Six Damn Fine Degrees #112: String Quartet Kraftwerk

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Robots It was their cover of Robots I first heard. I can’t exactly remember on what radio show. An evening show in 1992, no doubt, as I sat in my teenage bedroom pretending to do homework. I was fascinated by this reimagining and resolved to wait till the end to learn the name of the artist – The Balanescu Quartet.

They had an album coming out, it seemed, that would feature a number of Kraftwerk cover versions. Definitely one I immediately resolved to acquire. Only, to my horror, I was to discover that the thing would not be released on cassette: the format of choice in my youthful album collection. This could not be allowed to stand! I defiantly bought the CD anyway, and resolved there and then that I would finally join the future and save up for a CD player.

As a result, it was the first CD I owned, and when I finally entered the modern digital era with the purchase of something to play it on, it became a frequent listen. I didn’t actually have that much money to buy new CDs, and my extensive library of cassettes (including actual Kraftwerk albums) now seemed as desirable as Betamax. This was the future. I mean, I could skip tracks instantly like somebody in a sci-fi film.

I can still tell from re-listening to the track why it grabbed me. The music captures the robotic feeling of the original, while turning it into something more classically cinematic. I imagine it as some lost soundtrack to the film Metropolis, performed at the time in an upmarket picturehouse where four diligent musicians evoke a bleak dystopian automated future where a robotic Maria comes alive and causes chaos.

Model Written by a German visual artist Emil Schult, about his real-life love for a model at the time, The Model was reworked by the band to fit the sound they were aiming for on their 1978 album The Man-Machine. It’s difficult to stress just how ubiquitous across the UK this song became in the eighties. Not just because a re-issue in 1981 topped the charts, but because literally any magazine TV programme for the entirety of that decade that ran a feature on the modelling industry would find a way to play this tune as part of the reportage. The arrival of Madonna’s Vogue in 1990 was to see it supplanted as the go-to-tune of choice for the lazy editor but it still had a good innings.

At the heart of so much Kraftwerk is a beautiful and catchy melody. Something that can survive it being covered into virtually any other genre. The String Quartet covers keep things simple, focusing on the sheer simplistic strength of the tune. Shorn of lyrics, it maybe doesn’t scream the ice-cold catwalk anymore but it’s still glorious.

Autobahn One of the things that the UK press consistently get wrong about Kraftwerk is just how playful and fun they are. The cliche is of dour robotic Germans, effortlessly outputting a stream of computer melodies. But that misses a major part of their appeal to me, which they can be incredibly playful and funny. Conceived as an attempt at a Beach Boys number, Autobahn converts Brian Wilson’s “Fun, Fun, Fun” into “Fahn, Fahn, Fahn” as it extols a mode of getting around.

The original track lasts over twenty minutes, as the German band captures the joy of driving the motorway from Dusseldorf to Hamberg, with flutes and metallic machines sounds reflecting the landscape of the Ruhr valley. But where the Germans seem to find joy in the journey, the Balanescu Quartet version seems to tap into the darker side of driving. The instrumental breakdown from the original now converted into a grinding, hellish segment. The dream of driving choked in the modern polluted landscape.

Computer Love One of the best tunes ever composed by Kraftwerk, there’s something about the detached, alienated lyrics alongside one of electronica’s finest hooks that was to help shape much of eighties synth-pop. Predicting a future for dating that has very much come to pass, aided by a video that perfectly captures that colourful consumerist dystopian imagery of the decade. When Coldplay wished to use the track’s famous hook on their own track Talk they sent a request for permission to their lawyers, who sent it to Kraftwerk‘s official lawyers before finally receiving an envelope back containing a single sheet of paper with the word “Yes” written on it.

In reinventing the tune, the string quartet wisely choose to not mess with the hook, but instead refashion the track into a more frantic, driven procession. Less the sound of computer dating, than a passionate renaissance encounter. The two nerdiest people at the noble court sharing a giddy moment of desire.

Pocket Calculator Another feature of Kraftwerk was their multi-lingual nature. The band recorded many of their songs originally in German, before recording an English translation. (some tracks even had a further Spanish version). What’s interesting is that it is in the German where the band are at their most playful. They growl on Das Model and seem much closer to weeping on Computerliebe. It’s only when they move to English that they decided to stick to the single formula of a deliberately emotionless, more robotic voice. That, in the UK, has become part of what is known about them.

And it’s this tone that The Balanescu Quartet adopt for the only cover where they perform the lyrics. It works, in part because the performance is also so stark – single instruments and a simple beat. A composed, deep voice celebrating the joys of calculating.

The rest of the Balanescu Quartet album has a couple of original compositions by Balanescu himself, and a truly wondrous reimaging of David Byrne‘s “Hanging Upside-Down”. As the futuristic format of the CD disappears into the musical bargain bin of pop culture history, I haven’t listened to any of this for ages. But, inspired by recent Six Damn Fine Degrees articles, I went searching and eventually found my original copy. Then after finding a CD drive that could connect to this laptop – and then connecting this laptop to speakers – I was able to create a curiously nostalgic experience. The future as dated experience. Like playing Kraftwerk on classical stringed instruments.

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