Robocop Kraus
Photo: David Häuser / Proxy Media

Robocop Kraus ‘Smile’ and Tap Into 1983 on First LP in 15 Years

On Smile, Robocop Kraus still sound like their mandate is to take the cheap disposable postpunk of the early 1980s and make better versions of it.

Robocop Kraus
Tapete Records
23 April 2023

If you had cable TV 40 years ago—a big if in 1983—you channel-surfed by a) getting up off the couch (no remote control yet) and b) sliding a lever along the front of a peculiar hardwired box. Enterprising/bored young people whose parents did not spring for the premium movie channels—HBO, Showtime, the Movie Channel, and the one affectionately known as “Skinemax”—figured out a way to pirate them: If you patiently and dexterously jiggled the lever back and forth over a number that corresponded to one of the premium channels, with some practice you could lodge it in an in-between sweet spot and unscramble the signal. Voila! You were now illegally watching one of the following:

  • A cheap horror/slasher flick
  • A darkly lit (also cheap) movie in which drug dealers and/or cops were repeatedly shot to death
  • Breasts (on Skinemax)
  • A (cheap) movie in which some young people not entirely unlike yourself got up to “Innocent Fun”, which is the name of a song on the new Robocop Kraus album, appropriately entitled Smile (Tapete). “Innocent Fun” movies generally involved moderately vandalistic, highly hormonal, possibly self-destructive, entirely inane, and therefore ultimately harmless hijinks rooted in an unexpectedly deep nihilism.

No wonder. The biggest hit of 1983 was a creepy surveillance song in which a one-named megalomaniac vowed to be watching every move we made and every breath we took, and the footloose (haha) fun of The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) hadn’t arrived yet. Two of the Brat Pack stars of those movies, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, co-starred in Wargames, a tense thriller in which genius computer kid Broderick nearly triggered an accidental nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Innocent Fun? Later that year, a Soviet false alarm nearly triggered a real nuclear war. Meanwhile, Prince was out there warning the world that “everybody’s got a bomb / We could all die any day.” The “everybody” and “bomb” in question referred both to nuclear powers and AIDS.

Kids in America were consequently best off to party like it was 1999, with the result that there were a lot of cheerfully violent and vapid flicks about getting into risky business (haha, again)—think Repo Man (1984), which was the nihilistic apotheosis of Innocent Fun—and leaving a lot of trash in their wake. Robocop Kraus’ line “This is a nice club / Shame it’s gonna be destroyed” pretty much sums up the zeitgeist. The early 1980s were doomed and disposable times.

Many of the period’s congruently disposable movies seemed to include a scene in which the roisterous kids in question were at a club or party or some other setting in which a live band happened to be playing. This would be an actual IRL band, although it was probably one you had never heard of and never would again, featuring a slightly wild-eyed lead singer with a lopsided sneer and hair. (A few years later, the movie could be Something Wild, and the band could be the Feelies.)

The rest of the movie would be soundtracked by any number of ersatz, generic versions of what tended to air on MTV in its early days—the Fixx, the Hooters, Thomas Dolby, Kim Wilde, etc.—plus instrumentals that were trying to replicate the soulless yet powerfully addictive magic of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F” theme from Beverly Hills Cop. This formula turned out to be surprisingly hard to replicate. Maybe it was a matter of applying some kind of proprietary, inscrutably complex German engineering to essentially brainless forms of American entertainment.

Enter Robocop Kraus. These Germans formed their band a quarter-century ago, and still sound like their mandate was to take the songs and sounds from those cheap cable movies you jiggled your way into in the early 1980s (songs that were not that old in 1998) and make better versions of them. You may swear you’ve heard just about every single one of the tunes on Smile before, but they’re all original. Most are catchier and more substantial than the antecedents they borrow from, and you may find yourself wanting to hear many of them again—such as the one shrewdly called “On Repeat”, which repeats the title many times over a wash of hypnotic synths, while some imaginary end credits roll in your mind’s eye. RIYL bagging on Corey Hart.

(Speaking of imaginary, it would be worth acknowledging here that the 1983 being described is summoned from memory and may or may not exactly correspond to reality, although the analog cable box was real enough. But artifacts like that are as close to nostalgia as it’s possible to get to the era of the first Reagan administration. It is, thankfully, not always 1983 somewhere.)

What does it mean when you take disposable music and make reusable versions of it? Have Robocop Kraus rescued the early 1980s from history (and if they have, is that good or bad)? How are they pulling it off? Are they jiggling their own lever in between channels in time until they “tap into these frequencies”, as they put it on “On Repeat”, and succeed in unscrambling the signal?

Perhaps a simple but substantial reason that Smile’s lighthearted songs hold up to repeated listens is that Robocop Kraus can actually play, unlike a lot of early 1980s acts whose records relied on kooky or atmospheric synth patches, plus drum machines and sequencers you could program in your bedroom. (And lots of eye shadow.) Although there are keyboards all over Smile, guitars are more prominent, as well as real drums. The dominant influence on the album—the band’s first in 15 years (what were they doing in between, one wonders?)—isn’t the early 1980s “New Romantic” genre that gave us Spandau Ballet, the Human League, Duran Duran et al. Howard Jones is not invited. Nor do Robocop Kraus do mope rock a la the Cure or the Smiths. They prefer the era’s edgy contemporary post-punk and new wave: the faster, louder, somewhat ruder side of the early 1980s that was the domain of acts like Killing Joke and Lords of the New Church. This is confident, optimistic, high-energy music.

Smile’s first song, the galloping “Young Man”, asks what “weird ingredients” are in the young man’s pan—that’s pan, not pants, although, like a number of tunes on Smile, there’s an easy opportunity to mishear lines in the name of ribaldry. The title of another song, “Giant of Love”, is innuendo enough, but it sounds like they might be singing “Vagina of Love”, which neatly sums up the simultaneously consuming yet clinical sex obsession of the times when both Prince and Cyndi Lauper sold millions while singing about masturbating. Then again, perhaps some of the language confusion stems more simply from the band’s German accents, which also encourage us to anticipate (if not quite hope) that at any moment they’ll break into “99 Luftballons”—another nuclear holocaust song—or “Big in Japan”. And why not “Turning Japanese” while we’re at it?

As Smile’s songs stride by in shiny Doc Martens, they leave a fun and full trail of echoes behind, from the B-52’s to the guy who produced one of their records, David Byrne. The faux-jungle tribal beats of Adam and the Ants can also be detected: the early 1980s were a time of weird neo-primitivism, and it’s no surprise that there’s one song called “Noble Savages” and another that pays homage to girls you can take out of the gutter but not the gutter out of the girl. There’s also one outright homage: “Under Control” is an unabashedly literal response to Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge”, and a fairly convincing one at that, given that by the early 1980s, Frankie was telling everyone to Relax / Don’t do it / When you wanna come.

Yet the deeper alchemy at work on Smile is how often it sounds, somehow, like Joe Jackson, with whom Robocop Kraus have nothing demonstrably in common. If they don’t wait another 15 years to make their next album, we might even be able to make some progress in understanding how this peculiar replication works. Meanwhile, don’t touch that dial—but do keep jiggling the lever.

RATING 7 / 10