KRAFTWERK Radio-Activity (Capitol)
The work of a band already burdened with the novelty tag thanks to the success of their previous album "Autobahn", "Radio-Activity" still predates their invention of dance music as we know it with 1977's "Trans-Europe Express". The result is an album too bound up in whimsy and slavish devotion to its concept - the celebration of both the early years of radio and the work of Madame Curie, at a guess (some commentators suggested that the way the album portrayed Kraftwerk as supporters of nuclear power was a factor in its lack of commercial success) - to be any more than fitfully entertaining. Nevertheless, this is the only place you'll find the lovely "Ohm Sweet Ohm", which not only proves that the band had a sense of humour but was also rifled by The Chemical Brothers for the intro to "Leave Home".
KRAFTWERK Trans-Europe Express (Capitol)
"Trans-Europe Express" was the album that finally cemented the Kraftwerk legend discuss. Prior to the release of this 1977 opus the German quartet were known chiefly for interesting if somewhat whimsical releases such as "Autobahn" and "Radioactivity". "Trans-Europe Express" gave the band both a visual and music makeover: the smartly dressed but oddly waxen looking foursome in the cover painting was possibly the first manifestation of the groups alter ego dummies, a connection made explicit on the track "Showroom Dummies". Musically the wandering restlessness that had characterised their previous work had been replaced by a pummelling, metallic statement of intent that only really relents during "The Hall Of Mirrors". Not for nothing has "Trans-Europe Express" been cited as one of the key texts in the evolution of dance music, with fashionable DJs repeatedly mixing the breaks from the title track together for periods of ten minutes or more, later finding a home on Afrika Bambaataas "Planet Rock" single. The legacy of the continuous flow of music found on the second side, where "Trans-Europe Express" imperceptibly creeps into the harsher, more abrasive "Metal On Metal", lingers on in the work of Orbital. And most of all theres the canny realisation of their own importance in the burgeoning new wave movement in the title tracks lyric "In Vienna we stop in a late night café/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie". At the time, of course, Bowie was working on his own Kraftwerk tribute in the form of the track "V2 Schneider", which made it onto the predominately instrumental second half of "Heroes". And its because of all this that "Trans-Europe Express" still sounds fresh and invigorating today. Maybe it lacks the humanity of the following years "The Man-Machine", but over twenty years on it remains a remarkable sonic journey.
KRAFTWERK The Man-Machine (Capitol)
The middle album in Kraftwerk's series of three undoubted classics (bookended by "Trans-Europe Express" and "Computer World"), "The-Man Machine" shows the German band at their most sumptuously upholstered and human, especially on the peerless "Neon Lights" and their sole number one, "The Model". Some songs here may have sounded even better in modified form on the remixed compilation "The Mix" - "The Robots" in particular seems a bit starched compared to its later funky reincarnation - but as the one Kraftwerk album that suggested the possibility of human hearts beating beneath the band's immaculate facade "The Man-Machine" is unreservedly recommended.
KRAFTWERK Autobahn (Mute)
Capturing a band in transition, Kraftwerk’s fourth album, originally released in 1974, might come as something of a shock to listeners who associate the band only with the streamlined, techno-jumpstarting futurism for which they’re predominately feted. Here the tempos undulate, rather than being subject to strict, metronomic control, the atmosphere at times being almost proggy.
The first side is taken entirely up by the breakthrough title track, in all its 23-minute magnificence. You have to wonder how much the record-buying public had been softened up to accept it by albums like “Dark Side Of The Moon” and “Tubular Bells” bringing more substantial, attention-demanding concepts to high street record racks. There are sections that anticipate the band’s later metal-on-metal rhythms that would become a foundation of much modern dance music. In comparison, “Kometenmelodie 1” lumbers portentously, being the kind of Muzak you might expect to hear percolating from the PA on the Death Star. Somewhat cheerier, “Kometenmelodie 2” is a sprightly delight, the perfect antidote to any dated assertion that electronic music is heartless and soulless. It overflows with melody, the perceptible ricketiness of its construction only making it more endearing. The haunted castle spookiness of “Mitternacht” is accentuated by a wheedling, wailing electric violin and dripping water torture percussion. It’s balanced by “Morgenspaziergang”, all synthesized twittering birdsong, electronic babbling brooks and bucolic flute motifs.
The revisionist spirit of these latest Kraftwerk reissues find what I’d always regarded as the proper cover painting relegated to the inner sleeve, replaced by a crisper version of the original UK cover. A big, if ultimately pointless, booklet illustrates the album’s (i.e. the title track’s) lyrics, and in heavyweight vinyl form it sounds pretty good, too, if not great. It’s a bit dead and dull in places, but at least the album’s sonic potential hasn’t been squandered through artificial sweetening or slapdash mastering and pressing.