I threw an old favorite on the Bose last night–Computer World, Kraftwerke (1981). You may recall Kraftwerk, (German for “power plant”) a krautrock (Kosmische musik) techno-pop outfit of the early 1970s that is reportedly still recording. You may recall their 1975 hit Autobahn.
I really don’t want to get into what I learned is a vast and influential genre I’d never heard about before, and a band I was barely familiar with, but I’ve always liked this particular album and bought it soon after it came out. It is well worth revisiting. Computer World is KW’s exploration of the then-new, exciting and wonderful world of computers, and it roughly coincides with my own entry into the field as a scientific/engineering programmer in the late 70s. It came out the year I was married, so I’ve owned it in LP, cassette and CD versions, so it must have something going for it because I seem to keep coming back to it. The old lady is really into it, too.
At first listen, it sounds really trite and hackneyed–every cliche about digital technology in the book. The computer world is artistically painted with beeps and tocks, machine generated tones, monotonous rhythms and repetitive melodies, and lyrics sung in a droning, mechanical voice. Even the IBM screen green album cover is a hoot, featuring a real antique combination monitor/keyboard with the silhouettes of the short-haired button-down band members on the screen, they look a lot like Devo. Remember, in those days, monitors only displayed text, no imagery. The font on the liner notes is that fake computer typeface that has never actually come out of a real-world printer, but is supposedly computer-inspired and representative of our soulless digital future–like the title credits of “The Forbin Project”.
“…COMPUTER WORLD is a production tour de force with blanketing sound effects creating an environment compatible with the album’s intended mirroring of a computer pervaded society. Integrating machine-driven rhythms, synthesizer tapestries and perceptive lyrics, Kraftwerk demonstrates why it has been a major musical influence since its 1975 hit AUTOBAHN.”
Like I said, every cliche in the book, and it even seemed that way back in the early ’80s when I first read it and heard the music. Still, the music got through to me, as music, it made sense, and today I can recognize that, even with all its geeky stereotypes, it was remarkably accurate. Listen to it, it still holds up really well. Maybe its because these guys were thoroughly immersed in the audio tech of their time, they could sense where things were going, and even if they couldn’t make precise predictions (who could, back then?) they could still see into the future as artists. No one could foresee the technology, but these guys mapped the emotional and social landscape it would help create, and inhabit, fairly well.
Their vision was eerily prescient. Give it a listen if you’re not familiar with the work.