I spent last Sunday night, under an intermittently drizzling Brazilian sky, standing in a horse grounds in Sao Paulo with around 30,000 twenty-somethings listening to a Radiohead concert.
One of the opening acts for Radiohead was Kraftwerk, the “krautrock” group from the ‘70s and early ‘80s, which I had last seen (reluctantly, under pressure from my girlfriend of the time) in the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver in 1981 or ‘82.
Kraftwerk, for those of you too young or too indifferent to remember, was a electronic music band who, in their heyday, were a dance-club cult group, with albums like Autobahn, Radio-Activity and The Man-Machine in the ‘70s, and Computer World in 1981. (That was the album they were promoting on tour, I believe, when I saw them in Vancouver.)
Their look and sound was distinct in the early ‘70s, but pretty hackneyed by the time I saw them at the Commodore: four guys in black outfits, standing motionless behind their synthesizers and other electronic gear, making electronic tweets and gurgles on top of an repetitive rhythm track, their voices, singing minimal lyrics, coming out distorted and machine-like through vocoders.
They embodied a kind of trendy techno-dystopia, a vision of a future in which man and machine, man and computer merged into a scary but somehow cool union.
Their dance hit, The Robots, pretty much summed up their esthetic: “We’re functioning automatic/And we are dancing mechanic/We are the robots.”
Seeing them come on stage (with, unbeknownst to me, a slightly different lineup than the one I had seen almost 30 years ago), I thought back to how I had considered them pretentious and “sold out” in those days, when I myself was a twenty-something, and a devotee of modern classical and experimental music.
I remember once having described them as “Stockhausen with the noise left in and the brains sucked out.”
Still, I could see how they could make an appropriate opening act for Radiohead, who, though still a powerful guitars and drums rock band, have strong links with electronic and experimental music; and I was curious what new things Kraftwerk might have been up over the past three decades or so.
The answer became apparent as soon as they took their motionless stances behind their laptops and synthesizers and struck up playing The Man-Machine: Pretty much nothing.
Though the youthful crowd was reasonably receptive to them, clapping and hooting and dancing (Brazilians would dance to a heart arrhythmia), their sound, their look, the clip-art graphics projections that accompanied their songs, had all moldered from avant-garde to retro camp.
The laughable low point came when the foursome, after staging The Robots with mannequin figures filling in for them, reappeared in light-reactive, masked body suits (a lot like in the old animated movie, Tron) to play out the last few songs of the set.
After that hour of tawdriness, the Radiohead portion of the show, with its electronic tweaks and gurgles performed by real-looking guys in T-shirts, and integrated with electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards and an ondes martenot, was all the more genuine and rich.
Radiohead is a band neither techno-focused no technophobic.
They released an album titled OK Computer (which, despite its title, was still pretty much a guitar and drum album) in 1997, and, in 2000 and 2001, the computered-up matched set of Kid A and Amnesiac.
In the case of Kid A, they pioneered new-age marketing by releasing “blips”—short animated films set to the music of the album—free on the internet; in the case of their 2007 album In Rainbows, they famously released a “pay what you please” downloadable version you could get, if you wanted, for nothing at all.
Their show at the horse grounds was replete with technology, from the hanging electronic tubes that made up the stage set, and which would change colours and flash in visually impressive and appropriate ways in response to the musical mood of the moment, to the sound effects and vocal modifications controlled by guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s foot pedals.
Like Kraftwerk, many of their songs are about contemporary angst and isolation, and fear of the future.
Like Kraftwerk, many of their lyrics are cryptic, brief, and potent with paranoia.
Unlike Kraftwerk, though, all their songs are genuinely musical and, however intermingled with computer-generated effects, humane and interesting.
They express a range of emotional situations, where Kraftwerk’s express only a consistent, though ambiguous, attitude.
The definitive difference, though, is that Radiohead has it, in some sense, “right” about what it is like to live the present; Kraftwerk had it wrong about what it would be like to live in the future that has now arrived.
The past 30 years have shown that our machines and computers have not turned us into plasticized robots with trim figures and ironic attitudes.
The young guy on the bus, with the earphone buds in his ears, thumbing out text messages to his buddies somewhere else in their shared cyber-world, may be a bit scary to some people; but, with his sideways ball cap, baggy pants and jejune-gangsta attitude, he is anything but a robot.
The future did indeed turn out to be bleak and scary—as it always does, because it is always a lot like the present—but our computers and machines have not dehumanized us.
If anything—as devices like the Apple iPhone and the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner show—we are humanizing and domesticating the computer.
As Radiohead tried to tell us more than a decade ago, computers really are OK.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.