BY PAUL T HORGAN
It may be no exaggeration to state that the most eagerly-awaited music album of 2003 was Kraftwerk’s Tour de France Soundtracks. While other acts may have had larger fanbases, Tour was Kraftwerk’s first album of original music for 17 years. Well, that is not entirely true, the title track had been released as a stand-alone single back in 1983. Tour de France was intended to appear on the still-born Techno-Pop that year, but the band, or at least its leading member, Ralf Hutter, decided to put a hold on release, but this also may have been due to his need to recover from a serious cycling accident he had in 1982. However, there may have been other reasons.
Kraftwerk are rightly seen as pop music pioneers from their breakthrough album Autobahn which eschewed the traditional instruments associated with pop and replaced them with synthesisers. Autobahn created a vivid tone picture of barrelling down a motorway. The album’s title track was whittled down from its 22-minute duration to a single that was a hit on the dance-floor, eclipsing previous synthesised offerings such as Chicory Tip’s Son of my Father, or Hot Butter’s Popcorn. It was followed up by a concept album Radio-Activity, a play on words as the tracks spoke about both radio stations and alpha particle emissions. Trans-Europe Express firmly established the band’s brand in pioneering use of electronic music but also in the image and style of the band. In an era of long-hair, and flares, the band were clean-cut, wearing suits and ties on stage. The lyrics were clipped, witty, and devoid of emotion, the polar opposite of the aural erogenous zones other bands strove to create.
Being known as pioneers has an in-built problem, which is that there is always the risk that there will be advances that overtake the pioneer. The Man-Machine was a disco-era album, but only one of the three tracks on side 1 of the vinyl album, The Robots, was any good. Georgio Morodor’s soundtrack album to Midnight Express seemed to have similar instrumentation, and the single The Chase was comparable or indeed superior to anything on Man Machine.
By 1979, the synthesiser had just about become affordable for the instrument to carve a new genre, synth-pop, in pop music, epitomised by Gary Numan’s successive No.1 singles in 1979, Are Friends Electric? and Cars. There were a profusion of bands making use of synthesisers as a lead instrument, mainly for the exotic sounds but remaining within a standard pop-song format, rather like repeatedly updating Telstar by The Tornadoes with new technology. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s (OMD) early repertoire could have been composed in the 1950s and rivalled Guy Mitchell for its melodic originality, only being distinctive for substituting electronic keyboards for Mitchell’s backing orchestra.
Kraftwerk came roaring back with 1981’s Computer World, easily their most influential album. Every track is a masterpiece and it cemented the band’s distinctive style. But the problem remained for the band, how to remain pioneers of their, er, craft? Our Daughter’s Wedding’s (ODW)1982 debut album Moving Windows owed a lot to Computer World and had built upon it, epitomised by the opening track Auto Music, which was an obvious homage to the title track on Computer World. ODW could be said to be a better Kraftwerk than Kraftwerk, and was more accessible. Despite this, ODW and their album disappeared without trace, which was a shame, but possibly inevitable, given shifting tastes.
Synth-pop was always going to be a fashion, and the retro visuals of the bands and their music videos edged in some cases towards the fascistic. The reaction, perhaps also inspired by opposition to the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, was a move towards acoustic instrumentation and rustic attire, such as in Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s Too-Rye-Ay and World Music, the latter using compositional styles outside the European tradition, epitomised by Paul Simon’s Graceland.
The early 1980s saw a revolution in synthesiser technology, where analogue oscillators capable of fat, dirty sounds, were progressively replaced with digital sound generators which had a much purer cleaner tones, such as on OMD’s Talking Loud and Clear, before being usurped by digital sampling technology, where any sound that could be captured and treated could be used to create music, such as in Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook. Digital recording techniques also allowed refinement of the acoustic environment and to make each track perfect. The master of this technology was Trevor Horn and his ZTT label, which seems like a tatlerised version of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and which bludgeoned its way into the charts with Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s controversial track Relax. Synth-pop morphed into Sophisti-pop, as bands made use of their new-found freedom to record any and every sound to try to create the perfect song. Tears For Fears mid-to-late 1980s releases are a prime example of this style.
And it is this rapid, perhaps overtaking, technological advancement that may have explained Kraftwerk’s failure to follow up immediately on Computer World. Their next album was in 1986, with Electric Cafe which was distinguished by making use of cutting-edge computer graphics on the album art and also in the video for the single Musique Non-Stop. However the tracks on the album suggested a creative fugue. Part of the melody for the track Sex Object recalled a fragment of the band’s 1977 Showroom Dummies, while the melody from the Electric Cafe track, was just a speeded up version of the main melody from the track Trans-Europe Express.
In the hiatus between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks, Kraftwerk in 1991 released The Mix, a greatest hits album with a difference, in that the band re-recorded all the tracks using state of the art-instrumentation and made it more dance-music oriented. In 2000 the band provided the music for the Expo 2000 exhibition in Hanover. Perhaps the band had accepted that they could no longer release albums of pioneering music, and with Soundtracks decided to remain in their self-created niche of concept albums creating an aural picture. Rather like the Rolling Stones, Kraftwerk became primarily a touring band, being able to command premium prices for a ticket to one of their shows.
In fact the best electronic music album of 2003 came from Canadian group Men Without Hats, a band that had a global hit with 1983’s Safety Dance but had been in the doldrums since, despite the album it came from, Rhythm of Youth, being quite good, the reason for their becalming probably being because synth-pop was seen as being on the way out.
On 2003’s No Hats Beyond This Point, every track is full of invention and atmosphere where the synthetic sounds enhance the passion. The best track for me is Christina’s World, but the entire album demonstrates a positive direction for synthesiser music. The band only partially managed to follow this up with 2012’s Love In The Age Of War, which was rather patchy and self-derivative with too much use of arpeggios in the melodies.
But back to Christina’s World. The quality of the track was such that I recalled it when I came across a American painting by the same name in a Doring Kindersley art book. I was surprised at the coincidence, as the lyrics do not suggest the visual image. Christina’s World, the painting, depicts in a realistic style a woman in the foreground reclining forward in a field of grass looking towards a farmhouse and outbuildings. Painted in the late 1940s, the subject was Anna Christina Olson, who had lost the ability to walk but refused to be wheelchair-bound, preferring to crawl everywhere. Its fame certainly on the other side of the Atlantic, caused it to be mentioned numerous times in other media, including in the film War On Everyone, something which prompted me to buy the DVD.
The well-photographed film is set in modern-day Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose clearly excellent natural lighting conditions and spacious scenery were also used for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. It is a retro-styled bad buddy-cop movie. The fact that reviewers from The Guardian were sniffy about it is surely a commendation. War On Everyone is a well-paced dark comedy about chasing the takings from a failed heist. It did not do so well at the box-office for no good reason, but is well worth your viewing time, and will reward repeat screenings. The dialogue is snappy as is the editing, but avoids being slavishly Tarantinoesque, despite being oh-so-marginally Reservoir Dogs-y. The villain is a black-hearted titled Englishman, but he does not monopolise the best lines. The director, John Michael McDonagh, was also responsible for The Guard and Calvary, which were both set in the Irish Republic, and are also worth your time.
Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.