The story of a musical revolution by the "German Beach Boys"
On September 25, 1975, Kraftwerk made their first appearance on British TV. They were featured in an edition of Tomorrow’s World, sandwiched between reports on the acoustic properties of glass fibre material and pedicures for pigs. This piece of TV history still looks utterly bizarre and vaguely sinister. Neatly dressed in sober suits and ties, the group’s Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider faced each other across a compact stage, playing cumbersome analog synths and singing monotonous German lyrics about the joys of road travel. Between them, their band mates Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos tapped electronic knitting needles on homemade foil-wrapped percussion pads seemingly salvaged from an early Apollo mission. “This is ‘Autobahn’,” proclaimed presenter Derek Cooper in gloriously patrician BBC tones. “Based, say the group, on the rhythm of trucks, cars and passing bridges heard while driving through Germany.”
Zooming in on a madly grinning Schneider, the clip signed off with a promise of further technological innovations to come from the band’s “laboratory” in Düsseldorf. “Next year, Kraftwerk hope to eliminate the keyboards altogether,” Cooper concluded, “and build jackets with electronic lapels that can be played by touch.”
Forty years later, we are still waiting for those musical lapels to materialise. But minor technical hitches aside, “Autobahn” still sounds like a road map for the musical future. Kraftwerk’s debut chart hit was not the first pop song to use electronic instruments, but it was the first to put synthesisers front and central in a tune composed almost entirely of artificial sounds. Critically, the song – and its parent album – almost single-handedly transformed post-war Germany from kitsch musical backwater to high-tech launch pad for pop’s electronic new wave.
“Autobahn was about finding our artistic situation,” recalls Ralf Hütter, Kraftwerk’s sole remaining founder member. “Where are we? What is the sound of the German Bundesrepublik? Because at this time bands were having English names, and not using the German language.”
Born from Düsseldorf’s art scene, Autobahn also had a strong visual impact, with a sleeve that became an influential design classic. On Tomorrow’s World, the band’s short post-hippy hair and self-consciously formal dress made them look like funky accountants. But just a few years later, this aggressively normal look was adopted as the default uniform by post-punk bands with arty aspirations.
“We offered self-confidence,” explains former Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flür. “We wanted to show our German appearance with short-cropped hair, ironed suits and ties, not to imitate English pop or American rock. We knew our appearance was ironic, flirtatious, provocative.”
A sly subversion of Anglo-American rock tradition, “Autobahn” was a romantic hymn to the functional elegance of Germany’s motorway system. The banal, sublime beauty of modern transport infrastructure.