Music Features

Happy Anniversary... Autobahn

Back in 1974, Autobahn truly felt like a new musical experience. Just ten years after the Beatles’ global impact, here was something new, quite removed from the traditions of jazz, country and the blues. This was Kraftwerk’s fourth album, but they were hardly pioneers in the electronic field. That distinction fell on musical explorers such as Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler. Yet Autobahn proved that electronica artists could compete in the UK and American markets, and they could do so without compromising their vision.

In the case of Kraftwerk, the German identity is intrinsic to their creativity. The lyrics, though short, are sung in German, and the music evokes a drive along Germany’s famous motorway network, an engineering feat that has become an enduring symbol of the country’s resurgence. No less important is the group’s attachment to classical tradition. That tradition encompasses standard-bearers like Beethoven and rule-breakers like Schoenberg. Throughout their career, Kraftwerk have wiggled themselves between both sides of the spectrum.

The catchy Top 40 single edit of Autobahn only hints at the piece’s complexity, which clocks in at 22:43, but there are no wasted minutes. We are taken on a car journey, a pleasant drive with nice scenery that shifts to heavy traffic, higher speeds, and some hair-raising turns. In 19th Century classical music terms, the piece could have been called a tone poem. The difference here, besides the instrumentation and rhythms, is that Kraftwerk celebrates the modern world and its technology.

In the Romantic Era, there were misgivings about the Industrial Revolution; mainly, there was resistance to technological advances, which were seen as a threat to the social order and the very nature of man, a belief that found literary shape in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Kraftwerk, being 20th Century men, share an opposite belief system. For them, technology represents man’s mastery over chaos and a guiding force in human evolution. Hence, there’s no threat. Man’s interaction with machines keeps the modern world going.

Furthermore, man and machine functioning as one is no sci-fi construct but a reality and the practical way of doing things. In a way, Ralph Hütter and Florian Schneider were foreseeing this age of smartphones and tablets.

Kraftwerk treated their musical instruments as extensions of themselves. While prog-rock groups fiddled with synths like kids with new toys, at Kling Klang Studio there was a deeper understanding of tone and texture. Autobahn has the hypnotic flow of trance music, yet it has been put together like a classical piece, with various motifs recurring and building to a crescendo, all arranged with the precision of clockwork. No less revolutionary is the use of electronic percussion, so crucial to the musical narrative that distinctions between lead and rhythm instruments don’t apply. Even the vocals are far from conventional; they are sung in a neutral tone, often tweaked with a vocoder

The rest of the tracks are simpler in scope, but each paints a new sonic landscape. Kometenmelodie celebrates the passing of Comet Kohoutek: hissing, ominous space effects transition into a breezy, joyful tune with a motorik beat, giving astronomers a song to party down. By contrast, Mitternacht (Midnight) is Gothic horror, a frightening walk along dark, damp dungeons.

Morgenspaziergang puts us in a bucolic setting. It resembles a 19th Century piece, complete with a jaunty flute phrases, yet the sounds of nature are replicated by electronic instruments, a paradox that points the way to the future. The track marked the last time we’d hear a traditional instrument in a Kraftwerk album. The move forward required total commitment; the pentatonic scales were observed but little else.

The success of Autobahn gave Kraftwerk the green light to go 100 percent conceptual. Gone were the long hair and casual clothes, replaced first by a young-scientist retro look, then moving to futuristic uniforms. These matched with the stage sets, which became more elaborate. More importantly, the music kept evolving, inspiring myriad dance and synth-pop artists. 

Kraftwerk haven’t released a new album in ages. Some argue that their best years are gone, yet I can’t help thinking that there might be a wealth of amazing unheard tracks stored at Kling Klang. As conjectures go, it isn’t unfounded: This is a group of tinkerers, never truly satisfied until high standards are met. We, the fans, expect nothing less. After all, no other electronic group has wielded more influence.