“Walking, they were walking / Through the rainy days, looking at all the faces
/ But no-one ever noticed them”
Ultravox!, Quiet Men, 1978
Late seventies’ television series like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Battlestar Galactica, Blake’s 7 and Logan’s Run, as well as films such as Star Wars, Alien and The Black Hole, variously embedded robots, androids and cyborgs within public consciousness.
But while Kraftwerk’s influential The Man-Machine (1978) came off the production line during a period when screen content was dominated by commercial fantasies set in outer space, it’s an LP which owes its inspiration to earlier sci-fi works. Shiny and accessible – and arguably presenting a less cohesive concept than its predecessor Trans-Europe Express – the ideas behind The Man-Machine were heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s seminal 1927 film Metropolis (featuring the gynoid Maria) as well as the four band members’ own mannequin-esque on-stage personas.
David Buckley writes that, “Against the backdrop of technology advancement, US-Soviet space-race rivalry, and the liberation of popular culture by countercultural progressives, Kraftwerk began making music during a time when the future of mankind seemed to be being radically re-directed.”
“Expressionless and statuesque, Kraftwerk initiated a completely new performance idiom, and building on ‘Showroom Dummies’ from the previous album, their reinvention as robots was logical,” he adds. “It paved the way for a new wave of pop performers who would affect an air of emotional dislocation, staring blankly out on an audience to be neither greeted nor even acknowledged.”
We are the Robots
Already David Bowie had rejuvenated experimental rock and pop by making synths, together with recognisable sci-fi themes and characterisations, intrinsic to his creative process (for instance, 1974’s Diamond Dogs included the Orwell-inspired tracks Big Brother and 1984, while three years later Low‘s cover art was sourced straight from the artist’s turn as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth). Now the Dűsseldorfers’ measured stillness, perfected for The Man-Machine, became a blueprint for UK synthpop acts seeking to distinguish themselves from the conventions of guitar rock.
With the release of The Man-Machine Kraftwerk drew sci-fi and technology in close to our world as they set out to create the sound of past and imagined global cities; in so doing they helped establish a sonic and aesthetic language for a sci-fi fetish of communist states.
In England is Mine Michael Bracewell traces the key precursors of a robot aesthetic which “provided metaphors for individualism within a bland society”, emphasising the historical position of the robot as both a physical and political threat:
“Imported from Germany and Eastern Europe, there was a mythology of robots both as sinister (in the Gothic, Frankensteinian sense of the self-awakening monster) and political, in terms of allegories of Fordism, Communism and Bolshevism. The female robot in Metropolis had raised new notions of sexuality, combining eroticism with political allegory to make a Goth-Futurist morality tale that was equally concerned with emotional and sexual relationships. There was also Karel Ĉapek’s ‘Robot Play’ of 1920, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which not only provided the word ‘robot’ but told the story of an army of robots who unite to destroy mankind, thus becoming a critique of totalitarian communism. Peter Wollen, in his essay on ‘Robot Kultur’, has linked the robot eroticism in the latter half of Metropolis with Gramsci’s notion of industrialization prompting a sexual crisis: the libido is placed at odds with the need for efficiency in the factory.”
The term ‘robota’ (meaning ‘serf labour’) was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Josef, as detailed in the memoir of author and architect Ivan Margolius:
‘“Apparently, [Josef] Čapek had the idea for the artificial beings not through the famous Prague automaton, the Golem, supposedly created by Rabbi Yehuda Löw ben Becalel at the end of the 16th century, but while riding on an overcrowded Prague tram. Suddenly it struck him how modern conditions made people uncaring about the usual comforts of life. They stood squashed in the tram, not like sheep but like machines. He started to think of people not as individuals but as machines, and during the journey he reflected on an expression which would indicate a being able to work but not think.’” (Vítězslav Margolius in Ivan Margolius, Reflections of Prague)
A 1921 review of R.U.R. from The Observer.
Though subsequent usage of the term ‘robot’ suggests otherwise, in Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) the artificial beings are actually biological entities assembled by humans, as serf labour, from a variety of components, rather than actual mechanical devices. Karel Čapek’s play, which was successfully exported to the UK and US during the twenties, centres on non-human factory workers who, fed up with their lot, turn the tables on their bosses through drastic industrial action which ultimately leads to the extinction of the human race.
The science-fictional portrayal of non-humans has since varied greatly; be that in comics and manga, literature and radio or television and cinema, as well as within the realm of pop music.
Prior to Kraftwerk’s re-released single The Model surging to the top of the UK charts in February 1981, the door to the mainstream for synthpop was emphatically kicked in by Gary Numan when, firstly as the frontperson of Tubeway Army and then flying solo, he scored #1 hits in both June and September 1979. A mixture of sinister androgyny and fragile otherness Numan seemingly appeared out of nowhere to perform live on the BBC’s Top of the Pops program, posing a grammatically specific question.
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? was the lead single from Tubeway Army’s second LP Replicas, a concept record which uses the written and visual language of sci-fi to communicate a human race alienated in their own near-future world.
These days a trained pilot, Numan (nee Webb) grew up near London’s Heathrow, not far from long-time Shepparton resident JG Ballard. It was while working on the self-titled debut of his then-punk/glam band when, so the story goes, he experienced an epiphany of sorts after stumbling across a Minimoog in the recording studio. Attracted to the possibilities of electronic sound Numan began to introduce such elements into his milieu, complementing existing other-wordly influences (Philip K Dick is quoted in Tubeway Army’s opening track Listen to the Sirens).
Inspired by an unfinished Numan sci-fi novel, Replicas soars. Whereas Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire applied sci-fi themes and electronic sound to post-industrial Manchester and Sheffield respectively, and John Foxx to a past-its-prime London metropolis, the less-political Numan reinterpreted such reference points to create a futuristic fantasy world. Alongside ‘Friends’ sit concept-laden gems like Praying to the Aliens, The Machman, Me! I Disconnect From You and Down in the Park, alongside the straighter glam rock of You Are in My Vision and It Must Have Been Years.
Like Foxx, Numan shed his band in 1980 and embarked on a solo career, soon returning to No.1 with Cars; easily dismissed as a parody of Kraftwerk’s man-machine aesthetic, Numan became synthpop’s first bona fide pop star. Subsequently, Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes topped the charts in August 1980, followed by Soft Cell’s Tainted Love (September 1981) and The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me? (December 1981).
By 1980, having released two solo albums, The Pleasure Principal and Telekon, Numan had retired from playing live and took an 18-month hiatus from music, after which his popularity waned. Having since made a resurgence with Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock, the artist has sought to downplay the influence of sci-fi on his early career:
“To be honest I only ever wrote a handful of songs that were remotely connected to Science Fiction and they were all nearly 20 years ago,” he tells Electronicmusic.com. “The ‘Replicas’ album, or bits of it, one or two things on ‘The Pleasure Principle’ and one or two things on ‘Telekon’. I would say about 15 songs, maybe 20, out of a total of well over 300 to date have anything to do with Sci Fi. I think because I became successful with electronic music, a newish thing 20 years ago, and a song called ‘Are Friends Electric’ (it was that song that launched me in the UK anyway) I was given a Sci Fi label that stuck long after I’d moved on to other things.
I do love technology though. I’m fascinated by all things techy. I do enjoy science fiction movies and TV shows as well but it honestly doesn’t cross over into my music or the way I see the world.”
Reflective, synth-driven music exploring concepts of identity proliferated in the early eighties, and an inordinate amount of tracks delve into the inner psyche of the troubled, dislocated or manipulated individual; for example, Visage’s Fade to Grey, Blancmange’s Running Thin, OMD’s The New Stone Age, Talk Talk’s Mirror Man, Depeche Mode’s Puppets, Yazoo’s Happy People, Tears for Fears’ Start of the Breakdown, Soft Cell’s Metro MRX and Japan’s Ghosts.
After the glam guitar pop of two 1978 albums (containing tracks titled European Son, Communist China and Suburban Berlin), south Londoners Japan moved in a more electronic direction for Quiet Life (1979), Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980) and, finally, Tin Drum (1981). The memorable single Ghosts featured on this latter communist China-themed album across which David Sylvian’s vocals delicately complement intricate programming and voice samples, fetishising all things red; “We’re young and strong in this Party / We’re building our visions of China,” Sylvian proudly asserts on Visions of China.
Meanwhile, Leeds duo Soft Cell’s early recordings, later compiled as The Bedsit Tapes, are heightened modernist fantasies which stack up squarely in the kitchen sink of Thatcher’s Britain. Metro MRX’s “favourite mutant” is variously described by singer Marc Almond as “a cog in the machinery”,
“impersonal and straight-faced”, “not a clone but a look-alike” and, more worryingly, “the city’s full of him”.
Cold War themes were by now de rigueur within the synthpop strain of post-punk, and increasingly the protagonist tended to be the grey suited-man of communism – Party and secret police operatives, cunning and dangerous – alien to the West but everyday elsewhere*.
As Bracewell notes, “Grey was also the shade of film noir and pre-War Europe (on the style index) as well as the eerie hue of half-life, after-life and indecision”.
“The ghostly non-colour of urban mist, had popped up in Gary Numan’s founding vocabulary in reference to the ‘friend’ of ‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’, who was ‘dressed in a long coat, grey hat, smoking a cigarette’.”
Drawing on the political legacy of the robot as dissenting figure, the pervading electro-pop aesthetic plugged into a fetishised, unknown, communist East. Inevitably artists of this era coveted new meaning or identity, their own seemingly blunted amidst the dehumanisation of right-wing politics. The banality of daily existence was salved with creative imaginings of mythical characters inhabiting an idealised urban environment.
*Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic has first-hand experience of living in an individual-less society, which she describes thus in Cafe Europa: Life After Communism:
“I grew up with ‘we’ and ‘us’ in kindergarten, at school, in the pioneer and youth organisations, in the community, at work.
“I grew up listening to the speeches of the politicians saying, ‘Comrades, we must…’ and with these comrades, we did what we were told, because we did not exist in any other grammatical form.
“As a consequence of this ‘us’, no civic society developed. The little there was, in the form of small, isolated and marginalised groups, was soon swallowed up by the national homogenisation that did not permit any differences, any individualism.”
New Life indeed.
© David Hull. Known Pleasures. 2013.