eavesdroppings: Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter

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eavesdroppings: muse-nourishing s**t i hear musicians
(and other creative artists) say

I don’t listen to records at home at all. I don’t listen to so much music. I COMPOSE music.

–Kraftwerk co-founder Ralf Hütter, in a rare 2003 interview with BBC 6 Music host Andrew Collins

and later:

ANDREW COLLINS: If I gave you an acoustic guitar now, could you play a tune on it–are you good on the guitar?

RALF HUTTER: No, I play keyboards.

AC: So that’s your only instrument, as it were.

RH: Yes. And… the keyboard as a steering wheel.

AC: So it’s not the actual playing of the keys that matters; it’s what you get at the other end of it.

RH: Yes.

AC: That makes sense.

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“Those Are Not Real Instruments”

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DATELINE: 1977.

PLACE: At home, somewhere in the Bronx.

SCENE: Minding my own business, as usual.

In comes my nephew Kevin. With an album under his arm, as usual.

Come check this out, he says.

We go into his room, where the little brown record player has been working overtime lately with all the albums Kevin’s been bringing home. He pulls the record out of the sleeve and puts it on the turntable.

Just listen, he says. This is the JOINT!

As the record starts, Kevin starts dancing. (I knew this meant that all his crew were dancing to it too and that I was late learning about it. Typical.) I grab the album cover. Against a black background is one of those old-school-looking, sepia-toned photos of four clean-cut white guys in suits, hair slicked back, staring off into space. The first line of the title is Kraftwerk. The second line is Trans-Europe Express. For a moment, I wonder which is the name of the group and which is the name of the album.

The track he’s playing has a strong, bouncing beat, a catchy melody, and not a lot of words. As soon as I hear the words, though, it’s obvious that the title of the song is Trans-Europe Express–so Kraftwerk is the name of the group.

Sounds good, I say after a few minutes.

And then Kevin drops the bomb:

Those are not real instruments, he declares. They’re all synthesizers.

I look at him like he’s crazy.

Oh come on. All of them?

Yup, he says.

Hmph. The only electronic trickery I know of in the music I’ve heard so far is overdubbing, where they layer on voices and instruments, and stereo, where different sounds are split between the speakers. And of course there’s Stevie Wonder, who is crazy in love with synthesizers, and his music is all over the radio these days. But an album with ALL synthesized instruments? That’s never been done before that I know of, so I’m not quite ready to believe Kevin.

I pull out the inner record sleeve to hunt for proof. On one side of it is another hand-colored photo of the group, this time posing under a tree seated around a square table covered with a red and white picnic tablecloth. The reverse side is yellow, with music staff lines covering the page. On this side is the list of the longish tracks and the personnel. Sure enough, there are no instruments mentioned. And it isn’t even clear who those four dudes are; it takes a few minutes of reading to get it straight. I figure they are Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos, and Wolfgang Flur–the four whose names are credited as “electronics + voice” and “electronic percussion.”

Wow. No real instruments? This is too much to process. Although I have to admit Trans-Europe Express sounds futuristic enough to believe it’s electronic, I need to hear all the tunes before I can believe that someone would do a whole album that way.

Well sure enough, about 40 minutes later I’ve heard the whole album and it’s brilliant. My favorite, and the one that impresses me most, is Franz Schubert, because it sounds classical orchestra-like. At four minutes 25 seconds, it’s also the shortest tune on the album. Then again, I like the longest one too–the nine minute-plus Europe Endless.

Once again, Kevin has stretched my musical boundaries… and Kraftwerk has opened an electronic door that will never close.

MORAL: Sometimes you gotta surrender to the technology and then embrace it… Because it just might be here to stay!

kraftwerk jacket

My Kraftwerk album jacket and sleeve. Very clever jacket design and copywriting. Pretty clever music too.

Damn Those Love Songs!

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Back in the day, when I was a young lady, there were two important kinds of music: dance music, and love songs.

Dance music: self-explanatory. Love songs: hmph. Few young black women of the late ’60s and early ’70s–even virgins like moi–could escape the allure of those damn love songs.

No matter how much you wanted to do your chores, or your homework, or concentrate on your career, at some point those love songs snatched you up. Young women since ancient times, surely, have been waylaid (no pun intended) by love songs. Either they were playing when you and your guy were doing something significant (or more accurately, when you and your guy were together and they were playing, you ended up doing something significant), or there was a guy you wanted and weren’t sure you could have, and there was always some damn song with some damn lyrics that would make you think about him, or fantasize about him, or call him, or spend hours writing his name or calling all his friends or some such stupidity that made ever so much sense at the time.

A teeny tiny fraction of the slow ballads that made up the soundtrack to my [imaginary] love life were by Bloodstone (Natural High); Blue Magic (Sideshow); Earth, Wind and Fire (Reasons); Roberta Flack (The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; The Closer I Get To You); The Floaters; Stevie Wonder; Al Green; The Moments (With You); the Chi-Lites (Have You Seen Her; Oh Girl); the Dells (Stay In My Corner; The Love We Had Stays On My Mind; Open Up My Heart); the Isley Brothers (Hello, It’s Me and For the Love of You were just two of their dozens of troublemaking tunes); Marvin Gaye (both sides of his 1973 album Let’s Get It On got mucho people in mucho trouble, what with titles like Come Get To This, Distant Lover, You Sure Love To Ball, and Just To Keep You Satisfied); the heavy-breathing Barry White (I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby) and his Love Unlimited Orchestra (who only made one album but with tunes like Loving You, That’s All I’m After and Someone Really Cares For You, the damage was done); and Smokey Robinson.

love 45s

A few of those damn troublemaking 45s from my collection (click to enlarge)

And those lyrics! They could transport a poor defenseless young woman to places she did not want to go and make her think thoughts she did not need to be thinking about guys who were, well, let’s just say, probably not listening to such music so intently. For the really naughty mamas, there were sophisticated “affair” tunes like Billy Paul’s Me and Mrs. Jones and Nancy Wilson’s Guess Who I Saw Today.

What exactly did this music do? Often, it made us apply the lyrics to a guy we had our eye on, guaranteeing that in our heads, he was a sweet, sensitive, caring, attentive, available man who also loved us, brought us flowers, wrote letters and sent cards to us, stayed with us into the night, returned the next morning, or at least liked us back. (When in reality he was maybe not really into us, or didn’t call us as often as we’d like or treat us as well as we’d like. Yes, we could be blinded to the reality, just because the song was so sweet.)

Sensitive songs, sung by male vocalists, helped make us believe that guys could feel this way. We loved every verse that exhibited some sensitive behavior (“…ain’t no place I’d rather be than with you” or “loving you is easier than breathing”). If we played them in the presence of guys, surely these songs could make them act the way the singer did within the four minutes that the song took to spin through.

more love 45s

more… (click to enlarge)

When we got a little older and could appreciate the value of atmosphere, there was the mood-setting, often instrumental music of such artists as Roy Ayers (Everybody Loves the Sunshine), George Benson (Breezin’), The Blackbyrds (City Life), Donald Byrd, Norman Connors (You Are My Starship), George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Isaac Hayes, Bob James, Earl Klugh, Ronnie Laws, Noel Pointer, Lonnie Liston Smith, Grover Washington Jr., and plenty of others whose offerings I can still reach for right now if I want to mellow out the mood.

What can I say? Songs about relationships just grabbed my heart, and mushy lyrics sung or stated sincerely were and still are my Kryptonite. I guess it’s part of my nature, wanting everything to be all warm and fuzzy, that attracted me to these songs where everyone was nice to everyone else, and men would succumb to the goodness in women.

The song that made me all warm and fuzzy in this way, the one song that to me epitomized the potential in men to be loving, gentle, and sentimental, was the 1969 tune Baby I’m For Real by The Originals. The lyrics, earnestly delivered by male voices, were comfortingly convincing to a teenage girl:

Baby, baby
You don’t understand
How much I love you baby
And how much I wanna be your only man, oh baby
Baby, baby, baby
You don’t have to go
Stay a little while longer, baby
I wanna talk to you just a little more
I see the little tears in your eyes, about to fall
You are wondering if I’m for real
But if you cry, I wonder why you cry
I tell you, you know I–this is how I feel
Baby I’m for real
But if you wanna know the truth about it,
Girl I just can’t live without you
And that’s why I’m confessin’ my love to you
So that I can live my whole life with you.

See what I mean? This song had it all: a man who was tender, who declared how he felt, stated that he wanted to be with this woman, and restated it too, addressed her fear, and declared that he was in her corner. No wonder this song brought tears to my eyes when i first heard it: this is what we girls wanted!! And by singing it, in that way, the Originals proved to us–or at the very least gave us hope–that men could really be wonderful.

Right?