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.