“The Robots” (German: “Die Roboter“) is a single by German electronic-music group Kraftwerk, which was released in 1978. The single and its B-side, “Spacelab”, both appeared on the band’s seventh album, The Man-Machine. However, the songs as they appear on the single were edited into shorter versions.
The lyrics reference the revolutionary technique of robotics, and how humans can use them as they wish. The Russian lines “Я твой слуга” (Ya tvoy slugá, “I am your servant”) and “Я твой работник” (Ya tvoy rabótnik, “I am your worker“) (also on the rear sleeve of the album) during the intro and again during its repetition at the bridge are spoken in a pitched down voice, the main lyrics (“We’re charging our batteries and now we’re full of energy…”) are “sung” through a vocoder. Wolfgang Flür, a member of Kraftwerk at the time of the single’s release, later wrote, “ich war ein roboter” (I Was a Robot in English), with his title referencing the lyrics of “The Robots”. The book, published in 2003, has been described as a “controversial and uncompromising autobiography of Kraftwerk”, more because the other members of the band tried to censor its publication than anything else. The lyrics were also referenced in the title of a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Kraftwerk: We Are the Robots, broadcast for the first time on Thursday 22 November 2007. The documentary focused on the band’s place as “part of a new generation of young West Germans, living in the shadow of the Cold War, who identified with the need to recapture a German cultural identity distinct from that of Britain and America.”
When the song is performed live, the band is traditionally replaced by robots that resemble themselves. The method in which this is carried out varies and depends on the performance. For example, one report of a performance in 1997 describes “four legless robot bodies [being] lowered from a lighting rig and programmed to make mechanical movements to the music”, another from the following year describes the spectacle as “robot torsos and heads [being] suspended in the air, slowly twisting and waving as the music plays on”, and yet another describes witnessing on-screen “plastic-head representations of the band, stuck on dull gray torsos with mechanical arms and metal-rod legs”. The lyrics, “We are the robots” flash up on this screen followed by the line, “we are programmed/just to do/anything you want us to.” The screen then lifts to reveal the band following their transformation into robots. But they are said not to move “in the popping spurts that robots are famous for; they swiveled and moved their arms slowly, thoughtfully, humanly, as if practicing t’ai chi.” It has also been said that these “robots” give a far more lifelike performance than the band themselves. There was, however, “an air of farce” at one show in Ireland in 2008 when a curtain refused to close, disrupting the transformation of the band into robots. Stagehands had to intervene and close the curtain themselves, after which it was possible for the sequence to continue. The curtain issue repeated itself at the band’s appearance at Manchester Velodrome, on 2 July 2009.