360°Sound recently had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Tupai Francis, author of the engrossing new 33 1/3 book on Kraftwerk’s classic 1981 album Computer World. A meditation on technology, Computer World was the influential German electronic group’s fourth and arguably greatest record. At the time, Kraftwerk was a four-piece consisting of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, and Wolfgang Flür. Computer World would help pave the way for an array of genres, including techno, trance, industrial and synth-pop. As the back cover of the 148-page book says, “They influenced the influencers.”
A resident of Melbourne, Australia, Francis has more than 25 years of writing experience in a variety of contexts, including music and academia. In addition to Kraftwerk, Francis is a massive fan of David Bowie and Prince. The Aussie has over 3,000 records in his collection. In this exclusive interview, Francis discusses why Computer World was a major step forward, the band’s mysterious Kling Klang Studio, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to write a 33 1/3 book on this particular Kraftwerk album?
Computer World was the first Kraftwerk album I ever heard. It just stood out to me as something that was so unusual at the time. I had really not experienced it before, like a whole new world, hermetically sealed, you could just enter and be part of, which was so alien to everything else I had heard before.
I was around 13 years old when I went to my local library looking for some music. I was a bit obsessed with music, but at the time I was focused mainly on KISS. I had like 17 KISS albums. At the time, it was a wall of cassettes. One cassette, which was sort of garish yellow stood out, and that was Computer World. I loved the cover. It was so unusual to me and futuristic. I took it home, and it blew my mind.
How was Computer World a step forward for Kraftwerk both musically and conceptually?
Computer World is like a culmination of the previous six albums. It’s got a level of sophistication that belies the simplicity of the surface; there is a lot going on. By this stage, they were very experienced in the use of their electronic instruments. After “Autobahn” [the title track from their fourth studio album] became this weird mini hit in the U.S., it really funded the next part of their journey.
There were still some acoustic instruments on that, like guitar and a bit of violin. Once they got the money from Autobahn, they made their decision to go all electric. Equip their studio with the latest synths, Minimoog, vocoders, and real obscure instruments. Radioactivity was the first electronic album, and they progressed through Trans Europe Express and Man Machine. Musically, Computer World is where they hit their sweeter spot.
They also had a number of companies in Germany that could help them make instruments. They had some custom-made instruments just for themselves. Florian [Schneider] was involved in a lot of development in things like the vocoder. He was a bit of a boffin. They not only had instruments made for them, but they helped develop them.
Musically, they were so confident by that stage that they could innovate and experiment. They used everyday objects and consumer products, like [electronic educational toy] Speak & Spell, the Bee Gees Mattel keyboard, and calculators. It was very sophisticated musically with their sequencing and there were these beautiful melodies on top.
They were influenced by pop art, the Fluxus movement, and Gilbert & George. Art was really important to them. They considered their work more than just music. They conceptualized Computer World not because it was futurist. They weren’t trying to predict the future, the future was actually present. IBM had just released a home computer. Their concept for Computer World was that they loved technology.
They’re from Düsseldorf, an industrial society. They lived in the heart of the European industrial economic zone of Europe. In a way, they were reflecting what was happening around them. Computer World is like an elegy to technology. It’s a bit of the opposite of Devo, who raged against consumerism and the military-industrial complex. Devo and Kraftwerk are kind of like evil twins of each other.
Tell us a little about what we know about Kling Klang Studio.
It seems to be pretty central to them. It was almost like they were having fun building mystique around what they called the Mothership. They conceptualized Kling Klang Studio before they ever had a Kling Klang Studio. They talked about it pretty early on, like in ’71. I think it was inspired by their obsession with pop art and Andy Warhol’s [studio] The Factory. I think they liked the mystique that was built around that.
Supposedly women weren’t allowed in there. It was only the four members and some of their engineers allowed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo from the inside of Kling Klang except for when they’re posing. You see the equipment, but you don’t see much of the studio. In that myth-building, they said they’d go there from 9 to 5 then knock off and go to the nightclubs. It’s like a workplace.
You describe the title track “Computer World” as “beautifully produced.” What was unique about the production on that song?
Even though it’s all electronic music, there’s this real softness and warmth in the tones and the way they did it. I think that’s some of the instruments they use, but really, it’s a little bit hard to work out how they did things. I think it was the use of particular oscillators. They had trialed so much music. They often would come up with a melody and just let it go for ages and ages. I think they were able to have so much patience and work on the music so much that they were able to find these warm sounds within the music that they were playing.
One thing that musicians tell me is that those analog synths have a lot more humanity and warmth than your later digital sounds. Ironically, it was probably a mixture of the technology and their patience to craft that album because it was a three-year undertaking, and one of the years was just building the instruments that would help create it. That’s part of the mystery of them, too. Producers ever since have been trying to work out how did they get the Kraftwerk sound.
Kraftwerk has been highly influential on a variety of genres. Talk about how influential “Numbers” was in particular.
That’s really an unusual song the way it’s structured. Kraftwerk were really about nightclubs and the dancefloor, and that progressed even more as time went on. From ’78 onward, they had a relationship with François Kevorkian, the famous French DJ who was based in New York, and they were able to test things out on the dancefloor. I believe “Numbers” just had those elements where it’s so useful in creating a dance vibe. I think that was crafted a bit with Kevorkian. They were influenced by him.
“Numbers” and elements of “Trans-Europe Express” went into the making of [1982 electro/hip-hop hit] “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa. [Producer and DJ] Arthur Baker was a massive Kraftwerk fan, and it was really his instigation to bring “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express” into “Planet Rock.” “Trans-Europe Express” was one of the songs he used to play on the dancefloor. When “Computer World” came out, someone like Arthur Baker was waiting to see what they were going to produce after three whole years. He played The Man-Machine to death. I think that song just had elements that Baker could say, ‘Whoa, I can rip the shreds out of this and it’s going to create a new type of music.’
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
I’m a little bit sentimental, so “Computer Love” is my favorite. And “Neon Lights” from The Man-Machine, they’re like two sides of the same coin – beautiful melodies. It’s the perfect and the imperfect. It’s the beautiful constructions, and it’s precise. It’s like the quote [from Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig], ‘They’re so stiff, they’re funky.’ A really perfect sound but with the fragile vocals, and a lot of the drums and things were not precise. It’s like perfect and imperfect together in the best way.
If you could ask the members of Kraftwerk a question about Computer World, what would you ask?
The album is only 35 minutes long. Were there any outtakes? Could you have done a couple more, please? [laughs] Because every note is beautiful.
To order a copy of Francis’s book Kraftwerk’s Computer World, click here.