Sunday, 15 February 2015

I don't really know whether Kraftwerk are geniuses or charlatans - but their music is great to be ill to

If you've been visited by the virus that's been on the rampage since the start of the year, you'll probably know what my family's been going through. First there was the feeling lousy, then the sneezing and coughing, then mainly coughing - a truly maddening cough that doesn't bring anything up, but drives everyone mad and keeps you awake. Then the cough becomes productive and less frequent and you start to feel better and find yourself humming tunes and whistling and getting enough sleep - and then the dry cough returns, followed by the sneezing and the feeling lousy and the lack of sleep all over again. Hell-fire! 

My son started our family cycle with a really vicious version of it. I followed two weeks' later. And then my poor wife got it two weeks after that. I wouldn't mind so much, but I'm one of those idiots who had a flu jab in November. Fat lot of use that was. Anyway, the plague's fresh assault is the reason for the recent paucity of political posts - I can't really handle anger and exasperation when I'm under the weather. Besides, it's been difficult to form a simple declarative sentence for the last few days.

in the middle of all this dreary unpleasantness, I caught an excellent BBC 4 documentary about Kraftwerk, which is available here (if you're a UK resident). The excuse for it was a series of concerts staged by the group (collective? - you can hardly call them a band) at Tate Modern in 2013. Paul Morley, the cultural critic (whatever that might be) pseuds for Britain throughout, but makes some interesting points - particularly his startling claim that Kraftwerk have been infinitely more influential musically than The Beatles. I was minded to scoff, but by the end of the programme, I wasn't so sure. I knew that the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaataa (just listen to "Planet Rock") had borrowed from the Teuronic Titans of Techno - but hadn't grasped what a seismic effect they'd had on American dance music from disco onwards (perhaps because I rarely listen to American dance music, apart from an occasional bit of Old School disco). A seems we have a lot to thank (and blame) Krafwerk for.

When "Autobahn" came out in 1974 (forty years ago!) I thought it was ridiculous. But intriguing. Again, when "Trans-Europe Express" appeared two years' later, I was minded to sneer, but gradually realised how brilliantly its longeurs and repetitiveness captured the sensation of being on a long train journey at night - particularly the odd fact that any train journey, no matter how dull the scenery, no matter how unappealing the destination, somehow manages to be interesting, even memorable. Similarly, during the years that followed, I would find myself listening to Kraftwerk now and then and finding that - no matter how dull and repetitive and aggressively banal much of it sounded - I was more often than not actually engaged by what I was listening to: some of the songs, tracks, numbers - whatever - haunted the memory. About ten years ago, I heard "The Model" somewhere or other, downloaded it on iTunes, and listened to it at least a dozen times in a row, wondering how anything this seemingly mundane could be so brilliant:

Ditto "Showroom Dummies", which manages to be both creepy and poignant:

Watching the BBC 4 documentary, I was struck by the melodic loveliness and melancholy of many Kraftwerk songs: while appearing to celebrate the digital age and the increasing transformation of human beings into automatons, their work seems to be haunted by the loss of genuine emotion that has inevitably accompanied that change. Or is that just my reaction? Or has Paul Morley's pretentiousness infected me, like some virulent flu bug? Or perhaps it's because I'm unwell: Kraftwerk seem to make more sense when one's resistance is low - is that because the critical faculties are inevitably weakened? Whatever the cause, I found myself oddly moved by "Computer Love":

I also found myself smiling along to "Pocket Calculator" - but I have no idea why:

And I've been a sucker for "Radioactivity" ("invented by Madame Curie") for years:


I'll leave you with "Autobahn", the number that started it all. I'm no longer sneering:

So what is the appeal? I'm not sure, but I suspect I respond to Krafterwerk's music, with its emotionelss delivery and it's endless repetition, in much the way I respond to the op art paintings of Bridget Riley, which also rely on rigid patterns for their effect. There are two reproductions of her paintings in our bedroom, and they're also a source of solace when I'm feeling unwell.

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