march 11 2006
upon a time, there was a French electrician engineer, an excellent musician
too, who was a prisoner of war in a German camp. This engineer, to fill
up the free time that his captivity left him, dreamed up an orchestra...
ROBOTS-MUSIC : Ils jouent des succès de Kraftwerk
1 Les robots (Die Roboter)
2 Boing boom tschak
3 Métal sur métal (Metall auf Metall)
4 Mini calculateur (Taschenrechner)
5 Twist boogie twist robots (Kraftwerk remix)
June 1 2005 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New-York. The curtain falls at the end of the concert on the four Kraftwerk members. After a few minutes of clapping and whistling, the curtain comes up again for the encore, but the musicians are not on stage. They have been replaced by lookalike robots, which interpret the song "The robots", being way more demonstrative than the group itself was during its performance. The New-York audience is appreciative and expresses it at least as much as if the actual band was standing on stage for this encore. But what most fans present that night don't know is that it is a French band from the sixties which gave Kraftwerk the inspiration to have robot musicians performing in public...
It is the beginning
of the 1970's. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider are rather hairy young musicians,
members of a Düsseldorf band ready to release its second album under the Kraftwerk
moniker. Their public appeal is still limited, and they hardly make a living
out of their music. Aware of this and of their passion for cycling, their producer
Conny Plank, from Cologne, signals them the ad of a sports club from nearby
Neuss-am-Rhein, looking for people to accompany a group of young cyclists going
to France as part of twinned cities activities.
That's how Ralf and Florian found themselves at the end of August in Châlons-sur-Marne, at the invitation of cycling club 'La Pédale Châlonnaise", riding with young cyclists on the flat treeless roads of the Champagne plains, and on those a little more hilly of the Reims moutain vineyards. Entertainments in a small province town are few, so its no surprise both members of Kraftwerk found themselves one late afternoon with their young proteges walking up and down the alleys of the Châlons fair. They had it all : the adventures in the military vehicles presented by the local artillery regiment, the small cars from the road safety board, the enormous latest models of tractors and harvesting machines, the food hall with its wines and culinary specialties, from the cheese toast to the moutain sausage, and even the famous sauerkraut from the Alsatian beer house !
The interest of the musicians for the attractions was not as strong as it was for the young athletes, but there's one of them at least which captivated all of them, the Robots-Music, presented as part of the travelling exhibition of the French federation of war veterans and prisoners (read above the presentation of the robots by their creator). Monsieur Diomgar's machines could only fascinate the two young Germans. Here were young musicians with a classical background (Florian was originally a flautist), who had started using electronic instruments a few years before, following closely their development (synthesizer, sequencer, rhythm machine, vocoder), and going as far as inventing or making them themselves if needed.
And here they were faced with a total reversal of the man-machine relation as they conceived it, since with the Robots-Music it was the machines that were using the instruments originally made to be played by humans. The main difference between Kraftwerk's shows, that saw them handle machines, and those of the Robots-Music is that the Robots-Music performance was 100% cybernetic : once the machine was built and programmed, the show could proceed without any human action. True, from « Plaisir d'amour » to « Rock around the clock », the Robots-Music repertoire may not have been completely suited to the taste of Ralf and Florian, but the show fascinated them to the point that they watched it twice in a row (they then had to run after the cyclists who had dispersed between the tanks and the Michel Sardou concert !). At the end, they even bought one of the records from the «Les Robots-Music» collection, released on the Cobra label, and a souvenir postcard. This Robots-Music show deeply affected both Kraftwerk musicians, and fed their conversations and reflections for a long time, although this was not originally apparent for the public.
As the years
went by, they refined their electronic music concept, conceived new instruments
(some of them they copyrighted), and finally found success with the 1974 release
of their fourth album, « Autobahn », whose main theme was the automobile civilization.
This success was amplified in 1975 with the worldwide hit that was the « Radio-activity
» single, from the album of the same name, which dealt both with radioactivityet
and radiophony. In 1977, a certain kind of European concept and nostalgic train
travel was at the center of the «Trans Europe Express» album.
It is in 1978 that Kraftwerk finally released a record which made a nearly explicit reference to the shock that the Robots-Music concert had caused them. This album explored the relations between man and machine in modern cities. It is no coincidence if it opened with a song called « The robots », the first single from the album, and concluded with the title song « The man machine ». When you hear the lyrics to « The robots » (« We are programmed just to do anything you want us to, We are the robots, We're functioning automatic and we are dancing mechanic, We are the robots »), you can only think of smoking accordionist Oscar, of saxophonist Ernest standing and saluting, and of singing drummer Anatole ! even if it's never been expressly stated,the influence of the Robots-Music on the Kraftwerk of « The Man-Machine » is all the more obvious that, as early this time, the band members introduced the press to robots made to their effigy, explaining that their dream was that, some time in the future, the robots would be able to go on a world tour in their stead, while they would remain at work in their Klingklang studio! This has not happened yet in 2005, but still : since 1981, the robots have appeared on stage with Kraftwerk for the song « The robots », and since 1991, as it is the case right now with the 2005 world tour, this song is often performed by the robots alone on stage, out of the presence of the band members.
2002, Kraftwerk gave
a very talked-about series of three concerts at the Cité de la musique where
all the trendy Parisians gathered. The Kraftwerk
robots did not appear on stage on this occasion, and the Robots-Music
were not featured in the musical machines exhibition which was presented near
the auditorium, but E.R. Diomgar's creations were still present in Ralf and
Florian's minds, since the day after the concerts they both rode on their bikes,
found a way out of Paris with the lovely cycling path along the Canal de l’Ourcq,
which passes just at the back of the Cité de la Musique, and went about thirty
kilometers away, in Goussainville,Val d’Oise, at the adress printed on the back
of the Robots-Music records.
Contacts had been made beforehand to track down the warehouse to which Oscar, Ernest and Anatole had been relegated a few years before, and this visit allowed the Kraftwerk members to meet up gain with the robots, nearly thirty years after their sojourn in Champagne, and more importantly to make arrangements to finance and organize their refurbishment, under the supervision of one of their technician friends. It was a particularly difficult time which lasted several months, the three robots being made of pneumatic jacks, pistons, condensers, printed circuits, and lamps originally made in the 1950's and 1960's, which had to be greased and repaired, often by roaming the flea markets to find spare parts.
Once this task was achieved, with the discretion which characterizes most of Kraftwerk's activities, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider came once again to Goussainville, with their mobile studio recording this time, for a job of a completely different kind : they tried to rediscover M. Diomgar's programming methods, transcribed the arrangements of four of their songs for drums, saxophone and accordeon (which is not impossible : the Balanescu Quartet did this kind of exercise over ten years ago) and proceeded to record these tracks for the Robots-Music record we are happy to present you with today.
The choice of songs from the Kraftwerk repertoire gives a good idea of the impact the Robots-Music had on Kraftwerk : they chose to rerecord « The robots », of course, but also « Boing boom tschak » from the « Electric café » album and « Metall on metall » from « Trans Europe Express », that sound as if they were written for the Robots-Music, as well as the French version of « Pocket calculator », which allows Anatole to show that his voice has not weakened with the years.
We have added a bonus track to these four Kraftwerk covers by the Robots-Music, the Kraftwerk remix of «Twist boogie twist robots », one of only two original Robots-Music songs featured on their four albums (the other being « Le rock-des-robots »). With this record, Kraftwerk gives a heartfelt tribute to one of its major influences. As the band is very active once again (« Tour de France soundtracks » album, world tour, live «Minimum-Maximum» album), many fans of the band, old and new, will be happy to be introduced to the Robots-Music.
Pol Dodu, june 2005.
You remember attending a Robots-Music show ? Even if you're not a member of Kraftwerk, mail us. We will publish your memories on a special souvenir page...
More info about Kraftwerk
www.kraftwerk.com (official site)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kraftwerk (an overview of Kraftwerk's history)
perso.wanadoo.fr/kraftwerkonline (in French)