The song most relevant to our times was released 35 years ago. 1981 saw the release of the first IBM PC, MS-DOS (the precursor to the Windows operating system), Minitel in France (a videotex service, a precursor to the Internet) and Kraftwerk’s Computer World, the musical prophecy of that year which somehow managed to identify the still nascent field of computing and identify the emotional strands of our interaction which would linger even now.
The title track’s three note motif initially seems quite disappointing, after the band’s previous album kick-started with spiralling synthesisers cartwheeling through the continent on the Trans-Europe Express. But it is a masterclass of artistic efficiency, channelling the pips and notifications which have become more prevalent in the app-driven technoscape. ‘Pocket Calculator’ seems charmingly out-of-date until you realise that the choice of device is merely a springboard to explore the mix of giddiness and ignorance which accompanies interaction with portable technology, the kind which follows us around all of the time. The song tells us more about our relationship with smartphones than their subsequent effort ‘The Telephone Call’ on Electric Café does.
‘Computer Love’ stands at the peak of this album, and possibly on the whole of Kraftwerk’s oeuvre. It is irrelevant to think about whether the ‘proper’ version of this song is sung in English or German. Even though some critics fairly point out that the scansion of the vocals at least suggests that it was written in English in first, it wouldn’t be Kraftwerk without the vocals sounding a bit unwieldy and computer generated. The band was built to serve translations of their work – to English, French and even Japanese. Their work transmits freely through cross-national boundaries, underpinned as it is by the technocratic globe which their music describes. By singing bilingually, they also ensure that at least one version of their songs will sound remote and unhuman.
The subject matter is ideally suited to Ralf Hutter’s deadpan delivery. The image he invokes is striking in its similarity to a situation familiar to most of us in 2016. Nights spent alone in bed watching TV (Netflix), bored by choice, swiping left and right in search of a ‘data date’; a soulmate mined out of big data. Each vocal line is offered twice, an indictment of the abundance and repetition presented by digital media, which leads to apathy as data repeatedly scrolls past. In a counterintuitive move typical of the band, the second half becomes much more revealing and more human when the machines take over. The instrumental section can be admired from a distance, like filigree wallpaper patterns, but you can trace even more by analysing it deeply. The synthesiser which punctuated the melody line between the lyrics in the first half and the synthesiser played during the chorus begin playing call-and-response patterns at each other, like distant male and female voices. They echo, tantalisingly overlapping near the end but at a slightly different rhythm before disappearing from each other again as the song fades out. The two users never connect. This is driven with an increase in tempo and a bass line which sometimes withholds or spits out extra notes like an impatient loading bar; all of which cements this concept of technological progress dampened by human stasis.
The second half of this song is the engine room of the Computer World album, and it deserves resuscitating when it was savagely edited for a radio version to serve as B-side to ‘Das Modell’, when it was almost entirely cut. The full version is inspiring and caustic, emotional and robotic; it is the satisfaction of seeing a new device welcome you into its grasp, it is the ignored message you sent to someone whose presence haunts you from SMS to WhatsApp to Facebook timeline. If Coldplay’s pilfering of the riff for their 2005 single ‘Talk’ has achieved anything, it is to demonstrate how their emotionally incontinent output has the earnestness and robustness of a belated birthday card. Kraftwerk, the automatons, hardcode emotion onto you.
Even without the technology generating the music, the song would reveal a lot about relationships. But now our world is built out of data, and it is what cocoons connected, yet alien souls in the night.