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(Credit: Kraftwerk)

Music

How Kraftwerk defined the 1980s with 'The Man-Machine'

While Kraftwerk had been around since the early 1970s, bringing their innovative electronic music to the masses with such releases as Autobahn (1974) and Radioactivity two years later in 1976; it wasn’t until 1978’s The Man-Machine that they truly set the tone for the 1980s. Not only did the album bring forth a more accessible slant and danceable rhythm to their experimental sound, but it also marked the maturation of the German collective as style icons. Kraftwerk’s impact on 1980s fashion and music was almost as elephantine as that of LSD during the ‘60s.

The image elicited by the album artwork of The Man-Machine was inspired by the Russian artist El Lissitzky and the suprematism movement. The iconic image of the group dressed in the striking uniform with red shirts and black ties was taken forward during subsequent tours where they famously performed in the uniform while standing in a row with the various drum machines, synthesisers and vocoders at their fingertips. 

Kraftwerk presented themselves as eccentric robotic humanoids hot off the production line of a German factory whose function was to produce music to please the people of planet Earth. This sentiment was taken quite literally during live shows, where the band would use replica mannequins of themselves in the iconic uniform for performances of ‘The Robots’. 

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The Man-Machine was intended as a concept album of sorts. The sparse, tampered vocal content is enveloped by synthesised instrumentals that bring rhythm to the cold diligent sounds of the German industrial machine. The opening track, ‘Das Robots’, begins with strange noises as if sampled from a sci-fi movie before it lurches into a flow fit for Peter Crouch. The vocals are brought in later with an emotionless tone and tireless uniformity as they proclaim, “we are the robots”.

Of the 36-minute album’s three singles, ‘Das Model’ was the most successful. The UK version of the track, ‘The Model’, was released in 1981 and thanks to protracted airtime on radio stations, it reached number one by February 1982. The track has a sound that at once sounds so intrinsically of the 1980s, yet it was originally recorded in 1978. This observation serves as a testament to the influential grip Kraftwerk had on 1980s pop music. 

The album brings a sonic onslaught of industrial noise swept into pleasing patterns that are varied enough that they don’t become grating. The highly influential single ‘Neon Lights’ brings an essential balance to the record with its slower tempo and less tampered vocals that tell a story of a modern-day night out in the city. ‘Neon Lights’ was famously covered by OMD for their 1991 album Sugar Tax.

The German electro pioneers’ singular impact can be distinctly seen and heard in the performances of subsequent acts such as David Bowie, Gary Numan, Visage, OMD, Ultravox, Depeche Mode and The Human League. As Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore once said: “For anyone of our generation involved in electronic music, Kraftwerk were the godfathers”.

The band’s ongoing influence to this day has been remarkable. While we may have migrated from the heavy-handed sci-fi style that Kraftwerk virtually invented, modern acts from Aphex Twin to LCD Soundsystem still frequently cite the German godfathers as a major influence. Of course, The Man-Machine can’t be given sole credit for Kraftwerk’s enduring force in popular music, but it was the album that showed musicians of the 80s synth wave how to apply their electronic innovation to highly accessible and danceable material.

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