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We Are Also the Robots: 8 Essentials of Post-Kraftwerk Pop

Gary Numan / Photo by NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Kraftwerk envisioned popular music’s future. A future in which you didn’t have to sweat much or get dirt under your finger-nails or master organic instruments; a future free of manual labor and manual dexterity; a future of looped repetition, sleek Teutonic technology, robots, and computers.

Then that future came true. In 1970s Germany, where rock bands invented a new language to live down the travesties of Das Vaterland, they were hardly alone. But in many ways, they went the furthest, in that they left being a “rock” band behind — and we got disco, electro, techno, and scores of subsequent offshoots to show for it. So, in 2012, for winning the race to such a big idea, Kraftwerk got to play eight nights at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

If not them, though, who might have done it? Sticking to bandlike units on the new-wavier end of things — and leaving aside visionaries from the worlds of Euro-disco (Giorgio Moroder, Gino Soccio, Cerrone) and electronic funk (Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Juan Atkins) — here are eight possibilities.

Ultravox! (Island, 1977)
They got way synthier (and way less interesting) later, but something new was happening here, for sure: Five theoretically punk-rock London lads, produced by Brian Eno and distinguished by a fellow doubling on electric keyboard and violin, presenting a seven-minute song called “I Want to Be a Machine” and a cyborg-stiff cover photo that suggested they were already halfway there.

Kraftwerk were a widely stated influence, but so were Roxy Music and Berlin/Eno–era Bowie, and the longer songs suggest they were secret prog (or at least Van der Graaf Generator) fans as well. But the biggest surprise, especially knowing the New Romanticism that Ultravox would spawn once Midge Ure later joined, was how the terrace shout of “Sat’day Night in the City of the Dead” anticipates Oi! music. The reggae attempts don’t hold up as well, but “Wide Boys” (which still sounds like they’re saying “white boys”) is fast and fun, and closer “My Sex” foretells both the Normal’s 1978 proto-industrial track “Warm Leatherette” (it’s about being aroused by a car crash) and Gary Numan — which is to say that despite John Foxx’s flesh-and-blood singing, it really does sound like machinehood is their dream.

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army
Replicas (Atco, 1979)
Taking cues from Ultravox, not to mention the same Kraftwerk and Bowie records Ultravox absorbed, a master air-pilot-in-training from Hammersmith ups the Asperger-rock/cyberpunk quotient and puts almost every one of his memorable melodies and hooks on the same album. All that’s missing, really, is his Top 10 U.S. smash from a year later (“Cars,” of course).

“Down in the Park,” a transcendently gloomy tale of “machmen” and “zum-zums” and raping machines and friends named Five, fortified his tentative U.S. toehold when it showed up on 1980’s great lost punxploitation soundtrack Times Square; but the real hit was “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?,” a No. 1 in the U.K. On Replicas, it’s slotted between “Me! I Disconnect From You” and “The Machman,” where the pointedly pseudonymed Numan observes somebody “turn on like a machine in the park.”

Elsewhere, he prays to aliens and almost gets betrothed to a human. So there’s clearly an overriding, if not necessarily coherent, plot. On the cover, our new man looks like a mannequin, with a pale, plasticized face and black fingernails. In England, he’d land hits all through the ’80s, but he’d never bill his band again, or make an album this good.

Yellow Magic Orchestra
Yellow Magic Orchestra (Horizon, 1979)
Like Kraftwerk, Japan’s very plugged-in Yellow Magic Orchestra came from a technologically cutting-edge country forced to rebuild after losing World War II. Like Kraftwerk, they had roots in weird ’70s art rock, as keyboardist (and future soundtrack god) Ryuichi Sakamoto had been experimenting with ARPs and Moogs for quite some time, while drummer Yukihiro Takahashi spent time in the excellently eccentric Sadistic Mika Band.

In some ways, the Far East beat West Germany to the kilobyte punch: By the time Kraftwerk released Computer World (and went No. 22 on the R&B chart with the single “Numbers”) in 1981, YMO had already notched a No. 18 R&B hit with the jumpy, Asian-kitsched, video-game-funked instrumental “Computer Game” — ubiquitous, like “Numbers,” on Electrifying Mojo’s Midnight Funk Association radio show on Detroit’s WGPR, which future Motor City innovators Derrick May and Juan Atkins tuned in to. “Computer Game” leads off the transistorized Tokyo trio’s self-titled debut, their highest-charting U.S. album, also featuring essential tracks “Firecracker” and “Tong Poo.”

New York London Paris Munich (Sire, 1979)
You know that song “Pop Muzik,” right? “Radio, video / Boogie with a suitcase / You’re living in a disco / Forget about the rat race,” and so on? Biggest song in America for seven glorious days in 1979, plus an ingenious early merger of new wave and disco, not to mention sort of a rap song and a synth-pop song.

Well, did it ever occur to you that this unfathomable item was made by an actual person? The guy came from London and called himself (and his studio musicians) M, but he was born Robin Scott, and he’d been a folk singer, a longtime crony of Malcolm McLaren, a manager of the pub-rock band Roogalator, and the founder of the label that first signed Adam and the Ants. “Pop Muzik” — basically a chronicle of Scott’s career in the biz, even if three-year-olds everywhere have always heard it as one of the most baby-talky novelty hits in history — obviously changed his life, and it never went away; even U2 and Tricky have covered it.

But it wasn’t M’s only song: He/they put out three LPs and Scott also made a good record with Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1982. New York London Paris Munich was M’s first and best album, though, with “Made in Munich,” “That’s the Way the Money Goes,” and “Moonlight and Muzak” reporting on Euro-club-pop-industry economics and leisure-class romance from the inside, in brainy ways that presaged Heaven 17 and Pet Shop Boys.

The Age of Plastic (Island, 1980)
Their “Video Killed the Radio Star” only just squeaked into the Top 40 in the States, but went No. 1 several other places in the Western world, and in 1981 became the first music video ever shown on MTV, thus theoretically proving the song’s point. (Of course, video stars wouldn’t live forever, either — at least on MTV — but that’s another chapter.)

What you likely didn’t realize is that it was technically a cover: Bruce Woolley, one of the song’s writers, had recorded it first, on his art-poppish 1979 Columbia LP with his band the Camera Club, whose keyboard player happened to be Thomas Dolby. The Buggles’ version of the allegedly J.G. Ballard–inspired tune was slightly less rocking, as might be expected from Geoff Downes (who streamlined ’70s prog into ’80s pop via Asia and Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”) and Trevor Horn (who started the pop-and-lock-friendly, beatbox-clatter unit Art of Noise and produced ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and other signature ’80s acts). Anyway, as titles like “I Love You (Miss Robot)” and “Living in the Plastic Age” suggest, the Buggles’ debut was firmly in Kraftwerk’s future-tech tradition.

Computer Games (Epic, 1980)
These New Zealanders took their name from the Ultravox song and were unabashed bandwagon new-wavers — individual members had been gigging since the early ’70s, playing soft pop, prog, and metal. All of which they combine here into arch, idiosyncratic, Tubes-like, new-wave/hard-rock shapes on “Not Such a Bad Boy,” “Camera Kazi,” and, especially, “Graffiti Crimes,” which chronicles hip-hop’s fourth element only a few years after Genesis’ “Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.”

Punk purists at the time found Mi-Sex rather suspect; in retrospect, their impurity makes them more interesting. Later, on the still quite catchy Space Race, they moved in an even more electro direction (albeit with traces of concurrent pop-period Rush); by 1984’s Where Do They Go? , they had sold out (unsuccessfully) to a more tired, bored, pragmatic style of commercial medium-rock. But what earns their place in this survey is the title cut, a 1979 Australian chart-topper that U.S. college-radio listeners confused with Yellow Magic Orchestra’s similarly titled hit at the time. It’s Grade A robot-rock: “I fidget with the digit dots / And cry an anxious tear / As the XU-1 connects the spot / The matrix grid don’t care.” Nobody knew what it meant, but it sure did seem like they’d cracked the code of the world to come.

Neurovision (Sire, 1980)
Addicted to vocodered-English-as-a-foreign-language deadpans and rubber-duckie beats, Belgium’s faux-Kraftwerk entry just might be the cutest of them all, and certainly the most touching: Melancholy moments like “We Are All Getting Old,” “My Time,” and “A/B” (the best song ever about playing B-sides) match the Germans at their crisp-air “Neon Lights” loveliest.

The irresistible “Moskow Diskow,” about “super chic” young men riding the rail from the U.S.S.R. to Tokyo and sneaking peeks at a Brigitte Bardot picture to offset loneliness, is as seminal a train-trek in the evolution of ’80s dance music as “Trans-Europe Express.” It’s sandwiched between “D” Train and Instant Funk cuts on the second “Tracks That Built the House” disc of the definitive 1988 History of the House Sound of Chicago box, and A Number of Names’ 1981 ur-Detroit-techno “Sharevari” sounds suspiciously similar. Neurovision also has “Euro-Vision,” Telex’s subversive, almost-last-place meta-entry in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest; “Dance to the Music,” a mechanized Sly Stone cover; and “Tour De France,” released three years before Kraftwerk’s bike-race tribute of the same name.

Later in life, they worked on an album with aging art-glamsters Sparks, paid found-sound homage to Spike Jones, and inspired the Belgian “new beat” of groups like A Split Second.

Essential (Smash, 1992)
Recording most of this best-of through the ’80s, two wealthy, mustachioed Swiss studio-gadget jockeys — Dieter Meier, who could pass as a portly middle-management man, and the dandier-looking Boris Blank — talk about driving cars in four different songs, mix goose-steps with African percussion in “Tied Up,” and manage to sound klezmerlike until the crazed drum solo in “Pinball Cha Cha,” even though the lyrics seem to concern a Mexican pinball wizard.

Their loudest and most rocking track is also the oldest: 1980’s “Bostich,” presumably named for the stapler brand, in which marching feet give way to martial club stomps, over which a hushed-whispery voice chants something about “standing at the mansion every day for all my life,” then starts yelling either “EVERYBODY! BE SOMEBODY!” or “EVERYBODY! PIZZA PARTY!” And then there’s Yello’s almost-hit “Oh Yeah” (as in “Ohhhhhhhh yeah…chicka chicka!”), which — between Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Secret of My Success, and old Twix commercials — you’ve probably heard, even if your memory can’t place it; in 1987, it just missed the Top 50 on the U.S. pop chart. A bunch of songs here made Billboard‘s dance-club tally, though; not bad for guys oddball enough to have started out with two albums on Ralph Records, the Residents’ label.