Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Kraftwerk, Group Of The Century
It's summer holiday 1999. The last year of the century is passing quickly. Pretty soon now the deluge is going to start. The Last Judgement. Not a moral judgement, but a critical evaluation of the century we're leaving.
Retrospectives, one-shots, special commemorative issues of magazines will be stuffed with end-of-the-year reviews and ruminations, all the more ponderous since this is also the end of the century and the end of the millenium. (And, if you believe Nostradamus or the Y2K jeremiahs, end of the world).
Amongst other things, there will be a scramble to nominate the century's most important music artists.
For me, the 20th century's exemplary pop group is Kraftwerk. I can't think of anyone else so legendary, so influential, so mysterious, so intelligent, so original and yet accessible, so cutting-edge and yet historical. I can't think of a group it would be more thrilling to meet.
Add 'Clever' To (Stupid)
A mere two decades after Elvis, a mere decade after The Beatles, Kraftwerk came along with a new technology and a new way of thinking about what pop music should do. Boing! Boom! Chakk! They came from nowhere (well, Dusseldorf) and, with apparently effortless panache and aplomb, rewrote the pop rulebook from top to bottom. Who since Kraftwerk has given us such a fresh new direction?
Kraftwerk share with Shakespeare and Picasso the rare gift of being both avant garde and populist, both clever and stupid. In that sense they are truly revolutionary. But, like the brief liason of Jewish intellectuals and the proletarian masses which brought about the Russian revolution, a strong sense of mission and a progressive seriousness prevented Kraftwerk from adding 'clever' to 'stupid' and getting 'kitsch'.
It's not surprising that one of their most characteristic albums, The Man Machine, should have been inspired by the Contructivists, those artists of the early Soviet state who truly believed the 1917 revolution would lead to a utopian fusion of man and machine.
We Are The Robots
Listen to just a few seconds of The Robots. The verse ('We're functioning automatic / And we are dancing mechanic') establishes the dominant key then drops a third for the chorus ('We are the robots' plus a catchy little melodic hook). Then the song goes rather unexpectedly to an intermediate chord -- ominous, transitional yet sustained -- in which the title is repeated in various languages, most notably Russian. (And what other band sounds so international, so neutrally relativist, so global?) This time there's a little rhythmic trope which illustrates the end of the vocal line with an atonal and futuristic sequence of bleeps.
There are all sorts of people (Autechre, Mouse on Mars) who seem to be in the tradition of Kraftwerk. But although they sometimes hit on brilliant rhythms and sounds, these groups never seem to aspire to, let alone match, the conceptual simplicity of Kraftwerk. Their music seems to stab randomly at atmospheres, whereas Kraftwerk songs have the magnificent simplicity of facts.
How do Kraftwerk manage to arrange everything with such perfect symmetry? Why is it so hard to imagine remixing or rearranging The Robots and making it more powerful?
Put it down to Feng Shui. Kraftwerk were a pop group in a three dimensional space where the energy flowed correctly. Everything was in its correct place, everything added to their status and to the power of the work. And that's because they started from basic principles and worked down. The group's image on the sleeve is integral to the meaning of the album, and all of a piece with the way they choose to proceed in the studio. They haven't copied other groups but have (in a modest but dogged way) gone back to the drawing board and designed all their instruments from scratch.
Some people might say that Kraftwerk's retro-futurism is dangerously close to kitsch. Weren't the ideas of the Constructivists already fifty years out of date by the time Kraftwerk ripped off El Lissitsky for the sleeve of Man Machine? Hadn't Stalin long ago stamped out all the progressivist promise of the Soviet Union, rendering those ideas bankrupt? Surely Kraftwerk turned their attention to the 20th century's motorways, radio waves, trains and robots long after they had ceased to be the latest thing and had become, in the interim, a sort of reassuing retro-futurist kitsch? By the time they came up to date with concept albums about computers and techno pop, the game was up. How could you have nostalgia for the present?
I disagree with this argument. There's a difference between Kraftwerk singing about home computers and Buggles singing 'Video Killed The Radio Star'. Buggles is reassuring, glib, and kitsch because Trevor Horne doesn't acknowledge any mystery or, above all, any utopian potential in either radio or video. In his song, one simply cancels the other out. Kraftwerk, on the other hand, go back to Constructivism and cybernetics because there is still, wound up tightly within them like a spring, a quantity of unused kinetic energy. A revolutionary potential, if only we can see it, if only we can stop taking things like roads and radios for granted.
That's why there is no real difference between 'Autobahn' and 'Computer World'. The way Kraftwerk approach them, both motorways and computers are things we have yet to discover and use properly. They both contain a magic we have not properly noticed.
'No map of the world should be without Utopia' Oscar Wilde
Here I need a word that doesn't (yet) exist in the English language, a word related to kitsch, but without its perjorative associations. For the time being I'd like to suggest 'ritsch'. Imagine for a moment that the K in kitsch stands for 'krap'. (Let's pretend 'crap' is spelled that way.) Now, let's agree that the R in ritsch stands for 'respect'. The difference between kitsch and ritsch is that kitsch looks, from the perspective of a sophisticate, at popular culture and says, basically, 'It's crap. It's bad. In fact it's so bad it's good.' Or it looks at the past with hindsight and says 'Stalin pissed on the Constructivists' ideals from a great height, so now we see their utopian dreams as a big joke. Crap.'
Ritsch, on the other hand, still has respect for popular culture and for the past. It knows that the utopia of the Constructivists was not destroyed by Stalin, only put on ice. By cutting off in their prime a whole generation of progressive artists, writers and architects, Stalin actually made their dreams all the more poignant and powerful. The irony added by our knowledge of the practical failure of those dreams does not belittle the achievement of the Constructivists, it actually enriches it. They become martyrs, people who died young and beautiful, people whose charm better enables them to pass their visions on to us.
That's important. Ritsch is a form of kitsch which doesn't belittle but magnifies the past it revisits or the popular culture it recontextualises. The anxiety of those who attack kitsch is based on their (legitimate) fear that kitsch leads to a kind of nihilism where the bad is good and therefore nothing has any real value. These people believe that kitsch is reactionary because it allows artists to recycle and recycle until everything is over-familiar, glib, reassuring, pre-digested, one-dimensional. Here come those 1950s b movie flying saucers again, here comes Godzilla, here comes the New Beetle, aren't they cute, aren't they warm and friendly, aren't they stoopid, aren't they kitsch?
But ritsch chooses to recontextualise precisely those elements of the past (or of the populist mainstream) which never had their progressive or utopian elements sufficiently recognised. So Beck bringing back Os Mutantes is progressive, whereas Oasis bringing back The Beatles isn't. Kraftwerk singing about robotics is ritsch, whereas Buggles singing about video killing the radio star is merely kitsch.
Illustrated Musical Encyclopaedia
There's something uniquely satisfying about a band who can make cutting edge avant garde music that sells in huge quantities. There's also something brilliant about white Germans making music which black Americans will later qualify as 'so stiff it's funky'. And it's deeply suggestive to mix nostalgia for the past with dreams of the future.
Classically trained, Kraftwerk nevertheless chose to make their mark on pop music. They founded a new genre and, despite disappearing almost totally from the scene as if deliberately to leave a space for the competition, they have often been imitated but never bettered. They added a whole new layer to music-making, which ultimately is why they remain mythical: the idea that good pop music might just begin, not with roots or traditions, but with conceptual integrity -- strong simple ideas which precede and lead to strong simple melodies. They weren't so much musicians as philosophers and engineers.
Kraftwerk are our century's land surveyors. Their 'industrial folk music' is an attempt to map the technologies (and therefore the aspirations) of the 20th century just as Diderot and Dr Johnson mapped the 18th with their encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Their albums are earnest, dryly humorous, entertaining, whistleable, danceable, immaculately designed and built, but above all sincere and respectful even when they might seem to mock the people who thought that the world would be transformed by motorways and robots.
They prove that every respectful commentary on an unfulfilled utopia becomes, itself, utopian. For that reason alone, Kraftwerk have enriched us.