Saturday, July 19, 2008

Trans Weekend Expression.

Kraftwerk was a disco outfit!!! No way! But yes way, to quote Bill and Ted, for some people they were. Nicky Siano, who was the dj at the seminal disco club The Gallery, was clearing the dance floor at Studio 54 with “Trans Europe Express” in 1977. However, in 1978, when this record was promoted (it was never released) Kraftwerk were beginning to become part of the dance music vernacular. Disco djs were dropping their tracks, r&b radio stations were featuring some of their tunes and within a few, short years the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Juan Atkins would be incorporating key Kraftwerk tunes into the embryonic stages of hip-hop and techno respectively. It’s also highly likely that Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in NY and Ron Hardy at the Music Box in Chicago were slipping Krafwerk numbers into their heady and bacchanalian selections.

Part of the band’s appeal was that it was inadvertently funky; it was groovy by mistake. This is the accepted lore on their revolutionary sound. However, we are talking about a group of guys in 1970s Germany, we are not dealing with a quartet from Papa New Guinea in 1904. In other words Kraftwerk’s music didn’t happen in some cultural vacuum. You can put money on the fact that these supposedly stoic Teutons were versed in the contemporary music of their time. They weren’t the only ones dealing in a forward-looking minimalism that would have ground breaking ramifications in the next decade. James Brown had deconstructed soul and r&b into the sparse, sleek and primal pulse of funk and I’m sure the Germans were cognitive of that fact. Would they have listened to the Beach Boys and their textural adventures, and were they bowled over by Suicide when Rev and Vega’s jaw-droppingly different first LP dropped in ’77? Yes and yes, I would guess.

And just as funk’s functionality materialized in the transmission of an instinctive need to dance, Kraftwerk’s music projected the zeitgeist of inevitable progress, of an electronics driven world where manufacturing and romance would be equally influenced by circuits and micro chips. Three years later in 1981 their stellar Computer World album would deal with these subjects in a semi-serious fashion. Because even though their music can be (mis)construed as earnest and academic, there is an obvious irony, a tongue in cheek aspect to many of their songs. Amazing, isn’t it? Especially when you’ve been under the impression that irony was invented 2002 in Williamsburg by a fixed gear bike rider from Boise, Idaho. Twasn’t, it has been a literary and comic device for yonks and yonks.

So the point is that these four tracks by the futuristic German group are a succinct window into their worldview, their vision of the future. Perhaps these songs were alien in 1977 NY discos but seven to ten years later other electronic music pioneers like Newcleus, Egyptian Lover, Rhythim is Rhythim and Model 500 would give the European sparseness a distinctly urban American twist and set in motion otherworldly dance crazes, and a capacity for abstract musical texture that remains with us to this day. So when you’re contorting to that new Justice remix, or Kompakt track or Chris Brown radio jam this weekend, remember that without the stoic Germans known as Kraftwerk, these tunes would probably sound a lot different, a lot safer perhaps. And the spirit of James Brown looms large too wherever the heavy funk is being played out through strings, skins, keys, pads, patches or filters. The beat rolls on like a locomotive, it’s always trans-European, trans global and eternally doing it to death.


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