How Kraftwerk’s 'Computer World' Predicted the Soundtrack of Modern Life

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Maybe Kraftwerk had a time machine.

How else could they have known thirty years ago what the ambient symphony of everyday life would sound like? The mechanical chirp of the cell phone. The alert chime of an incoming text or email. The assortment of bleeps, buzzes and bloops that emanate from the microchip-based brains of everything from our laptops to our cars.

On the German quartet’s 1981 release Computer World, these synthetic sounds are woven into seven pulsing, intricate compositions that say: the future starts here.

If they sound eerily familiar now, think how they must have sounded back at a time when a Mac was a hamburger and a mouse was a rodent.

Kraftwerk was formed in 1970 when Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter, two classical music students at Düsseldorf College, got bored with studying the old powdered wig composers. Drawing on their love of synthesizers and experimental avant–garde sounds, they forged a style that they intended to be “machine-like” (Kraftwerk means “power plant”).

But it was no ordinary machine. It had heart and mystery, and it threw off sparks of warm-blooded melody along with piston-pumping, robotic dance beats. Kraftwerk’s sound became a blueprint for so much that followed - from techno and house to trance and hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa’s Kraftwerk-based song “Planet Rock” is often called the birth of hip-hop) – that you could argue they rank with The Beatles as the group who’ve cast the widest influence on popular music (Kraftwerk has also been sampled by hundreds of artists, from Madonna to Beck to Fergie).

In 1981, as the personal home computer was making its first tiny inroads into our lives, it seemed to align perfectly with the cyborg ideal that had already been implicit in Kraftwerk’s music for a decade. To celebrate what they saw as a new revolution, the band created an album honoring the computer. Song titles included “Home Computer,” “Computer Love” and “It’s More Fun To Compute.” The music was played using all synthetic instruments – from synthesizers and drum machines to Texas Instruments pocket calculators and Speak & Spell devices. It was a preview of how music would increasingly be made in the 21st century.

Moreover, in its sparse, spoken lyrical observations, the album also predicted the loneliness of cyber-romance (“Another lonely night at the screen”), the idea of privacy-threatening interconnectedness (“Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard”) and even the binary code of the coming digital age (“You are just a number and I ain’t got a name”).

In short, Computer World was a postcard from the future, signed by four very prescient musicians.

December 22, 2011 - 10:53am
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