For us electronica enthusiasts, we owe almost everything to Kraftwerk. From Gary Numan to Aphex Twin, my love of music made from electronics is largely due to these genius Germans. Going back to one of their most celebrated works, The Man Machine, has been a wholesome experience. Arrangements here, at least in comparison to other Kraftwerk records, are made for easy listening. The rhythms are more danceable, and the song structures are surprisingly accessible. The impact this record had on synth-pop artists is palpable; not just the likes of Depeche Mode, but more modern artists such as Hot Chip. The Man Machine is one of those timeless records. You’d not bat an eye lid if it was the soundtrack to Stranger Things. It’s quite simply staggering that this was released in 1978.
Kraftwerk are usually defined by robotic qualities, but The Man Machine instead ventures into the realms of humanity. The mechanical aspects are softened by glorious melodies; wonderful refrains that could only ever come from a human being. The instrumental climax that occurs half-way through “The Model” is pure bliss, and it remains one of the most iconic and gratifying musical motifs ever. In contrast, the monotonous German vocals are the least alluring aspect of the record. Aside from “The Model”, I’m not convinced The Man Machine would be any less of an album if it was purely instrumental. “Neon Lights” is a curious attempt at a sci-fi pop epic, and whilst it remains an enjoyable listen, the toneless vocals don’t exactly lend the required inflection for those wonderful washes of synthesisers. It probably doesn’t need to last for nine minutes, either.
Minor mishaps don’t make The Man Machine any less of a classic. I just think we’ve since seen bigger and better records. I very much doubt The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, or even Squarepusher would sound the same today without Kraftwerk setting such solid foundations, similarly those artists who incorporate electronica into other contemporary genres, such as New Order, Nine Inch Nails, and Radiohead. It’d be remiss of me to tribute these successes purely to Kraftwerk – especially when the history of electronic music goes way back to beyond 1900 – but the way the group incorporates electronics into conventional music is nothing less than a revelation. Rest in peace to founding member Florian Schneider, to whom we owe an awful lot. A true pioneer.
Favourite tracks // The Model
When I watch a classic old film I am often calmed by how simple everything is. The characters speak to each other in plain English, everyone smokes, and the story is wrapped up in a tidy bow before 90 minutes have passed. The Man Machine feels a little like that. It’s simple compared to modern electronic fare, but that only throws its sophistication into sharper focus.
My gripes with electronic music have been well documented by now. Repetition, timidity, and using technology as an ends rather than a means are all recurring problems I have with the genre. The Man Machine has plenty of repetition, but there’s no doubting its boldness. Kraftwerk use their tools with scientific precision, tinkering their way to an album that still sounds superb all these years later. “The Model” and “Neon Lights” are the high points for me, their synths positively sumptuous.
The album makes for hypnotic listening, bobbling along like a well-mannered German robot. All these years later it still sounds like the future. I can only imagine how it must have felt to hear it in 1978. Turns out the tranquility of Ambient 1 mixed with stilted German funk is a winning formula. Who knew?8 10
Favourite tracks // The Model
The Man Machine has remained iconic in the forty years since its release. It and the band’s influence on electronica can’t be understated, but does it still hold up as a standalone album today?
Kraftwerk have electronic music at their core, but The Man Machine runs like clockwork. Distinctive vocoder lined vocals, sparse arrangements and razor-sharp rhythms are the mainstays here. The metronomic drum pattern and clicky bass underlining “Spacelab” exemplify much of the album’s offering too. With melodies and themes evolving glacially over their six-minute playtime, largely uninhibited by full vocal lines.
The two main exceptions to the status quo are “The Model” and “Neon Lights”, with the former acting as the jewel in the album and the latter seeing structure, experimentation and development that is less evident elsewhere. “The Model” could make for a blueprint of synth-pop, with vocals treated as a first-class citizen in the arrangement, a satisfying, energetic bass and a dazzling synth line. It’s hard not to bob along as it stretches through its meagre sub-four-minute playtime and it’s gone long before its outstayed its welcome. “Neon Lights” has similar qualities, opening and running with lovely timbres that give the track a wistful quality, a playful stab that bounces under the vocal and a shimmering, cascading melody midway through. At nearly nine minutes, it’s ripe for hanging around too long, but the development and overarching structure keeps things interesting.
However, it’s with a twinge of frustration that I can’t wax lyrical about the entire album. Where other releases in their discography seem to inject an element of human emotion throughout, I’m left in the cold for a decent portion of The Man Machine‘s tracklist. The sparser vocals, the robotic rhythms, and chilling synth melodies are all intentional given the themes of the album, but it does little for my modern ears nonetheless.
All told, The Man Machine maintains a legacy of paving the way for danceable electronic music. A healthy chunk of its tracklist doesn’t hit the spot for me, but “The Model” and “Neon Lights” are gems that I could easily return to over and over, leaving me a tad conflicted. Take a listen, appreciate the legacy, but I’ll likely be jumping into the rest of their discography in the long run.7 10
Favourite tracks // The Model