Inconvenient Music Club: Electric Café

Kraftwerk’s 1986 album, Electric Café, is where it’s widely considered to begin going wrong for the legendary electronic music group. After a run of classic, innovative albums from 1975’s Autobahn to Computer World in 1981, Electric Café was believed to reveal that the trailblazers had fallen behind the pack, overtaken by the very acts they influenced such as the Human League and New Order, and rendered redundant by the incorporation of their electro-industrial rhythms into hip-hop. Electric Café, perhaps, is the sound of a once-fearless group losing its confidence. For most music fans, this is where the story ends. In the world of Inconvenient Music, however, it’s exactly where we start paying attention.

Side one consists of a suite of three inter-related tracks, Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop, and Musique Non-Stop. Skeletally sparse, and not overly melodic, the tracks could be seen as a blueprint for much of the dance music of the following decade. Except that they never quite ‘kick in’ the way you assume they’re supposed to. There’s no real build and release of tension. They just sort of hover uncertainly, as if they know there’s something they should be doing, but can’t quite work out how to do it.

On one level, it’s just the sound of music not working, but on another it’s quite revealing. It’s as if Kraftwerk had indeed seen the future, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to sign up to it, at least, not yet. They would correct this ‘fault’ on their 1990 self-remix album The Mix, in which the three tracks were condensed into one mighty piece, Music Non-Stop, that does exactly what dance music’s supposed to do, thrillingly. It’s an improvement in that it’s ‘better’ music, but without the strange hesitating mood of the original elements, it’s perhaps less interesting.

Side two opens with the elegant pop of The Telephone Call, which could easily sit on the earlier Computer World, if it were not for the fact that whereas the songs on that album presented (albeit with typical Kraftwerkian irony) a world of harmony between man and device, in which social interaction is eased through developments in information technology, The Telephone Call depicts these as means of non-communication, with calls being redirected to the mocking sound of an answering machine message, and the physical distance of the relationship only too apparent.

The song that follows, Sex Object, is one of the more baffling entries in the Kraftwerk songbook. ‘I don’t want to be your sex object,’ sings main-man/machine Hutter, ‘Have some feeling and respect’. It verges on the laughable, with a group that had previously only concerned themselves with the love of machines suddenly turning their attention to physical relationships. The curiously nonsynthetic-sounding slap bass, meanwhile, suggests that they’d lost their bearings completely. The track’s ‘wrongness’, however, once again adds to its meaning. It’s the sound of a crack in a flawless surface, as a group who had until then sung in seeming praise of their eventual dehumanisation turn against the idea and make a plea for individuality.

The album ends with the title-track, Electric Café, a pleasing enough return to the streamlined electronic constructions of side one, leaving the listener in what sounds like a prediction of the existence of internet cafes. We now all live in the Electric Café, Kraftwerk seem to be suggesting, with social interaction simultaneously eased and obstructed by the devices we use to achieve it. The album’s re-branding as Techno Pop upon its rerelease earlier this year nearly deprives it of this layer of meaning.

Electric Cafe is the ultimate flawed gem, with the very things that stop it from working totally successfully being those which give it the depth and meaning that it does possess. Sometimes, imperfection is a work of art’s logical end-point.

Listen to Techno Pop (Electric Cafe) on Spotify.

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