The puns exist on so many levels. Kraftwerk’s 1975 follow-up to its surprise international hit Autobahn is a concept album about both radioactivity and activity on the radio. After years in the German underground, these Dusseldorf experimentalists were now actually on the radio; a drastic edit of its 23-minute “Autobahn” received bona fide Top 40 airplay even in the United States, from which the quartet strove to stylistically distance itself. And so Radio-Activity features songs and noise snippets that reveal in code — at one point, actual Morse code — Kraftwerk’s new ambivalence toward radio while the band generates more foreboding impressions of radiation.
The title track ingeniously drifts between the two: “Radioactivity is in the air for you and meâ€¦tune in to a melody,” Ralf Hutter croons quietly and remotely, never once revealing if he thinks radioactivity — or even radio-activity — is a good or a bad thing. With a slight change in pronunciation, he slides into German, but remains elusive and allusive. All traces of Autobahn‘s fleeting acoustic instrumentation have been dropped, and the result is much more severe. “Antenna” offers another masterstroke, a love song between an antenna and his transmitter. The lyrics are nothing more than factual (“I’m the antenna catching vibration/ You’re the transmitter, give information”), but the arrangement implies sensuality through a liberal dose of echo on Hutter’s vocal, an undulating bass riff, and boing-ing sounds that suggest robot orgasms two years before Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” The roles reverse; suddenly Hutter is the transmitter, and his beloved is the antenna. Don’t judge; that’s just the way these men-machines roll.