In this article, I will write about a group that many people may have heard about, yet will have never have heard any of their music. That band is Krafwerk and the album is Autobahn. Kraftwerk and their music are often misunderstood. Often this is because people have not taken the time to find out about them and their music. Hopefully, by the time you have read this article you will know more about Kraftwerk and their album Autobahn.
Kraftwerk were formed in 1970, by Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, until Schneider left the band in 2008. Many people struggle to describe Kraftwerk’s music. They are an electronic band, and their sound features strong and prominent repetitive, rhythms and melodies that are gloriously catchy. Their sound has a western style of melody, that is augmented by an array of electronic instruments, producing a minimalist sound. Lyrics are sung through electronic instruments like vocoders, and now speech recognition software. Kraftwerk were innovative, they were pioneers, being one of the first groups to see the potential in the use of electronic instruments and computers in music.
Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider met whilst studying at the Robert Schmann Academy in Dusseldorf in the late 1960s. Both were part of the German experimental art and music seen that was thriving during that time. The Bristish musical press always wanting to categorize music, came up with the name Krautrock for this type of music. This has stuck, and forty years later this term is still in use. During this period, Hutter and Schneider were both part of a group, the Organisation. The Organisation released one album Tone Float, on RCA Records. However, after the album was released the group split up. That was to be a new beginning for Hutter and Schneider, and the start of Kraftwerk.
During the period 1970-1974, the members of Kraftwerk chopped and changed. Around seven different musicians played on the first the albums, and during the group’s live performances. The only members who remained were Hutter and Schneider. In 1970 Kraftwerk released a self-titled album Kraftwerk. In 1972, the follow up Kraftwerk 2, its follow up was released. Their third album Ralf und Florian came out in 1973. The sound on these albums, is different to what became the trademark Kraftwerk sound. On the first three albums, the sound was a type offree-form and experimental rock music. This did not feature the discipline and hooks that is found in their later work. The first two albums, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 feature traditional musical instruments, with effects used to change and distort the sound, in the production stage. On these albums, the music was like a free-form jam , with the musicians exploring what their instruments can do.
However, by their third album, Ralf und Florian, the group are beginning to move towards the sound that would bring them commercial success. On Ralf und Florian, Kraftwerk start to feature drum machines and synthesisers. This album is almost entirely, an instrumental album, although vocoders are used sparingly on the album. This is something that Krafwerk would become synonymous with.
One man who was to have a huge influence on Kratwerk, and their sound was Konrad “Conny” Plank, a producer and engineer. he had previously worked with some of Germany’s finest and best known electronic groups, including Neu!, Can and Cluster. He was responsible for shaping the Kraftwerk sound, and teaching Hutter and Schneider about production techniques. The first for albums were co-produced by Plank and Kraftwerk, at his studio near Cologne.
Kraftwerk’s fourth album was Autobahn, which was released in 1974. Autobahn saw Kraftwerk move away from the sound of the first three albums. The group had decided to invest in some of the newer technology that was available at this time. One of the things Kraftwerk invested in, was a Minimoog. This allowed the group to develop a much more innovative and disciplined sound on Autobahn. Konrad “Conny” Plank was brought in to engineer this album, and the resulting success of Autobahn, allowed the group to invest in newer technology for their studio.
Because of the success of the album, Phonogram their US label, financed a mini-tour of the album. On this tour of the USA, Canada and the UK, Kraftwerk played as a quartet. This was the beginning of a much more stable line-up for Kraftwerk. Both Hutter and Schneider played keyboards during the tour, using synthesisers to do this. The Mimimoog was joined by the APR Odyssey on the tour. For the first time in their history, the vocals were sung by both Hutter and Schneider, during a live performance. Another instrument that was to play an important part in the Kraftwerk story, also made an appearance on the tour. The vocoder was used by Scneider, and the two new members, Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, contributed to the sound, by using electronic instruments that they had made themselves. Bartos also, on this tour, was to use a Deagan Vibraphone during the performances. An instrument Kraftwerk had previously relied heavily upon, the flute, began to play less of a part in their music.
Autobahn is an album that tells a story. The easiest way to review the album is to tell the story of the music on the album. Autobahn, the title track is meant to capture the feeling one has when on a long journey in a car, traveling through the countryside and urban vistas. On the journey, one must imagine that you are driving a car in the fast lane of the motorway. To pass the time, and relieve the boredom one will experience, whilst driving, the track has the sound and feel of even the driver re-tuning the radio.
This journey is based on driving on the A555 between Koln and Bonn, the first ever Autobahn built, between 1929-1932. Listen carefully to this track, and you will hear various instruments that were new and innovative at this time. Featured on this track, and the rest of the album, are the Minimog, electronic drums, vocoder, the ARP Odyssey and the EMS Synthi AKS. These instruments, and ones that they built themselves, all go towards making this track.
The track begins with a car engine being turned on, and a car horn being sounded. Thereafter, the track takes you on an atmospheric and hypnotic journey. This is something that anyone who has ever driven a long and monotonous journey on a motorway. Autobahn, the track, draws you in, you find yourself listening carefully, pondering what will happen next. When I first listened to this album, I found myself entranced, trying to anticipate what would happen next, much like you do when driving down a busy motorway. Like all of Krafwerk’s music, this track has, on it, some glorious and catchy hooks.
The rest of the tracks feature a theme. Kometenmelodie 1 (Comet Melody 1) and Kometenmelodie 2 (Comet Melody 2), the second and third tracks on Autobahn, have a two part structure. At the start of the track, there is the introduction, then comes the main track. These tracks have a theme, and are based upon the theme of the night.
Kometenmelodie 1 has a moody and atmospheric start, the track begins quietly and has a minimalist feel to it. The track wanders, with various instruments coming into, and leaving the track. This is what one would hear on a long car journey on the motorway, a multitude of varying sounds entering and exiting your personal space. During the track the tempo and sound increases, as the speed of a car would increase and surrounding noise would increase, for example, moving from the countryside to an urban area.
Kometenmelodie 2 has a different sound to Kometenmelodie 1. The sound on this track is louder and the tempo quicker. Here it really does feel as if you are in a car in the fast lane of the Autobahn, the track makes you feel and think that. Kraftwerk have been creative in the sounds used to make this track. They have succeeded in coming up with a track that, to me, sounds like a good musical representation of what it feels and sounds like to drive a car, at speed, along the fast lane of the motorway, during the night. This to me, is the best track on the album.
Throughout both Kometenmelodie 1 and Kometenmelodie 2, the tracks have the feel of the night, and are a good musical representation of the night. Krafwerk have used their various instruments well, to do this. This was not an easy thing to do back in 1974. Kraftwerk did not have the technology that is available to musicians and producers today.
The fourth track Mitternacht (Midnight), many people have said has an ominous sound and feel to it. I agree with that. There is a darkness to this track, a really brooding sound. That does not mean this is a bad track. Quite the opposite, this is a track that challenges you, makes you focus, think about what the track is about. To me, this is a track that only Kraftwerk could have produced, only they would have had the imagination and inventiveness to make such a track.
The final track Morgenspaziergang (Morning Stroll), begins with the sound of the dawn chorus birdsong. Kraftwerk used electronics to recreate this sound. At the end of the track this sound is used again, this time for longer, with the phrase Autobahn heard at the start of the album, repeated time and again, in differing ways. he track plods along, sounds spray out, and there is almost a sinister sound to the start of the track. After the introduction, the track starts to build, and you hear what sounds like birds singing, a flute plays gently and what sounds like water running. This has the effect of holding your attention and is a good way to finish the album.
After Autobahn, Kraftwerk went on to release a number of albums. The Kraftwer albums I would recommend to someone who has not heard their music before, are the albums they released from 1974-1978. These are Autobahn, in 1974, Radio-Activity released in 1975, in Trans-Europe Express released in 1977 and The Man-Machine released in 1978. These are my personal favorites. However, Kraftwerk released albums throughout the next three decades. They have never been a prolific band, and there is sometimes huge gaps between their releases. For example, they released The Mix in 1991, and then nothing until Tour de France Soundtracks in 2003. Throughout a career spanning nearly five decades, Kraftwerk have only released twelve albums. That backs up my earlier statement that they are not a prolific band. However, what they are, are a band who have released some fine albums, which has gone on to influence generations of new musicians. One can ask, would electronic and dance music have developed in the way it has, without Kraftwerk? Personally, I think not, as techno producers often quote Kraftwerk as a huge influence. It is not only electronic and dance musicians that have been influenced by Kraftwerk. Many other musicians say that Kraftwerk had a huge influence on their musical development.
If you have never heard either Kraftwerk’s music or Autobahn, I urge you to consider buying this album. Autobahn is one of Kraftwerk’s finest albums. There may only be five tracks on the album, but they are five tracks that demonstrate how Kraftwerk were musical pioneers, leading the way, for future generations of musicians. If you are someone who is a fan of electronic or dance music, and have never heard this album, it is almost part of your musical education to listen to it. This will demonstrate to you, that what many electronic and dance music artists have been doing, is nothing new, this type of music has been around for a long time. Should you wish to explore Kraftwerk’s music further, I would recommend another three of their albums, Radio-Activity, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine. Standout Tracks: Autobahn, Kometenmelodie and Morgenspaziergang.