Following the excellent Computer World, the electronic pioneers had become victims of their own success. Synths were in; Gary Numan had had a hit about driving a car; and the austere, Teutonic fathers of electronic music feared they were about to lose their eminent position...
Like many people I enjoy the music of Kraftwerk and think that their reputation as musical pioneers is entirely justified. Indeed I would choose to listen to Trans Europe Express or The Man Machine over anything by The Beatles any day. Come to think of it, I’d listen to their 2003 album about riding bicycles over anything by The Beatles any day, but that’s another matter. I enjoy their dry humour, their minimalist, retro-futurist aesthetic, their decades-long dedication to pretending they are robots… and of course, their music.
And yet, there is a problem. And if you know Kraftwerk then you will know its name: Electric Cafe.
Electric Café’s tormented 5 year production is a thing of legend. Following the excellent Computer World, the electronic pioneers had become victims of their own success. Synths were in; Gary Numan had had a hit about driving a car; and the austere, Teutonic fathers of electronic music feared they were about to lose their eminent position to a bunch of pimply upstarts.
Band leader Ralf Hutter’s initial response was to get into cycling. Following that, the other members also bought bikes. Out of this came the highly enjoyable single Tour de France. Then Ralf Hutter fell off his bike. As Herr Hutter was convalescing the world of music continued to evolve, and increasingly Kraftwerk felt they needed to make a big statement to prove that they were still the most futuristic sound around.
Precise details are thin on the ground, but it seems that the band spent several years toiling on an album called Techno Pop and pretty much had it in the can when Ralf Hutter decided it was insufficiently “cutting edge”. So he flew to New York to sit in with dance producer Francois Kevorkian, whose solution appears to have been the judicious application of electronic slap bass and loud, tinny drums- popular sounds in the mid-1980s, as older readers will recall. The album was renamed after a café that was electric and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the weakness of the concept, released to no acclaim and very poor sales. Kraftwerk disappeared from sight, its two junior members quit, and since then new material has been exceedingly scarce to say the least.
Was this critical and commercial rejection justified? Well, for many years, I too struggled with Electric Café, although at times I could appreciate what the band was trying to achieve. The first three tracks- Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop and Musique Non-stop constitute an extended suite built out of clicks, beeps, beats, fragments of robotic and human vocal sounds and repeated, largely meaningless, phrases . Quite radical, and yet at the same time somewhat reminiscent of the type of mid 80s 12” remixes Mr. Kervorkian excelled in, as if there were other, original versions of these songs which the band had kept secret. The Telephone Call makes entertaining use of telephone sounds and is OK, I suppose. Electric Café, in spite of the terrible name, has some nice rippling bleeps and bloops in it. But Sex Object, the centrepiece of the more song-oriented side 2 is simply bizarre, as Ralf Hutter sings in flat emotionless tones: I don’t want to be your Sex Object.
Ah yes, Ralf Hutter. That’ll be the German bank manager type wearing red lipstick on the cover of The Man Machine- a sex object indeed.
Is it possible that Ralf Hutter succumbed to a terrible delirium? Did he fear that the computer- having consumed all his energy and creativity- was now also badgering him for sex?
Is this song a joke? I wondered. Or alternatively, some kind of irony free, Germanic feminist statement? A critique of the dehumanizing effects of pornography on women, perhaps? But if so why have a man pretending to be a robot sing it? It made no sense; and the melody was not up to their usual standards. Even the Stephen Hawking voice that “sings” “Yes/No/Maybe/Perhaps” couldn’t make it better. And so this indigestible, humourless, emotionless, juiceless, funkless atrocity of a song just messed up the whole album for me. Every time I could almost appreciate what Kraftwerk were trying to do, Ralf would complain that I was making him his sex object- or at least that somebody was; but who? No, I mean- really?
For years the mystery remained unsolved. And then last week I found myself watching a Swedish documentary about Kraftwerk on Youtube in which ex-member Karl Bartos frankly admitted that the band had lost their humanity while working on Electric Café. Yes, he said, (I paraphrase), we were often compared to robots and played with the image- but listen to the earlier Trans Europe Express, listen to how warm it is, how human. On Electric Café the band placed technology ahead of the music, and that was their mistake.
The next day I played Electric Café in my car, and as I drove through the Texas landscape while reflecting upon Bartos’ critique, experienced an epiphany. It came to me during Sex Objekt, (I was playing the German edition). As Ralf intoned Ich bin nicht dein Sex Objekt I realized that he was not talking to a woman, but rather the machine he had fetishized for far too long.
The image was clear in my mind- slumped in a chair in Francis Kevorkian’s NYC studio, the exhausted synth pioneer from Dusseldorf was complaining about the Synclavier II that would not let him rest, moaning at the expensive high end modular synthesizers that wouldn’t permit him to ride his bike, but instead insisted that he coax ever more futuristic sounds from their circuits. Far from home, exhausted, trapped inside his own myth and separated from his beloved bicycle is it possible that Ralf Hutter succumbed to a terrible delirium? Did he fear that the computer- having consumed all his energy and creativity- was now also badgering him for sex?
No sooner had I asked that last question than suddenly Electric Café opened up to me, becoming a magical album about dehumanisation, isolation and a loss of identity, as the broken up robotic speech and skittering beats on the first three tracks express the terror a man feels when he has listened to sound for so long that it has all been reduced to a jumble of sonic particles. Sex Objekt, as I have said, is about the fear of a computer demanding sex from you. Telephone Call- or Der Telefon Anruf in German - is about the technology you once relied upon resisting your increasingly desperate attempts to connect with an actual human body. And Electric Café is about a café which is electric.
In 2009 Kraftwerk re-released Electric Café under its original working title of Techno Pop. But this attempt at re-branding the most unloved release in their catalogue is unnecessary, at least if my new interpretation is on target. For if I am correct then Electric Café is a timeless masterpiece. Its themes are cyber-fear and techno-dread; its music the soundtrack of a man’s descent into madness as his soul and even his flesh is consumed by machines. It was thus highly prescient of the coming age of technological over dependence, and is more relevant than ever, especially now that we all spend far too much time on the Internet.
I must warn you, however- this interpretation only works if you listen to the record in German.
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