Music is one of those mediums, like most mediums, where trends are set by big, bold, watershed moments. Bohemian Rhapsody was never thought to be a hit when it was released. Michael Jackson became the King of Pop, based simply on his music and personal appeal. Today, we’re looking at another one of those watershed groups. Kraftwerk.
I write this post in the aftermath of founding member, Florian Schneider’s, death at the age of 73. With Ralf Hutter, the band started as an avant-garde group, who primarily used tape modulation and effects to give their music weird, and unique sounds. That basically sums up their first 3 albums. Their 4th album, however, was something else…
Autobahn was released in 1974, and was a surprise international hit for the group, and defined a sound that was appropriated, developed, and is still in use today. With Herr Schneider’s passing, it is only fair we talk about this album.
Track One- Autobahn
Firstly, Kraftwerk was not the first band to use synthesisers in music. The first use of them, more as a set-piece, was in the early ’60s. Where Kraftwerk was different were that they aimed to use the synthesiser as the primary point of their music. They built a whole musical genre by using synthesisers as conventional instruments, rather than little experiment boxes. Synthesisers in 1974 were not sophisticated enough to go solo, however. The first four Kraftwerk albums had non-synthesiser instruments. Guitars, flutes, etc. Autobahn is no exception.
Listen to this in stereo to hear the recorded sounds of cars drive past your ears. This is a must. In my mind, starting off with that vocoded harmony declaring that this is ‘AUTOBAHN’, you know you’re getting something special. The way the music builds up to full volume, progressively getting louder, and building up, it is something amazing to behold.
The music is primarily synth-based on this 23-minute long behemoth of a track. And, for a song that is so influential, there really isn’t a lot of substance to it. Its a song about driving on the motorways of Germany. That is literally all this song is about. There’s nothing to break down. This is a song about someone in their car driving on a motorway. There doesn’t need to be any substance. This is a mood piece, and it is all style.
The point isn’t that this is a deep song, it’s just a bunch of progressively changing soundscapes, designed to test out the latest and greatest instruments available. It is just a hardware demonstration of drum machines, Vocoders, Moogs, and a cacophony of recording styles. It also helped that the song was damn catchy. ‘Fahr’n’ does sound like ‘Fun’, after all. And the tone of the song is very cheerful and optimistic.
Smart Alecs, who like to listen to music like one would treat a fine wine or painting, would break this down as ‘a confident statement of German identity post-WW2’, and while that isn’t an unfair analysis, I don’t primarily see that. Instead, this is just a piece of music about driving on the motorway. And it is beautiful. I love this song.
There are other songs on this album. Side B of the vinyl has a loose theme of being based around duality and night time and largely continues using the sound that Autobahn did like the main track. Kometenmelodie 1 (the name becomes clear soon) is a slower, calmer piece, with atmospheric drum beats, and a dreary synth bassline. It’s like you’re watching the clouds float past your head. It is a really calming piece of music (all the post ‘Autobahn’ songs are instrumental).
Kometenmelodie 1 segues into Kometenmelodie 2, and uses the same main melody that the former introduces. 2 has a faster tempo, and uses a mixture of major and minor keys (while Kometenmelodie 1 is all major key throughout). It is probably my favourite song from the album, besides Autobahn, as it does really capture the feeling of watching comets fly past in the sky, with a cosmic overtone that has made me well up in the past. This is a really good piece of music, and I always get a smile when I listen to it.
Mitternacht is an eerie, all minor cord piece, with harsh base, and alien sounds that sound barren and unappealing. Which is why it works in conveying what it feels like to be outside in the middle of the night. Drowned in sound calls it ‘an ominous collection of dank drips, doomy chords and keening oscillator tones’ in a review of the song that just about sums it up really.
We end our journey through the night with the morning. This last work, a sprawling oasis of flute (played by Florian Schneider) with ornate keyboard tones, pulled from a Koto or some other Japanese instrument. What I love about these pieces is how you can interpret them. I hear bird sounds, televisions turning on, morning showers, kettles boiling, when I listen. This is another relaxing, mellow piece of music, and a good album closer for Autobahn.
Autobahn is a defining album of musical history and in the history of Germany. Firstly, it set Kraftwerk up as the premier foreign musical import of choice for people who liked challenging, foreign music. It gave German music an avenue to become something of its own creation. Post-WW2 music in Germany, played by GI’s and occupying forces, was the order of the day. Autobahn changed this for the better. It gave Germany a cultural identity, which they have retained.
Part of this is thanks to Kraftwerk, and the work of Florian Schneider. They built their own equipment and studio, in order to create advanced, ahead of their time music. To tour, they had to make portable versions of their equipment to even bring it to the stage. All before laptops made it easier. When Schneider left in 2008, it was a loss for the band. Schneider being seemingly a silent driving force for the band’s music. It is my belief that Schneider is 50% responsible for some of the music we listen to today: rap, hip hop, synthpop, chiptune, all of that comes from somewhere, and I personally believe that it comes from Kraftwerk, and via Florian Schneider.