Kraftwerk were formed in 1970 by Florian Schneider and Ralph Hütter, two students at the Robert Schumann University in Düsseldorf. Both were interested in the experimental music scene that was developing in Germany through the late ’60’s and early ’70’s (jokingly referred to by the Melody Maker as Krautrock, and the name stuck). Although Kraftwerk are best known for their purely electronic music Schneider played flute and violin and Hütter piano. A careful look through the credits for this album reveals Organ, Piano, Guitar and Flute appearing, so not fully electronic yet.
“Autobahn” has Kraftwerk honing their sound and moving closer to the fully electronic quartet we came to know but in 1970 they weren’t quite the ice cool robotic cats they are now known to be. Take a look at the picture of the band on the back of the sleeve, there’s long, lank hair and…beards, it could be a bunch of hippies on their way to a Grateful Dead gig! Bizarrely I’ve just looked at that picture on my copy (a 2019 Blue vinyl re-issue) and then compared it to the original German issue (don’t ask why it’s just the sort of thing I like to do) and, whichever band member is sitting far right (***) has had his head replaced…weird.
The music however is a lot more familiar. Synthesizers throb and pulse and blip and blop throughout, interspersed with flute’s and other occasional acoustic instruments. The few lyrics there are, are not exactly passing on earth changing truths “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn” translates as “We drive, drive, drive on the highway”. It is the reach for a purely electronic music that is important about “Autobahn”. The full length version of the title song (almost 23 minutes and covering all of side one) is hypnotically masterful. That was somehow edited down to 3 and a half minutes for a single release which started to pick up airplay in the US which led to a worldwide hit (#11 in the UK in 1974) and a US tour bringing them to an audience they could only dream about a year or so prior.
The rest of the album is instrumental ranging from the almost ambient to the more uptempo, electronic classical music, not yet having the pulsing, robotic style they would develop once Schneider and Hütter were joined in their best known line up by Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos, whence they fully embraced electronic instrumentation. Just to prove that music journalists are often stupefyingly wrong, “respected” US critic Robert Christgau felt the music of “Autobahn” was inferior to other electronic music of the time by Wendy Carlos (“Switched-On Bach” anyone ?) and Mike Oldfield !!! Kraftwerk were picked up on by the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno giving them the reflected cool of such artists and becoming one of the most influential groups in modern music.
(***)The picture of the band on the re-issue is the original picture, as it should be, and the chap on the far right is Emil Schult who appeared in the picture but did not actually play on the album. On the original German sleeve the head of newest member of the band, Wolfgang Flür, was superimposed on Shult’s body…mystery solved.