Kraftwerk’s 4th LP and its first success is a new entrant in the Grammy Hall of Fame
By Stephen Pate – Autobahn by the German experimental group Kraftwerk was a breakthrough album that began decades of electronic music. You can trace or blame Kraftwerk for rock genres like Eurotrance, dance, techno, hip-hop and house etc. Even Disco owes a debt to the drum machine beat of Kraftwerk.
When I read the list of new albums being entered in the Grammy Hall of Fame, I decided to listen to all of them again. Records from Bob Dylan, Sex Pistols and Lou Reed Plus More Inducted Into The Grammy Hall of Fame.
It’s been a fun ride and no less so than listening to the still quirky LP Autobahn
Back in 1974, I didn’t pay much attention when the single “Autobahn” made it to the Billboard charts. I was still in my Southern California rock and the nth Bob Dylan phase. I was living on a farm on Prince Edward Island pretty much gone back to the land. Nothing could be further from my mind than techno instrumental rock.
Little did I realize how this type of electronic music would spread. When I got the CD before Christmas 2014 it was like truly weird to be back in the 70’s and feel that vibe.
Unlike most rock and roll which is derived from the 1950’s fusion of blues, country and gospel AKA Elvis the Pelvis, Kraftwerk were making music grounded in European classical music melted into rock and roll. On “Autobahn” the band was still incorporating organic instruments like flute, guitar, piano and organ long with the multiple synthesizers, vocoder, electronic drums and other electronics.
The LP version of the cut Autobahn is actually 22 minutes long, not 4 minutes like the single. The song is a modal tone poem much like early 20th Century classical music that left the 19th century melodies and lyricism of classical music in the dust. The vocals are simple lyrics played through a vocoder describing the joys of driving on the Autobahn, Germany’s high-speed highway. The car door opens and closes, the motor starts, the horn toots and off we go on a 22 minute ride.
Autobahn “capture(s) the feeling of driving on the Autobahn: from travelling through the landscape, the high-speed concentration on the fast lane, to tuning the car radio and the monotony of a long trip. It describes the A 555 from Köln to Bonn—the first Autobahn ever.” Wikipedia
If you can get off on music, you will get off on “Autobahn“. Melodies are repeated, changed, morphed and unless you speak German you have to let yourself go with the beat and the music. By the time the song stops and the journey is over, my head and heart got a major workout pumping way above normal. The whole album is the rock secular equivalent of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
Thankfully the album takes you down after that. The last song ends with daybreak and the sound of birds waking up. We are at peace with the new day with the feeling of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun“.
“Autobahn” was the 4th album by Kraftwerk and their most completely conceptualized and executed. It was thematic and laid the foundation for other theme LPs that followed like Tour De France and Radio-Activity.
The four members of the band – Ralf Hutter, Florian Schneider, Wolfgang Flur, and Klaus Roder – were so innovative they literally created things we take for granted like the drum machine. Their drum machine experiments included one version that was light activated by the movement of the musician. That idea failed and they reverted to the system we use today of drum triggers and electronic beats.
What’s even more amazing is that Kraftwerk more or less kept to themselves, not answering the phone even. They did not engage in wild rock and roll antics. They just worked on their art at the self-designed Kling Klang Studio in Dusseldorf, Germany.
A lot of rock and roll artists pan electronic drums and beats but they are the way of most popular music. It’s rumored that the Texas blues group ZZ Top experimented with electronic drums and drum machines in the early 80’s but refused to admit it due to the back lash from fans and other musicians.
Also available from iTunes – Autobahn (Remastered) – Kraftwerk
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By Stephen Pate, NJN Network