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The Golden Age of Radio

20 years on from the release of 'Radio-Activity', 'The Golden Age of Radio' takes a look at the LP in more detail
Article by IC, with thanks to Klaus Zäpke and Gunther P÷cker for translations and additional info
From Aktivität 8 - August 1996


Kraftwerk publicity photo from the 'Radio-Activity' eraFollowing 'Autobahn' and the worldwide recognition it brought Kraftwerk, 'Radio-Activity' came as something of a sideways step with its release at the end of 1975. 'Autobahn's clean-lined melodies and doppler sound effects had appealed to a varied audience, even garnering the 'Teutonic Beach-Boys' tag from the media. 'Radio-Activity' is a much more entwined affair, the boundaries between music and noise becoming more blurred, moving back to the manner of their early LP's, where sound itself rather than keyboard melodies was the prime instrument.

The album opens with the simulated sounds of a Geiger counter, the rhythmic beat quickening and heralding in 'Radio-Activity' itself. The title track is a slow moving, ponderous song filled with ethereal choral sounds and tinkling keyboard harmonies, bedded down with a driving electric bass-synth foundation. Topped off with all manner of recreated sounds from the ether, be they radio interference or morse-code signals. Lyrically, the message is open-ended, it is far from clear exactly what form of radio-activity is 'in the air for you and me' here that the 1991 reworking from 'The Mix' pins down precisely. Such misinterpretation has always been a potential pitfall of Kraftwerk's manner and maybe why 1991's version was seen as a 'volte face' in some critics eyes.

The albums other more immediate offerings are 'Airwaves', 'Antenna' and 'Ohm Sweet Ohm'. 'Airwaves' takes up from where 'Autobahn' itself left off, its motorik rhythm and bassline propelling the track at fast pace. The rhythms in particular for both this track and 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' recall sections of 'Autobahn', with its steadily increasing speed a la the later section of that song. 'Airwaves' has a memorable combination on top - sounds like a Mellotron keyboard sound and a piercing lead synth line solos throughout, splitting into separate lines panned left and right respectively, an ether-like radio howl in its nature. There is not a great deal of lyrical matter, but the vocals harmonise nicely throughout. This is without doubt one of the best tracks on the record. The end tails off as the notes of 'Intermission' begin, a short interlude before the voices of 'News' commence. The other most immediate track is 'Antenna', which was chosen as the flip side of the 'Radio-Activity' single. (Both tracks even had special promo videos recorded for them.) Of note, the 1991 re-recording of 'Radio-Activity' samples a particularly memorable 'electricity bolt' sound from 'Antenna'; Kraftwerk sampling themselves rather than others!

But for less patient ears there may be too many incidental pieces that hold little lasting appeal. The pop song count, which increases progressively with each subsequent LP, is not high here, with only 'Radio-Activity', 'Airwaves', 'Antenna' and possibly 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' really fitting such a description. 'Radioland' and 'Radio Stars' are both too repetitive and sparse to really be counted in those terms, while the remaining pieces are the sound poems as documented earlier, with the exception of the short, instrumental 'Transistor' which doesn't fit in to any of the other trends, taking on the qualities of an elongated radio jingle perhaps.

The tracks on the record which are primarily lyrical, built around their words rather than the music alone are interesting, if not quite 'pop music', exemplary of the progress on the lyrical front that Kraftwerk had made within the space of only a number of years; the bands first LP to feature anything like substantial lyrics/vocals was 'Autobahn', co-written with Emil Schult, the earlier LP's having been almost exclusively instrumental in nature, save the occasional snatch of vocal ('Ananas Symphonie, for example). Here on 'Radio-Activity' we have tracks which could not exist without their lyrical qualities. It would be difficult to imagine how 'Radio Stars' could exist without its vocals for instance. Similarly, 'News' mixes up recreated newscasts with additional, tinkling, would be radio-jingles and ever increasing radio interference. Read in German, the newscast being read by the ever multiplying voices reads thus...

Here is the West German Broadcasting Corporation with the news

Fifty atomic power stations are planned to be built in West Germany

Within the next ten years

Each one is able to supply a city of millions with current...

The message continues, with 'broadcasts' from several radio stations overlaying one another and creating an increasingly garbled mix of sound; West German Broadcasting Corporation, The North German Broadcasting Corporation, The Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Bremen. In the native German tongue, the Bavarian one in particular is loaded with humorous overtones, a thick local accent, obviously intended as a parody, intoning the text of the news. The exact text of each broadcast differs, but the 'news' itself is much about the same from broadcast to broadcast, detailing issues with regard to the atomic energy programme in West Germany but also touching on themes such as space exploration.

'The Voice of Energy' and 'Uranium' both resemble one another in their employment of electronic voices intoning the words over a backdrop of radiophonic sounds. Surprisingly, 'The Voice of Energy' dates from a far earlier era and is, as such, almost a cover version! A German avant-garde composer, Meyer-Eppler, had examples of his work broadcast on the West German radio station NWDR (Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk) programme 'Nachtmusik' (Night Music) in the early 1950s. Primarily, his work involved the use of early incarnations of vocoder instruments, used to treat samples of existing sound/music. One such example is called 'Stimme der Energie'. An electrical current hum/buzz, it is as if it has its own voice via the primitive vocodered tones. The text is spoken in English, the words of this 'voice' are almost identical to those used by Kraftwerk, as the following translation will illustrate. Surely then, this is the only occasion that Kraftwerk have approached the realms of a cover version!

 

Kraftwerk's 'Stimme der Energie'/'The Voice Of Energy', in English, is thus;

This is the Voice of Energy,

I am a giant electric generator,

I give light and energy to you,

And enable you to send and receive,

speech, music and images through the ether,

I am your servant and your master at the same time,

So, better cherish me,

Me, the Genius of Energy.

 

Meyer-Eppler's 'Stimme der Energie' text is thus;

This is the Voice of Power,

I make it possible for you to have,

electric light and radio and television,

This is a giant generator speaking,

I am both your servant and your master,

So beware of how you use me,

This is the Genie of Power.

 

The similarities are too great to be co-incidence, especially if you bear in mind that both Hütter and Schneider have talked in the past of the influence on their work that radio broadcasts from this station and era have had upon them. It is unclear whether the piece is purely a Meyer-Eppler original or whether it hails from another source and is a 'treated' example, the piece is undated on the CD it hails from, so details are scarce and it is not certain that it was broadcast at this time. Other Meyer-Eppler examples use familiar source material ('Yankee Doodle Dandy' for instance!) run through the vocoder equipment. Both Hütter and Schneider when quizzed about the 'Radio-Activity' album in a 1976 interview in the German 'Musik Express' magazine, were in mood to talk and these answers are shown here. It is worth pointing out that there is some discrepancy with Ralf's memories re tuning in via a transistor radio beneath his pillow; the first transistor radio did not appear until 1955, courtesy of the Japanese Sony company, earlier radios were far bulkier and less likely to fit comfortably beneath a pillow methinks!

As well as 'The Voice of Energy' and 'Uranium', there could possibly have been a third instalment of these 'sound poems'; live performances from 1976 and 1981 featured something of a 'Radio-Activity' suite, featuring an additional vocoder piece which, based on the repeated lyric, must be called 'Die Sonne, Der Mond, Die Sterne' (The Sun, The Moon, The Stars); at the 1976 London Roundhouse concert these portions were actually introduced by Ralf Hütter as 'symphony of the radio star' and featured 'The Voice of Energy', a brief extract from 'Radio Stars', 'Die Sonne, Der Mond, Die Sterne' and 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' played into one another. By 1981 a similar suite reappeared; as 'Radio-Activity' tails off, the vocodered tones of 'Uranium' are followed by 'The Voice of Energy' and again 'Die Sonne, Der Mond, Die Sterne' before the relaxed finale of 'Ohm Sweet Ohm' once again brings the suite to an end. Whether 'Die Sonne, Der Mond, Die Sterne' exists in a studio form and was intended for inclusion on the original 'Radio-Activity' LP is an imponderable that may never be confirmed. It was actually aired as early as 1975, sandwiched between parts 1 and 2 of 'Kometenmelodie' in, at very least, one of Kraftwerk's late-1975 UK live shows.

'Radio-Activity' was the bands first LP to include both English and German vocals. There is only this one, 'hybrid' mix of 'Radio-Activity'. The bands later LP's were issued in separate German and English language editions, but all copies of 'Radio-Activity' are the same. While the songs feature both English and German portions, these are by no means replicas of one another. Take, for example, 'Radioland', the English portions are 'Turn the dials with your hand, Till you find the shortwave band, Electronic music sounds from Radioland', while the German portions can be translated thus;

When adjusting the radio(phone)

We hear the station signal

By pressing the button, fast as a flash

We get the short wave band

After fine-tuning by hand

We listen to the Morse-band

Electronic sounds from Radioland

 

'Radio Stars' has no English part, the German words are pretty much equivalent to 'From the far reaches of space, Radio Stars are sending signals, Quasar and Pulsar (stars).' Similarly, there are additional lyrics in 'Antenna'.

On its release in December 1975, critical reception to the LP was mixed and less than enthusiastic. Following the undoubted pop appeal of 'Autobahn', it appears that the landscape of radio hums, buzzes and blips punctuating the music of 'Radio-Activity' was seen as more of an annoyance than a benefit and certainly did not appeal to the majority of critics, likening the vocodered tones of the vocals to 'Sparky, The Magic Piano' type gimmickry. The album is less perfectly realised than 'Autobahn' and I can't imagine there being a hit single on this album, though there are some quite pretty tunes', wrote Karl Dallas, Melody Maker, 20.12.75. 'Only Radio-Activity's final two numbers, 'Transistor and 'Ohm Sweet Ohm', give any indication of what these guys can do, and the latter is almost a carbon copy of Autobahn's techniques... The novelty aspect of Radio-Activity may well spur plenty of radio activity, but one hopes Kraftwerk goes back to music-making soon' was how Ed Ward's 'Rolling Stone' review (12.2.76) saw things.

The album itself was recorded during one of Kraftwerk's busiest periods. With the success of 'Autobahn' in the first half of the year, the band embarked on lengthy spells of live gigging to consolidate and build on the success, principally in the United States, though the album enjoyed its greatest success in France, sales of over 100,000 for the LP and over a million copies of the single, leading to gold disc awards. Since 'Autobahn', the band had changed record companies and signed with Capitol Records in most parts of the world. By the time of the bands UK tour in September 1975 the album was being advertised at their concerts, though they did not play any material from the album, performing only material from their four previous albums plus plenty of improvisation instead. Similarly, although the album was being advertsied as early as September at both the concerts and in the UK music press, the album did not appear in press reviews until late December of 1975 and into 1976.

In keeping with signing a worldwide record deal, the album proved to be pretty much a universal package throughout the globe. As mentioned earlier, there is only one hybrid German/English language version available. The bands previous albums had record cover designs that varied from country to country. Excepting detail changes, all countries adopted the 'radioset' design for 'Radio-Activity', designed by Emil Schult along with Ralf Hütter, Emil actually pictured on the inner sleeve too. The actual type of radio which the cover depicts is a product of 1930s Nazi Germany, being a cheap, mass-produced short-wave radio, the significance of the short-wave being to shield ears from dissenting voices from the ether; radio knows no borders. The significance of its choice for use with the cover is imponderable. Like the songs lyrics, there are meanings unsaid, left open ended for the listener/viewer to fill in the gaps with their own thoughts.

And maybe it is that interactive quality that gives some clue as to the appeal of the LP. It tends to be overshadowed when picking favourites by the more direct LPs, but it undeniably has its fans and it maybe is the album's 'concept' or unity of theme that the appeal stems from. It tends to be one of those albums you may listen to as a whole much like side one of the later 'Electric Cafe', rather than a collection of singles and there are certainly images conjured up by the mix of, quite literally, atmospheric sounds and sleeve images that the listener can place their own childhood memories of radio dial-scanning alongside. Perhaps then, with these external factors, it is more a case of 'Radio-interactivity'...

  Updated: 16 : 5 : 2010