By the great Nixonian depression of the mid-’70s we had lost in Viet Nam and were losing at the car dealers and appliance stores. German and Japanese companies located plants in the U.S. to take advantage of our cheaper labor and declining dollar. And Kraftwerk had their first American hit with “Autobahn.”
Disco music started catching on around the same time, and some of the best of it was being produced in West Germany, with American black singers like Donna Summer. Like Kraftwerk, disco was mechanized yet romantic, with a continental and transatlantic rather than strictly national character and audience. And like Kraftwerk, funk, and experimental “art” music, disco used a lot of chants and variations on repetitive riffs rather than songs with verses. Kraftwerk’s third American released record, Trans-Europe Express, was more tightly focused and melodic than the spacier Autobahn or Radio-Activity, with a kind of disco-ish beat. So it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise when it broke first as a disco hit and got airplay on black radio stations in New York City.
Nevertheless, it was astonishing to see it carried by a Black teenager or featured in a Times Square store window. Back then, West 42nd Street was a sort of poor people’s entertainment center, featuring a lot of movies with explicit sex and movies that were popular at the time about demons, monsters, and disasters. Not much like they tell me Rockefeller Mall is today.
Maybe because Kraftwerk looked so out of it on the covers of Trans-Europe Express and their next album The Man Machine. These were not four hip-looking white boys. As a clerk in a store I used to go to said, “They’ve got to be the four homeliest guys I’ve ever seen.” An international artistic pose, of course, which some even thought was a little on the neo-nazi side. I worried about that, but decided they were really neo-nerd, and found their out-of-it science-genius image an exorcism of my worst secret fears about how ridiculous those of us with white European (and especially German) genes could look.
I liked The Man Machine as much as Trans-Europe Express. It wasn’t quite as dreamy, sometimes the beat was too pronounced, and some of the cuts were closer to conventional songs, which were good, but not as novel. Almost as if they were aiming for a real pop hit. But all in all, it kept the eerie, tranquil, swinging stride they’d hit on Trans-Europe Express, and “Neon Lights” was as good as anything they’d ever done.
I loved them. Played loud they were good disco. Played soft they could soothe you to sleep. And played medium-soft we used to use them for practicing yoga. Avant-garde they may or may not have been, but Kraftwerk fit the relationship we had with our stereos back then better than any other music. Like the Beach Boys with cars, rock and roll, and freeways in the American West of the ’60s, Kraftwerk accepted and reflected what was at their disposal–a comfortable intimacy with advanced technology. They used “new” electronic instrumentations without getting thrown by them to unveil the romance, beauty, loneliness,and in-the-back-of-your-mind anxiety of modern, mobile, urban life.
Looking back, perhaps, the Man-Machine philosophy of Kraftwerk appears a little confusing and naive. But I never took all their pronouncements with complete sobriety. To me, they were the ideological underpinnings for some great pop music, as the not-always-profound hippie philosophies had at times produced great music in the ’60s. What was important, in both cases, wasn’t the isolated “theory,” but how the whole thing was expressed– directly, by implication, or even unconsciously–in the music.
Unfortunately, Trans-Europe Express was still breaking in some parts of the U.S. (southern roller rinks, for instance) after The Man Machine was released. The two records undercut rather than built each other, and The Man-Machine didn’t get picked up in New York City discos. So Kraftwerk decided they didn’t have a big enough audience to tour the Western hemisphere.
I like to think they could have been a moderately successful and influential group, that the industry and audience were just catching up. They turned out catchy music and striking images and were developing an interesting high-art-goofball pop strategy. Capitol was considering a disco-disc of cuts from both of the last two albums, to solve the problems from their accidental competition. Maybe that would have worked–the disco audience was the most open-minded of the time.
But we’ll never know. After the African invasions touched off the Russian-Chinese border clashes and the occupations of Italy and Poland, Ecotopia and Petrolia seceded. Then when the Columbia and Astoria reactors exploded, and Koch outlawed the unions and declared martial law, we had to flee New York.
I wasn’t able to follow what was left of the music scene that well, because Rolling Stone relocated in Australia, and we were no longer able to get it in what was being called Trotskyite Great Lakes-Quebec. But Kraftwerk, evidently, survived the Common Market purges, because a friend of mine, traveling in Free Japan, saw them at a nightclub in Tokyo frequented by refugees. For most of their show they did Marlene Dietrich songs seated at the synthesizers, but when a drunk demanded “disco, disco” they plugged in a battered automated drum and some tape loop mixers, smiled sadly, began to play, and chanted “We are standing here/exposing ourselves/we are storeroom dummies.” I wish I could have been there.
Things aren’t as bad here, by the way, as you might imagine. Although it takes a while to save up enough for a phonograph, they are imported, and we’re allowed to buy recorded music, which is better than those state-supported gamelan ensembles in Ecotopia. Even the ban on Elvis Presley is being lifted, and I’m thinking of buying some of his real old stuff if I can get it. The songs he recorded before he was in the army, stationed in Germany.