Tag Archives: Kraftwerk

Kraftwerk – human after all

Regular Goldfish readers will know that I love Kraftwerk, I’ve written about them here and here and I’ve also written a Toppermost post on them. I have loved their music for over 30 years now and they are up there with The Beatles and The Durutti Column and The Kingsbury Manx in my pantheon of perfect music. New music from Kraftwerk is very rare so has always been greeted with much reverence and attention.

I can still remember that first listen to “Electric Cafe” in the Autumn of 1986, scouring the sleeve for clues, why did it sound so pared down, where were rich European melodies? There were hints – a moment in “Boing boom Tschak” where a counterpoint bass line appears two minutes into the song, and I thought “Oh this is where it gets going” only it didn’t. There was too much emphasis on rhythm tracks and not enough song craft for me back then, the balance between the two had slipped in the wrong direction.  Of course “The Telephone Call” was wonderful, and “Sex Object” had a peculiar grandeur to it, but my main memory of that first listen was the section of “Techno Pop” where Ralf or Florian play a sequence over and over while paging through presets on their DX7. Later I changed my mind, realised that the rhythm was where electronic music was heading and

When “The Mix” album was issued in 1991 it became part of the soundtrack of my finest summer, bought in June on CD, my first Kraftwerk CD, which then encouraged me to buy the rest of their catalogue in that format (it was “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine” bought a week later alongside “Cupid and Psyche 85” in a HMV three for twenty quid offer, my CDs still have the stickers on then). Even the “Tour De France” CD single all was greeted with joy, even if it didn’t contain the original 12” mix. “Expo 2000” may have been little more than a jingle but the remixes were special. By the time the “Tour De France Soundtracks” album had been issued in 2003, I was a member of an online music forum which went nuts on the album and I wrote some pertinent words which people seemed to agree with, which I found strange. People usually didn’t agree with me on music, now I was in a community which loved and cared about music as much as I did, and I still speak online with some of the people in that community thanks to Twitter, and consider them to be friends. You know who you are. But after 2003, new music was not forthcoming. They played live, the shows were spectacular, the live album “Minimum Maximum” was rather good, but there was nothing new. Even welcome remasters of the back catalogue in 2009 just brought more frustration – why the move away from the original sleeves? Why were the credits changing? After Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008, Ralf Hutter turned Kraftwerk into an artefact – playing their eight albums in consecutive concerts in art galleries and special places, such as the Museum Of Modern Art and the Tate Modern. Even so, I never thought I would get the chance to see Kraftwerk live – the Tate Modern shows sold out ridiculously fast. I heard bootlegs and dreamt of the amazing 3D visuals.

I was surprised and excited then by the announcement of a proper UK tour during June 2017. Kraftwerk weren’t playing in Wales, well why should they? But Bristol is near enough for me. So when the tickets went on sale in October 2016 I was poised over the refresh button at 10am ready to purchase my dream ticket. But come the moment of reckoning, the tickets sold out within 10 seconds, the time it took me to choose where I wanted to sit in the venue and how many tickets I wanted. Those damn ticket buying robots had beaten me to it. Ten seconds and gone. I almost cried, my chance had been missed. A few days later my good friend Ray from Country Mile Records told me how he had purchased two tickets directly from the venue but again by the time I checked the Colston Hall website they were gone.

I settled for the next best thing – I ordered the “3D Catalogue” 8 CD set and waited for it to arrive two days after my birthday at the end of May. This box set was live recordings of their eight albums as they had been played during their “Catalogue” concerts, and I couldn’t wait to hear them, to hear songs from side two of “Autobahn” in the new format, or even the songs from “Electric Café” like “Sex object” and “The telephone call”. How would these songs be adapted? Would there be audience noise like on “Maximum Minimum”?

It has been tricky explaining the 3D set to people who don’t know or care about Kraftwerk. For a start, there are people who just don’t understand how important Kraftwerk are. How their visions of the future back in the seventies – totally electronic music, people communicating by computers, the robots in our lives, the man and machine in ‘perfect’ harmony – are now so commonplace that we don’t even think about them. Also how much influence they have had on music, from the electro pop of the 80s, through hip hop, techno and beyond. While Kraftwerk have not issued any new music since 2003, they have continued to reinvigorate their back catalogue, as the live shows have demonstrated, updating the songs to be played with the latest technology at their disposal.  It’s a hard analogy to explain. While some artists have recreated individual albums for live concerts, there have been few examples of an artist playing their entire catalogue live (I can only think of Sparks doing this beside Kraftwerk). Other electronic pioneers have reinterpreted some of their albums – Tangerine Dream were notorious for this, and more often than not any later version of “Phaedra” just didn’t have the same atmosphere as the original 1974 version, those charmingly out of tune Moogs and mellotrons. Surely Kraftwerk wouldn’t fall into the same trap?

The 3D box did not disappoint. OK, a little more information would have been useful – for instance where the albums or tracks were recorded other than a list of venues they have played. But once the car door slams at the start of “Autobahn” on CD1, the listener is immersed in Kraftwerk’s world. I did try and listen to all eight albums in one sitting but it didn’t seem fair – I felt I should devote myself to each album a little while to pick up nuances and differences. For a start, the music is shiny, gleaming and perfect. The quality of the sound design is faithful to the original albums in places but updated in different ways. “Autobahn” is still an emotional journey, I’ve found myself moved to tears during the final part of the song itself, while the four songs on side two merge into a lovely medley – “Kometenmelodie 1” stills sounds abstract and a link back to the three albums before it, while “Kometenmelodie 2” is as good as pop instrumental as you’ll find. “Mitternacht” merges into “Morgenspaziergang” nicely, and maybe it is the first time I noticed that the melody of the latter is slightly adapted from one of the sections in “Autobahn” – and how long have I been listening to the “Autobahn” album? “Radioactivity” is a revelation – each individual piece is brilliant anyway, but some of the new interpretations are startling and wonderful, not least “Airwaves” which now shows how much Giorgio Moroder took from Kraftwerk back in the day. I would have liked “Transistor” and “Ohm sweet ohm” to last forever, quite frankly, “Trans Europe Express” is possibly the weakest of the new interpretations to my ears, the medley of “Franz Schubert” into “Endless Endless” into “Europe Endless” works well, and Hutter’s voice cracks on some lines here, But here the new versions aren’t different enough, or maybe that’s just me. “The Man Machine” and “Computer World” though are perfect – the right combination of sounding like the originals but with new elements. These are the most played albums in the set for me, and frankly I can’t find much to say about them. They are respectful but modern, which is a hard trick to pull off successfully. “Neon lights”, “Home computer”, “The man machine”, “Computer love”…. the “It’s more fun to compute” / “Home computer” medley is absolutely spellbinding. There’s a slight hint of something not quite right about “Pocket Calculator” which I think is an extra beat in the rhythm track but what the hell, I’m splitting hairs here. “Techno Pop” is a revelation – the beats are stronger, the music richer… “The telephone call” losing its vocal (but then that was Karl Bartos who hasn’t been a member for many decades), and “Sex object” gains the original insistent bassline from the unreleased 1983 version. “The Mix” set is especially designed for headphones, being a 3D sound design exercise and is excellent, and also includes “Planet of visions” – the new version of “Expo 2000”. Finally “Tour De France Soundtracks” is the most similar to its original version, but still sounds fantastic – “Vitamin” has been given a spring in its step, “Aerodynamic” is full of propulsion and “Le Forme” is graceful and mournful. Much like the closing “Golden slumbers” medley on “Abbey Road”, this song feels like the last piece of music the band will make and has a strange emotional pull for me. All in all, the 3D boxed set is a success.

A few days after receiving the 3D set, I happened to take a look at the Colston Hall website and was amazed to see they had a few tickets available. I didnt hang around, I bought one, and then waited patiently for the ticket to arrive. Had it all been a strange fever dream? Was it a con? Had I paid money for nothing? Eventually the ticket arrived and it was true, I was going to see Kraftwerk after all. I arranged transport with Ray and counted down the days until Saturday arrived. I still couldn’t believe it – I had loved Kraftwerk since 1983, and now I was going to see them. How would I cope? There was a sense of anticipation outside and inside the Colston Hall, we were handed our 3D glasses on entry and I found my seat in the stalls and settled down, taking the obligatory shot of the glasses and putting it on Twitter. I felt quite young, looking at the audience. There were fans dressed up like the “Man Machine” cover – red shirts, black ties. The man beside me asked if I’d seen them before, I said I hadnt. He told me he saw them in Poland – “Prepare to be amazed”.

At 8pm, the lights dimmed, and the vocodor introduced the band in the dark, the curtains swung open, revealing the four workstations and the numbers started, literally. 12345678 12345678. The numbers flashed onscreen and swung over our heads, the beats kicked in and Kraftwerk strolled on and stood at their stations and we were off. While nobody was expecting much in terms of showmanship from the Germans, the 3D visuals made up for it. Admittedly I didnt get the full benefit as I only have vision in my right eye, so I had to take everyone else’s word for it about what was happening, but the audience reaction let me know that the visuals were an absolute blast. Having absorbed the 3D box, I knew how the music would sound but even still there was room to improvise, beats were louder and stronger, sections were extended, melodies changed and melded. “Home computer” was brilliant, even better than the recorded version. “Computer love” had a natural ebb and flow, “The man machine” swung, “Neon lights” was awesome – Hutter’s vocal was awestruck, as if he was seeing the lights for the first time. “Spacelab” had amazing visuals, a satellite flying over the audience’s heads (eliciting a huge “whoooo” from the crowd), then a spacecraft flying over Bristol. “Autobahn” seemed to be marred by problems, Hutter looked like he was battling his workstation, filter sweeps appearing the wrong places, were there problems with the machines? “Autobahn” was swiftly dispatched, losing its melancholy closing section which was a shame. “Airwaves” was a shock, a surprise and an absolute blast, while “Radioactivity” had sub bass to die for, and blasted away any remnants of worry. “Electric Cafe” was also a pleasant surprise. “Tour De France” merging into “Etape 1” was marvellous, the sprint of “Chrono” sounding better than ever. Finally “Trans Europe Express” and more problems – there were no vocals at all (bar a few vocodor interjections), a purely instrumental version, had Hutter’s microphone failed? He didn’t look happy at all. The curtains closed for the end of the main set.

Next came “The Robots”, and even these were slightly different to the version on the box set. Were the members of Kraftwerk playing instruments behind the scenes while we watched their robotic counterparts? Who knows. Still a startling vision of pop without human input. The curtains closed again.

As the curtains reopened, Hutter spoke to us – “Life is better with a microphone”. “Aero Dynamic” was a thrilling encore, Hutter clearly enjoying himself, the bass throbbing out. “Planet of visions” was almost unrecognisable (unless you knew the DJ Orlando mix), sounding like a new piece of music, and the members were clearly revelling in it, adjusting the sounds and the visuals to reflect their happiness – all four members were tapping their toes and shaking their legs as the song heralded the links between Germany and Detroit. Finally the “Boing Boom Tschack” / “Techno pop” / “Musique Non Stop” medley which frankly could have lasted forever for me, i never wanted this to end. The ending of the concert will stay with me forever, I won’t spoil the pleasure for those who have yet to see it. The standing ovation from the crowd was well deserved, and the band seemed touched by the response to their music. Hutter took a bow, touched his heart and sent out a kiss, the man machine was human after all

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Was it one of the best concerts I’ve seen. Absolutely. Will I remember it forever? Absolutely.

Kraftwerk deserve their place as innovators, both in music and as a visual show. They have made themselves into a work of art and should be treasured. Enjoy them while they are still here.

Tiny words

A few weeks ago while I was writing my piece on “Radio Activity”, I happened to ask Toppermost if anyone had written a Top 10 of Kraftwerk thinking “Of course someone’s done Kraftwerk, only one of the most important bands in music history…”. But I was wrong, so I wrote one for them. You may like to read it here. As ever I would recommend you have a look around the site, there’s always something good to read and listen to there. (Other excellent music blogs are available too – Then Play Long is currently in a real purple patch of great writing at the moment). Anyway, apologies if I keep writing about Kraftwerk…

Another little point while I’m here. I’m taking a little break from writing for a while, what with Easter holidays coming up and everything. I’m working on two pieces for the end of the month – one for the 30th April (again?) and one for the 3rd May over at Toppermost – and there’s another one or two after that but beyond that point I have no plans to write for a little while. At the moment that ‘little while’ could be days or weeks or months. We’ll just see what happens. I might be inspired to write again, or I might not. We’ll see when we get there. In the meantime thank you to everyone who’s helped me along and supported me – you know who you are and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

When airwaves swing distant voices sing

14th July 1984 isn’t a day that screams history in the making. Nothing important happened that day. It was a Saturday, a hot sunny day as most July Saturdays should be. But it was an important day because it was the first day of our summer holiday. Usually our family holidays were during the Whitsun break at the end of May – which is why so many holidays coincided with my birthday. We’d already spent a week in a caravan in the Oxford area towards the end of April, and that break will appear soon in a forthcoming blog post. But this holiday was different, we were going abroad for the first time.

The whole family were packed into our metallic brown Datsun Bluebird and we headed off towards London down the M4. We negotiated through the centre of London as best we could – these were the days before the M25 was fully in use – and headed towards Dover. The excitement was building, and as we reached Dover I was half excited and half bored by the travelling. So I wrote a song. It was called “The way we were” and had a verse and chorus and melody and arrangement all worked out in my head by the time we’d left the ferry in Calais. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back seat as my father drove us through customs with the song circling around my head.

We carried on through winding French roads until we reached our destination – a two bedroom gite in Normandy. I can’t remember which town it was in, but it wasn’t very big. The gite itself was charming and rustic – lots of stone floors, a big fireplace in the living room, a huge wooden dining table with chairs around it. My brother and I shared the same bedroom with two single beds, my parents had a very soft double bedroom for themselves. It was idyllic.

Then we realised why it was so idyllic and quiet. 14th July was Bastille Day. A day when everyone bangs a big drum and goes “Hey-oo hey-oo” a lot. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that). Bastille Day is a public holiday in France so everything was shut. We struggled to find some basic provisions for the next day or so and determined to find a hypermarket as soon as we could.

I don’t think there was a TV at the gite and if there was we wouldn’t have understood it. We felt cut off from civilisation and it was quite nice to be that way. My brother and I had little silver transistor radios which could still pick up British radio and I remember hearing John Peel playing “Teenage kicks” one evening, as he was liable to do. I’d brought a copy of Melody Maker and Smash Hits to read and they were soon read from cover to cover. I’m not sure what my brother was reading, but I soon ended up reading the book my mother had brought along – “The Thorn Birds”. I’m pretty sure I read it from cover to cover that holiday. I can still see the red cover, the hefty number of pages… And it had some dirty bits which the teenage me would read over and over.

Every morning my father and I would walk into the nearby town, wander into the patisserie and I’d say “Deux baguettes and un pain, sil vous plait” and feel quite happy with myself. I’d given up French after three years in school (it hadn’t helped when I tripped over the cable of an overhead projector in my French class in ’83, pulling it onto the floor where it smashed…) and could barely remember any of it. That was about as far as I got with French. We could just about cope with restaurants and menus and my parents and I indulged ourselves on local produce and seafood, lots of bread and cheese and languistines every day. My brother on the other hand hated the food and refused to eat much at all.

On the Monday we finally located a hypermarket and spent a few hours looking around in wonder at such a place. In the mid eighties, huge supermarkets were incredibly rare in Wales. There was a hypermarket called Carrefour in Caerphilly which we had visited once around 1980, buying a black and white portable TV from there. But even supermarkets were scarce around Penarth at the time. There was Leos halfway down Penarth Road which was a standard supermarket with nothing too posh. There was another supermarket on the outskirts of Barry which we visited sometimes, and the largest supermarket to us was actually in Rogerstone near Newport. We visited there once in 1981 and I remember it well, not least because it was so enormous at the time. Twelve years later that Asda was long demolished and a new housing estate was built on it, and I bought my first house there. By my reckoning I lived on the toy aisle. But this hypermarket in France was immense. Aisle after aisle of food and drink and any other product you could want, all in a huge brightly lit warehouse, white everywhere. My brother and I gravitated to the music and hifi section, where we found cheap and cheerful little cassette players. Of course they had real Sony Walkmans, but we didn’t have the money for that. So Andrew and I each bought a cheap Walkman-a-like – mine was red and his was blue. Or was it the other way round? Little headphones with orange ear pads too. A pack of batteries each and we were ready to enter the world of the personal stereo. Would life ever be the same again?

But what to listen to? Neither of us had brought any tapes because we weren’t really expecting to need them. I continued to look around the hypermarket and found their music section, all vinyl and tapes. No point buying vinyl here, can’t play it. (That didn’t stop me buying the LP of “Tangram” by Tangerine Dream a day or so later for a few francs). Looking through the cassettes I spotted an album I wanted but didn’t have. I purchased it and from there “Radio Activity” by Kraftwerk soundtracked that holiday.

“Radio Activity” is an album that doesn’t really get mentioned much. It was unfortunate in the fact it came after the breakthrough of “Autobahn” in 1974 and the great leap forward of “Trans Europe Express” in 1977. But it is the first album by the classic Ralf Florian Karl Wolfgang line-up, the first all electronic album by the band. All traces of long hair and hippie-ness have been shed. Inside the sleeve there’s a picture of the four piece band, neat short hair, all in suits, showing off the sticks used for their electronic drum kits. It’s a vision of the future but the styling of the picture makes it look like the 1920s. Odd. (A note – I’ve found a picture of the tape I had on Discogs, as it was a French edition, so that’s at the top of this piece).

I always felt “Radio Activity” had an affinity to OMD’s “Dazzle Ships”. They have the same number of tracks, a similar format of longer songs interspersed with shorter experimental pieces, and there’s a similar worldview, an obsession with radio to communicate – hell, “Dazzle ships” has a song called “Radio waves” which would fit nicely amongst “Radio land” and “Radio stars”. Even in my dimwitted know nothing state in 1984 I believed there was a correlation between the albums as “Radio activity” and “Dazzle ships” were fourth albums following big third album breakthroughs with “Autobahn” and “Architecture and morality” (not knowing at the time that the “Kraftwerk” double LP on Vertigo I’d picked up in June was actually two separate albums put together in the UK).

“Geiger counter” is exactly what it says it is, a collection of thumps slowly increasing in speed as something radioactive approaches,, as a repeated bass note sets the tempo for the title track. (Side note – when I bought a Roland SH3a mono synth in May ’85 it was obvious this synth had been used on “Radio Activity” – I could recreate a lot of the synthesised sounds almost perfectly – set up two square wave oscillators an octave apart, use the reverse sawtooith LFO to modulate the VCA and VCF, turn down the VCF cutoff frequency, set the VCA envelope to full sustain and hold down a note – instant “Radio Activity” bass sequence. You can thank me later). “Radio Activity” has one of Kraftwerk’s most beautiful melodies and it glides gracefully over a rich arrangement full of Orchestron chords, sonar blips and squeals to signify radio noise and lots of crashing synthesised drums, again filtered white noise really. It must have sounded so weird in 1975. The vocals alternate between German and English – the first and only time this would happen, from hereon in they would release two versions of their albums – entirely in English or entirely in German. It is unclear if the radioactivity is of the nuclear kind or the radio waves kind. A later version on “The Mix” would make the song more explicitly anti-nuclear but for now the ambiguity is fine. As the song fades out, “Radio land” fades in. Built on a simple boom boom tap rhythm (sorry, I can’t describe it any better than that – although saying it’s a synthesised version of the percussion that starts “Caroline No” may be more accurate – another Beach Boys reference after “Autobahn”?)) it is slower again and strangely moving. My O level German came in handy and I could translate a lot of this song myself which I was pleased about. There’s more Orchestron lines and more synths making bleep and booster noises between verses. But most of all there is that synthetic early vocodor singing. This really scared me at the time. I’d heard enough vocodors to know they’re OK, but this was so primitive, so gutteral that it worried me. There’s one precise moment where it sounds like the vocodor’s vocal chords are tearing out, and that scared the shit out of me. One final blast of ascending oscillators (my Roland could do all these noises too) and we’re into “Airwaves”, the fastest song so far and a little gem. A simple melody is stated, Ralf and Florian sing together in unison and already in the background if you listen closely (and I did listen closely) you can hear the hissing of their primitive drum machine, then boom it all dives in. Melody, basslines, drum machine. It’s pure motorik actually. They change key and slip into English – “When airwaves swing, distant voices sing”, then back to the original key for a verse in German and then… They have a synth solo battle! A melody starts on the left side of the stereo, and starts to solo… And on the right side another synth starts soloing too. They criss cross on notes, always sympathetic to each other, sometimes hitting the same notes, swinging up and down octaves – I can see Ralf and Florian facing each other playing these solos at each other, grinning with sheer joy. Who needs duelling guitars anyway? The song returns to the verse, then swings back to another quick synth duel and at one point I swear you can hear Ralf or Florian shout “Oh, I like it” in the background. Absolute fucking joy. The song fades out as another synth plays ascending notes. That’s “Intermission”, over in less than a minute. Then beep beep beep and “News”. Multiple recordings of news broadcasts with their little synthesised jingles played over each other. Just like “Time zones” by OMD! See? See? Suddenly “Dazzle Ships” sounds less innovative. End of side one.

“The voice of energy” is a spoken word piece in German which again I could translate quite easily – that vocodor not quite breaking its vocal chords this time. Mercifully short. “Antenna” is back to pulsing motorik and is delightful, but not as special as “Airwaves”. It’s an odd song, relentless but with hints of melody throughout – after the “play the piano” line, an ascending synth melody appears to never be played again. These little things matter. And it sounds like there’s two percussionists at last – the polyrhythmic complexity of “Computer world” starts here. “Radio Stars” is a bit of a drag, all echoing voices and repeating noises and it does try my patience. Luckily it fades into “Uranium” and I’m spotting where New Order nicked the choir sound for “Blue Monday”. Another spoken word piece. Side two hasn’t had the highs of side one so far, but things can change. A small twiddle of a radio dial introduces “Transistor”, a short instrumental piece which is one of my favourite Kraftwerk songs. It slowly increases in volume, and about 20 seconds in the song blossoms into stereo and the full glory of the glistening synth lines echoing across the stereo spectrum is revealed. It’s beautiful and melodic, no percussion at all, just pure synthesised heaven and there’s one momentary second where someone play a slightly wrong note and it sets the whole song on edge. Then after two minutes it dissolves into a wall of echoes. But it’s a lovely piece and I’ve not heard much similar since – the only song I could say it influenced is “Zoetrope” by Boards of Canada, another song with a similar grace and beauty. The closing track is “Ohm sweet ohm”. A vocodored voice repeats the joke a few times slowly then a sustained note fades in and the song starts. A melody is slowly stated alongside bass and one drum track, then the song starts to increase in speed gradually as another synth plays the melody and another drum track is introduced. And as the song progresses the synths play off each other, increasing in complexity as the speed increases. And both drum tracks play off each other too, sometimes playing together and sometimes against each other. You really get a feeling of motion, of progression, of four musicians totally in sync with each other. Also there’s a real sense of melancholy in the music, in the tones used, and yet hope too. It brings a tear to my eye even now. I could happily have that song carry on for another few minutes at least.

“Radio Activity” is a strange record then. Misunderstood at the time – how dare they praise nuclear energy? – and not well received by all accounts. In a way it’s the last vestiges of their experimental beginnings, their final attempt to incorporate environmental sounds into their music. I also feel it’s their last truly German album – after the album’s release they toured America and were introduced to the disco aesthetic that would lead to “Trans Europe Express” being partly mixed at The Record Plant in Los Angeles, and their influence on black music really started from “TEE” onwards. But it’s a good album with some of Kraftwerk’s least well known music on it. Worth a relisten, if only for “Airwaves”, “Ohm sweet ohm” and “Transistor”.

So that tape became the soundtrack to the holiday in France. Every night I’d listen to it in bed, letting the music get under my skin. Nothing else special happened on the holiday – we just chilled out, nobody had any accidents or got lost (cough Guernsey cough) and ate some great food. On the last night the whole family went to a posh restaurant on the seafront and I had a “fruits de mer” which was the first (and last) time I had oysters. The rest was lovely though, and it was one of the best weeks for food I’ve ever had. (See, this is why my diary had a reputation for being about girls, music and food…)

Finally we set off for the long return journey home. My first car journey with my own choice of music – the tyranny of my father’s choice in music in the car was over. (Only kidding, I hope it’s obvious from previous posts that I loved the music my father played in the car). I think I may have been unwell on the ferry, probably due to the oysters the night before. But the main memory of the journey was returning to Wales. It was late at night and dark, and as we travelled over the Severn Bridge “Transistor” kicked in on my personal stereo. In my half awake and slightly car-sick state, the twinkling of the synthesised melodies mingled with the blurred orange sodium lights passing by on the bridge to create a magical moment for me. Whenever I hear “Transistor” I’m returned to the back seat of that Datsun Bluebird, feeling slightly car-sick but elated to have such a perfect moment of place and music together. And “Ohm sweet ohm” never sounded sweeter than when we reached Penarth. It would be our first and last family holiday abroad, but it was a lovely time.

(Oh, and happy birthday Mum!)

Next time – Wish I was sleeping…

UPDATE – 23/3/14

The unexpected advantage of seeing my parents this weekend was that they confirmed that it was St Marlot where we stayed. They also confirmed that my brother did indeed hate every minute abroad. But they argued that it was 1982 not ’84. But it wasn’t, it was ’84.

Computer Love

I loved the Smiths at the time, but I’m still not going to write about them. They weren’t that important to me. There were other bands and artists out there who spoke more directly to my heart, then and now. Don’t get me wrong. I bought all the albums and taped the songs off Peel and read the interviews and all the rest, but even then I didn’t think they were the greatest band in the world. Good – yes. Excellent sometimes – undoubtably. “The Queen Is Dead” as best album ever with “The Stone Roses”? No. I liked them, some of it sounds good and some of it sounds of its time, and we’re all older now. And that’s partly the point – my favourite line from any Smiths song is from “Shakespeare’s sister” – “Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” Absolutely spot on. Looking back on a time you thought was dreadful can make you reassess whether it was as bad as it seemed at the time. Context is everything. In the grand scheme of things, does somebody changing their hairstyle matter that much? Not really.

The Autumn term of 1983 was one of those times. I remember it as dark and dreary, walks home from school as the sun goes down, hiding in classrooms and no laughter in corridors, bullying and misunderstanding and being worried all the time and wondering where it will all end, and bloody hell WHY HAS SHE CHANGED HER HAIRSTYLE? But now, well it wasn’t that bad, was it?

It was our fourth year in secondary school so it was time to choose our O Levels. This was when I decided to cut my losses and give up on subjects I was clearly crap at – like biology and geography and music and art. I’d studied three years of music up to that point and all it had been was scales and modes and notation and not one single chance to relate a note on a stave to a sound made by a musical instrument. I was always hopeless at art, didn’t care for biology or geography, so that was that. I was more scientific and language based so I studied Latin. German, Physics, Chemistry, History and Computer Studies. Latin I quite enjoyed – not least because it was a small class and D (my first crush – see “April 30th and all that” – I’ll just call her D because she’ll get mentioned along the way) was in my class so I was happy to spend time with her. In fact I’m pretty sure she was in all my classes except German and Computer Studies, which was a subject I’d been waiting to start since …

Well since a long long time previously. My father worked for the GPO from the mid sixties onwards, but in the computer division, so he worked in a number of the GPO’s computer centres around the country – this is why my parents moved around a lot, from Cardiff to London to Derby to Leeds to Harpenden back to Cardiff again. My first memory of computers was my father taking me to the Leeds computer centre around 1975 and being surrounded by all these huge whirling tape machines and flashing lights and VDU terminals. My father fed in some paper cards, the tapes spun around and some lights flashed – it truly was like you see in films from that period. I was fascinated and wanted to know more. From time to time my father would take me into his work and I’d gaze longingly at these wonderous machines doing amazing things and I wanted to use them, to make them do what I wanted, I wanted to be a computer programmer and I told everyone that was my ambition from around the age of ten.

The first computer the school had was a big black box which was wheeled around on a trolly, used 8 inch floppy discs and cost the school thousands of pounds. We rarely saw it – our maths teacher demonstrated it to us in 1981 by playing noughts and crosses on it – but we were told it was very special and was hard to use. We wondered how the generally useless teachers in the school managed to use it. For Christmas in 1981 I was given a Sinclair ZX81 and learnt to program that, and by my birthday in 83 I was ready to move to the next level of computing. At the time it was all BBC micros (or Acorn Electrons, which my neighbour had – we spent many a happy hour playing “Chucky Egg” on it while he played “The hurting” in the background) or Sinclair Spectrums. A few people had Vic-20s and the Commodore 64 was just around the corner. But being obscure I chose an Oric-1. And I bloody loved it. I learnt to type on it, I programmed my own games on it, and best of all the sound was wonderful – three independent sound channels, so I programmed my own synthesisers and drum machines and sequencers on it. So by the time I got around to my O Level I’d been programming quite a lot. This was also the era of the BBC’s “Computer Programme” with Chris Serle (or was it Fred Harris?) learning about BBC micros from the technical guru Mac, these shows were essential viewing and our teachers encouraged us to record them (if we had videos, which our family didn’t until summer 84).

In those days our class were only the second year to study CS to O level standard. The school had a “computer suite” comprised of about ten BBC micros, some with tape decks and one or two really pushing the boat out with floppy drives. Our CS teacher – Mrs M – was lovely and sort of took me under her wing and helped me do well. But the subject itself was a bit dull – the history of computing, how discs worked, we still learnt about punched cards and paper tape – we were all itching to program these BBC micros. Or at least play “Elite” on them.

So I was doing subjects in school I enjoyed, and still crushing badly, and everything seemed OK. So why do I remember them as such dark days? Well there was something else…In the first two years in school I’d been bullied pretty badly – being thrown down stairs, untrue stories about me spread around school, general abuse both physical and mental. I hadn’t taken it well and I seem to remember my parents stepping in once or twice. It stopped in the third year but had started again in the fourth year. There was one main instigator who was horrible to me, playing mind games and things like that. I was always seen as a goodie-goodie, a nerd, an easy target because yes I was more sensitive about that sort of thing and yes if pushed I would break down and cry and even writing that makes me upset a little and sometimes I wish that there was better diagnosis for ASD back in the day cos so many symptoms were there looking back BUT ANYWAY this one boy was a complete bastard to me for most of Autumn term and it made me very upset. We were in the same class for Physics and somehow I hadn’t hit it off with the new Physics teacher, he seemed to think I was a waster like this other boy (who I’ll call B) and didn’t twig that the reason B sat next to me was to copy my work and bully me. One time in a Physics lesson B was sitting directly to the left of me and was rolling up bits of paper and spitting them in my ear. Now unfortunately for B, he didn’t realise that my left eye was a lazy eye – fully formed cataract since birth – so if someone did something to the left of me I wouldn’t see it, but would feel it and react to it. In this case he spat paper in my left ear and I reacted by punching him in the face, without even looking – just involuntary reaction – spit – punch. He fell off his stool and there was blood everywhere – I had got him right on the nose. There was uproar in class and the teacher tried to regain control by sending us both outside the classroom.

We were both outside the room looking in through the old leaded glass windows and all B’s friends were pointing and laughing at me as if to say “Rob’s in trouble” and B himself was trying to wind me up – “You’ll be up before the headmaster now, suspension at least” blah blah. And I was trembling inside thinking “Shit what have I done?”. There was blood all down his shirt and he was saying “I’ll make you pay for a new one”. And back in the classroom, my crush D had watched all this and I could see her chatting to her friends and looking at me. After the lesson we were both sent to the headmaster and while B got a good bollocking, I was told it was understood I was the victim and to forget about it. I was later told (by Mrs M actually) that the Physics teacher had come into the staff room that day complaining about my behaviour and all the other teachers – who knew me better than him – were horrified about it and told him I wasn’t a common thug and must have been provoked. At the start of the next Physics lesson with him, he took me aside and apologised for his behaviour towards me and from there treated me better. Oddly enough, so did B – that fact I’d punched him must have surprised him and gradually he gave up on me.

“But enough, isn’t this a blog about music?”

Well yes…

By now I’d bought as many OMD records as the Cardiff record shops would stock, so I needed to diversify my taste a little. I’d bought an unauthorised OMD biography in the summer – Omnibus Books I think – which had a great discography and information about their equipment and influences, and Kraftwerk got mentioned a lot. Now I knew a little about them at the time. I knew “The model” had been a big hit the year before and the follow up “Showroom dummies” was a smaller hit and of course I remembered “Pocket calculator” from that holiday trip in 1981. They had issued “Tour De France” as a single during the summer of 83 and I liked it enough to buy the twelve inch which was great, though I didn’t quite understand why there was a version with three minutes of rhythm track and bicycle noises. My parents went away on holiday to France for a week around October 83 leaving my brother and I alone to look after ourselves for the first time. Would we kill each other? No, we’d just leave the house in a state and tidy up just before our parents came back. But my parents said “What would you like as presents from France?” to which my reply was “Some Kraftwerk albums”. A week later, with the house as tidy as my brother and I could make it, my parents returned with Some Kraftwerk Albums.

In fact they had “Trans Europe Express” and “The Man Machine”.
Could there be a better introduction to the band? Maybe not. However it was a French edition of “TEE”, so the sleeve was slightly different – the colour cover shot was on the back and the black and white photo from the back on the front – but more importantly “Showroom dummies” was called “Les Mannequins” and sung in French. Until I bought a cd issue of “TEE” in 91 this was the version I knew and loved most, and actually sounds more “right” in my head. At the tender age of 14 I knew nothing about disco or the underground hip hop scene or break beats or “Planet Rock” – what I got from “TEE” was a sense of unrelenting movement. Now I recognise the octave jump bass on “Europe Endless” as a disco signifier, the full 15 minutes of the title track with all the subtleties of beat inflections being as revolutionary as “I feel love”, but that’s now – I just loved the mix of the old and the new. I loved the warped orchestral swells throughout the album – the Orchestron sounding like ancient history even in 1983. At the time, the title track was the longest song I had in my collection and it didn’t grate or get boring, it just journeyed on and on and on. The final tracks “Franz Schubert” and “Endless Endless” impressed me most – the rolling sequencers with the Orchestron over the top doing its orchestral thing really touched me and still does, it sends a shiver down my spine even now.

“The Man Machine” though felt like a step into the real future. It was a very clinical record – everything was clipped and efficient, the sequences and rhythms more complex, melodies soar and sing, as do the robots. Of course “The model” was familiar from its time at Number One the previous year, but there were other wonderful songs on there, not least “Neon lights”. There’s something magical in that song, from the calm forward motion of the introduction, the stately melody, the glistening textures of the gently filter-swept counter melody, and then three minutes in the song just motors off into the distance, the rhythms develop in complexity, more melodies are introduced and oh is that the Orchestron appearing again towards the end? It is a blissful nine minutes and possibly my favourite Kraftwerk song. The rest of the album is nearly as good but “Neon lights” is special. I played both albums incessantly throughout October and it seems they soundtracked that month well. November on the other hand would bring one of my favourite albums ever.

My brother had been playing guitar for a few years by now. He started off with a dreadful Audition Spanish guitar my father had bought from Woolworths in Leeds. The action on this guitar was awful and the strings felt like cheesewire. Around 1981 my brother bought a Kay Jumbo acoustic, big and black and not unlike those big Gibsons the Everly Brothers played. A few months later he bought his first electric guitar, a Kay SG copy which came with a horrible free 5W amp. For his sixtenth birthday in November 83 he upgraded to a decent guitar, a black Fender Stratocaster copy alongside a bigger 50W amp. On the Saturday he bought these, I consoled myself with a purchase of my own – from HMV I bought “Computer World”.

In my opinion “Computer World” is a perfect album. Everything about it is wonderful. From the opening pulsing of the title track to the closing seconds of “It’s more fun to compute”, not a second is wasted. Every beat is carefully worked out, every melody moves the songs forward. The title track was already familiar as the theme to the BBC’s “The Computer Programme” TV show – oh look, there’s an animated owl flying across a cityscape… And what with PRISM and the NSA it makes the lyrics more sinister and prescient. There is such a progression from “The man machine” already, the rhythms and the arrangements are far more complex. Even now I still notice new things in this song – playing it today I noticed that during the instrumental break, there’s a keyboard part playing one chord all the way through it. Every so often a random stray drum beat will appear, there’s a moment towards the end where the lead synth plays two notes simultaneously and it sparkles like the sun. “Pocket calculator” is like a jigsaw of interlocking parts, coalesing into a sum (pun slightly intended) larger than its parts. “Numbers” has a robot counting in Welsh – what’s not to love about that? The whole of side one works well as a suite, the transition from “Numbers” to “Computer World 2” is sublime. Side two has longer songs but they fly past in the blink of an eye – “Computer love” develops its melodies in a similar manner to “Neon lights” and is a beautiful piece of music that even Coldplay could not ruin (though they tried), “Home computer” is slightly more sinister sounding and the finale “It’s more fun to compute” sounds more like an order than anything else, but soon moves into a lovely groove. The packaging of the album is lovely – you could say it’s “VDU Yellow” but you could also say it’s almost sepia toned too, already a sense of nostalgia. The album has a very specific sound too, the percussion is clipped but complex but the synthesiser sounds are rich in timbre, there are few hard synth sounds, they have definite attack envelopes (whoops getting technical) which adds a softness to the sounds. For an album about the computer age it sounds very non-digital. I played the album over and over again, with the sound of my brother practising his power chords in the background.

There were other songs around at the time which I heard and wanted to buy but funds were limited as was time to buy them. There was “That was then, this is now” by ABC, a huge sounding song which stalled their career in a huge way. It should have been enormous, the oddly psychedelic air-raid siren guitars at the end, the iconoclastic lyric (ignoring the apple crumble line), the drums that sound like a horde of Vikings, not forgetting that tape cut off ending that would surprise so many DJs. Maybe it wasn’t really suitable for radio, but it made its point to me. I remembered the “old” ABC – I knew the singles from “Lexicon of love” and a friend had played me the album and I’d been very impressed (once I was older and bought my own copy I realised that “being impressed” was a pretty weak response to an absolute classic album, but I was young…). “That was then…” was a break with the past and I loved it. Another single from the time which I liked was “This charming man”. I can remember discussing it with a friend and how we thought it was a breath of fresh air. Late 83 felt like that – it was all Thompson Twins and Eurythmics and Howard Jones and whilst I liked one or two of their songs it felt like a definite step down from the quality of the charts in the Spring of 83.

But what else was there to talk about? Well… One day in November, something changed. D had her hair permed. And all of a sudden I felt a sense of loss, a betrayal, and for a while there I wondered if I still fancied her. Of course the answer was yes I did, but for about two weeks that one act tore my world apart. Years later I would read a section in Simon Reynolds’ book “Blissed out” about ‘the rapture of the gaze’ and how a person wants a love object to remain constant and not change their appearance and how changing is a primal loss (I am paraphrasing really badly here) and I recognised how I felt when D permed her hair. It was only a small thing, and I decided I still liked her anyway, but that’s all it ever was. I never knew the first thing about her, we rarely spoke, I just gazed at her. God I must have driven her nuts. But it was my first crush and it hit me hard. My diary was full of pages screaming “How could she do this?” like it was a crime. I’d got over it by Christmas because…

Every Christmas there was a school disco in the last week of term – not on the last day but in the week. These were held in the building with the retrospectively dodgy name of “The Youth Wing”, a building in the centre of the school complex which was like a youth club, it had a bar where you could buy sweets and drinks, some clapped out sofas for relaxing or snogging, a couple of video games in the corner, a TV with some seats for those with a fondness for whatever limited daytime TV had to offer and it was generally as dark and dingy and slightly edgy as you would expect. I think it opened in the evenings too but was usually open during school lunchtimes and my friends would hang out there sometimes if we felt welcome. I’d been to previous discos before there and was a typical wallflower and didn’t dance. But this year it was going to be different. Everyone knew that I was crushing on D, especially D herself, and I had heard rumours that I was going to get to dance with her at the disco. I was pleased about that but also nervous because I don’t dance. In the end it didn’t happen – on the day of the disco I was violently sick and ill so stayed off school, which my friends all found very suspicious. The next day I returned to school to hear stories about the disco, who had snogged who and who had thrown drinks over who and how D had looked sad all day. On the final day of term we were sat in our form room waiting to receive our reports and D siddled up next to me and whispered “I would have danced with you” before slipping away again with a shy smile on her face.

Was there any consolation to this despair? Well yes there was. My father took pity on me missing the disco and picked an album at random from my Christmas wants list and gave it to me that night. That was “New Gold Dream” by Simple Minds. Even without the circumstances above it would be a special record – the sleeve bathed on gold and rich vivid reds and purples and crosses and those serious young men in the pictures. This wasn’t playful music. I knew a few singles from the album but what had convinced me was hearing “Somebody up there likes you” played on the Radio 1 evening show by someone unexpected (I believe it may have been Peter Powell but I could be wrong). The whole album had an atmosphere of seriousness but it wasn’t joyless music, it was thrilling and rich in texture and bathed in reverb and I hadn’t heard such vague guitar playing – there was no rhythm guitar, the songs were built on beds of drums, bass as almost lead instrument and waves of synths, with guitars heavily effected and adding a texture to the sound. This was unlike anything I knew – I had yet to encounter Joy Division or New Order beyond the singles that had charted that year. Each song was great, the singles I knew already but deeper cuts were more attractive. “Big sleep” felt like sleepwalking, the bass bouncing lighter than air and the guitar like a siren towards the end. I did notice that the songs seemed to improve when Jim Kerr stopped singing, and the instrumental sections were my favourite parts. “Somebody up there likes you” swept in and engulfed me. “Glittering prize” I always associated with D for some reason – I felt like it was a justification for gazing but hell I was young and stupid there. “The hunter and the hunted” is an incredible piece of music, there’s hints of darkness and danger in “cruising at the speed of life” and after three minutes Jim stops quoting other people’s song titles (something I only spotted recently) and Herbie Hancock appears and plays a spectral keyboard solo which takes the song onto another level. “King is white and in the crowd” is more tension building and wonderful, but it’s part of a whole album – it gave me comfort on that day, and still gives pleasure now. It’s a hard album to describe because it feels amorphous, a wash of sound and rhythm, a beautiful vagueness, edges are blurred, nothing is precise.

So why did the end of 1983 feel so dark? Well there were incidents and accidents, and almost getting run over on the way home from school one time, and the first feelings of being out of my depth in some subjects, and Mrs M dragging me out of class to participate in an IBM sponsored computer quiz for schools which I promptly forgot about until we came second in South Wales and ended up getting my geeky picture in the local paper, and there was the bullying slowly petering out after complaints and threats of expulsions. Or maybe it’s just autumn becoming winter, dark mornings and dark nights and mist in the air and in my head it all merges into one dark night. Was it really so bad? I think of those records and how they’ve stayed with me and think about people and wonder where they are but it doesn’t matter that much now. Wherever they are they probably don’t think about those times in the way I do, and they probably aren’t writing blogs about it. So really that was then and this is now. Time to movc on.

Next time – Anticipointment and two record reviews for the price of one.