Kraftwerk Day Five: 1981 'Computer World' Invents Electronic Funk

Rolling Stone chronicles the German band's eight-night stand at the Museum of Modern Art

April 16, 2012 8:45 AM ET
Kraftwerk performs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Before "Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8" began, if I was forced to choose only one night of the series to attend, my selection would have been night five, 1981’s Computer World. The Man-Machine may have more timeless songwriting, and Trans-Europe Express may have more breadth and diversity, but Computer World has some of the most irresistibly funky grooves ever divined. In the early Eighties, Detroit radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo played Computer World like a sacred text to his FM audiences, of which I was fortunate enough to be included, influencing an entire generation of African-American listeners who would go on to create techno. "Black people could relate to it because it was like James Brown," said Detroit electronic music producer Carl Craig in a 2009 interview. "It was just this kind of relentless groove."

Thus Kraftweek’s spotlight on Computer World at the MoMA dawned with considerable promise, fulfilled at least in part when the band opened the set with "Numbers," quite possibly the funkiest Berlitz language lesson ever. Mad Mike Banks, founder of the Detroit techno collective Underground Resistance (aka UR), has said he considered "Numbers" the "secret code of electronic funk"; it’s certainly difficult to imagine the innovations of Detroit’s own dancefloor pioneers without it. (Deepening the connection, Kraftwerk has included "Planet of Visions," a song based on UR’s remixes of their "Expo 2000" single, each night during the greatest-hits portion of their Kraftweek sets, distinguished by its "Detroit/Germany/We’re so electric" chorus.)

Back in the day when "Apple" still meant the Beatles’ label, songs like "Home Computer" and the title track prophesied a future where computers would become an integral part of society. Today, if there were any question as to the legitimacy of Kraftwerk’s assertion "It’s More Fun To Compute," all you had to do was look around the room full of smartphone-wielding shutterbugs Tweeting and Instagramming away. With its tale of a bored bachelor searching for "a data date," "Computer Love" may even have documented the invention of sexting. In other hot man-on-machine action, the 3D animation accompanying "Pocket Calculator" was as unabashedly goofy as the song itself: a cartoon image of a calculator, with a cut-out picture of a hand "moving" to touch keys, about as lo-fi as "hi-tech" could possibly be.

Unfortunately Kraftwerk made short shrift of the album, dispatching the entire 35 minute record in just 18 minutes. With grooves this deep, what was the rush? The album spotlight, only about 30 minutes to begin with, has been getting progressively shorter every night, almost as if the band just wants to get it over with to focus on the hour-plus hits package, which has remained basically uniform all week (the order shifting slightly due to conflicts with the spotlighted album). Tonight for the first time, the group slipped "Spacelab" and "Aero Dynamik" into the hits selection – both welcome additions – but it begs the question as to why they haven’t been mixing it up more. They obviously can play a song like, say, "Neon Lights," since they did so during the previous evening’s Man-Machine spotlight, and the 3D visuals for that song were among the most impressive of the week, so why not do so? Kraftwerk’s back catalogue is too rich to let so many gems gather dust. After all, what better place to unveil art than a museum?

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