Komputer – The World of Tomorrow

“Underwater cities / giant hovercraft / automated factories / trips to the stars”. There’s something about The World of Tomorrow that feels a bit like reading a space annual from the 1970s. And that’s the joke, really – Komputer brilliantly harnessed that combination of naïve futurism and scientific potential and married it with the slightly out-of-time electronic sounds of Kraftwerk to create something witty, ever-contemporary, and utterly fantastic.

Released two decades ago in the UK, as much time has passed between Kraftwerk‘s original career and this as has passed between its release and the present day. It really should sound a bit more dated than it does, but the huge swells of electronic rain that punctuate the opening title track somehow sound every bit as current now as they did all those years ago.

More Automation is gentler and less dramatic – definitely an album track, but a very good one nonetheless. What’s incredible in a way is just how natural this feels – just three years earlier, Komputer were Fortran 5, and were pulling together their third and final eccentric rave album. A decade before that, they were I Start Counting, making slightly wacky 1980s synthpop.

The common theme seems to have always been approaching their music with a slightly daft sense of humour, and so Bill Gates is entirely daft, with the Microsoft CEO’s name sung by a computer in a variety of keys and speeds to clean electronic backing. Valentina is less daft, and a very fitting tribute to Valentina Tereshkova, set against a beautiful electronic backdrop, although it does manage to entirely mispronounce her surname, which seems a bit unfair on her.

Next is the brilliant single Looking Down on London, which takes us on an auditory journey across the UK capital, including a brief pitstop in a pub, with some brilliantly authentic sound effects as accompaniment. This is absolutely excellent, and there’s no other way of looking at it.

Then comes Terminus Interminus, the centrepiece of the album, later released as a single as just Terminus. It’s an epic eight-minute electronic pop song about transport interchanges, with echoes of It’s More Fun to Compute. Which just makes Metroland‘s later It’s More Fun to Commute even more appropriate.

If you break it down, several of the songs here are just built around one or two phrases, and so Singapore really is just “Singapore / hear the tiger roar”, and while it really bears pretty much no resemblance to the island, it’s still a pretty good piece of electronic pop in the tradition of Neon Lights.

But whatever the slight flaws of some tracks might be, The Perfect Pop Band is pure perfection. The line “our songs are quite minimal” is entirely apposite, and there are plenty of other examples. It mixes into Komputer Pop, a similar track in many ways, but also another entirely brilliant one.

The lengthy instrumental Motopia rounds things out, before a short version of We Are Komputer right at the end. It’s another slightly existential track about who Komputer are, but it’s also a great album closer for a great album.

There may be little new on The World of Tomorrow, but what it does, it does exquisitely and with a wry sense of humour, and we really need more music like this in the world.

You can still find The World of Tomorrow at all major retailers.

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Stowaway Heroes – Daniel Miller

Our first stowaway hero is Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records, and one of the most influential and seemingly hands-off individuals in the world of electronic music. In his late twenties, he was working as a film editor, and scraped together enough money to buy a synthesiser. His resulting 1978 solo double a-side single T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette, released as The Normal, is fundamentally brilliant:

It’s not clear to me whether Miller actually intended for Mute to become a fully fledged record label or whether it was all supposed to just be a one-off, but always way ahead of the curve, he also came up with his own virtual group Silicon Teens, who released a couple of great singles including Memphis Tennessee:

(video removed)

But of course, Mute is most famous for the astonishing roster of artists who were signed over the decades that followed, including mainstream acts such as Depeche ModeYazooMobyNick CaveNew Order, underground and cult successes including Fad Gadget and I Start Counting, and even (briefly) Kraftwerk. And he didn’t completely keep his hands off their output either – here’s his take on Erasure‘s Supernature:

He also presented a radio show on Berlin’s Radio Eins and remains well respected throughout the music industry, despite the slightly questionable sale of Mute to EMI for £23 million in 2002 (which was fortunately rectified by a split in 2009). It’s rare for someone so influential to turn up in so many places but be so unknown. So he’s a worthy first hero for this blog – hats off to Daniel Miller.

Edited, 25 Feb 2018 – removed Silicon Teens video that is no longer available.

Beginner’s guide to Komputer

If you’ve actually heard of Komputer, it will be most likely in the same sentence as Kraftwerk, but they have a lot more strings to their bow. They’re exactly the same people as I Start Counting and Fortran 5 too, if you fancy some eighties pop or some early nineties dance.

Key moments

They have no major hits to their name, but their tribute to Valentina Tereshkova (1996) is exceptional, as is Looking Down on London (1996). The earlier hits Letters to a Friend (1984) and Persian Blues (1993) are quite unique too.

Where to start

Start with the singles collection Konnecting… (2011) for a good summary of their entire career to date. There will likely be moments that aren’t for you, but there should be plenty that are.

What to buy

The World of Tomorrow (1998) is their one truly essential album – fans of Kraftwerk in particular will find it almost joyful in its familiarity. Then try Synthetik (2007) to hear a slightly more subdued release, and I Start Counting‘s My Translucent Hands (1984) for a fascinating introduction to how it all began.

Don’t bother with

Market Led (2002), which will be a touch too experimental for most people’s ears. The sixty track Konnecting… (B Sides and Rarities) is worth hearing, but the sound quality isn’t great (they’re largely vinyl transfers).

Hidden treasure

Intercom, the title track from their five-track mini-album of the same name (2007), but their truly essential hidden treasure is My Private Train, from one of their many unreleased albums and the exceptional compilation Robopop Vol. 1 (2003).

For stowaways

I Start Counting / Fortran 5 / Komputer – Konnecting…

Sometimes compilations just feel like unnecessary cash-ins by record companies. This is definitely not one of those occasions.

Of course, I knew Komputer well. From their initial EP release back in 1996 through to their quite astonishing debut album The World of Tomorrow, I’d listened in awe. The little tasters which appeared from the unreleased album which should have followed, such as My Private Train from the Robopop Vol. 1 compilation were also great. Market Led (2002) was disappointing, but 2007’s Synthetik and its free companion Intercom were a real return to form.

Although I was dimly aware that Komputer had some prior history with the music business, I wasn’t sure what it was, and I don’t think I really had any particular reason to think about it. Until, that is, this compilation came along.

As far as I can make out, their evolution was a fairly natural one. Thirty years ago, I Start Counting seem to have emerged, typified by pleasant and occasionally dark-flavoured pop. In the early 1990s, they became Fortran 5, and started creating harder dance and rave. Finally, by the mid-late 1990s, they had evolved into Komputer and taken up the reins which Kraftwerk had long since forgotten about.

Konnecting… was therefore inevitably always going to be an eclectic collection. It opens with I Start Counting‘s quite exceptional Letters to a Friend (1984), followed by the equally great Million Headed Monster (1988). Then we jump to Fortran 5‘s 1991 hit Heart on the Line, remixed to total perfection by Vince Clarke. Three tracks in, and without a duffer in sight, we’ve already journeyed through a number of very different musical styles.

The amusingly heartless blues of Time to Dream leads us into a taste of Komputer‘s finest moments: their 1998 hit Valentina followed by 1996’s Looking Down on London. The former, an homage to “the first female Cosmonaut” Valentina Tereshkova, is so far removed from the likes of Letters to a Friend that you start to realise why the group keep deciding to change their name. Looking Down on London meanwhile surely has to be up there with West End Girls and London Calling as one of the finest tributes to Britain’s capital, for all its positives and negatives. The “stop for a pint in the Woodman” line is truly inspired.

The album continues and the hits keep rolling. 1987’s Lose Him with its bizarre samples, despite being from their first album My Translucent Hands actually seems to inhabit a place somewhere between I Start Counting and Fortran 5; 1985’s Still Smiling is a perfect slice of 80s pop. The particular late highlight is hidden in the middle of a trio of Fortran 5 tracks which somehow ended up on the end of the album – Persian Blues (1993) really should have been a number one single.

Finally, the album closes with a very odd cover of Layla, and a quite wonderful and eclectic collection comes to an end. It’s rare that a compilation is as much of an adventure as this one, and I can truly recommend this on every level. A great reappraisal of a fine, creative, and sadly underrated career.

The main version of Konnecting… can be found at all major online retailers such as iTunes, and if you have another $20 to spare then you can also get the very bulky set of bonus b-sides and remixes here.

John Peel’s Record Collection

Browsing through someone else’s record collection is always very rewarding. You learn so much about the owner!

Although I’m sure none of us really needed to learn much about John Peel‘s beautifully eclectic tastes. If there’s anyone who didn’t worship him as a living God when he was around, then I’d be fascinated to know why. And if there’s a music fan out there who doesn’t know where they were then they found out he’d sadly died, then I’d be very surprised.

If you are the one person on the planet who wasn’t aware, then he was probably the finest DJ in British radio history. After some time in the world of piracy in the mid 1960s, he joined fledgeling BBC pop station Radio 1 when it started in 1967 and stayed there right up until his death in 2004. He was responsible for starting the careers of so many big name bands that it’s not even worth considering listing them, and his Peel Sessions remain a household name worldwide.

And this year, 45 years after he joined Radio 1, his estate have been working on a wonderful project to digitise his record collection, and they finally reach the end of the alphabet this week. Starting initially with the first hundred records from each letter, the archive of a few thousand records is quite compelling. Check it out here.

I’m sure I’ve missed plenty, but here are a few of the things which have caught my eye in his collection on my quick browse. Obviously I’m a lot less open minded than he is, but then neither was I going to list all 2,600 entries here! I’ve copied their links where appropriate, but I’d strongly recommend that you go and browse them for yourself!

In particular, the brilliantly bizarre industrial Slovenes Laibach get a full interview in the L is for Laibach feature here, which is well worth watching.