna and Airwaves. The ’music concrete’ use of Geiger counter beats, collaged voices and tuning radios that so confounded and enraged the 1970s music press were, in reality, extremely harmonious additions to the more ‘traditional’ songwriting on the album. Viewed through the filter of almost 40 years of sampling, mashups and the multiple music genres that have been directly influenced by Kraftwerk, you now wonder what all the fuss was about. Perhaps this goes to the heart of why this album is so important. It’s reach into the wider world of music and society.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were one of the earlier groups to be directly influenced by Kraftwerk, but the importance of Dusseldorf’s finest electro pioneers spans four decades and almost all new popular music since 1975. Synthpop, House, Techno, Rave, Hip Hop, Drum and Bass, Chillout, Trance, Acid, Industrial, EBM, Dubstep, Grime, Glitch. From the PSBs, Grace Jones and Britney, to Black Eyed Peas, Kanye and Beyonce. (Forget the rapping and soul voices. The music is all programmed) The list is almost endless. And if you think that it’s only electronic music that they influenced, ask a recording engineer how Mumford and Sons and Arctic Monkeys recorded their last albums. I will bet that it was on Protools not tape! We are in the Computer World. Sorry, that’s a different album, but it all began with Radioactivity.
In the wider context of Kraftwerk’s musical output, 'Radioactivity' logically leads to 'Trans Europe Express'. To my mind the band’s ultimate expression of their ethos. The Geiger counters and slightly apologetic drum sounds are replaced by the metronomic certainty of bold sequencers and hard electro beats yet TEE strikes a remarkable balance between man and machine. The two albums that followed marked the tipping point where concept and form begin to replace feel and, dare I say, humanity. Radioactivity was questioning and fragile. Open hearted and slightly naïve . It is, and always will be, my favourite Kraftwerk album!
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OMD's new album 'English Electric' is set to be released on April 8th.