Review Summary: Pay more attention to Kraftwerk's middle child and it might just change your mind.
Radio-Activity is somewhat of a forgotten classic when it comes to Kraftwerk fans. Understandably though, the band released another three albums (Autobahn was before this) after it, all of which continually broke the exceptionally high standards and conventions the band had set themselves. In many ways, it is the middle child. Good, but not outstanding, and certainly not bad enough to get any negative attention. It has simply sat on the shelf, being played occasionally for the title track and moderately successful single Radio-Activity, a groundbreaking release, not simply for it's first usage by Kraftwerk of English vocals in any of their songs, but one notable for a ghostly power plant choir, whom New Order took notice of, and liberally sampled in their smash hit Blue Monday.
The album though, may just as well have started off as an elaborately bad in-joke. The band were, and still are known for their deadpan and often extremely word-play based sense of humour, this album is no exception. The title track denotes popularity on the radio, but also the radioactive processes of decay, half life and fission. There are more hilariously silly puns too, in the form of closer, Ohm Sweet Ohm, the tender, extended number which features the first sound that became known as Kraftwerk, robotic vocals, swirling keyboards, and gorgeously pattering drumbeats.
Throughout the release, Kraftwerk speaks at length of transmission, irradiation, power plants and nuclear physics, and as was in later releases, so is now, the band have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to splitting the atom or how vibrations generate wave lengths in the air, but they have such a futuristic sound that it becomes irrelevant, in fact, if anything, they do an extremely convincing job of lying to us about their knowledge of such subject matters. In Antenna, the band offers up their simple solution of transmission, 'I'm the antenna, catching vibration, you're the transmitter, give information'. It's simple, beautiful and often magically sung lyrics like these that lend the album an almost childlike naivety and sense of wonder for the future - one that ultimately stayed with the band throughout their career.
The Voice of Energy is another notable track, one for being the first to feature the robotic vocoder that Kraftwerk so successfully utilized and made their own later on in their career, a short track that simply is a robot reading instructions out in monotone, stupid as it sounds, it's gripping stuff. The album is interspersed with shorter, atmospheric tracks, Geiger Counter (one of Iggy Pop's favourite tracks - no joke or hip cross-reference, a genuine favourite of Pop's), a song that flickers and beeps to unseen background radiation, Intermission, the simple 10 note beep over static which is as lovely but desperately short, News, a fictional news report read just out of earshot and deliberately poorly synchronized with other news reports, and Uranium, the track which New Order loved so much, a song that sounds in awe of it's discovery of radioactive material.
There's a strong case for this being the first industrial album ever, and in 1975, that wasn't a bad thing. Kraftwerk were riding high on the crest of Autobahn, and to give them as much credit as is humanly possible, they didn't rest on the success of it, instead they pushed the boat out, in a way they never did before or since, crafting a synth pop album around the hectic life and times of work in a nuclear power plant.