The Dismal Circus of Kraftwerk’s “Metropolis”

manmachine2

“Metropolis”
Kraftwerk
The Man-Machine (Kling Klang, 1978)

Last month, I had the immense pleasure to go see Kraftwerk bring their 3D tour to the Hollywood Bowl. I’m relatively late in discovering Kraftwerk, first hearing about them back in 2005 when they put out Minimum-Maximum, an accolade-winning live double album hailed as a greatest hits compilation re-tooled for the 21st century dancefloor. After hearing all about them for the past ten years, seeing them at the Bowl felt like basking in the presence of gods.

If you haven’t heard of Kraftwerk, you would have heard them in other peoples’ songs. Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation blasted off to “Planet Rock” on board the funky shuffle of Trans Europe Express, while Coldplay felt “Computer Love” on “Talk” from 2005’s X&Y. Any and every musician, in hip-hop, rock, or EDM, that has touched a synthesizer owes a debt to the German power station headed by Ralf Hütter. Their residencies (or perhaps exhibitions) in New York’s MoMA, London’s Tate Modern, and the Kunstammlung in their hometown of Düsseldorf, Germany, further testify to their immense influence on modern music.

While their museum residencies were built around showcasing each of their eight albums from 1974 to 2003, from the “fun fun fun” of the Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks‘ perfection mechanique, the Hollywood Bowl show felt like a concert, starting with the rocking funk of “Numbers,” and showcasing all of their key favorites with a few B-sides for more die-hard fans. One such song was “Metropolis,” which closes off side one of 1978’s The Man-Machine.

Much of Kraftwerk’s music expresses a sense of childlike wonder and amusement at the marvels of modern technology. Yet, like the fairy stories of the brothers Grimm, there also lie undercurrents of fear and awe, expressed equally through the morose foreboding of “Radioactivity,” or the opening strains of swelling synthesizers here in “Metropolis,” as a computer-generated cityscape of endless cubes in black, white, and grey rise. Those minor-key swells set the tone throughout, evoking the majestic heights of skyscrapers and the inhuman austerity of its cold geometries.

Once the drums kick in and the synths enter a mind-pounding cycle, it bears a close resemblance to the four-on-the-floor beats and syncopated sequencers in the style of Giorgio Moroder, who also pioneered the use of synthesizers and spawned electronic disco. The resemblance is especially apparent on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which debuted the year before, and more recently on Daft Punk’s epic “Giorgio by Moroder” from 2013’s Random Access Memories. While Moroder’s kick-drum pulsates like the human heartbeat (eloquently expressed by the man himself here two minutes in), loosened and quickened by love (and perhaps by substances), “Metropolis” marches on like the regular spacing of city blocks, of street lights and road markings, evoking the rhythmic precision of people commuting to and from work.

(Try watching this clip of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis set to Kraftwerk, and you’ll get what I mean!)

“Metropolis” makes for a dismal circus compared to the delirious delights of “I Feel Love,” produced by Moroder. Overall, the song exudes a very gloomy air about it, even with the pulsing cycles of arpeggiated synthesizers. Here, it can instead evoke the relentless activity of people at work or the ceaseless transit of automobiles on freeways. Similarly to people-watching on a busy city street, it becomes overwhelming and dulling. All the while, the same clockwork drumbeat ticks away, locking you in step like a 9-to-5 cubicle slave without any chance for rest. Just as the arpeggios die down, the synths swell again like organs from the intro, lifting the listener out and away from the bustle. Yet it’s but a temporary respite. The mechanical arpeggios and the marching drumbeat resume without skipping a beat, and life goes in the big city. There is no escape as the music, the city feeds and corrals listeners back into Moloch’s maw.

As romantic and cultured as cities can be from a simple survey of an socialite’s Instagram feed, cities have been arenas for oppression and control. Since becoming China’s capital in the early 14th century, Beijing was built and planned by its Han predecessors and the Ming emperors along cosmological principles and Confucian social hierarchies, all to further and display the power and prosperity of the emperor. Closer to home, when Los Angeles’s Japanese-American residents were interned in camps, African-Americans moved into Little Tokyo, having nowhere else but Bronzeville to go to thanks to housing segregation laws. Urban planning and engineering reflects and executes social engineering.

The city has a long and storied history as a stage for people to meet and live, funneled and ferried along by its corridors of concrete and steel or by its dividing decrees. Giorgio Moroder may have captured the glitz of city lights and the vibrancy of its nightlife, but Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider bore witness to the darkness lurking in the metropolis, perhaps the largest and funkiest machine ever made.

Ken.

(PS: Much thanks to Lauren B. for a fruitful conversation that bore most of the ideas in this post and, especially, “a dismal circus”!)

(PPS: If you have a favorite Kraftwerk track or saw them during their 3D shows, please do share in the comments section below!)

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