Artificial Life Begins At 40: Why Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine is more relevant now than ever… [May 1978]
“We’re charging our battery, and now we’re full of energy. We are the robots.”
Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine was released 40 years ago this week (May 19, 1978), and while the group’s earlier works such as Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express set the template for the Düsseldorf-based band’s ‘sound’, their fourth studio album was arguably their most accessible, indicating that as well as symphonic arrangements, the self-styled ‘robots’ could also do pop.
While The Model would go on to be the group’s most-recognisable track (released as a single in September of that year in Germany, it wouldn’t see a single release in Ireland and the UK until 1981), the album skirts between space exploration (Spacelab), city nightlife (Neon Lights) and, of course, robotics, via The Robots and The Man Machine, which bookend the album.
Reviews at the time of release were positive, however many critics didn’t know where to place it – according to Wikipedia, the NME said that The Man-Machine stands as “one of the pinnacles of 1970s rock music,” adding that “the sparsity of the lyrics leaves the emphasis squarely on those robot rhythms, chilling tones and exquisite melodies.”
It’s also, arguably, the band’s most prescient work.
While forty years ago, the idea of ‘Singularity’, that moment when machines become cognisant and are able to think for themselves, seemed like science fiction, Ralf, Florian and the boys appeared to be all too aware of what was coming.
The Man-Machine has often been viewed as a ‘concept’ album, and in many ways this is true – the robots that are ‘born’ at the start of Side A experience the trappings of everyday life before evolving into ‘man machines’ by the album’s close.
And we’re starting to see this creep into everyday life.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Google launched its new ‘Duplex’ AI technology, as part of its Assistant platform, which is able to book appointments and arrange meetings over the phone on behalf of its ‘owner’, with the person on the other end of the line completely unaware that they are speaking to a robot.
Reading about this, my mind was instantly drawn to the eerie spoken word snippet that features in The Robots, spoken in Russian.
“Я твой слуга, Я твой работник”, or “I am your slave, I am your worker”.
If and when Singularity happens, The Man-Machine could be a watershed moment.