With silver helmeted electro-rockers Daft Punk recently earning a Grammy, the time is right to consider the oddball genre of popular music called (by me at least) robot-rock. It's a confusing and often incongruous style but one that goes back decades.
First, let's consider what the term "robot-rock" even means. Does it pertain only to rock bands who dress up in the style of wobbling, metallic creatures found in 1950s sci-fi films? Not quite. I think robot-rock is really about attitude and a very rebellious one at that. Grant me a few paragraphs and I'll explain.
Rock and roll has always been a very humanistic enterprise. It celebrates romance, freedom, sex and gritty, unadulterated emotions. This is not true of all forms of music, and certainly not true of the music rock and roll replaced. Elvis and the black blues musicians from which he drew inspiration shook the music world in the 1950s because they stood in stark contrast to the staid, conventional and compartively restrained music exemplified by Perry Como, Patti Page, Doris Day and the like. I'm actually a big fan of a lot of that music but there's no denying it lacks an element of risk---every note was laid out in advance* and performances were calibrated so that there was little chance of a mistake. Elvis and other rockers took chances both musically and visually and this excited their young fans. From then, into the 60s and beyond, rock music became synonymous with adventurism and exploration.
* This is doubtless technically not true since fifties pop had its share of improvisation but you get my point.
By the 1970s, this rebellious attitude, or at least the pretense of it, had become the modus operandi for a lot of bands. It was par for the course that a rock band would making passing mention of freedom, revolution, and cultural exploration. The dapper, buttoned down crooners of the mid-century had been replaced by bearded, drug using, cave people. On the plus side, the music they created was often brave and explored uncomfortable aspects of mainstream culture. But it was also often ego-driven and some rocks stars seemed to demand religious devotion from their fans. (Cough, Jim Morrison, cough.)
At this point someone---probably many people---had to notice that to truly be rebellious one had to counter this dominant paradigm of hedonistic humanism. To really shake things up, one had to callously avoid the emotional catharsis offered by rock and instead become the antithesis of human: a robot. Thus robot-rock was born. Robot-rock was not merely men in silver suits (though that was part of it), it was music that lauded mechanical synchronicity and avoided individuality. Robot-rock bands often resembled squads of uniformed soldiers; a presentation that flew right in the face of the freak-flag waving individualists of the hippie era. Robot-rockers also embraced the iconography of industrialization and futurism and usually made music using synthesizers and other instruments on the then cutting edge of technology.
Except that's not quite right. A certain degree of irony was at play with robot-rock---these bands were attacking the status quo of the rock world, yes, but also condemning the dehumanizing effects of "straight" society and corporate culture. In this sense, many robot-rock bands were true rebels, not comfortable in either the counterculture or the mainstream.
Let's look at a few examples.
I have written quite a bit about Devo over the years as they are my favorite band. They were doubtless my introduction to robot-rock.
During their heyday in the seventies and eighties, Devo were as much a performance art troupe as they were a rock group, and one that was very much a reaction against the conventional, "hippie" school of rock. While hippies celebrated (a somewhat stifling form of) diversity and individuality, the men of Devo were uniformed and moved in synch. Hippies celebrated being human, Devo appeared passively (well, kind of spastically passively) as robots.
Why was Devo at odds with the hippie aesthetic? Many reasons, one being founding member Gerald Casale's close up view of the famous 1970 Kent State massacre when U.S. National Guardsmen fired upon protesting students. He once said to me in an interview....
I was literally in the middle of it. I knew Alison Krause and Jeffery Miller, two of the murdered students... I saw the huge M-16 exit wound in Alison's back. I almost passed out. I was no longer a hippie as of that day. I would not have started the idea of DEVO unless this had happened.
Clearly the ineffectiveness of the hippie movement made its mark on Casale and the group, leading towards a robotic separation from the rest of humanity. Many people found Devo's emotional emptiness off-putting; they were even called fascists by the then and current gatekeepers of rock and roll chic, Rolling Stone magazine.
The irony to it all is that Devo is a humanistic band; they argue that our humanity is being lost as technology and lowest common denominator corporate culture advances. The image they present onstage (and onscreen in their videos) ---that of synchronized clones---is their mime of the populace in a dystopian future. (Casale likely would argue that future is now.) Ultimately, I think, Devo has a lot of heart.
Formed in Germany in 1970 (and still active though their heyday is behind them), Kraftwerk is the band that best exemplified the robot-rock approach. Their classic music was ultra-modern for its time, often dependent on synthesizer and percussion instruments that band members themselves invented. They were, in this sense, just as much technologists as they were musicians.
To best observe Kraftwerk's robotic approach one should observe the video for their tune "The Robots." Many of the key robot-rock themes are on display: uniformed band members who are impossible to distinguish from each other, synchronized movements that mimic machines, beat driven music that reminds listeners of the unstoppable advance of industrialized society. Kraftwerk were never a naive celebration of futurism though. As this quote from their wiki page explains: "Many of Kraftwerk's songs express[ed] the paradoxical nature of modern urban life—a strong sense of alienation existing side-by-side with a celebration of the joys of modern technology."
80's British rocker Gary Numan is best known for the single "Cars" in which he advocated living an isolated existence in the safety of one's automobile. Much of his music explored (and at times celebrated) this theme of technological isolation.
The man born Gary Anthony James Webb rose to fame as part of the new-wave movement of the 80s. His nom de guerre seems a reference to new wave's fetish with modernity---he indeed appeared to be a "new man." And he presented this evolved humanity as one that was overtaken by an emotional numbness. He appeared so blank that one wondered whether he had any feelings at all. (He was, in fact, diagnosed with the form of high functioning autism knows as Asperger's.)
As with many robot-rockers, there was fundamental irony about Numan's facade of emotional detachment: he was, in reality, rich in emotion. His flat stare hid a simmering cauldron. Numan himself noted...
"I got really hung up with this whole thing of not feeling, being cold about everything, not letting emotions get to you, or presenting a front of not feeling. It seemed to be very important at that time, which is why I wrote songs like Metal – about machines wanting to be human – or M.E., about being the last machine in the world, not the last person. It was all about denying emotions, which was fake because obviously I was highly emotional; I just couldn't control it. So I wrote about being the opposite of that – totally in control of your emotions, completely cold, because that's the image of myself I wanted to project."
There was a serious side to robot-rock---probably best exemplified by Kraftwerk---and there was a fun side. French rock group Les Rockettes fall towards the latter. Playing synthesizer and effects driven space funk and appearing as hairless, silver painted clones, the group explored a variety of sci-fi themes in songs like "Future Woman," "Cosmic Race" and "Mechanic Bionic".
The zenith of Les Rockets career was the late 70s and early 80s but the group has reformed with mostly new members. Browsing their numerous videos on you tube is the high point of any person's week.
It might seem odd to include an eighties rapper and the proclaimed "Godfather of Hip Hop" on a list of robot-rock bands. In truth though, electronic music has had a long relationship with rap music, often supplying the backing tracks that rappers rap over. And Akrika Bambaataa is likely the best example of the rap/electro combination. His first single, "Planet Rock" sampled a keyboard riff from---you guessed it---Kraftwerk, and combined vocoder vocals, space age playfulness and classic urban funk.
Robot-rock is essentially outsider music. So is prog-rock, the sophisticated, often classically derived rock music made by bands like Yes, Rush and King Crimson. Prog has long been condemned by rock critics, mainly because it is music that does not attempt to dumb itself down for the common man.
The Buggles, famous for their 1981 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" have connections to both prog and robot rock. On the prog side, Buggles' singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes have a long relationship with the quintessential prog band, Yes. Both musicians appeared on and toured for the 1980 Yes album "Drama." Not long after that Downes joined another successful prog-act, Asia. Recently, both Horn and Downes have been instrumental in the production of the most recent Yes album, "Fly From Here." (The bulk of the music was, in fact, once intended for inclusion on the second and last Buggles album, "Adventures of Modern Recording.")
I believe the Buggles also deserve consideration as a robot-rock band. Their lyrical themes often contemplated the effects of technology on culture. ("Video Killed the Radio Star" being the prime example.) The Buggles, like Gary Numan, were also part of the new-wave music which was so affectionate towards futurism.
And the Buggles music simply had a robotic sound. Trevor Horn, in an interview, explained why.
I couldn’t make records like Elton John and I hated punk - I thought they were all shit musicians, although I grew to understand it in retrospect. I envied those guys who played with Elton John. They seemed so unassailable. What am I going to ever do that’s going to get close to that? I don’t have a great feel or a great blues voice. Then I heard Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine and I thought, that’s it! A mechanized rhythm section, a band where you’re never old-fashioned, where you don’t have to emote. It sounded so new and exciting, so full of potential.
As you've probably noticed, robot-rock's brightest period was during the seventies and early eighties. What happened after that? Well, the damn humans took over. The synthesizer laden sound perfected by many robo-groups was merged with vocal styles borrowed from sixties soul. Bands like the Human League, ABC, the Pet Shop Boys and the Thompson Twins took over the charts and the cold, mechanical charms of the robot rockers were forgotten.
Or course, robot-rock bands continue to have influence on music being made today, especially in the electronic music scene. In particular, Kraftwerk are revered as godfathers who defined sounds and ideas still being applied. Robot-rock is not dead, it is merely hibernating, waiting for the moment when the humans grow weak and can easily be crushed.
Wil Forbis is a
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