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‘Computer World’: When Kraftwerk Foretold The Future
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In Depth

‘Computer World’: When Kraftwerk Foretold The Future

With the digital age dawning, Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer World’ album offered an uncanny foresight into the anxieties of the present day.

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Long celebrated for their visionary approach to experimental music-making, Germany’s synth-pop voyagers Kraftwerk have always led the way when it comes to exploring the outer reaches of sonic innovation. In the 70s, ventures such as the hymn to European rail transport that was 1977’s Trans-Europe Express and the contemplation of humanity’s interfacing with technology in the following year’s The Man-Machine cemented Kraftwerk’s status as pioneers in the realm of electronic music. However, it was with the release of Computer World, in 1981, that the group would embark upon a daring leap into the future, offering a prescient glimpse into the technological landscape that would come to define the 21st century.

Here is the story of how Kraftwerk went beyond the binary and heralded the advent of our digital age…

Listen to ‘Computer World’ here.

The backstory: “We feel very much encouraged to hear that there’s a lot of energy in electronic music happening in England”

By the late 70s, Kraftwerk had successfully blazed a trail for a bold new generation of synth-driven pop acts. The band’s groundbreaking run of hugely influential albums, from Autobahn (1974) to The Man-Machine, had ushered in a brave new world in which the use of synthesisers and drum machines was no longer a novelty pursuit. Instead, it was wholeheartedly embraced by a legion of young new-wave upstarts such as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and The Human League. “We feel very much encouraged to hear that there’s a lot of energy in electronic music happening in England,” Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter said in a 1981 interview with BBC Radio 1. “Because the last time we came here – six years ago – we were attacked for what we were doing at that time.”

Now facing an army of acolytes building upon their innovative sound and carrying electro-pop into the 80s, it’s no surprise that Kraftwerk’s eighth studio album, Computer World, was considered a tantalising and much-anticipated prospect. Having been anointed by the music press as the godfathers of synth-pop, Kraftwerk’s reputation for cutting-edge sounds left them poised to make further commercial inroads that would have been unthinkable several years beforehand. They had always been critics’ darlings, but now was the perfect time for Kraftwerk to make their biggest breakthrough yet.

Despite occupying a crowded playing field of like-minded synth-pop pretenders aping their sound, the crown was clearly Kraftwerk’s for the taking. But, given the group’s perfectionism, everything had to be fine-tuned. From the concept all the way down to its use of analogue synthesisers and sequencers, Kraftwerk’s eighth album would give the German four-piece the perfect opportunity to unleash their unique vision of the future upon the world.

The recording: “The pieces in many ways ‘compose themselves’ by us finding sounds from experimenting”

Like scientists on a never-ending quest for discovery, Kraftwerk recorded Computer World in their “laboratory” at Düsseldorf’s Kling Klang studios across a three-year period. For their follow-up to The Man-Machine, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür spent long hours honing the songs by tinkering around with futuristic sound effects on Moogs and Prophet-5 synthesisers. “The pieces in many ways ‘compose themselves’ by us finding sounds from experimenting with interfacing and settings,” Hütter told Electronics & Music Maker magazine. “During the week, we work from 5pm until one or two at night.”

Over time, an overarching concept for Computer World began to emerge. Despite the technology being much less advanced than it is today, Hütter and Schneider noticed how computers were forming the backbone of government operations, with mainframe models such as the IBM System/370 series being used to handle large-scale processing tasks such as census-data analysis and financial transactions. The threat posed by the collection of personal data by police authorities – particularly in Germany, where mistaken arrests were commonplace in the wake of the terrorist bombing of Oktoberfest in 1980 – was looming. “It wasn’t a warning,” Hütter later said, “it was reality.”

As a result, many of the lyrical themes on Computer World’s title track – co-written with Emil Schult, a graphic artist who designed the album’s artwork – marked a departure from the utopian optimism of Kraftwerk’s previous records. Painting a dystopic picture of a new era of sinister data surveillance, Kraftwerk envisioned a world in which humans are all but numbers on a computer system (“business, numbers, money, people”). “Society was being computerised,” Hütter explained in a 2009 interview with Uncut magazine. “A lot of people didn’t notice at that time, but we did. Computers were being used by states, the KGB, Interpol, Deutsche Bank.”

As if that wasn’t prescient enough, the band had also begun to notice how micro-computers, such as calculators, were now being used in school classrooms; it was only a matter of time before personal computers would be widely put to market. (In fact, the first affordable home PC, the Sinclair ZXB1, was made available just two months before Computer World’s release.) Foreseeing how computers were on the cusp of revolutionising the technological landscape, Kraftwerk created songs that peered over the precipice of the imminent social changes they foresaw.

Luckily for the group’s fans, it wasn’t all entirely grim-faced pessimism. The band still had a great deal of fun messing around with the bleeps and bloops of unusual everyday gadgets such as the Casio ML-831, as heard on Computer World’s lead single, Pocket Calculator. “Florian had discovered a small Texas Instruments translating device that could also be used for calculating,” Wolfgang Flür wrote in his memoir, Kraftwerk: I Was A Robot. “Although the sound was rather artificial, it suited the concept outstandingly… We had great fun with things like that.”

The release: “Every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology”

Released on 10 May 1981, Computer World saw Kraftwerk greet a new decade with an eerily prophetic record, leaping from Cassandra-like predictions on Home Computer (“I programme my home computer/Beam myself into the future”) to subverting a slogan used by pinball machines on It’s More Fun To Compute, in a jab at growing gaming fads such as Space Invaders. Both deeply intelligent and melodically buoyant, the album peaked at No.15 in the UK while playfully commenting on a future that loomed on the horizon.

Adorned with Emil Schult’s striking yellow cover, which pictured a prosaic Hazeltine 1500 computer featuring the iconic robotic avatars of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, Computer World dealt with themes such as data storage and state control, and was arguably the first Kraftwerk album to speak of the dehumanising possibilities of technological advancement. In light of subsequent world events such as the NSA intelligence leak, Computer World remains more relevant today than it ever was. As Kraftwerk’s promoter Maxime Schmidt admitted in 1992: “It was a political album. Totally. The denunciation of the machines, the denunciation of the police and of the financial institutions… They have the intelligence to understand that in today’s world you can’t be an individual.”

Computer World was also the group’s most pointedly internationalist endeavour – as is clear on the song Numbers, on which growling vocoder counts from one to eight in numerous languages, including English, Italian and Spanish, hinting at how a global economy respects no borders. In the album’s accompanying press release, Kraftwerk outlined the conceptual impetus behind the record: “Every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology, and our language has become the language of computer software.” As if speaking to the binary code now hardwired into the 21st century, Computer World wasn’t just an album, it was a manifesto.

Released as its second single, in July 1981, Computer Love – paired as a double A-side with the group’s 1978 track The Model – would go onto sell more than 550,000 copies in the UK and peak at No.1 in the singles chart. One of the best Kraftwerk songs, Computer Love conjures a pensive yet beautiful melody from a Polymoog synthesiser to tell the tale of a forlorn singleton longing for romance (“I call this number/For a data date, for a data date”). All but predicting the modern era of online dating apps, Kraftwerk were, once again, truly ahead of their time.

As a huge fan of the band, and of Computer Love in particular, Chris Martin even reached out to Kraftwerk to seek permission to use the main hook from the song for Coldplay’s X&Y single Talk. “I had no idea if they knew who Coldplay were, so had to explain myself,” Martin later recounted. “Everyone says it’s extraordinary that they said yes.” Peaking at No.10 in the UK in December 2005, Talk paid homage to Kraftwerk’s influential legacy and undoubtedly helped to introduce the band to a new generation.

The legacy: “That was more like a visionary album”

Dabbling in seer-like concepts that proved Kraftwerk had predictive powers well beyond their years, Computer World has a legacy that has grown even more astonishing in the decades since its release. Envisioning our modern interconnected world far more accurately than anything even Nostradamus could conjure up, the album’s futuristic beats were, remarkably, created entirely with analogue sequencers. “We didn’t even have computers at that time,” Hütter told The New Zealand Herald. “So that was more like a visionary album.”

Musically, Kraftwerk’s devastatingly effective electro beats were also ahead of their time, not only setting the blueprint for dance genres such as techno but also helping to shape the development of early hip-hop. Three years after Computer World was released, pioneering hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa sampled the hook from Numbers, as well as the title track from Trans-Europe Express, on his groundbreaking hit Planet Rock, which itself peaked at No.48 on the US Hot 100. “I always loved Kraftwerk, since the Autobahn LP which I had bought in Boston,” Planet Rock’s producer, Arthur Baker, later said. “Bambaataa loved that too: it was the quest for the perfect beat.”

Kraftwerk have since become a crucial part of hip-hop history, with numerous rappers turning to their catalogue for ideas, among the Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, of Run-DMC, and the legendary G-funk producer Dr Dre. “I’ve really been listening to a lot of Kraftwerk,” Dre said in a 2010 interview with Reuters. “Kraftwerk had a really big inspiration on the beginning of hip-hop.”

With a legacy that stretches from rap’s afterbirth to the rise of house music and beyond, Computer World even proved irresistible for LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who sampled the track Home Computer for the song Disco Infiltrator, included on his group’s self-titled debut album.

Towering above the work of their synth-pop contemporaries with a landmark release that peered into the future with incredible foresight, Kraftwerk’s Computer World filtered acute social observations about the rising prominence of technology through the band’s unique brand of electronic music. Forever growing more relevant and insightful over time, it’s a seminal record that enshrined Kraftwerk’s legacy as true pioneers and visionaries of a digital future still being shaped by the innovations they predicted more than 40 years ago.

Find out which ‘Computer World’ tracks plug into the best Kraftwerk songs.

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