Kraftwerk Day Four: 1978's 'The Man-Machine'

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

kraftwerk
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Kraftwerk performs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
By |

In a 2009 interview, Kraftwerk leader Ralf Hutter revealed the source of his careerlong obsession with the fusion of man and technology. "This rhythm, industrial rhythm, that’s what inspires me," he told me. "It’s in the nature of the machines. Machines are funky." Night four of "Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8" proved a spirited defense of Hütter’s proto-disco dissertation, as the band launched immediately into the title track of 1978’s The Man-Machine. On a screen behind the group, the 3D animation of the album cover’s El Lissitzky-inspired Modernist graphics was the most site-specific of Kraftweek thus far, given the MoMA setting. In the crowd, for the first time all week, there was plenty of dancing mekanik.

Along with Giorgio Moroder’s "Chase," also from 1978, the shimmering arpeggiated synths of Kraftwerk’s "Spacelab" and "Metropolis" basically set the template for Italo-disco, and both songs sounded splendid in the MoMA’s intimate atrium. In addition, the animation accompanying "Spacelab" a view from Earth orbit, unfolding like NASA Imax Shuttle porn – was the most successful realization of the possibilities of Kraftweek’s 3D format, and the audience, more raucous than the previous three evenings, cheered wildly as the animated space station seemed to buzz like a Stuka right over their heads.

Where Ralf and Florian had begun as conservatory longhairs, experimenting in electro-acoustic improvisation, by The Man-Machine they had perfected their formula of pure pop for Neu! people. Songs like "The Robots" (their trademark), "The Model" (their biggest-ever hit, reaching Number One in the UK in 1982), and "Neon Lights" paved the way for the early Eighties synth-pop explosion of groups like OMD, Depeche Mode, and Human League. It’s no surprise that the influence of this album remains enduring, as there’s something timeless and universal about their songwriting of this period. In a 2009 interview, producer and DJ Francois Kevorkian described Kraftwerk’s melodies as having "this sort of greatness to them, because they’re so simple but they’re so catchy and so beautiful...their music is real simple, only the essential things are there." I’ve personally witnessed "The Robots" totally rescue a five-year-old’s birthday party from the brink of chaos, instantly transforming a room full of pint-sized hellions smashing against each other like hadrons in a supercollider into a spontaneous robot conga line. Go ahead and just try to keep from whistling along to any of the songs on The Man-Machine; it’s practically an autonomic reaction. I know at least I couldn’t stop on Friday night.