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Kraftwerk’s Incredible Invention (and Where It Came From)

January 23, 2015

“The simplest description of emptiness in the Buddhist teachings is this sentence: This is because that is. A flower cannot exist by itself alone. To be can only mean to inter-be. To be by oneself alone is impossible. Everything else is present in the flower; the only thing the flower is empty of is itself.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Where do we find the origin of the profoundly original?

Earlier this week a Kraftwerk Symposium took place in Birmingham, England, and frankly, THAT’S FANTASTIC.  Kraftwerk are INARGUABLY the second most influential band of the past half century, and a concentrated academic examination of their work is not only long overdue, it makes me happier than a peanut butter cup wrapped inside a larger peanut butter cup.  I wasn’t able to make it to the symposium because I had a previous commitment to, uh, have a life (not to mention that my time is consumed pressuring the International Court at The Hague to charge Dick Van Dyke with Crimes Against Humanity for his English accent in Mary Poppins).

Now, Kraftwerk are not my favorite band – they’re not even my favorite krautrock band – but that has nothing to do with their importance.  In 1973 and ’74 (on their 3rd LP, Ralf und Florian and coming to fruition on the legitimately historic Autobahn album), Kraftwerk replaced all elements of the pop/rock rhythm section with a pulsing, throbbing, quantized synth; in other words, they replaced the drums and the bass, without exception, with simple yet satisfying synth burps and nothing but simple yet satisfying synth burps.  Make no mistake:  although other artists had experimented with using the synth as a defacto drum or bass supplement or substitute (for instance, the Beach Boys on “Do It Again,” even the original Doctor Who Theme, remarkably devised by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire in 1963), no artist had said this is our sound; this our body and our soul, and we now challenge you to accept that a complete pop music rhythm section can be created by the quantized  synthesizer.

Every synthetically thumping rhythm section you have heard since then – from the obvious Kraftwerk homages like “Funkytown” and Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” to the ubiquity of the modern tsk-and-burp/boots’n’pants beat in virtually all modern pop and dance music – can be traced, without fail, to Kraftwerk’s amazing invention.  NO other moment in pop is as absolute and viscerally fundamental as “Autobahn.” I’ll be honest:  I am a fairly avid student of this shit, and I am hard-pressed to find a moment in post-World War II mainstream pop history that is as absolutely new and defining.  There have been plenty of other remarkable scene changes in the last 70 years  (Hardrock Gunter and Ike Turner’s use of distorted electric guitar in r’n’b and hillbilly music in 1950 and ‘51; Bo Diddley replacing the old pick and slap of hillbilly rock with fat ham slabs of rhythm roar half a decade later; Dave Davies invention of the modern bar chord riff in 1964; the Ramones massive, massively original, and massively glorious reduction of all existing rock memes in ’74; and so on), but Kraftwerk’s invention of the totally self-contained synth-generated rhythm section is likely the biggest purely musical scene change in the history of rock/pop.  I mean, the Fabs are, no doubt, the most influential band of all time, but Kraftwerk are a very, very close second, and very likely number one if you drop long held generational prejudices against dance music.

Having said that…one must acknowledge that the basic roux that flavored Kraftwerks’ gumbo had to come from somewhere (please re-read the quote that begins this piece – only a fool or a fundamentalist Christian believes in Virgin birth).  Now, the foundation of the Kraftwerk sound was a pulsing, metronomic beat that mesmerized with a steady tick and minimal chord changes.  Keep that in mind. Perusing the program for the symposium, I’m not sure this point was actually addressed:

Circa 1971, after their release of their peculiar, anti-jazz, anti-pop, bongo-and-flutey first album, Kraftwerk briefly had a three-piece line-up, comprised of Florian Schneider (flute and synths), Klaus Dinger (drums), and Michael Rother (guitar).  Video and audio of this short-lived line-up reveal a band playing intense, punching, pulsing jams with minimal chord changes, resembling precise mongoloids playing “Sister Ray,” or perhaps you could say they sound like some stoned, happy, and aggressive Germans trying to blend Stooges/Hendrix shrrrroarrr-wang-wang with the mono-chord jams of early NYC minimalist composers like LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad.  The music of Schneider, Dinger, and Rother is vastly original – it reduces the idea of “jam” to John Cale drones married to a caveman surf beat.  This sound reached it’s fullest fruition when Dinger and Rother split off to form Neu!, a band whose phased, ticking, rumbling, endless one-chord explorations made for some of the most original, powerful, and influential rock ever recorded.

(the Incredible Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk, late 1971)

But Neu! wasn’t the only child of the brief and brilliant Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk.  The future, commercially giant Kraftwerk was Neu!’s remarkable twin. It is clear – very goddamn clear – that when Schneider reunited with Ralf Hutter (who returned to the band he co-formed in 1972), there was a conscious decision to leave the odd, dumbed-down proggy thumps, bells, and whistles behind (again, the early Kraftwerk sound resembles a very stoned, very, minimalist free jazz group doing collegiate exercise in interpreting Stockhausen), and instead attempt a sound that IMITATED Dinger and Rother’s ultra-minimal motorway beat (the actual name is “motorik”) that hinted at long highways, minimal variation, and maximum energy.

So I posit – shit, I barely need to posit it, there’s plenty of evidence to back it up – that the “Autobahn” sound that reinvented pop was “just” an attempt to replicate on synths the sound that Dinger/Rother had brought to Kraftwerk during their brief time in the band.  Now, NONE of that is to minimize the invention; and there is great, ENORMOUS, radical genius in Hutter and Schneider’s decision to reinterpret Dinger and Rother’s motorway drive with synths and synths alone – but I am anxious to give credit where credit is due.  I will add, for the sake of accuracy/completion, that an academic-type could make a fairly strong case for the sound of the Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk being a more simplistic, driving, spacious exploration of the herky-jerky seizure-on-the-railway sound that the Schneider/Hutter/Dinger Kraftwerk had explored on a first-album track called “Ruckzuck” – remember, “Everything else is present in the flower”.

Now back to those emails to the International Court at The Hague.

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We All Know the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame Blows. Can We Try to do Something About It?

December 17, 2014

Listen, there is very goddamn little need to add my churning, gasping puffs of breath to the howl of outrage over the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  First of all, there are a lot more important things to wax indignant about; secondly, saying the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is full of shit is like saying the rents in NYC are too damn high, or that Dick Cheney is a war criminal, or that buffalo chicken doesn’t belong on a slice of pizza, or that Sting, the Shabbos Goy of Reggae, is a tool:  it is so obvious that it no longer needs stating.

Sting: Shabbos Goy

Breaking News! The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is full of shit!  In other Breaking News, water is wet, the New York Yankees threw the 2014 season to make a billion dollars carting around the horny corpse of Derek Jeter, and Jim J Bullock is gay!  

(Nevertheless, we add parenthetically…The following artists are NOT in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame:  Roxy Music, the New York Dolls, the Smiths, the Carpenters, Cheap Trick, the B52s, Joe Cocker, ELO, Joy Division, the Monkees, Sonic Youth, the MC5, and most horrifically – in my opinion – Kraftwerk, who ARE ONLY THE SECOND MOST INFLUENTIAL BAND OF ALL TIME. Let me also gurgle that in 2015, the Hall is presenting Ringo Starr with the Award for Musical Excellence – THAT’S NOT A TYPO.  Presenting Ringo Starr with an Award for Musical Excellence is a little like presenting Dave Grohl with an Award for Public Reclusiveness.)

But rather than CONTINUE the dialogue regarding how truly ridiculous and corrupt the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame is, instead I would like to suggest A CALL TO ACTION.  This is pretty straightforward:

FIRST.  I call on all my acquaintances/associates who are voting members of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame to resign, and do so publicly.

I’ll be honest – I don’t know WHICH of my friends are voters, but I am goddamn sure I know a few.  This isn’t like the Student Council at Great Neck South, where you earnestly convince yourself that your Voice of Dissent will surely make a difference.  Friends, your intelligence, perception, and knowledge of musical history mean NOTHING within the overall context of the CLOWN COLLEGE that is the Hall of Fame.  This is a BULLSHIT organization and YOU KNOW IT, and WHOEVER YOU ARE, I GUARANTEE, I mean I one-hundred perfuckingcent GURANFUCKINGTEE that the STATEMENT YOU WILL MAKE BY RESIGNING AS A VOTING MEMBER WILL MAKE MORE OF A DIFFERENCE THAN WHATEVER IMPACT YOU CAN MAKE BY STAYING. Let me repeat (because I LOVE repeating myself, even more than I love those donuts they used to have at Stan’s Donuts in Westwood that had an entire peanut butter cup INSIDE the donut):  The MC5, the Dolls, Sonic Youth, and Kraftwerk are NOT in the fucking Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  How can you LEGITIMIZE being part of such an asinine group?

Stan’s Donuts in Westwood. Proof of God, both merciful and cruel.

You CAN’T.  Period…unless they are employing you and/or giving you health insurance.  It’s damn hard to get a job and it’s hard to get health insurance.  Shit, if you were a friend of mine and The Josef Mengele Memorial Institute For the Creative Exploitation of Twins was giving you health insurance, I would probably give you a pass, especially if they gave you Dental.

Secondly, I call on people I know of intelligence, taste, and influence to band together to form a RIVAL Hall of Fame that can TRULY honor the creative innovators, business pioneers, and commercial dynamos of pop and rock history. Of course, you don’t have to CALL it the Hall of Fame, we’ll think of another suitable name.

This time, I will name names, and suggest some people of influence and intelligence, all of whom are well aware of the intricacies, magical achievements, and beautiful dark alleys of rock and pop history, and who would be ideal to start this thing:  Danny Goldberg, Chris Morris, Steve Hochman, Tim Page, Michael Alago, Nik Cohn, Hugo Burnham, Ira Robbins, Merle Ginsberg, Evan Davies, Martin Atkins, Steve Wynn, Steve Lillywhite, Doug Herzog, John Rubelli, Karen Glauber, Jim Testa, Seth Swirsky, Leyla Turkan, Sally Timms,  Paul Sanchez, Perry Watts-Russell, Janet Billig,  Mitch Easter, Ben Sandmel,  Binky Phillips, Karen Schoemer, Jack Rabid, Carol Kaye, Moby, Martha Quinn, Matthew Kaplan, Roy Traikin, THIS IS ALL JUST OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD, but DAMN, wouldn’t you trust THESE PEOPLE to help honor the great men and women who helped make rock’n’roll the defining meme of our generation?

And I sincerely doubt ANY of these people would sit around making up awards for the E Street Band or putting Hall & Oates in the Hall of Fame BEFORE the MC5 or the Dolls.   Rock’n’Pop is a beautiful and meaningful story with powerful repercussions in so many aspects of our lives; the people who built this business and made this art form deserve to be commemorated in a legitimate way.

So do something, people, or stop fucking complaining.

A slice at Benny Tudino’s in Hoboken. Quite honestly, the only food worth dying for.

And I’ll underline this (since I love repeating myself more than I love the pizza at Benny Tudino’s, but less than I love Hawkwind):  IF YOU ARE A VOTING MEMBER OF THE ROCK’N’ROLL HALL OF FAME, RESIGN.  RESIGN NOW.  Make a statement that their BULLSHIT is, well, bullshit.

Godfather of Slocore OUT.  

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