1981

Kraftwerk – Computer World (Kling Klang)

Even by 1981 Kraftwerk’s influence was assured but Computer World saw them further embedded into consciousness of virtually everything that would follow it.  The themes of technological advancement, supremacy and isolation are prominent throughout, which begs the question as to whether Hutter et al where psychic or whether nothing has changed in the intervening 30 years.  Away from lyrical concerns their compact approach to electronic music has become a filter that all music is now heard through, every keyboard, drum machine or sequencer that is ever used evolved from their work, whether it is stylistically or technological, all dance, synth-pop and electronic is here but it is this album’s influence on hip-hop that makes it singular. Effortless, innovative, profound and fun, it is not only a part of the canon but a work that impacted on all its subsequent members.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mN5UfJA2evY

Brian Eno & David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)

Perhaps Kraftwerk’s only ommission was not to fully predict, pre-empt and define sampling culture, thankfully Eno & Byrne decided to take time out after ‘Remain in Light’ and record future music.  Rhythm tracks and layered improvisation was then topped with found vocal sounds in lieu of ‘actual’ singing, while Byrne’s vocals had recently been taking Talking Heads to new heights here his voice is silent, instead the altered voices of politicians handling criticism or loops of an exorcism take the centre ground.  The result is an intense eerie space of cold funk, as rhythmic as it is ambient, still as fresh and unparalleled today as it must have been 30 years ago.  I once read that this was Terminator X’s favourite album and to be honest if the words ‘David Byrne’, ‘Brian Eno’ and ‘Terminator X’ in that context don’t get you excited then you should go and use Google to find something else to read as this blog may not be of use to you.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NWtm3LE-x4

ABBA – The Visitors (Polar)

To dislike ABBA is to wilfully dislike joy, their ability to fuse the radical and familiar in a hummable form and be HUGE may not have been seen since, and they also seem to have been the first to do so, since The Beatles.  While their last album may only feature one track that made an appearance on the omnipresent uber-work that is ABBA Gold this has no shortage of genuine hooks found in surprising places.  While The Beatles saw out their time under that trading name in increasingly separate spaces ABBA stayed ABBA.  Recording on ‘The Visitors’ started only weeks after Benny and Frida’s divorce in a mist of synths, an air of introspection and melancholy which has none of the euphoric disco of their earlier works, instead the weave of arpeggiated keys and singing in the round instil a sense of loss and longing that cannot help but draw attention to the circumstances that went into its creation.  Evidently as emotionally as they are musically mature, this is a dignified and precise detailing of heartbreak.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ec2dCvoext0

Duran Duran – Duran Duran (EMI)

Some years ago another writer from this blog had drag me away from a young man who had dared to suggest that fashion was more important than politics. I stand by that (although I may have made a better job of expressing myself at the time) however it is sad that today’s pop music has nothing that can even hold a candle to DD. Aside from the Scissor Sisters, think of a modern pop act that has gained any modicum of success off its own back without being manufactured in some way? You can’t can you. Positive, well made, middle class popular music is dead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gudEttJlw3s

Altered Images – Happy Birthday (Portrait Records)

Claire Grogan. Mmmm.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40K2S0-5Xo0

Soft Cell – Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizzare)

From the opening rhythm of the syth that builds like a toy steam engine revving up, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love remains a pure joy and as with Duran Duran’s overtly middle class preening it’s hard to see any modern pop band getting away with releasing an album with such overtly homo-erotic content (Scissor Sisters excepted). The final track Say Hello Wave Goodbye proves that electronic music can be both humorous and heartbreaking at the same time; Marc Almond’s half spoken vocals somehow managing to simultaneously convey feelings of hope and remorse.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbEOgfq3CNc

The Clash – Sandinista! (Epic)

‘Sandinista!’ is a glorious failure, arguably the worst of the first five proper albums The Clash and for all that maybe the most intriguing for it. The grand folly of the double album is something which has plagued the plagued every credible ‘artist’ since The Beatles unleashed the ever so slightly self-indulgent nonsense of ‘The White Album’, but The Clash’s decision to trump their relatively focused ‘London Calling’ with a triple beast showed such scant regard for quality control, that the brainstorm of ideas that swamped its audience deserved attention for its sheer ambition and desire to play with genres about a million miles away from the easily dismissed ‘garage band’ of five years previous. The reggae and dub influences of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Mikey Dread are to the forefront of the album with levels of echo only previously embraced in straight rock songs during the week that Phil Spector had a particularly nasty bout of tinnitus, while the fledgling genre of rap is heard through ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and ‘Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)’, predating Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ by six months and making real claims to be the first white rap record, which considering much of what followed is in itself quite a dubious claim to fame. The album cemented mainstream success in America while drawing disapproving looks at home its self-indulgence and UK critics did of course have a point, but for glorious ambition and a desire to share every grand design with their public, ‘Sandinista!’ must be applauded at least as a catalyst for the experimentation with world music that followed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijiazWlawUY

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Trust (F-Beat)

Like all great artists of a certain age, Elvis Costello has been working hard for many a year to piss away his legacy with sentimental tosh punctuated with a brief glimpses of what made him great in the first place, prompting earnest declarations of that most terrifying phrase, namely the ‘return to form.’ Back in 1981, Costello’s fifth album and one of two that year with the country covers album ‘Almost Blue’ following it, ‘Trust’ was Declan McManus at the peak of his game, with spiky new wave melodies branching out into blue eyed soul and cataloguing tensions within his marriage and band. ‘Clubland’ has all the urgency of earlier works, while ‘You’ll Never Be A Man’ evokes The Pretenders and ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’, a duet with Squeeze’s Chris Difford provides a joyous contrast between Costello’s rasp and Difford’s poppy croon. Ironically, the album was a relative commercial flop in comparison with the covers which followed, but this was Costello at his poetic best and an undervalued gem amongst more revered albums of this Nick Lowe produced period.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbasuu1gCDs

Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming (Epic)

It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, which is true of most things in life, but absolutely true when it comes to pop music. Adam Ant and Marco Pirroni almost certainly didn’t change the world musically, but they did have enough ludicrous vision to present an utterly grand a ridiculous view of the world which has been ideologically imitated but never bettered with regards to creating a grand, fanciful design. When examined closely, the title track, replete with an aging Diana Dors in the video exclaiming ‘Don’t you ever stop being dandy, showing me you’re handsome’ to a tango seems such improbable number one single material, but there it is as much a triumph of style as anything the Sex Pistols ever managed. Will we ever see a better single about a highwayman than ‘Stand and Deliver’? I think not. Can you refrain from singing and at least partially dancing along? Almost certainly not. ‘Ant Rap’, which was the final single to be taken from the album is, in retrospect, utter tosh, but in the context of rap’s first fledgling steps, it strangely has the album ham-fistedly surfing the zeitgeist. Aside from the singles, ‘Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios’ has quirky new wave charm and even the faintly ludicrous ‘S.E.X’ foresees Damon Albarn’s attempts at capturing a very British sensuality. The album is far from a masterpiece, but it seems nigh on impossible that mainstream pop music could be quite so willingly dandy ever again and the world is poorer for it.

PJ Harvey- Let England Shake

We are legally obliged to include this album in any list.

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang – 1977)

Aged 17 I was listening to Underworld and Led Zeppelin.  I was in a band who wanted to cover ‘One’ by U2.  I heard U2 for the first time purposefully through some pirate best of which concentrated on their later career.  Numb and Lemon stood out.  I bought Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop.  I bought the Popmart video.  During Discotheque Bono added ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mud Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now’.  My eldest brother’s Sand in the Vaseline two CD best of Talking Heads.  Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, Cross-eyed and Painless stood out.  U2 and Talking Heads credits, Underworld interviews, all saying Eno.  I buy More Blank Than Frank, last track 1/1, I buy Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks.  I buy David Bowie’s Low and ‘Heroes’.  V-2 Schneider.  If I like this so much then I may like the thing they are paying reverence to.  Kraftwerk.  I would soon own every CD they had (and hadn’t) released.  I would be 28 before I saw them live, literally in 3D with my other brother, at Manchester Velodrome.  By that point I had bought their entire back catalogue for a second time, though re-mastered and with German vocals.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, in it I learned of what became known as the Bucha Effect. “Why are helicopters falling out of the sky?” asked the mid-1970s military. Investigating scientists found that the strobing light from the rotors was at a frequency near that of human brainwaves which has an effect; in this case it was the pilot’s passing out.  It is with this type of repetitive interruption of the silence that ‘Europe Endless’ starts.  It unfurls as an arpeggio in G, falling into itself like the Mandelbrot set.  The bass and drum tracks are precise, each emphasising exactly what it should and more.  A perfectly efficient machine is working.  In it you can feel the intelligence and patience that went into its making.  Even before the vocal has entered you are more than aware of the aesthetic for the album; sparse layering and rhythmic interplay, both exquisitely judged.  Though not yet at the title track are already aboard TEE we are already in motion.  ‘Parks, hotels and palaces (Europe Endless)’, Europe is all becoming one during this journey as boundaries blur and nations disappear in parallax.  Vocals are reserved and optimistic.  Clean vocal, vocoder vocal, clean vocal, vocoder vocal. Lulling and enthralling to the extent that when the song ends its nine minutes plus you immediately miss that little arpeggio, you are soon uncomfortable in its absence.

‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Showroom Dummies’ move on to themes of the vacuous nature of modern European society and the music takes a music darker turn.  Over minor drones Hutter tells us that “Even the greatest star, find themselves in the looking glass” in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a comment on vanity and celebrity also empty and throwaway, a ‘placebo profundity’ as I once heard it put.  They move as close to a shout as Kraftwerk would ever get in announcing “We are showroom dummies”, the latter of these two quotes is the most interesting, and being as it is both a comment on Western society’s ultimately pointless obsession with defining ourselves through fashion and a rebuttal to critics of Kraftwerk’s understated live performances.  By responding to the accusation that ‘they just stood there’ in song they winked at those who knew they were doing so much more but seemed to say to everyone else, “YOU’RE showroom dummies”.

By the time of the title track you are firmly centred in Kraftwerk’s European vision.  It’s main melody sounding like a continental anthem, one filled with the drive and capital of Western Europe and mournfully aware of the sacrifice for the greater good over to the Communist East.  Travelling by rail may have been an obvious and easy step post-Autobahn given its success and the possibilities available representing the sounds of sleepers and points etc. but it is executed with aplomb.  Kraftwerk’s knack for subtlety ensures our carriage is safe, what could have easily turned into tawdry pastiche is instead treated with awe and respect.  They replicate both the train and what it embodies.  Frontiers are wider, travel and communication between them is quicker, possibilities are greater, possibilities are endless, Europe is endless as it spreads across the world.

This spread of technology bringing with it a more homogenised Western culture would see Kraftwerk propelled along with it.  Their effect on all electronic music is unquestionable.  Their influence on hip-hop well documented.  It is one of my greatest my greatest musical disappointments that Kraftwerk are often considered by others as being pioneers in the sense that they are unlistenable, intelligent in a way that they satisfied only the brain,  that their vocals are to be laughed at, that they are considered boring.  The fact is much Kraftwerk’s enduring success lies in their ability to write joyous small songs of such detail and scale.

A Hiles