This week, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of one of the most groundbreaking electronic albums ever recorded, Kraftwerk’s Die Mensch-Maschine (released in the English-speaking world as The Man-Machine).
Forty years on, it’s pretty much impossible to imagine what Die Roboter (The Robots) must have sounded like when it first came out. The synchronised beats and robotic beats and voices are completely unlike anything else that existed at the time, and honestly very little has come out in the last forty years that comes close to this level of quality.
Spacelab forms the centrepiece of the first side. Largely instrumental and less dramatic than Die Roboter, it uses similar beats and patterns to form a beautiful homage to the age of space. It is worthwhile remembering that Trans-Europa Express came out just one year earlier, and while the clicking beats share some commonality between the two releases, in other ways they are literally worlds apart.
But while Die Mensch-Maschine is typified by long tracks, this also means there’s only space for six, three on each side, and so we close this half of the album with the glorious Metropolis. If it hadn’t been previously apparent that this album owes much to Fritz Lang’s 1927 exceptional film, this track should help. It’s every bit as good as the film from which it takes its name, and if you’ve never tried watching the film with this album as its accompaniment, I can highly recommend it. You might need to play it a few times, though – Die Mensch-Maschine is just 35 minutes in duration.
By the time the second side opens, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s going on here, and so you’re probably ready for the megahit Das Modell (The Model). Released contemporaneously in Germany, it took a full three years to become a hit in the UK, where it was initially hidden on the back of Computer Love and managed a modest top forty entry, before DJs started playing the other side, and the tweaked release shot straight to the top of the charts.
By 1981, of course, the UK was ready for an electronic pop hit about an idolised model, having seen dozens of similar singles top the charts in the intervening years, but in 1978 it apparently was not. So it is a slight shame, I think, that while everyone remembers The Model, they remember it as sounding a bit cheesy and outdated. For the first time, Kraftwerk had hit upon a contemporary sound – they just did it three years too soon.
I’ve no doubt written before about how the right way to listen to Kraftwerk is to track down the German versions, but Das Modell is possibly the exception that proves the rule. Quite what the in-joke was that led to the odd delivery of the “immer Sekt korrect” line is beyond me, but I think on this occasion I prefer the more subdued “drinking just champagne” version.
Neonlicht, released in the UK as the second single (Neon Lights) is, of course, every bit as important as its predecessor. Clocking in at an astonishing nine minutes, it’s a beautiful, pure pop song, extended as far as possible, and perfectly executed. It’s also another track which hasn’t necessarily aged too well, unfortunately – it was imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that this is really where minimal electronic pop began.
Of course, all good things have to come to an end, and while the tracks here may be long, the album as a whole is not. Fortunately, the title track, which closes the second side, is about as good as electronic music gets. Subjectively, it’s a nondescript near-instrumental with some clever rhythmic devices, but there’s just something ingenious about the execution.
Which really sums this album up, actually. Seven albums into their career (or possibly eight, depending on how you count), Kraftwerk had finally really found their stride. Within a year or two, the charts would fill up with imitators, and the slow downfall of the quartet from Düsseldorf would begin. But for now, they were really at the top of their game.
You can still find Die Mensch-Maschine or The Man-Machine at all major retailers. The essential version is the 2009 remaster, even if some of the magic of the original artwork was lost.