Retrospective Review: Kraftwerk - Autobahn

Think of all those times you've driven down the motorway. 70mph, cruising along, nothing much to do Barring accidents or roadworks, spending an extended period of time on a motorway can get extremely, almost dangerously dull very quickly. Think of those drives. Have you ever wanted the tedium of those drives converted into music form? No? Well, tough, because that's exactly what Kraftwerk did in 1974.

Before this, Kraftwerk started out as an experimental, avant-garde rock band that emerged as part of Germany's 'Krautrock' movement. However, that is not what they would become known for, as they would soon ditch the instruments in favour of a fully-synthesised sound, which they referred to as 'robot pop'. This transition was (almost) fully embraced on their 1974 record Autobahn.

Like many of our retrospectives of recent weeks, this is a 1970s record with a Side One epic and a simply solid Side Two (see our reviews for Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and Rush's 2112). Though Side Two of this record is very good, it simply isn't the event here, as Side One garners all the attention with a 22-minute long sequence of repetitive sounds that, somehow, is actually quite good.

Unlike the big pieces on those other two albums, this track, despite its length, cannot be categorised as 'epic'. It's not huge; on the contrary, it's rather minimalist, with absolutely no more in it than there needs to be. There are few twists and turns, no sudden jerks, no changes in direction. Like a monotonous motorway drive, it just...continues. It goes on and on, and yet, though it often teeters on the edge of boring, it never quite falls down that cliff. It's enjoyable, impressive and yet confusing all at once.

The lyrics follow a similar pattern. Never ones to get too deep, Kraftwerk's lyrics were always very straightforward, and 'Autobahn' is no exception. When translated into English, the first line literally says "We are driving, driving, driving on the motorway". It literally does not get simpler, but let's not forget that the entire point of this song was to emphasise the simplistic monotony of a endless, straight drive. It's a classic case of simple, yet effective.

Side Two is more traditionally interesting; experimental, changeable, with sound effects that wouldn't sound out of a place on a Hawkwind album, or indeed in Star Trek. Also - SHOCK - there are real instruments! Pianos and violins, among a couple of others, are dotted throughout this side. It's a decent set of tracks, but next to the title track, they just cannot compete. Perhaps they would have stood out more on a different record, but it's tough to say. These tracks are definitely still worth a listen though, especially if your mind has been numbed by the merry go-round of Side One and needs to be kickstarted.

At the time, one unique selling point of the album would be the sound itself. This is 42 minutes of almost fully-synthesised music, something which, in 1974, was beyond rare. Synths would soon blow up and become the most prominent instrument of the 1980s, but that may not have been the case had it not been for Kraftwerk before them. This album was truly groundbreaking; once again, it is the Germans pushing the technical limits (indeed, this album features the use of a vocoder, but not only that - it was a vocoder custom-built for the band).

Is Autobahn Kraftwerk's best record? Probably not; later albums such as The Man Machine and Computer World are brilliant albums and probably surpass them over the course of the 40 or so minutes they last for. However, the title track of this record was and remains something special, and what this album would do for music as a whole is akin to what The Beatles had done before them. By introducing the synth as a major, lead instrument, Kraftwerk paved the way for the following decade's work and beyond. It is underappreciated by the public, unfortunately, but countless artists have talked about how Kraftwerk's music influenced them.

This record isn't for everyone. I tried playing the full version of 'Autobahn' to my girlfriend and she barely lasted three minutes (shame, seeing as she's German). Nevertheless, its experimental nature and the impact it had on music as a whole makes it a record that cannot be ignored. That their home country never really took to them is criminal, as the band deserve to have far more respect placed on their name than that. Next time you're due to take a long trip along the motorway, for a bit of fun, stick this on your playlist and see how it goes. You'll either love it or hate it, but either way, appreciate it. Stuff like this doesn't come out every day, and that's why it's important to recognise when it does.