Sonic Taxonomy: We Are Also the Robots

Kraftwerk envisioned popular music’s future, and it was a future in which you didn’t have to sweat much or get dirt under your fingernails or master organic instruments, a future free of manual labor and manual dexterity, a future of looped repetition and sleek Teutonic technology and robotic computers. Then their future came true. In ‘70s Germany, where rock bands invented a new language to live down the travesties of Das Vaterland, they were hardly alone. But in some ways they went farthest, in that they left being a “rock” band behind – and we got disco, electro, techno, and scores of subsequent offshoots to show for it. So now, for winning the race to such a big idea, Kraftwerk get to play eight nights at the Museum of Modern Art. If not them, though, who might have done it? Sticking to band-like units on the new wavier end of things, and leaving aside visionaries from the worlds of Eurodisco (Giorgio Moroder, Gino Soccio, Cerrone) and electronic funk (Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Juan Atkins), here are eight possibilities.

Ultravox Ultravox! (Island 1977)

They got way synthier (and way less interesting) later, but something new was happening here for sure: Five theoretically punk-rock London lads, produced by Brian Eno and distinguished by a fellow doubling on electric keyboard and violin, a seven-minute song called “I Want To Be A Machine,” and a cyborg-stiff cover photo that suggested they were already halfway there. Kraftwerk was a widely stated influence (a punk first, or close to it), but so were Roxy Music and Berlin/Eno-era Bowie, and the longer songs suggest they were secret prog (at least maybe Van Der Graaf Generator) fans as well.  But listening now, and knowing the New Romanticism that Ultravox would spawn once Midge Ure later joined, the biggest surprise is how “Satday Night In The City Of The Dead”’s terrace shout anticipates oi! music. The reggae attempts don’t hold up as well, but “Wide Boys” (which still sounds like they’re saying “white boys”) is fast and fun, and closer “My Sex” foretells both the Normal’s proto-industrial 1978 “Warm Leatherette” (it’s about being aroused by a car crash) and Gary Numan – which is to say, that, despite John Foxx’s singing feeling reasonably flesh-and-blood, they really do sound here like machinehood is their dream.

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army Replicas (Atco 1979)

Taking cues from Ultravox, not to mention the same Kraftwerk and Bowie records that Ultravox had taken cues from (only more so), a master air-pilot in training from Hammersmith ups Asperger-rock’s cyberpunk quotient, and manages to put almost all of his memorable melodies and hooks on the same album – all that’s missing, really, is his top 10 U.S smash from a year later, “Cars” (so massive at the time in pre-techno-era Detroit that it inspired a parody on commercial rock radio: “Here in the bars/I feel safest of all/I get drunk as a skunk/And throw up on the walls.”)  “Down In The Park,” a transcendently gloomy tale of “machmen” and “zum-zums” and raping machines and friends named Five, fortified his tentative Stateside toe-hold when it showed up on 1980’s great lost punxploitation soundtrack Times Square, but the real hit was “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” number one in the U.K. On Replicas, it’s heard between “Me, I Disconnect From You” and “The Machman,” where the pointedly pseudonymed Numan observes somebody “turn on like a machine in the park.” Elsewhere, he prays to aliens and almost gets betrothed to a human. So there’s clearly an over-riding, if not necessarily coherent, plot. On the cover, our new man looks like a melanin-deficient mannequin, with pale plasticized face and black fingernails. In England, he’d land hits all through the ‘80s. But he’d never bill his band again, or make an album this good. 

Yellow Magic Orchestra Yellow Magic Orchestra (Horizon 1979)

Like Kraftwerk, Japan’s very plugged-in Yellow Magic Orchestra came from a technologically cutting-edge country forced to rebuild after losing World War II; like Kraftwerk, they had roots in weird ‘70s art-rock – keyboardist (and future soundtrack god) Ryuichi Sakamoto had been experimenting with ARPs and Moogs for quite some time, but drummer Yukihiro Takahashi had been in the excellently eccentric Sadistic Mika Band. In some ways, the Far East beat West Germany to the kilobyte punch – by the time Kraftwerk put out Computer World (and went #22 on the R&B chart with the single “Numbers”) in 1981, YMO had already had a #18 R&B hit with the jumpy, Asian-kitsched, video-game-funked instrumental “Computer Game” — ubiquitous, like “Numbers,” on Electrifying Mojo’s Midnight Funk Association show on Detroit’s WGPR, which  future Motor City innovators Derek May and Juan Atkins were surely tuned into at the time. “Computer Game” leads off the transistorized Tokyo trio’s self-titled debut, their highest charting album in the U.S., which also has the essential tracks “Firecracker” and “Tong Poo”; for later landmarks such as “Technopolis” and the hilarious Archie Bell and the Drells cover “Tighten Up (Japanese Gentlemen Stand Up Please!)” consult Solid State Survivor and X∞ Multiples, respectively.

M New York London Paris Munich (Sire 1979)

You know that song “Pop Muzik,” right? “Radio video, boogie with a suitcase, you’re living in a disco, forget about the rat race,” and so on?  Biggest song in America for seven glorious days in 1979; an ingenious early merger of new wave and disco, not to mention sort of a rap song and a synth-pop song before either genre entirely existed? Well, did it ever occur to you that this unfathomable item was made by an actual person? The guy came from London and called himself  (and his studio musicians) M, but he was born Robin Scott, and he’d been folksinger, a longtime crony of Malcolm McLaren, a manager of the pub-rock band Roogalator, and the founder of the label that first signed Adam and the Ants. “Pop Muzik” – basically, a chronicle of Scott’s career in the biz, even if three-year-olds everywhere have always heard it instead as one of the most babytalky novelty hits in history – obviously changed his life, and it never went away; even U2 and Tricky have covered it. But it wasn’t M’s only song — he/they put out three LPs; in 1982, Scott also made a good album with Ryuichi Sakamoto. The 25th Anniversary 2004 comp ‘M’ The History, on the U.K. label Metro, is a decent sampler. But this LP was M’s first and best, with such dispatches as “Made In Munich,” “That’s The Way The Money Goes,” and “Moonlight And Muzak” reporting on Euroclubpop-industry economics and leisure-class romance from the inside in brainy ways that presaged what outfits like Heaven 17 and the Pet Shop Boys would be lauded for in years hence.

Buggles The Age Of Plastic (Island 1980)

Yet more one-hit-wonders (always welcome here!)  — “Video Killed The Radio Star” only just squeaked into the Top 40’s bottom slot in the States, but went #1 several other places in the Western world. And in 1981 it became the first music video ever shown on MTV, thus theoretically proving the song’s point. (Of course, video stars wouldn’t live forever either – at least on MTV – but that’s another chapter.) What you likely didn’t realize is that it was technically a cover – Bruce Wooley, one of its writers, had recorded it first, on his art-poppish 1979 Columbia LP with his band the Camera Club, whose keyboard player was Thomas Dolby of imminent “She Blinded Me With Science” nerd-pop fame. The Buggles’ version of the allegedly J.G. Ballard-inspired tune was slightly less rocking, as might be expected from Geoff Downs and Trevor Horn – the former of whom went on to streamline ‘70s prog into ‘80s pop in Asia and Yes (“Owner Of a Lonely Heart” era); the latter of whom went on to start the popping-and-locking-friendly beatbox-clatter unit Art of Noise and produce ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and other signature ‘80s acts. Anyway, as titles such as “I Love You (Miss Robot)” and “Living In The Plastic Age” suggest, the Buggles’ debut was firmly in Kraftwerk’s future-tech tradition; when Downes and Horn went on to more serious things, the Montreal band Trans-X (“Living On Video”, 1983) carried on that tradition briefly.

Mi-Sex Computer Games (Epic 1980)

These New Zealanders took their name from the Ultravox song, but were unabashed bandwagon new wavers — individual members had been gigging since the early ‘70s, playing soft pop, prog, metal. All of which they combine into arch, idiosyncratic, Tubes-like new wave hard rock shapes in “Not Such A Bad Boy,” “Camera Kazi” and especially “Graffiti Crimes,” which chronicles hip-hop’s fourth element only a few years after “Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” by Genesis had. Punk purists, at the time, found Mi-Sex rather suspect; in retrospect, their impurity makes them seem more interesting. Later they advanced in an even more electro direction (albeit with traces of concurrent pop-period Rush) on later 1980’s still quite catchy Space Race, and by 1984’s Where Do They Go? they had sold out (unsuccessfully) to more tired, bored, pragmatic commercial medium-rock. But what earns their place in this survey is primarily the title cut, “Computer Games”  itself  — a 1979 Australian chart-topper that was extremely easy for U.S. college radio listeners to confuse with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s similarly titled hit at the time. Grade A robot-rock: “I figit with the digit dots/And cry an anxious tear/As the XU-L connects the spot/The matrix grid don’t care.” Nobody knew what it meant, but it sure did seem they’d cracked the world-to-come’s code.  

Telex Neurovision (Sire 1980)

Addicted to Vocodered English-as-a-foreign-language deadpans and rubber-duckie beats, Belgium’s entry in the faux-Kraftwerk sweepstakes just might be the cutest of all, and are almost certainly the most touching: Melancholy moments like “Getting Old,” “My Time” and “A/B” (best song ever about playing B sides, give or take “Burning For You” by Blue Öyster Cult) match the Germans at their crisp-air “Neon Lights” loveliest. The irresistible “Moskow Diskow,” about “super chic” young men riding the rail from the U.S.S.R. to Tokyo and sneaking peaks at a Brigitte Bardot picture when they get lonely,  is as seminal a train-trek in the evolution of ‘80s dance music as “Trans Europe Express” – It’s sandwiched between “D” Train and Instant Funk cuts on the second “Tracks That Built The House” disc of BCM Germany’s definitive 1988 History Of The House Sound Of Chicago box, and A Number Of Names’ 1981 ur-Detroit-techno “Sharevari” sounds suspiciously similar. (See also: Italodisco OGs Kano and Alexander Robotnik, more major Detroit source material.) Neurovision also has “Eurovision” (Telex’s subversive almost-last-place meta-entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest), “Dance To The Music” (mechanized Sly Stone cover – they did something similar elsewhere to Plastic Bertrand and Bill Haley classics), and “Tour De France,” released three years before Kraftwerk’s bike-race tribute of the same name. Later in life, they worked on an album with aging art-glamsters Sparks (whose own, Moroder-produced 1979  No. 1 In Heaven just missed this list), paid found-sound homage to Spike Jones, and inspired Belgian new beat.

Yello Essential (Smash 1992)

Recording most of this best-of through the ‘80s, two wealthy, mustachioed Swiss studio-gadget jockeys – Dieter Meier, who could pass as a portly middle-management man, and the dandier looking Boris Blank – talk about driving cars in four different songs, mix goose steps with African percussion in “Tied Up,” and  manage to sound klezmer-like until the crazed drum solo in “Pinball Cha Cha,” even though the words seem to concern a Mexican pinball wizard. Their loudest and most rocking track is also the oldest: 1980’s “Bostich,” presumably named for the stapler brand, in which marching feet give way to martial club stomping, over which some hushy-whispery voice chants something about “standing at the mansion every day for all my life,” then starts yelling either “EVERYBODY! BE SOMEBODY!” or “EVERYBODY! PIZZA PARTY!,” hard to tell which.  And then there’s Yello’s almost-hit “Oh Yeah” (as in “ohhhhhhhh yeah…chicka chicka!”), which – between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Secret Of My Success, and old Twix commercials – you’ve probably heard, even if your memory can’t place it. In 1987, it just missed the Top 50 on the U.S. pop chart. A bunch of songs here made Billboard’s dance-club tally too: Not bad for guys oddball enough to have started out with two albums on Ralph Records, the Residents’ label.

spin.com, 22 June 2012

3 comments

  1. via facebook:

    Jake Alrich
    As a lad I discovered my dad Bill Alrich’s copy of that Ultravox record and had no earthly idea what it was. I mean, I lacked all context. But luckily I held onto it along with some other good shit.

    Tim Ellison
    I think I genuinely like every song on that first Buggles album. (Actually like the second one, too, although not quite as much.)

    Like

  2. via facebook:

    Graham Ashmore
    I only just learned today that “Video Killed the Radio Star” was inspired by a J.G. Ballard short story. (Ballard’s a favourite of mine.)

    Jaz Jacobi
    I can’t wait to print all these electronic words on paper and bind them into a book

    Chuck Eddy
    That’s the whole idea, if that’s not already obvious. If somebody else does it, I won’t have to! Just be sure to send me a copy, when you do.

    Like

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