ALBUM (1978)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am

The Man-Machine

The future looked perilously uncertain in Europe in the late 1970s. The period of post-war prosperity and growth had been ended a few years before by the first major economic crash in decades, while the shadow of nuclear destruction hung heavy, particularly in West Germany, on the front line of the cold war.

At the same time, those same fearsome technological energies were about to unleash what would eventually become the modern, globalised era. The idea of the future was, therefore, both pregnant with opportunity and filled with foreboding.

This equivocal relationship with the technological future characterises most of German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk's output, but never more so than on 1978's The Man-Machine. As ever with Kraftwerk, this is only sparsely spelt out in the album's lyrics. Many of the songs are instrumental or consist of a single repeated word or line, making those lyrics that do occur feel all the more significant, a little tablet-of-stone.

The album's opening track, The Robots, for example, repeats the sinister line 'We are the robots' over and over again in a multi-lingual pun on the Slavic origin of the word 'robot', spelt out in the line 'ja tvoi rabotnik', or 'I am your worker', a comment on the alienating effects of modern working practices in the era of global mass production just being launched.

There's another reference to the potentially anti-human impact of technology in the title and only lyric of Metropolis, with its obvious allusion to Fritz Lang's 1927 dystopian cinematic masterpiece.

The Model, the song for which the album is best known, actually achieved the bulk of its popularity when it was released four years later as the B-side to Computer Love, from 1982's Computer World. A model, of course, is also something that's artificial and constructed, and the song presents a commoditisation of female beauty that's no less sinister for being self-willed. The model in question is forced to become a product, but does it willingly because she thinks she wants to.

But it's the remarkable music on The Man-Machine that really carries its theme: the dissolution of the dividing line between machine and human, and its ambiguous results. By this point in their career, which began in 1970, Kraftwerk's instrumentation was driven by more complex machines than pretty much any band before them. Their compositional style exploited this to the max, as they allowed sequencers to repeat lines of melody and only intervened to launch new musical elements.

The result is a startling blend of the downbeat and the optimistic, such as in the winsome-yet-scary, droning-yet-melodic Spacelab, or the poignant Neon Lights, with its touchingly, almost naively optimistic lyrics, underpinned by music so wistfully perky that the effect is mildly upsetting.

Likewise final track The Man-Machine's double-sided references to the cyborg in question as a 'super human being' and a 'pseudo human being', accompanied by its simultaneously uplifting and sinister chord changes and ascending vocal line.

Like most of Kraftwerk's output, the album sounds astonishingly fresh today - testimony to its staggeringly widespread influence. This, famously, is the band without which about half of the significant genres of contemporary music wouldn't have happened - the synth bass line and Vocoder vocals of The Robots alone sound like about a quarter of them.

From electro to techno to house, all robot-music roads lead back to here.