Kohoutek – Kometenmelodie

Released 1973 on Philips
The Seth Man, May 2007ce
Der Kling Klang Kids threw a total curveball out from nowhere with this one-off space rock maneuver. It sounds more like it sneaked out of their Düsseldorf sound lab behind their backs late one night and onto a 45rpm single for Philips before they knew what happened. Unlike anything they did before adopting severe thematic frameworks upon all their successive albums, “Kohoutek – Kometenmelodie” was Kraftwerk’s first single and it bears scant semblance to the renowned ‘Werk of more recent decades.

With the exception of “Autobahn,” the group has remained adamant in their non-acknowledgement of its earliest back catalogue on Philips, and it’s not hard to hear why. The first two albums and “Ralf And Florian” were hardly the streamlined propositions of “Trans-Europe Express” or “Man Machine,” they were waywardly experimental (running errantly into awkward cul-de-sacs on their second album) and lacked steady beats suitable for dancing. But it was their unpredictability that made them very unique and without it, Kraftwerk would not only have been far dryer and academic, but they would also have not achieved what they later did. Without “Ruckzuck” there would not have been an “Autobahn,” without “Von Himmel Hoch” there would have not been “Mitternacht” and without “Kometenmelodie” I’d venture there could never have been a “Neon Lights”... And so on. Additionally, without “Ananas Symphonie” there would have been nothing else like it because it’s such a chilled-out, stone singularity unlike anything in the Kraftwerk canon.

“Kohoutek – Kometenmelodie” (version 1)

Opening with the same piercing V-2 shriek that would later re-commence on the re-recording of “Kometenmelodie 2” off the “Autobahn” album, it’s extended to a far fuller trajectory before the entry of the accompanying icy keyboard swipe. Despite the fact that the theme and melody from “Kometenmelodie 2” is intact here, its opening comet streak the only familiar sound from the later pair of revisited “Kometenmelodie”s on “Autobahn” as here everything is far more muted and embryonic. A nearly speedy reggae rhythm is put across by either Fender Precision bass or a muted Maestro Rhythm King drum machine (hard to discern with the mountain-rounding phase applied to its surface) working into the main synthesizer line that corkscrews out from the distance into the foreground while backdrop funkisizers churn and pitch shift as pixiedust synth accents sparkle on the one like the highly reflective dust of a comet’s tail. As it progresses, the main theme strains across the heavy gravity belt of woman sky as it is pitch modulated against its wordless twin of a synthesized female vocal tone. It’s certainly only the constraints of the 7 inch format that commandeers the piece to fade out almost as soon as the two-fingered rhythm line increases in volume.

“Kohoutek – Kometenmelodie” (version 2)

Is this at the right speed or did I not readjust the speed to 45 from 33rpm? It would be the love theme from “Kohoutek – Kometenmelodie” only it’s at the speed of tracking through a rhythmic swampland of coagulated treacle quicksand with attached lead weights. This is the slowest piece of music ever released by Kraftwerk as it even out-snails “Ananas Symphonie.” The Maestro Rhythm King ticks out patiently like an antique clock under glass in the disused and untouched study of a long-departed professor while its emotional dimension and gait is not unlike Sly & The Family Stone’s “Time.” Forsaking the melody altogether, the middle section features an echoed, treated guitar while mind-sweeping synthesizers break like waves on some faraway beach. The guitar (or, as it was credited on “Ralf And Florian”: ‘String-Instrument’ as though manipulated physically more as an elongated electronic device than an amplified 6-string guitar) needles in and out with sparse clusters of bittersweet regret. Signals are manually modulated and fan out simply and wistful. This is the most organic of all renditions of “Kometenmelodie” and at one point you hear something get knocked over (just like it does on that bonus track on the reissue of “There’s A Riot Goin’ On.”) It’s these very anomalies that make early Kraftwerk so interesting and special. Especially as from 1975’s “Radioactivity” onward, their releases were metronomic perfection with every misstep or error permanently eradicated.

“Kometenmelodie 1&2”

The single stands in sharp relief to the two cross-faded “Kometenmelodie”s that would comprise half of the second side of the “Autobahn” LP the following year -- about as much as the pair did to the rest of the album. While the extended title track drove on for the duration of side one, the remaining residents of side 2 of “Autobahn” were vaguely experimental and fell short of yielding maximum results. Although potentially great for the first minute, “Mitternacht” quickly dissolves into unresolved fizzies, dank electronic footsteps and descending synthesizers that blindly bump into each other like pinball bumpers to set off all manner of unrelated sound FX alarms while “Morgenspaziergang” was both blatantly pleasant and entirely irritating: opening as it did with electronic birds that twittered unnaturally like schmeisser fire over a kitschy aural landscape of a picture perfect morning complete with electronic waterfalls set behind a reoccurring flute melody probably better suited for a kiddies’ Sunday morning TV programme (or failing that: a documentary on Switzerland’s oldest petting zoo.)

But when side 2 kicks off, it’s an entirely different feel altogether as its distinctly dusk-to-dawn vibe settles everywhere and leaves side one’s well known 9 to 5 Autobahn commute in the past. A cold and clear nighttime sky drift billows in with “Kometenmelodie 1” and it fades into even darker territory with a foreboding, filtered synthesizer drone streaking across the sky only to decay in tandem with its ascent. Joining it in its repeated ascent is a second synthesizer line of the highest frequency that tickles the very threshold of human hearing as it strains in a whistling arc across the inky firmament of blinking stars. Distant giant footsteps continue to rumble in the background until a piano cluster gently emerges to leaven the proceedings before the reentry of the twin doom synthesizers. Soon, the nightscape is momentarily hit with the blinding brilliance of “Kometenmelodie 2” and its piercing, shrill synthesizer analogous to a streaking comet hitting the severest point of its parabola directly above you. A quietly obstinate rhythm synthesizer line emerges from the cloud of space dust and suddenly, the main theme from the “Kohoutek” single bursts out. Massively fleshed out with multi-tiered synthesizers and drum machines, at points the lead synth exhilarates to the point of distorting at the ceiling of shrill trebleness by scraping the stratosphere...which it finally does for the final time with aching decay.

“Kometenmelodie” was a singularity for Kraftwerk, and they must have thought pretty highly of their only space rock offering by re-recording it so many times. In all certainty, all four versions of “Kometenmelodie” were probably laid down by Hütter and Schneider alone: prior to the beatifically grinning hippy Klaus Röder wedging into the crowded backseat of der Kraftwerkwagen for “Autobahn” (and subsequently being booted out at the next Bahnhof stop.) And since the drum machines are the only percussion, it probably precludes any involvement from Wolfgang Flür, their newly-joined e-percussionist.