When it was first constructed (I believe this is the correct term) forty years ago, Autobahn (“Motorway”) must have come as something of a shock to most people. Still reeling from the sudden musical revelations of the previous decade, they were suddenly presented with a little 3-minute 7″ single which essentially contained no real instruments, and no particular vocals either.
Rushing out and buying the LP, they suddenly discovered that the 7″ version of Autobahn represents a tiny fraction of the full track, as it filled the entirety of Side A. There’s a sort of weird sound of a car driving off, and then a chorus of actual robots appears to sing “Autobahn,” a few times, becoming gradually more sinister. There are electronic flutes, home made drums, and goodness only knows what else. It really must have felt as though Kraftwerk had arrived from another planet.
Autobahn was not their first release, and if you do manage to track down copies of Tone Float (released as The Organisation in 1969), Kraftwerk (1971), Kraftwerk 2 (1972), or Ralf und Florian (1973), Autobahn does come as slightly less of a surprise. They had stepped it up a gear – the early albums were unlikely to ever be hits, whereas Autobahn somehow has exactly the right balance of concept, weirdness, and pop elements. It’s bizarre and a little impenetrable, but it still has a simple, catchy melody, and this would turn out to be Kraftwerk‘s stock in trade over the next decade or so while they went about inventing the entirety of modern music.
Autobahn, though, is somehow never boring – it’s repetitive, and by design – driving on the Autobahn is – but there’s always just enough happening to keep you on your toes, in a way that nothing on the earlier albums ever really did. Even twenty minutes in, there’s still plenty to enjoy. It probably couldn’t have been a lot longer, but building a sonic adventure that clocks in at just under 23 minutes is really no mean feat.
Side B, though, never quite seems to match up. All four are instrumentals, starting with Kometenmelodie 1 (“Comet Melody 1”), which is entirely pleasant, but definitely doesn’t have the power of the title track. It mixes into the catchier, distinctly rock-flavoured Kometenmelodie 2, which despite being among Kraftwerk‘s more dated tracks, is probably the best on this half of the LP. There’s even something rather charming about the fact that it was clearly played live (sequencing would probably have been difficult in the early 1970s, but that’s not really the point).
Sandwiched half way through is Mitternacht (“Midnight”), which is haunting and ethereal, sounding like something taken from a horror film soundtrack. My least favourite track is the closing piece Morgenspaziergang (“Morning Walk”), which is appropriately named – the warbling flutes are presumably representing birdsong, while the weird electronics come together to build the melée of sounds that you might hear on a walk in the countryside around Düsseldorf (I’ve no idea if there actually is any, but bear with me). Conceptually, it’s brilliant, and in audio terms it’s far from bad, but perhaps it just feels like a bit of a damp squib after the rest of the album.
Autobahn is, though, quite incredible, particularly when you realise just what a piece of history you’re listening to. True, the hits wouldn’t arrive for another few years, but that’s just another chapter in Kraftwerk‘s story.
This is the Week of Kraftwerk, and you can also read the Beginner’s guide to Kraftwerk here.
Purists may argue this one, but for me the essential version of Autobahn is the 2009 reissue, still widely available.