Reasserting the roots of Kraftwerk’s sound in African-American R&B and jazz reveals how the soul of electronic dance music is being throttled by the dead hand of the culture industry. By Tony Herrington
In January, David Toop gave a talk at London’s Science Museum in which he made the startling assertion that Kraftwerk were Dusseldorf’s answer to The Isley Brothers. Rather than a frivolous provocation by a bored theorist, this represented a rare return to a subject David once made his own, critiquing existing orthodoxies on the historical give and take of African-American and European popular musics, remaking connections that have been ignored for various nefarious reasons (or just through sheer ignorance) by critics and academics alike; or that have been written out of history altogether for being too damn inconvenient or messy.
David’s talk was partly prompted by a Facebook post by Kirk Degiorgio, which bemoaned the fact that the African-American contribution to Kraftwerk’s sound has been routinely sidelined by three decades of rhetoric proclaiming them der Patenonkels of techno and electro. As anyone familiar with the two interviews with Kirk published in The Wire (way back in issues 160 and 214), this is a bone of contention he has been gnawing away at for some time.
As far as Kirk is concerned, the origins of techno and electro and all the musics that flow from them lie in the synthesized basslines, applied rhythmic technologies and Afrofuturist concepts developed in the early 1970s – pre-Autobahn, pre-Radio Activity – by such African-American visionaries as Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Bernie Worrell and Stevie Wonder, which Juan Atkins et al then took to the next level. Previously he has come up with ingenious theories, rooted in a class analyses of the catastrophic socio-economic conditions that prevailed in the handful of African-American run US cities in the 70s and 80s, to explain why early Detroit techno is infected by white electro pop tropes seemingly picked up from over exposure to Depeche Mode and Thomas Dolby. Now he looks to be getting down to the serious business of recalibrating those tropes’ respective source as African-American by proxy.
On Facebook, Kirk mentioned The Isleys in relation to Kraftwerk, and in his talk, David took up the idea and ran with it, expanding the argument to include the impact of progressive African-American jazz on the Dusseldorf mensch-machines.
But Kraftwerk as the German Isleys makes sudden sense to me, on both formal and musicological levels. Old song forms retrofitted with new technologies: that sounds like what Kraftwerk did and what African-American popular music had been doing since the get go. Think of the transition from country blues in the 30s to electric blues in the 50s: the same songs only now technologized. Then think about what Kraftwerk did two decades later to Chuck Berry’s automotorik R&B. The source code of “Autobahn” is routinely located in the music of The Beach Boys. Fine, but then analyse the source of The Beach Boys’ sound, which according to Brian Wilson himself, was an attempt to rewire 50s inner city African-American doo-wop and R&B for the car and beach culture of 60s California.
The Isleys began their remarkable 60 year career as a doo-wop group in 1954, a year before the official birth of rock ’n’ roll, then moved through the eras of R&B, soul, funk, disco, electro, house, new jack swing and on and on right up to the present moment of Auto-tuned MOBO. As far as lengthy careers go, they have around 15 years on their Deutsche doppelgangers. But play Radio-Activity back to back with Tour De France Soundtracks: as with The Isleys, and virtually every other African-American R&B act that has stayed the course, the songs remain the same; it’s the upgrades in the technology that catch the imagination.
During his talk David cued up The Isleys’ “Highways Of My Life” and Kraftwerk’s “Tanzmusik” and played them back simultaneously to make a mischevious-serious point about shared musical roots. In an even more inspired moment, he dropped The Isley’s 1969 “Vacuum Cleaner” (“My love is like a vacuum cleaner/It keeps pulling me in”) as an example of the kind of techno-eroticism that had long been a part of the imagery of African-American R&B and would become such a key Kraftwerk trope.
But the progressive jazz influences on Tone Float by the pre-Kraftwerk Organisation and the first two Kraftwerk albums proper are there for all to hear, in particular the Afrodelic sounds-in-space odysseys developed in the mid-late 60s by The Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Pharaoh Sanders, as well as the monolithic one chord vamping plus freak out soloing interspersed with passages of pure tone float that characterised Miles Davis’s late 60s groups, and which Miles adapted from James Brown and Sly Stone. Like Miles, Kraftwerk’s genius partly resided in their preternatural ability to instantly detect, absorb and repurpose minute but significant shifts in the fundamental stuff of African-American popular music, which is to say rhythms and technology. And the tight-but-loose percussive rhythms on those first two Kraftwerk records, which were then quantized on Ralf Und Florian to establish the rhythmic grid Kraftwerk would utilise for the rest of their career, sound exactly like those laid down on Bitches Brew and Miles Davis At Fillmore fractionally earlier by Jack DeJohnette, who we may have to now retroactively acknowledge as one of the founding fathers of motorik.
Was this one of the reasons those records were mysteriously excluded from 2009’s otherwise comprehensive repacking of the Kraftwerk catalogue, a project overseen by the group itself? Maybe white critics and fans with either cloth ears or clandestine agendas or axes to grind aren’t the only ones looking to wipe the slate clean of anything that will get in the way of maintaining Kraftwerk’s cult status as the Mitteleuropa ground zero of electronic dance music.
Such talk is guaranteed to get the trolls clambering out of their holes. When Kirk Degiorgio dissed Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in relation to the more complex rhythmatics of house, techno and electro in the second of those two Wire interviews, an irate reader laid into him on the next issue’s Letters page: “TG were utilising sequenced rhythms… a full ten years before Degiorgio’s heroes in dance music,” spat Tim Jones from Manchester, which was a particulaly sobering example of the kind of aggressive reactionary historical revisionism that has been brought to bear on the origins of electronic dance music from the other side of the tracks, and now I think about it, I can’t believe we actually published it without comment. Meanwhile, laissez-faire postmodernists will dismiss it all as essentialist and atavistic.
But consider this: in 2014, post-techno electronic dance music is increasingly being annexed to the whitest ever white worlds of stadium rock, post-industrial culture and sound art, a deleterious process that further isolates it from its origins in postwar African-American culture. For one thing, you can’t actually dance to much of this stuff anymore. The act and art of dancing have been rendered null and void by the music’s devolution into Skrillex-like festival bangers or liminal electronica. This is significant because dancing, in case anyone needed reminding, was once a key function of the music, a crucial component in a dynamic and inclusive feedback loop. Taking it out of that loop has implications for the music’s social dynamic and by extension its racial, sexual and economic dynamics too. Likewise, electronic dance music’s migration into museums and gallery spaces (Kraftwerk’s most recent venues of choice) is detaching it from the vernacular of pop culture itself. Instead, it is channeled into petit bourgeois notions of what constitutes serious art (ironically, or maybe not, David Toop’s talk took place in a museum gallery in advance of a performance of Kraftwerk’s music rescored for classical ensemble). This in turn prescribes the terms and conditions in which audiences might react and respond to it, devolving it into a highbrow, non-participatory spectator sport; even worse, it predetermines the kinds of individuals that might constitute those audiences, actively excluding all Others.
In the midst of all this, and as critics and producers continue to cite Kraftwerk and their industrial progeny as electronic dance music’s ne plus ultra, the need to state the uncomfortable historical facts of the matter, to redraw a more complex lineage that goes back to the revolutionary technological progressions that swept through African-American music on the cusp of the 70s, feels more necessary, not to say liberating, than ever.