Masonic Boom

"Crazy" "Oversensitive" "Feminazi" "Bitch" bloggin' bout pop music, linguistics and mental health issues

Friday, August 14, 2015

Silver Metal Lover

So oh jeez, I have a new obsession. Well, it's not a new obsession, it's a very old obsession, that has just kind of bubbled up and overblown all of the other obsessions to become the dominating obsession of my life.

Mother, I'm in love with a robot.
No. It's not like that.
Mother, I'm in love with The Robots.

The first time I heard Kraftwerk, I wasn't even aware I was hearing Kraftwerk. In my early teens, I used to watch a programme called Newton's Apple, partly because it was an entertaining Science For Kids kind of thing that appealed to a geeky young person like me, partly because it was often on just before Doctor Who, which formed an important backbone in my family's homesickness for the Britain we had recently left. It was a crucial moment in household television, when the Who theme (Ron Grainer / Delia Derbyshire) supplanted the Newton's Apple theme, with its jaunty flute, its chaotic organ-churn and its shuffling motorik drumbeat. It took me years and years to find out what that theme song really was: Kraftwerk's Ruckzuck.

I have to admit: I was too young for them during the 70s, and not into them at all during the 80s. Homesickness lead me to prefer the British synth groups of the time, whether that was Duran Duran or New Order. A friend's boyfriend (Randall, who, looking back on it, with his haircut, his clothes and his spectacles, was a bit of a Ralf casualty) made a deliberate effort to try to turn me on to Kraftwerk, most notably by lending me Computer World - I can still remember the bright yellow cassette case against my computer workstation at the DCJS. I was a data entry operator, working on digitising New York State's fingerprint records, scanning and analysing thousands of whirls, arches and loops. The themes of Computer World, computerisation and surveillance, well, Randall told me, "this is your world, you should love it." To be honest, this was my job. I hated it. And Kraftwerk as well.

My early 20s brought art school, and playing in bands. I was very into spacerock and dronerock, and noticed that a lot of the bands I loved (the JAMC playing Mushroom, Loop playing Mother Sky) kept covering this freaky German music. Eventually, an erstwhile bandmate (known as Frank Düül; I don't think I've ever adequately thanked him) decided to introduce me to Krautrock - yr Faust, yr Can, yr NEU! etc. Back in the 90s, it was still hard as hell to even find those records, so I survived on taping endless C90s off him and any other friends that might turn up with a scratchy bootleg. The great thing about C90s was the way that most vinyl LPs would not quite take up a full side, so you'd end up with odd bits tacked onto the end. I think Ruckzuck and Tanzmusic must have ended up taped on the end of a NEU! album - oddly fitting, given the bands' relationship. That stuff, I liked, in a way I'd been left cold by Computer World.

But the early 00s, I was back living in London. I can remember the moment that my mind changed, about Kraftwerk. My band were rehearsing at a space in Hackney, and as my bassist booked the next few weeks' sessions, I found myself utterly captivated, to the point of being unable to even speak, by the music that the studio's office was playing to drown out the sound of half a dozen bands rehearsing at once. What was this strange, futuristic synth-driven spacerock that sounded like a stripped-down minimalist version of (ha!) Stereolab charting a motorik course through the outer solar system? The lad at the counter looked at me as if I was an idiot. "It's the 22 minute album version of Kraftwerk's Autobahn."

The Autobahn? Noooo. It could not be. (I have been on the Autobahn only once in my life. My father took a wrong turn in Belgium on a family holiday, trying to drive from France to Holland, and ended up in Germany. ("I did think their Dutch accent was unusual when they stamped our passports" he said - my father is native Afrikaans speaker, so his Dutch is... unusual.) So there we were. On the Autobahn. In a rickety old Deux-chevaux which could manage maybe 100kmph downhill, with the wind behind it. And massive Mercedes Benzes the size of mountainsides overtaking us amidst much hooting, derision and terror. It traumatised me so much I have never been back to Germany since.)

When that band broke up, I formed Shimura Curves with a laptop and three girls to sing and act out the songs. I had still never bothered exploring much of Kraftwerk beyond the first four albums, but it started to annoy me perhaps even more than being compared to the Pipettes (who we sounded nothing like, but unfortunately shared a gender and the idea of a band uniform) when people in the blogosphere or the press would call us "The Female Kraftwerk". "We're nothing like Kraftwerk," I would fume to my bandmates, while stroking my oscilloscopes and quietly arranging plans to replace one female-music-worker with another. "If you don't want people to compare you to Kraftwerk, stop writing songs about Bicycles, Videogames and Data Analysis" teased Miss AMP. (Humph! I did not write the lyrics to the song about videogames; she did! And also she nixed my song about Data Analysis, so it never happened. We did a single about Set Theory as metaphor for romantic relationships instead.) I started listening to Kraftwerk, and realised those reviewers had a point. I believe it was around this period that one of my bandmates very pointedly loaned me a review copy of  I Was A Robot, with the advice "this reminds me of you!" to complain about my overbearing control-freak behaviour. I did not get the message. (Having re-read it recently, I can only cringe. I am so, so sorry.)

I did, however, start to have an appreciation for Kraftwerk. We planned to cover one of their songs to thumb our noses at the comparison, though we could never agree on which song. (I can recall quite strongly, rehearsing in Frances' bedroom in Hackney Wick, with her playing Computer Love on her laptop while I tried to work out the chords.) Slowly, I worked my way forward, chronologically, pushing my appreciation envelope further from spacerock motorik, to train-based metal-on-metal schaffel, to pure techno. And as I had been trying to write songs about my very boring life of data analysis and computer programming and equations, here were other musicians writing songs about the very same things! I fell in love with the music.

I knew, however, nothing about the people. Even though I knew their names - who didn't? Since they were always written in neon in front of them (a tactic Shimura Curves wanted to nick, except we couldn't afford to get neon done, and had "Anna, Marianna, Anne-Marie and K8" in gold print on the front of our bottles of pink wine instead) - I probably could not have told you which one was which. What changed this past year? That I could not tell you. Maybe I dug the record out when I wrote a novel in which the band who formed the arc of the story was named Metropolis, after the song. And then, in my spate of reading rock biographies in order to inspire my own fake rock biography, I took out a copy of Kraftwerk Publikation from the local library. And suddenly there it all was. Photos. Stories. The constant tensions between the two halves of the band, which now read so poignantly to me. Even as I was endlessly amused by the charismatic Schneider, and thought Hütter was a bit of an arsehole for the way he treated his bandmates (Ouch! Did the other Curves really think I was like this?) I found myself constantly sympathising with his relentless singularity of mind.

And then, one day, after reading all of the biographies, and looking at all the photos, and scouring the internet for interviews, and engaging in the sort of repetitive fan-behaviour that occurs on Tumblr, one finds oneself in love. I love Kraftwerk.