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Feb 09

KRAFTWERK – “The Model”/”Computer Love”

FT + Popular67 comments • 5,554 views

#494, 6th February 1982

Cometh the hour, cometh the robots: there is no other moment in pop history when Kraftwerk could have got to number one here – and were it not for those meddling DJs, they wouldn’t have. It still feels slightly odd and unlikely to be writing about them – it’s like Noel Edmonds deciding to champion “Jesus” and giving the Velvet Underground a chart-topper.

Not that “The Model” isn’t an obvious hit: it’s never been my favourite Kraftwerk tune, but as those DJs realised its translated awkwardness gives it commercial legs as a novelty record. That isn’t to say I don’t like it: all Kraftwerk’s immense virtues are here too. Few bands have ever made cleaner or better designed records, doing just enough with a melody or a rhythm to make a track seem vast without ever crossing the line into bombast. Their music prefigured a clear-lined, contoured decade where the style and architecture of things would come into glossy focus.

Emotional architecture was another Kraftwerk speciality – drawing out surprisingly subtle moods from the scantiest of materials. That’s what drives the gorgeous and far-sighted “Computer Love”, still the best song ever written about the Internet and the atomisation it both enables and heals. Its chiming melodies are tender and hopeful, a reaching out – “just talk!” sang Coldplay when they borrowed the tune, with that special obviousness of theirs – but the long emptiness of the track leaves the question of a reply quite open.

Form following content: the lonely man with a TV for company is the hidden inverse of the bleak celebrity world sketched on the more famous flip. Though the narrators of “The Model” and “Computer Love” may have more in common than it first appears: as the song progresses, you get the idea its singer has never in fact met the girl he at first seems to know.

Kraftwerk gave the impression that their preferred model of human relationships is the peloton, not the nightclub, but in their eyes the fashion and celebrity system is as clearly a machine as anything else they’ve sung about. This could lead to a pat exercise in critique, Scientific Socialism style, but Kraftwerk are careful not to position themselves outside the system: “I’d like to take her home with me, that’s understood”. Desire is the model’s inescapable product (and yes, the song title is a pun!).

Kraftwerk’s inclusion in the (systemic) model accounts for the dispassionate, even fatalist tone the vocalist adopts: it’s an outlier in their catalogue because it’s one of their rare attempts to not let emotion show (compare it to the creepy cabaret vibe of “Hall Of Mirrors”, their other great meditation on celebrity). On “The Model”, Kraftwerk’s mechanoid image is less of a bluff than usual.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Billy Smart on 24 Feb 2009 #

    I have an awful feeling that I must have been a latterday 1991 shoegazing version of Mike’s schoolmates. My advocacy of Slowdive “It’s amazing – It’s like your swimming in sound!” was continually quoted back to me in derision by my best friend for many years after…

  2. 52
    Billy Smart on 24 Feb 2009 #

    The Autons go on to reappear in 1971’s ‘Terror of the Autons’. This time they have smiling carnival faces, wear yellow blazers, cravats and boaters and hand killer plastic daffodils to passers-by. Is there a song which fits this image as well as ‘Showroom Dummies’ does for their first one? ‘The Plastic Age’ by Buggles is the best that I can think of…

  3. 53
    SteveM on 24 Feb 2009 #

    ‘Plastic Man’ by The Temptations?

  4. 54
    SteveM on 24 Feb 2009 #

    wait, that doesn’t sound right… noes where is edit comment feature…

  5. 55
    John on 2 Mar 2009 #

    Scinitalling, in clearly a golden age of number 1s. The deceptively sanguine A-side is amazing in its original and punk cover form (Big Black was it?), but the lesser known one “Computer Love” is exceptionally good. I just wish more people of my generation and below knew of it before Coldplay and their worst album, with their J-Lo/Oasis style song sampling thievery.

  6. 56
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2010 #

    My first experience of Kraftwerk came from seeing a children’s drama serial shown around ’77/’78 called Break Point, about a teenage tennis prodigy (long before a certain A. Murray of Dunblane was an itch in his Daddy’s ballsack). “Autobahn” was the theme tune. I think they used the double synth-crunch bit with the 8 hissy syn-cymbal hits. Taken out of context, it sounded as alien as anything coming out of Ron Grainer’s potting shed.

    I managed listen to “Autobahn” in its entirety around the same time I got “Computer Love” as well as “The Man Machine” and “Trans-Europe Express”, so virtually a full back catalogue of Kraftwerk for under £15 (bargain!).

    What I found amazing was something Tom touched on; the vastness, that expanse of sound from a small space. I remember seeing a documentary about ELP on tour in the States, with a huge array of keyboards, organs, echo chambers and delay units, being dragged around from city to city along with what must have been THE WORLD’S LARGEST DRUMKIT and enough guitars to sink a battleship. Compare that to Kraftwerk on tour with what is essentially 4 small boxes on trestle tables! Yes, there must be more stuff happening backstage, but the philosophy is economy and clean-ness (not cleanliness). Just the one hook. Let’s just say enough to get the point across. We’ll all dress the same and have the same haircuts. One day, we’ll stay at home and watch TV while robots go on tour in our place. Won’t that be great?

    For some, OMD and The Human League do it better, but without the boys from Germany, we would still have electronic music, but it would have taken the dystopian industrial path, the Normal path, the Cabs path without exploring the shiny pop path at all. We have to be thankful (as do a myriad of artists, Coldplay notwithstanding). I’m glad they got their #1.

  7. 57
    punctum on 14 Apr 2010 #

    Can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to posting about this one (or these two) yet and a lot of good stuff on the comments already but here goes anyway:

    As with “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” there are some records which seem too big to be accommodated in any chart, and their appearance resembles that of the emperor venturing forth from his remote citadel to wander, briefly and amused, among the citizens beneath. Indeed there are certain acts whom I’d deem “above” the charts in the same way that, say, Garbo was “above” cinema.

    Like Garbo, the subject of Kraftwerk’s (then) four-year-old song remains at a kept distance, remote, untouchable and never touched. “I’d like to take her home that’s understood” but the plaintive, weeping sadness of the high synth motif indicates that such desires are doomed to remain in the abstract tense. In their role as passive observers – even though, musically and philosophically, they influenced nearly all pop which succeeded them, maybe more thoroughly and comprehensively than even the Beatles – Kraftwerk may be gazing upon the subject of “Dancing Queen” (“And she has been checking nearly all the men…/She’s looking good, for beauty we will pay”) with sorrow but also compassion and a touch of self-regret.

    When we get to the final (and key) couplet of “I saw her on the cover of a magazine/Now she’s a big success, I’d like to meet her again” we also realise the song’s prescience in that it could be considered a belated sequel to “Don’t You Want Me” – the deposed and disowned Svengali who can only view his creation in common with millions of others, never directly. Or the dispossessed loner sitting and slowly dying behind his computer screen.

    “Computer Love” was the second single from Kraftwerk’s 1981 album Computer World – a record which, together with Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, pretty much laid down the Ten Commandments of New Pop – and with the track order reversed had briefly appeared in the Top 40 that previous, deserted summer. But “The Model” – one of the key New Romantic-inspiring anthems – continued to be in demand in clubs, and combined with the Human League’s assiduously vocal championing of them as key influences, this led to “The Model” being given prominence on the double A-side and the record, justifiably, becoming Kraftwerk’s first (but sadly, to date, their only) number one. It was a keys to the kingdom moment in pop, and as a single the pure grace and line of these songs make such ambulance-chasing exercises as the Mobiles’ “Drowning In Berlin” appear even sillier than they already were. When the League’s original 1978 Fast Product single of “Being Boiled” was reissued and entered the top ten a week after Kraftwerk it felt as though the postponed revolution was now determinedly under way.

    However, I still think “Computer Love” the sadder and superior song. Absurdly inflated with well-meaning pomp by Coldplay, the warm chill of the original remains resonant. The keyboard melody strokes like an unseen hand reaching out of the PC screen, to try to alleviate the monotone suffering of the protagonist – “The lonely night,” “I don’t know what to do,” “I call this number” – with at least a simulacrum of reassurance. The song in its full album-length form lasts for nearly eight minutes – and it has to because, like all Kraftwerk songs, it is so patient and methodical in achieving its aims – but it never becomes dull; the keyboard lines and drum machines gradually shift in and out of phase with each other, reinforcing and deepening the connection, as though a million lonely computer users are tapping out messages to be sent to each other’s bottle of an email inbox. The melody cuddles and caresses, the movement and animation increase (so gradually)…and then you realise that this vision was foreseen in 1981, when hardly anybody had a computer. Was there ever a more human pop group than Kraftwerk? Shouldn’t Joe Meek have survived to see his dream fulfilled? Wouldn’t Brian Wilson have been flattered nicely by their tactile tributes?

    And twelfthly (pace Morley in Words And Music), Kraftwerk succeeded because they know that all true experiment has to come from deep, deeply within; beyond the wires of their instruments and appliances because even these had to be designed and imagined by a human mind and inspired by the most human of hearts.

  8. 58
    punctum on 14 Apr 2010 #

    #55 – Ah yes, Big Black it was; a fine version too.

  9. 59
    Alan on 14 Apr 2010 #

    “My first experience of Kraftwerk came from seeing a children’s drama serial shown around ’77/’78 called Break Point, about a teenage tennis prodigy”

    my entirely unreliable memory is of a serial called “King Cinder” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0398500/ using the outgoing crunch/hiss section of Autobahn as the theme.

  10. 60
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2010 #

    Alan, you could be right. I seem to remember a lot of kids dramas with a sporting theme. It’s contemporary with the early Grange Hill episodes on a Wednesday iirc. The drama serial slot was on Tuesdays with Blue Peter Mondays and Thursdays and Crackerjack on Fridays.

  11. 61
    AndyPandy on 14 Apr 2010 #

    Vagueley remember “King Cinder” when I saw it mentioned (on a TV nostalgia website) a year or so ago dont think I’d thought of it since 76/77.
    My first memory of Kraftwerk was on “Tomorrow’s World” at what must have been the time “Autobahn” was a hit (1975).

  12. 62
    Alan on 14 Apr 2010 #

    if the compilation of clips at Peter Duncan’s site is any guide I was mistaken about it being the theme to King Cinder. But it could still have been the END credit song instead of this funky number :-)

    and a dude here http://www.metafilter.com/69140/Early-Kraftwerk-YouTube remembers it being used “kids drama series back in the late 70s about a gymnastics club on the BBC”

    one thing’s for sure — it was definitely used on some sport-themed kids drama!

  13. 63
    Conrad on 14 Apr 2010 #

    love the use of the word “deserted” in reference to the summer of 1981. the charts of July-early August 1981 have always seemed to me to exist in a kind of void, as if the real business is just around the corner

    Punctum, please take yourself over to the DYWM thread when you have a moment, I’d like to hear your thoughts on The Model’s ‘prequel’

  14. 64
    woolrich jacket on 8 Dec 2012 #

    Let bygones be bygones.If Tom cannot keep his promise, he’ll lose face.We are divided in our opinions.He invited me to dinner yesterday.She dressed herself hastily.I have a headache, and she has a stomachache.I have just finished the book.Our school is in the east of Beijing.You have my word.As you know, I am a very kind person.

  15. 65
    Weej on 8 Dec 2012 #

    An odd sensation reading the (presumably) spam message above as I am right this moment working in a “school in the east of Beijing.” Have I been sleep-commenting, or worse sleep-spamming? If so then I can only hope it pays well.

  16. 66
    Lazarus on 8 Dec 2012 #

    I don’t know about that, I just want Tom to keep his promise – I’m sure he doesn’t want to lose face!

  17. 67
    hectorthebat on 20 Oct 2014 #

    Critic Watch:

    TM:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 1970s (2012) 162
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1970s (2012) 28
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 55
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 248
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Nils Hansson, Dagens Nyheter (Sweden) – The 48 Best Rock Songs (1998) 15
    Musik Express/Sounds (Germany) – The Best Single 1980-89 (1989)
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 234
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 21
    Cameron Adams (Australia) -The Best Songs from the 100 Must Have Albums (2013)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

    CL:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 67
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 57
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 48

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