Different generations come to the music of Kraftwerk for different reasons. I became aware of Kraftwerk in 1981 with the release of their album Computer World/Computerwelt. The music was electric, it could make you dance, especially the robot. When Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5 danced like robots as part of their routine in “Dancing Machine”, they were looking towards the future. It looked incredible, and it sounded funky. Then you had Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back at theaters, Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999 were on TV. Kraftwerk, however, sounded like the future. It was not of 1981 even though it very much was. A lot of people at my school heard “Numbers” and that was the song we all wanted to dance, pop, and break to. I loved the song because it consisted of nothing but numbers said in different languages. Then MTV played the video for “Pocket Calculator”. “Whoa, these guys ARE German.” “Whoa, look at that person in the crowd pressing the key to play a little melody!” MTV had also put “The Model” in rotation, so their music was very much a part of my upbringing as I explored the double digits. Little did I know how much of an influence Kraftwerk was making in New York City, where MTV made its start. That same year (1982), Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force came out with “Planet Rock” and that felt like an anthem. All of my friends were singing it, and it was our 6th grade year, our last year in elementary school. The rockin’ wasn’t going to stop, and you know why? Because the rockin’ don’t stop. Then a song that changed my world for good: Malcolm McLaren & The World Famous Supreme Team‘s “Buffalo Gals”. It was all on the same level, the same wavelength, and these were sounds that were our “coming of age” soundtrack. Throw in Yellow Magic Orchestra‘s “Computer Games/Firecracker”, then we could head to a video game room and waste our quarters on candy, ice cream, coda, cracked seed, and video games. We were now of the future, this felt like “our toys”, not board games we played during Christmas and ignored. This rap music felt like “our music”, not what our parents gave us. Nothing wrong with that, but all of these new, electric and electronic sounds felt like we were ready to fly. Maybe in space, maybe to the park, maybe to the shopping center, but we loved it.
In 1983, I remember going to the GEM department store in Honolulu and seeing a new Kraftwerk record, a 12″ single of “Tour De France”. I had to have it, begged my mom that I needed it. This was a year that would also give us Yes‘ 90125, The Police‘s Synchronity (my favorite album of 1983, BTW), and the mandatory Into Battle EP by Art Of Noise. I needed Kraftwerk in my life, and I would get the record. Brought it home, and all of a sudden I’m hearing these German guys breathe hard. I hear them riding a bicycle. I hear them singing in German. It was incredibly funky, and it made by body move. Less than a year later, Breakin’ was released and as Turbo was told by Ozone to sweep outside, he had his boom box ready to go. The cassette inside? “Tour De France”. I remember that moment in the movie theater all too well: we all knew that song, we all cheered him on, and then he made that damn broom float. When we got home, we all looked for brooms to do the exact same thing. It was not only a Breakin’ moment, but our Kraftwerk moment.
It would be five years before Kraftwerk released a follow-up to Computer World/Computerwelt, and three years before fans heard new music from the group. By then, I had moved from Honolulu to the Pacific Northwest, and the culture shock of my new surroundings were bad. On the positive side, I had more access to music than ever, although that probably had to do with me being older and more aware of what other music was out there. Kraftwerk remained a personal favorite, I played their albums continuousy. I then saw a magazine ad for their new album, and now it seemed like the future was here. The computer love talked about on Computer World/Computerwelt made the group into genuine digital architectures, they were now showing us the future: today. I believe I saw the video for “Musique Non Stop” before I bought the new album, but for days I would find myself saying BOING! BOOM TSCHAK! over and over. Kraftwerk were speaking, and this was nothing new, there were always voices (their own and computerized) on their albums, but these were “new” voices. Their music had a way of hypnotizing you. Well okay, me, but it was really just hearing these sounds and wanting to dance, or simply create something as powerful.
Electric Café was the album, and while it didn’t floor me as much as Computer World/Computerwelt did, I liked most of it. Side 1 was basically variations of the same song, with the lyrics serving as the song titles: “Boing Boom Tschak”, “Techno Pop”, “Musique Non-Stop”. Up until that point, synth pop and techno pop were terms one would read in magazine articles, but for Kraftwerk to call what they did “techno pop” was bold. This was their music, and Side 1 just felt like “the next shit”. I played Side 1 of my tape over and over, I’m surprised it didn’t snap.
Like Side 1, Side 2 also had three songs but they were three distinct songs. “The Telephone Call” reminded me a lot of “Computer World”, but it almost felt like the group were willing to look back at history and go back to the old ways of the telephone. “Sex Object” was a cross between the past and the future, while “Electric Café” established what the album was about. We were now in their café, and we were free to roam and explore. It sounded fun, and it didn’t matter what it was. For me, it was new Kraftwerk, and I just hoped it wouldn’t take another five years for the group to come up with new music.
Why the wait between albums? It seems the group did have plans to release an album in 1982, called Techno Pop, with the title track being a 16 minute suite of the three songs that would end up on Side 1 of Electric Café. “The Telephone Call” and “Sex Object” would pad the album, along with “Tour de France”. When the album didn’t make it out in time, they chose to release “Tour de France” as a single. 1983 would have been the perfect time for the group to release an album, but it would be another three years until Techno Pop would be released, removing “Tour de France” and replacing it with “Electric Café”, which would become the album’s title track. What is amazing is, while we know the album as being that from 1986, most of the songs originated in 1982. Elements would carry over with new versions and revisions, so while we know and maybe hear of it as being a mid-80’s album, it isn’t too distant from the music on Computer World/Computerwelt.
It would be another five years before the group released a new album, and that was a recreation of some of their hits and key album tracks in the form of The Mix. At that point, the group were truly of the digital and computer age, albeit a bit primitive compared to what it would become a few years later, but their integrity and influence would remain solid. Electric Café became the last sound of Kraftwerk from the distant old world of the 1980’s, and yet it still sounds as pure and shiny as it did 25 years.