- Kirk Degiorgio reflects on a groundbreaking album that helped pave the way for electro and hip-hop.
- Rewind is a review series that dips into electronic music's archives to dust off music from decades past.
Such is Krafwerk's influence on modern electronic music, there is an inevitable clamour for DJs and artists to retrospectively lay claim to fandom from as far back as possible. It's not a problem for me to trace back my love affair with Kraftwerk—it was sparked by reading a review of Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force's 1982 electro classic "Planet Rock." The review mentioned the track's reliance on the melodic motif from "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers," both by Kraftwerk.
Like many electro fans, I fell in love with Computer World, which had been released the previous year. Around the same time "Planet Rock" was becoming popular, Kraftwerk were experiencing their highest profile in the UK to date. "The Model," originally released back in 1978, had a proved to be a popular B-side when it was included on the Computer Love single in 1981. It became enough of an underground hit for EMI to release it as an A-side single in early 1982, resulting in runaway chart success.
Kraftwerk were on my radar when "Planet Rock" came out, but personally I was not a huge fan of "The Model," certainly when it was presented in its pop context, so it was a complete jolt when I checked out the Computer World album in my local library's record section. Immediately I was hit by the production aesthetics: crystal clear, diamond-sharp sonics compared to much of what I was familiar with at the time. I admired how John Robie and Bambaataa had recognised and homed in on that stripped-back approach on "Planet Rock."
What I didn't expect was how funky Kraftwerk already were. There has been enough written about how Kraftwerk frequented local clubs and were fans of American '70s funk, but at that time nothing much was known about the band other than they dressed as robots. This may have led the listener to expect a more geometric, rigidly square rhythmic element. Nothing could be further from the truth. These were funky robots.
Computer World was released in May 1981. It had a stark yellow cover with a computer terminal and screen displaying silhouetted images of the four band members, including cofounder Florian Schneider, whose death at the age of 73 was reported last week. Both German language and English versions were released for their respective markets, a joy for later Kraftwerk fanatics who eagerly collected the different editions. In fact, when I worked at used record store Reckless Records in London during the late-'80s, Bambaataa would visit while on tour and always leave with a rare Kraftwerk issue or two.
The album's title track kick-starts Computer World with an instant dance rhythm. Hints of Central European clubs, with a Moroder-like disco groove, relax into a shuffle with skilful use of electronic percussion. A serious, haunting mood is set by the string melody and monotone vocal. The track harks back to "Trans Europe Express" with its string line and electronically processed vocals.
Kraftwerk neatly tapped into the trends of the time. Affordable calculators made by Casio were becoming hugely popular with youngsters thanks to their added game features. That, coupled with the boom in arcade video games with electronic sound effects, made a track like "Pocket Calculator" something young people could instantly relate to. Coming to the album directly from "Planet Rock" led many B-Boys like me straight to the track "Numbers." The jolting rhythm was perfect body-popping material and the track often found itself played on boom-boxes on electro tapes alongside Hashim, Man Parrish and Newcleus. "Computer Love" was a "The Model"-like interlude, melancholic and wistful with its delicate melodies. "Home Computer" followed with its reverberated outer-space breakdowns of arpeggios, before the album ended with the punchy menace of "It's More Fun To Compute."
Kraftwerk's place in the B-Boy pantheon was cemented later in 1982 with the fantastically energetic go-go classic "Trouble Funk Express" by D.C. band Trouble Funk. Nobody could be in doubt as to the huge influence the band was having on emerging forms of electronic dance music. It was the beginning of a love affair that would outlast the original B-Boy generation who first joined the dots.
04. Computerwelt 2
07. It's More Fun To Compute