Sunday, December 20, 2015
My musical habits are such that every now and again, totally out of the blue, I will suddenly get obsessed with a certain kind of music or revisit something old with a new passion. That's been happening to me this week with Kraftwerk, a group I first started obsessing over about five or six years ago.
Last week I listened to a music podcast about the Moog synthesizer, and that had me going back to listen to early electronic music, including Kraftwerk. Then, while looking for Christmas gifts at the Strand bookstore on Friday, chanced upon a quite excellent book about the group, David Buckley's Publikation. Well since then it's been back down the rabbit hole.
I have all of the bands classic 1975-1981 albums on LP, and have been spinning them again non-stop. What fascinates me about them is that they are so futuristic in sound, but were made (and disseminated) in analog form. There is something very interesting and entirely thrilling about dropping a needle in the grooves of a record and through this obsolete technology hearing sounds that still seem like they come from the future. The synthesizers themselves have an oddly human feel to them, not unlike R2D2's boops and bleeps.
That reference feels apt, as I have also just watched the original Star Wars, which once the sheen of the "special edition" is stripped away, looks very much like a product of the 1970s. "Autobahn" is the Star Wars of electronic music, the moment when the possibility of the form truly took flight, and made what came before seem boring and staid by comparison. I find it telling that both were produced around the same time in the 1970s. Just as the "New Hollywood" of the early 70s had begun to burn itself out by 1977, the hippie dream of the 60s was looking pretty tired by 1975 in the music world.
"Autobahn" was simply like nothing else at the time. Over twenty minutes long and taking up a whole album side, it replicated a car journey with only a little bit of stiff speak-singing in German over the electronic soundscape. The song always surprises me because it actually doesn't seem that long, mostly because it just locks my mind in to its grooves. Nowadays it makes me a little sad, mostly because electronic music in the hands on modern pop producers has completely shed its avant-garde origins. It's used to make the pop sounds that pop that much more, to explode in our ears with computer force but without much creativity behind him, the equivalent of the massive electronic groans and blasts used to punctuate action movie trailers. Much like how the blockbuster success of Star Wars in 1977 took something daring and exciting and turned it into today's flaccid, paint by numbers blocklusters, Kraftwerk's revolution in sound was altered into an unending tide of mediocre pop songs. The unaltered Star Wars may not be available legitimately anymore, but I can still drop the needle on "Autobahn" and be transported to a time when the synthesizer was a daring emblem of an uncharted musical future.