The Musicians Who Knew We'll Be Cyborgs Soon
How late-70s and early-80s electronic pop from Kraftwerk, Devo, and Young Marble Giants warned us of our post-human future.
Throughout the 70s and early 80s, the rise of Silicon Valley, personal computers, and video games made circuits and software more closely integrated with human bodies than ever; the concept of artificial intelligence was all of a sudden present in everyone's home, tactile and individuated.
Accordingly, from movies like Blade Runner to music like Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine, the possibility of humans turning into computers (or vise versa) was a hot topic for many artists at the time, whose art often implied simultaneous wonder and worry. Could machines really become, as the android-producing Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner put it, "more human than human"?
Blade Runner was adapted from the 1968 story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick. In 1972, Dick published another tale called We Can Build You, set in the near-future of 1982, where androids are sold by a humble musical instrument manufacturer instead of a mega-corporation like Blade Runner's Tyrell.
Hard on its luck, the instrument company transitions from making electronic keyboards to robotic simulacra of Civil War-era figures like Abraham Lincoln. The robots grow more "human" as the book progresses, until their uncanny presences and disconcerting intelligence exacerbate disintegrating relationships within the company, and cause the whole project to fall through.
We Can Build You suggests that sharing essential qualities, such as speech and sexuality, with machines could be toxic for both human and robot psyches. As the robots take control of his life and business prospects, the instrument company's proprietor, Louis Rosen, starts to question his identity. Unclear about where "man" ends and "machine" begins, he falls into a hallucinatory spiral that leads to full-blown schizophrenia.
He's not the only one having an identity crisis. The Abraham Lincoln android stresses over its limitations as well: "A machine can do anything a man can," it says at one point, "but it doesn't have a soul."
Louis believes the solution to this problem is to keep human and machine functions separate, rather than try to combine them and create some hybrid that's "more human than human." He expresses these feelings when he's confronted with new electronic instruments entering the market like the "Hammerstein Mood Organ," which hooks up to the listener's brain and is engineered to alter their emotions. "That's not music," Louis says, describing the organ. "That's escape. Who wants it?"
Yet despite Louis's reservations, Dick makes it clear that the world of We Can Build You, set in the early 80s, is saturated with electronic noise. "Can a machine talk?" a robot asks, soon after its initial creation. "Sure," one of Louis's business partners replies. "Radios, phonographs, tape recorders, telephones—they all yak away like mad." For Louis, this "yakking" simply is not music, just as the androids simply aren't human.
But, outside the novel at least, real-life musicians throughout the twentieth century have been blurring the lines between artist and instrument, imbuing their compositions with the most up-to-date machine "yakking" available—from radio static to computer-generated clicks.
By the late-70s, electronic music had become highly visible (and audible), following its previous, more niche developments in prior decades. Computers and electronic instruments like drum machines and synths were easier to use and more commercially available than ever, and digital interfaces like MIDI would be popularized soon thereafter.
At the helm of these electronic instruments, musicians at the dawn of the 80s both sonically and symbolically morphed into humanoid robots, bringing Dick's speculations to life. Synthesizers and drum machines could mimic analog instrumentation with dizzying range and precision, while the vocoder in particular served an uncanny, cyborg-ian effect.
Consider the music of Kraftwerk, who helped popularize the device on recordings such as 1974's "Autobahn." Kraftwerk embodied this hybridity in sound by removing most acoustic instrumentation, and addressed themes of androids and cyborgs in their lyrics as well. In the late 70s, they went as far as to built their image around being "Man Machines," as depicted on the cover of their 1977 LP.
Subsequent practitioners of the new wave, indebted to Kraftwerk, also turned to similar subject matters: from Gary Numan's "Are 'Friends' Electric?" to Styx's "Mr. Roboto," Young Marble Giants' "The Man Amplifier" to Devo's "Mechanical Man."
Where Kraftwerk foregrounded man's integration with electronic instruments, Welsh trio Young Marble Giants took a different, more "human" approach. Comprising Alison Statton on vocals, Stuart Moxham on guitar and electronic organ, and Stuart's brother Philip on bass, the group released one LP, 1980's Colossal Youth, with Rough Trade Records before breaking up.
Still, Young Marble Giants stuck out not only against electronic music artists like Kraftwerk, but also their post-punk peers. Their drum machine and organ were homemade constructions, built by the Moxhams' cousin from instructions in a magazine.
The band's electronic organ clips and quivers off-pitch, nothing like the icy synthesizers of Kraftwerk (who Young Marble Giants loved). And they used the drum machine more like a technological curiosity than a musical instrument: it clicks cleanly, one-beat-at-a-time, almost like a child lightly thumping on pots and pans.
Young Marble Giants' lyrics also don't share Kraftwerk's futuristic vision for the most part; they tend to be minimal, opaque meditations on relationships and everyday interactions. Two noteworthy exceptions: their most famous song, "Final Day," which playfully envisions a nuclear apocalypse, and "The Man Amplifier," which depicts a part-man, part-robot character. In a 1980 interview, Stuart Moxham explained that Philip wrote the song after seeing a TV program about a a Cold War-era robotic suit that would make its wearer's movements stronger and more exact.
In the song, the machine tries to be "more human than human," but the band suggests that this is precisely why it fails. "If you want to pick your nose and it isn't programmed to do it, it'll pull your head off," Stuart noted about the real-life robot's buggy deficiencies. "That song always sounds as though it's just about to fall apart."
Stuart isn't wrong. Led by a granulated organ line and an atypically disjointed drum machine beat, "The Man Amplifier's" trembling composition complements its lyrics.
At first, it seems Young Marble Giants are smitten with the new technology—the title character is part of the group, and "sings" the song's chorus, a bright electronic organ melody in place of vocals.
But in the next verse, the band reveals a bit of discomfort over the fact that the machine isn't actually human:
Parallel sympathy with you
Skin to metal overture
Take a walk, he's always near
Like a shadow, never fear while we're singing
As in We Can Build You, there's a close relationship between human, robot, and music—maybe too close. The drum machine begins to sound like encroaching footsteps, the organ like a sounding alarm. In the next verse, fear turns to pity for the man amplifier, whose body is crumbling. A potential solution to the machine's woes is, as Alison sings in the song's final verse, to "Lubricate the inner man / Exercise him when you can, and be singing."
Rather than trying to be superior humans, Young Marble Giants claim that robots need to "exercise"—to learn, try, and fail like humans do. It's a common belief. Writing in the same period, affect theorist Silvan Tomkins argued in his series of books Affect Imagery Consciousness that a good android "would in all probability require a relatively helpless infancy followed by a growing competence through its childhood and adolescence. In short, it would require time in which to learn how to learn through making errors and correcting them."
More recently, hacker George Hotz explained that rather than make his self-driving cars drive like humans, he makes them learn to drive like humans: hesitant but autonomous.Tomkins rebukes the long-standing belief in Freudian "drives," relating them to the on-off nature digital technology—the idea that if you flip a "switch," the same thing will happen every time. Instead, Tomkins outlines a framework for human motivation, one with individuated causes and effects contingent on their specific contexts.
Similarly, the analog-digital dichotomy often plays a large role in music discourse. In his recent book The New Analog, Damon Krukowski traces the history of musical recording and distribution, demystifying the "newness" of digital as well as the "authenticity" (and obsolescence) of analog. Krukowski's main argument—or hope—is that as analog processes fall apart, their symbolic and literal "noise" (as opposed to digital's perfect "signal") remains.
For Tomkins and Krukowski alike, it's not that digital recording or androids are bad, just that they need a healthy dose of flowing, growing, noisy, human elements. To lubricate the inner man, as it were.
Devo, another influence on Young Marble Giants, were among the most visible artists wrestling with problems of human-machine integration in the late 70s. Their song "Mechanical Man" complements "The Man Amplifier." Over a clattering anti-groove, a vocoded voice intones its programming and its purpose: "I'm a mechanical man… I'm a two plus two / Equals four man."
While the cyborg's purpose is more innocuous than that of Blade Runner's replicants, all he has to offer is 2+2=4. (This take also features in Kraftwerk's "The Robots": "We are programmed to do / Anything you want us to.") The fraying sounds of Devo's electronic instruments further suggest that "mechanical men" aren't meant to be "more human than human" but their own beings: "two mechanical arms, two mechanical legs."
In Myopia, a retrospective exhibition by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh at NYU's Grey Art Gallery, numerous photographs, prints, and objects illustrate what can go wrong when machines integrate with human bodies. Factory workers, primates, adult babies, mutants: Mothersbaugh's characters all experience some physical pain or regression at the hands of technology, its byproducts (like radiation), or its support systems (like advertising).
A series of more recent sculptures, though, suggests an effort on Mothersbaugh's part to exercise agency over machines while liberating them from rigid digital constructions. Composed of detourned musical instrument parts, these pieces visualize machines growing on their own terms. Like Young Marble Giants' homemade electronics, Mothersbaugh's sculptures are autonomous—not "more human than human," but content in their machinery.
Thirty-five years after Blade Runner, computers mediate both our identities and physical bodies more than ever. Still, the corporeal separation for which artists like Young Marble Giants and Devo advocated at the dawn of the information age remains appealing for us humans.
After all, artificial intelligence, given the opportunity to be itself, can do even better than "more human than human." Facebook, for example, just revealed that its chatbots invented their own language instead of using ours. That's scary, sure, yet distance between us and AI leaves space for exploration, noise, and humanity, in whatever form. We have our bodies, machines have theirs.