standout track: Autobahn
It was the news of Florian Schneider’s death that compelled me to spend some time listening again to Kraftwerk. I suspect that Schneider was the source of David Stubbs’ identification of the “deep sardonic comic sensibility that always lurks beneath the surface of Kraftwerk”. If you’ve ever watched videos of Kraftwerk performing live, it’s hard not to miss Schneider’s rascally smile or that comic, knowing glint in his eye while the other mensche-maschine play impassively.
I’m sure my first encounter with electronic music was watching something like Tomorrow’s World on BBC One as a child or Popcorn played whenever an automated factory assembly line was shown on screen. Around that time I was vaguely aware of Kraftwerk, a strange group of robotic German gentlemen who stood at synthesisers stiffly while performing their music. I remember being aware of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop as well mostly in terms of the sound effects for programmes like Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. At some point in my childhood I had an album called Out of This World by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with sound effects with titles like Laser Gun, Five Bursts and Electric Door Open.
Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, released in November 1974, is an album whose impact can’t be underestimated. There really isn’t anything like Autobahn before this album. Of course there was a great deal of nascent popular electronic music (various Moog-music, perhaps Wendy Carlos) but nothing that entered popular cultural awareness in this way before. Supposedly, this is the record that caused Bowie to alter his rock trajectory and transition to Low and Heroes. It also led to the synth-pop that dominated the early 1980s with musicians like John Foxx, Gary Numan, Ultravox, OMD, The Human League and even bands like New Order and Japan.
For something the was considered futuristic over 45 years ago, Autobahn still sounds incredibly modern (even if retro-futuristic). The a-side, Autobahn, captures the enjoyment of an everyday mundane activity elevated to an ideology. A car door slams shut, an ignition and the engine proceeds the actual music which grounds the music in the everyday. In fact, there’s an almost zen-like fascination with the everyday. The mix of Moog and electronic rhythms created by modified Maestro Rhythm King drum machine which initiates “Kraftwerk’s benign celebration of automaton” (Stubbs) – is trance-inducing. The vocoded, harmonised lyrics – which I’ve seen described as a Teutonic homage to the Beach Boys – have a deliberate froideur:
wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n
auf der autobahn
While the a-side revels in its warm celebration of a daytime Volkswagon journey along the industrialised modern setting, the b-side is a pastoral journey through night (comets, midnight and a morning walk). The b-side reveals Ralf and Florian’s kosmische origins. There’s a mix of quite ominous sounds with a light, optimistic flute as well as natural (almost ambient) sounds layered in the background.