Episode Three: The Kraftwerk Legacy

“Forgive and forget, Major. Or at least pretend that we do.” (Basil Fawlty)

My mother never quite forgave the Germans after “they” killed her cat in the Blitz. That sad event occurred in November 1940, but growing up in ‘70s Britain felt like the war had just ended. My uncle meanwhile was taught in a playground after the obliteration of his school in the same raid, which made him rather resentful towards Germany as well. Comedy goose-stepping on ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Colditz’ on Monday nights, ‘The Great Escape’ on Boxing Day. Annoyingly Bayern Munich and West Germany had mastered the game “we” had introduced to the world, which only deepened our misgivings towards “them”.

So, as a kid, a vague mistrust of Germans was in all us kids’ DNA.

Which might explain why the Krautrock of Can, New and Faust rather passed us by. The arty kids swapped Genesis and Yes albums, the angry ones wore jackets with Deep Purple written on the back. Those crypto-communists who sat at the back in Biology meanwhile had started getting into punk rock; they wore torn t-shirts and ripped jeans to the Youth Club disco. No love for any Germans anywhere here. Certainly not for a bunch of keyboard players from Dusseldorf.

You might say that the Beatles were unique but that someone else would have invented the “machine music” of Kraftwerk. In a way, that’s true. The motorik beat which Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider established is instantly recognisable, like the Bo Diddley riff. But it’s not impossible to imagine a world which would have found out about the potential for electronically driven beat-rock through other means. Like the theory of evolution, Wallace and Darwin were getting there at the same time. 

However one thing that does get sometimes missed in tributes to the group is how they harnessed the rhythm of automation to the melody which sat on top. Kraftwerk in fact gave us great tunes. But they also invented a new language in which to hear them, the language of technology (analogue back then). When samplers and synthesisers and other production aids became affordable and more widely available a little while later, the template Kraftwerk had established proved endlessly fertile, through to the present day. Then came computers for all.

New wave and post-punk kids got into them early. Simple Minds, The Associates, The Human League, Joy Division/New Order, and onwards. Bowie had got there first, naturally, writing V2-Schneider in ‘77. White men with machines. But the law of unintended consequences had an amusing trick up its sleeve. Those haughty Germans who we all thought we knew, with their dubious beliefs and Aryan arrogance, turned out to be far more ethnically malleable than Emerson Lake and Palmer, Black Sabbath or even The Ramones. 

Hip hop and house music owe a major debt to Kraftwerk: all the way back in 1986, Africa Bambataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ sampled Numbers and Trans Europe Express. I guess it’s quite a neat little reversal that the whites finally gave black people something back, musically. And then it got passed back to the white people again - Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, LCD Soundsystem, and on it goes.

I’ve just done some online fossicking and unearthed a rather startling - to my mind - statistic. In a recent survey, citizens of various countries were invited to give their views on Germany’s influence, whether positive or negative. The U.K. has a net positive score of 77%, trailing only South Korea and Australia! Not something my mother would have predicted when she was burying Tibby.

 

TRACKLIST

Trans Europe Express, Kraftwerk

Travel, Simple Minds

Cars, Gary Numan

Tell Me Easter’s On A Friday, The Associates

Incubation, Joy Division

Seconds, The Human League

The Model, Kraftwerk

Your Silent Face, New Order

Planet Rock, Afrika Bamabataa

Xtal, Aphex Twin

Roygbiv, Boards of Canada

Harder Better Faster Stronger, Daft Punk

Losing My Edge, LCD Soundsystem

Episode Two: Sci Fi

“He taught me to play a song. If you’d like to hear it, I will play it for you.”

Too much information about to unfold. That little excerpt of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey was on the turntable when I lurched at my wife-to-be for the first time, having plied her liberally with premium malt whisky left over from some focus groups I’d been conducting. It was sampled by A R Kane on A Love From Outer Space, (it will feature on a future podcast episode, whose theme is also science fiction). She’s still my wife now, many many years later, from which we can conclude it was a lurch that yielded an excellent return on investment.

Up until the psychedelic era science fiction was treated almost entirely as a joke. The Ran-dells, for example, had a hit with The Martian Hop in 1963, a one-off novelty record, if ever there was one. Since then comedy is a theme that’s never entirely gone away. In the late ‘80s, The Firm had a number one with Star Trekkin’, while The Timelords found success with Doctorin’ the Tardis. Spizz Energi’s Where’s Captain Kirk? and Area 52 by Yeah Yeah Yeahs provide our own quota of knockabout interplanetary japes. 

In the psychedelic era, space became a Serious Subject for the first time, especially when handled by Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd: Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive and Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun - all the way through to The Dark Side of the Moon itself. Then there was Bowie, of course. The seminal space songs are his: Ziggy Stardust, Starman, Space Oddity.  It helps that he looked like an alien, I suppose, a coincidence he put to excellent effect in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

When I initially thought about this theme I worried that it might prove limiting, but such is not the case. There are genuinely moving tracks here - especially Teenage Spaceship by Smog, Sufjan Stevens’ Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, and Modest Mouse’s Space Travel is Boring in the Sun Kil Moon version. Meanwhile you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel sympathy for the Roswell alien who ended up in army crates and photographs in files, when all he wanted was a holiday on some friendly star in Pixies’ Motorway to Roswell.

Space travel, UFOs, aliens can all lead to epic artistic statements in the hands of great film directors. There is some wonderful science fiction in literature - I well remember the effect John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids had on me as an eleven year old, though I never penetrated much further into the genre. I’m quietly impressed by my own efforts with this podcast (which is just as well) that could have been either throwaway or portentous, but I hope has managed to be neither. Please enjoy the result.

 

TRACKLIST

Motorway to Roswell, Pixies

Area 51, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Where’s Captain Kirk?, Spizz Energi

3rd Planet, Modest Mouse

Every Planet We Reach Is Dead, Gorillaz

Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft, The Carpenters

Concerning the UFO Incident Near Highland, Sufjan Stevens

Space Travel Is Boring, Sun Kil Moon

Teenage Spaceship, Smog

Girl from Mars, Ash

Wings, The Fall

Dr Who Theme, Ron Granger

Ashes to Ashes, David Bowie

Episode One: British Female Post Punk Icons

Don't create, don't rebel. Have intuition. Don't drive well.

It's been said (by who?, as wikipedia would say - answer: can't remember) that the last three years of the 1970s produced more great music than the average decade. Post punk is central to the Sombrero Fallout agenda, and is the main reason for the fertile seam of that period. But this episode double filters the data. First, female artists. Then, British. What sort of sample does that leave us?

Typical girls get upset too quickly. Typical girls can't control themselves.

One that is 'highly robust', in market research terminology. The anger of punk paradoxically liberated women to create a new voice within alternative music. That voice was not monolithic or proscribed. There was no canonical template, no Jessie J on The Voice, to explain what would sell. It was a brief moment in time when everyone had license to do their own thing and women to go their own way.

Typical girls don't think too clearly. Typical girls are unpredictable.

Of course, not much of this music did sell, which was a problem. The groups featured in the British Female Post Punk Icons came together for a few singles, an album or two, and then generally faded from view. Not all of them. Siouxsie and the Banshees had a long and varied career. But what wouldn't we give for a ten-album box set from Young Marble Giants or X Ray Spex? Imagine that.

Typical girls feel like hell. Typical girls worry about spots, fat and natural smells.

In these diverse times, its easy to forget how patronised women must have felt in the late 1970s, in a Britain where it was OK to joke about rape on sitcoms. On this podcast you can hear groups like The Raincoats and The Slits slyly, amusedly fighting back against the male orthodoxies of the day.

Can't decide what clothes to wear...typical girls are cruel and bewitching.

It must have taken some chutzpah to inhabit this new identity. Their fellow male punk travellers were generally supportive, but in this version of Britain men didn't change nappies, couldn't cook, prevented their daughters from attending university. A Britain closer to The Handmaid's Tale than The Female Eunuch.  

And there's another marketing ploy. Typical girls gets the typical boy.

It would be a mistake to think nothing has changed in the last forty years. And some of that is down to the influence of the female bands in this podcast episode, raising feminist consciousness via their novel take on what punk rock could mean to the disenfranchised women of Britain.

"(The Raincoats) seemed like ordinary people playing extraordinary music. They had enough confidence to be vulnerable and to be themselves without having to take on the mantle of male rock/punk rock aggression...or the typical female as sex symbol avec irony or sensationalism." (Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth).

 

Tracklist

Hong Kong Garden, Siouxsie and the Banshees

C30, C60, C90 Go, Bow Wow Wow

Getting Nowhere Fast, Girls At Our Best

Germ Free Adolescents, X-Ray Spex

It's Obvious, the Au Pairs

Typical Girls, The Slits

German Film Star, The Passions

Anticipation, Delta 5

On My Radio, The Selecter

No Side To Fall In, The Raincoats

Nature Intended The Abstract, Young Marble Giants

Song to the Siren, This Mortal Coil

Knife Slits Water, A Certain Ratio

Dead Pop Stars, Altered Images