#6 – Kraftwerk, Die Mensch-Maschine(The Man Machine)
I felt uninspired. Uninspired by the music that’s selling big today. By the programmes on television. Uninspired by Brexit, Trump and what’s going on in the world around us.
In these situations, I often turn to new books and old music, as evidenced somewhat by the existence of this blog.
Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception makes the case that we can all be artists in our daily work-lives, from the nurse on the hospital ward, to the accountant, to the mechanic, to the office clerk. But to do so we actually need to make art, face and overcome the resistance and dare to be different. It’s an approach rather than a talent. To oppose industrial efficiency and the lizard brain, to connect to society in a way that is entirely human. Not to fly too low to the ground.
When you’re uninspired this is harder. But that’s no excuse, argues Godin, and he’s right. Go and look for it. Seek it out. Just look around.
There are such things, I’m told, as futurists. Attempting to predict what society, technology, our culture holds for the future. I doubt anyone will have been able to predict the slow but sure change we are seeing in our brains as not only does the addiction to flat, touchable screens become unstoppable but the thirst and hunger for new, instantly gratifying information become a built-in response, an irresistible reflex for us all. But this doesn’t need to be bad, for we are men and women. Not machines, robots, or models.
Where better to turn for some Europhilic, techno-embracing creative inspiration than Kraftwerk, the electro-punk-krautrock group formed in 1969 and their artistic masterpiece The Man Machine.
Unbelievably, this was released in 1978, nearly 40 years ago! And guess what? It sounds as fresh as ever. Which is ironic, as, unlike that sometimes over-used cliche, this album really does. The beats, the space, the synthesizers, the minimalist vocals. The precision. The conveyance of a theme so beautifully crafted and captivating. This is as much a testament to Kraftwerk’s genius as it is an indictment of much of the dross that’s been pushed out for the last 10 years.
What the audience make of it
People who know about or are interested in music history will know Kraftwerk well and be familiar with the immeasurable influence they’ve had on everything ever since. If you think you’ve never heard Kraftwerk you’re probably wrong. Listen to ‘The Model‘ and I suspect you will know the main synth riff instantly. I can’t think of a flurry of notes that is at the same time as haunting as it is jubilant as this exquisite keyboard composition. It’s uplifting but cautionary, rallying and energetic.
But then again, is it? I listened to the album and felt excited, intrigued, fresh and adventurous. Dare I say, inspired? The better half of me, however, sat across the dinner table this week listening to the exact same record, thought it was slightly dated, melancholy and forlorn.
And she’s usually right on these things. But that’s the point, there is no right way to receive art, which is what Godin eloquently puts in his book. Art is only what the audience make of it. Kraftwerk must’ve known at points in their career they were going to be criticised for what they were making. That many people would think it was just electronic trash, and wouldn’t buy their records. That to some, they may be seen as failures. But they made it anyway and changed the world.
Kraftwerk could never have predicted that Man Machine could one day have been made available in a form of digital bits accessible via the touch of a screen whether you’re sat in a tent in Sri Lanka or dancing at a warehouse bar in Kreuzberg, Berlin. If they did then they probably wouldn’t have also thought that a record store in Soho would still be selling Man Machine and it would still be being produced on vinyl in 2017. But they are and it is and I’m thrilled and it was enough to spark a brief combustion of inspiration for me to write about this week.
What Kraftwerk do here for me, above all, is remind us that technology can and should be used for good. For art and for inspiration. And for connecting. The negative consequences we see all around every day, the lack of conversation, the lack of eye-contact, the automation, hindered creativity, can all be countered if we look hard enough. If we believe, if we create. If we make art in the way that Kraftwerk so brilliantly did in 1978.
Uninspired? Are you a man or a machine?