Thursday, 31 August 2017

‘The Model’ — Kraftwerk’s prototype for modern pop

Helen Brown

“She’s a model and she’s looking good.” In February 1982, the sophisticated deadpan of Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter hovered like a drone over a UK top 10 that included Bucks Fizz and Shakin’ Stevens. “The Model” was originally released on the band’s classic 1978 album The Man Machine, but EMI revived the song as a B-side to “Computer Love” (the tune Coldplay recycled on their 2005 song “Talk”).

DJs preferred “The Model”, so the label reissued it as the double A-side and created the first UK number one for an all-German group — although, as multilingual young men from cosmopolitan Düsseldorf, Kraftwerk identified as “a European band with German passports”.

The Kraftwerk story began when Hütter met flautist and “sound fetishist” Florian Schneider at music school in the late 1960s. Their “European industrial folk music” was inspired by the pioneering electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and the crisply suited Italian/English artists Gilbert & George’s mission to “bring art into everyday life”. Coming from a wealthy and highly cultured family, Schneider bought a synthesiser in 1970 when the price tag was beyond the reach of most musicians.

British and American critics initially struggled to accept synth sounds (Lester Bangs called Kraftwerk music’s “final solution”) but were soon forced to concede that the routine pleasures and elegant melancholy of the band’s pristine soundscapes were resonating with young people.

“It is emotional,” Hütter explained earlier this year. “People a long time ago had difficulties finding the sensitivity of electronics. But when you go and see your doctor and he does a heart test, it is electronics that are very sensitive to this. It’s the same with an instrument. That’s why we should use the tools of today’s society to create music — otherwise it is just antique.”

“Das Model” (in its original German version) evolved from a poem the band’s artistic collaborator Emil Schult wrote about the high-fashion models he observed in a Cologne nightclub. Some feminists claim the song objectifies its subject: a woman who only exists for the male gaze, smiling for money. Others defend it as a critique of the consumer society which reduces women to nameless automatons.

As a song about a human being, it’s certainly an oddity in the catalogue of a band more comfortable addressing architecture and technology. As one fan blogger joked: “Forget the Bechdel Test; the majority of Kraftwerk songs don’t even pass the Turing Test.”

But there’s no debate about the catchiness of the song’s grinding hook and twinkling melody. (For the geeks, that’s probably a Micromoog on bass, Polymoog on lead and a Minimoog playing the melody that comes in at 1:30, but the band are pretty secretive about their gear.) Kraftwerk may have disdained the charts, but they provided the prototype for modern pop.

Devotees have covered the song in almost every conceivable genre. YouTube yields versions by Finnish accordionists, medieval recorder ensembles, ukulele groups and klezmer bands.

Surrey punks The Members (whose 1979 protest song “Offshore Banking Business” went viral in 2015 in response to the “Panama Papers” scandal) gave it a brass-backed reggae makeover in 1983. The Balanescu Quartet used classical strings to replicate every synth line on their recently reissued 1992 album, Possessed, and have performed the song live with David Byrne: Google a video of this for the ultimate lesson in robot dancing. German industrial metalheads Rammstein roared it to near-obliteration in 1997, while Swedish indie band The Cardigans added a cheeky harpsichord effect in 2003.

The original has proved unbeatable, though. On their 2017 tour, Kraftwerk bolstered other material with modern dance beats, but left “The Model” alone. Like its subject, the song remains untouchable.

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