|Studio album by|
|Genre||Electronic pop, electro-acoustic|
|Producer||Florian Schneider, Ralf Hütter|
|Singles from Autobahn|
Autobahn is a 1974 studio album by the German music group Kraftwerk. The album was released in November 1974 on Philips Records in Germany. Their fourth album, the music of Autobahn marked several changes in the band: initially, a duo consisting of Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter, the group added Klaus Röder on guitar and flute and Wolfgang Flür on percussion. The musical style of the band also changed from a primarily Krautrock style to an electronic pop style marked by mostly electronic music made on synthesizers and drum machines. The album was initially started at their own studio called Kling Klang but was predominantly made at Conny Plank's studio. The album was also included lyrics and a new look for the group suggested by an associate of Schneider and Hütter, Emil Schult.
Most of the album is taken up by the track "Autobahn", a 22 minute and 30 second long track with lyrics by Schneider, Hütter, and Schult. The song was inspired by the groups joy of driving on the Autobahn highs ways in Germany, and recorded music that reflected a trip emulating the sounds and tones of the trip. The album was released to little press on its initial release in West Germany. After a single for "Autobahn" was released, it received airplay at a Chicago radio station, leading it to spread across the country making it an international hit and Kraftwerk's first release of their music in the United States in 1975. The success of the song led to the band touring the United States with their new member Karl Bartos who would replace Roeder, followed by a tour of the United Kingdom.
Initial reception to Autobahn was mixed, where it received negative reviews from Rolling Stone and Village Voice's critic Robert Christgau who felt the music was inferior to other earlier electronic music from Wendy Carlos and Mike Oldfield respectively. Other critics form newspapers found the track "Autobahn" hypnotic and arresting in how it showcased the imagery of riding on the Autobahn through music. Critics from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Newsday included the album in their "Honorable Mentions" sections for their year-end lists. Later reception has been more unanimously enthusiastic, with Simon Witter writing in the NME that the album was of "enormous historical significance" and by Simon Reynolds declaring that Autobahn is where their music really starts to matter. Musicians who would produce music in the 1970s and 1980s would cite the album as a major influence including David Bowie.
Background and production
Prior to the release of Autobahn, Kraftwerk consisted of Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter who had released their albums titled Ralf and Florian in October 1973. Prior to Autobahn, electronic music did not develop a popular following in the United States with a few exceptions such as Michael Oldfield's Tubular Bells and fellow German band Tangerine Dream. with critic Lynn Van Matre of the Chicago Tribune stating that "far too often was has been offered has been either boring, painfully self-indulgent, or just plain painful." In comparison, Van Matre found "Autobahn" to be "what you might call middle-of-the-road electronics." On comparing the albums sounds to their previous work, Michael Hooker of the Los Angeles Times noted that Ralf and Florian was more 'traditional' compared to that of Autobahn, noting it resemblance to composers like Morton Subotnik and Edgar Froese opposed to the "monotonous pulse" Autobahn. The group began being more conscious of their visual image and under the guidance of their associate Emil Schult, they began re-organizing their look. Schult had studied under Joseph Beuys and consulted the band on their themes and image. This led to Kraftwerk having relatively small and carefully staged promotional images for the rest of their career. In a 1975 interview published in Melody Maker, journalist Karl Dallas noted that Kraftwerk's music and look were "as far as you get from the Gothic romanticism of Tangerine Dream" and that "visually they also present a completely different image" comparing Tangerine Dream's Froese's "untidy red locks" and Peter Baumann and Christopher Franke's "long, lank tresses".
In early 1974, like their German contemporaries, the group purchased a Minimoog synthesizer. Along with the Minimoog, the band also used customized version of the Farfisa Rhythm Unit 10 & Vox Percussion King drum machines on the album. It was recorded at their own home studio titled Kling Klang and at Conny Plank's new studio, a farmhouse outside of cologne he made into a new recording studio. The majority of Autobahn was made on Plank's equipment. Accompanying Schneider and Hutter on the album was Klaus Roeder on violin and guitar and Wolfgang Flür as the percussionist. Roeder was a member of Düsseldorff's music scene, and had built an electronic violin which had intrigued Florian. Flür was an interior design student who had previously drummed for a local Düsseldorf band called The Beathovens. Flür stated he found initial jam sessions with the group as somewhat strange, but soon developed a rapport with bandmates. Conny Plank is only credited as the engineer on the sleeve, he had a key contribution to the sound of the album. Roeder later stated that "Plank played a decisive role. He mixed everything and assembled individual sounds into a whole. That was, I believe the last time that Conny did that. He then told me he did know what Kraftwerk would sound like when he was no longer there."
In the book Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop, Carsten Brocker declared that Autobahn was the album that had Kraftwerk transition from krautrock to electronic pop music. The authors noted that other than the rare occurrence of flute or guitar, the album is essentially all created on a synthesizer or drum machine and that their group's simple melodies and harmonies suggested pop music. Bartos explained the groups change in style, stating that Hütter and Schneider initially came from classical music and they "moved to pop music by adding lyrics as "There is no pop music without lyrics apparently." The change in direction of the music was influenced by Schult, who was not trained as a musician but has an ear for melody and pulled out effective parts of improvised sessions and led Hütter and Schneider to explore simplifying their own musical sessions. There are very few vocals on the album, with critic Van Matre describing "Autobahn" as "simply an impression of the sounds and sensory perceptions of the road".
Hütter repeatedly described Kraftwerk's music as Industrielle Volksmusik (lit. 'industrial folk music'), specifically referencing a modern take on the regional musical traditions in Germany as opposed to the industrial music sound of groups like Throbbing Gristle. In Britain, the music was popularly known as Doctor Who music, referencing Ron Grainer's pioneering electronic soundtracks to the television series. Hütter stated in 1975 that the group got the idea for the concept of the album by driving on the Autobahn, stating it was an "exciting experience that makes you run through a huge variety of feelings. We tried to convey through music what it felt like." Flür later described the track as specifically driving from Düsseldorf to Hamburg explaining that the route included musical pieces such as the route from the industrial sounds of Ruhr valley, the conveyor belts of the mining towns such as Bottrop and Castrop-Rauxel, and the rural Münster which is symbolized by the flute in the song. Other sounds of road travel are heard throughout the song, with Hütter continuing that the group included "car sounds, horns, basic melodies and tuning motors. Adjusting the suspension and tyre pressure, rolling on the asphalt, that gliding sound — phhhwwtphhhwwt — when the wheels go onto those painted stripes. It's sound poetry, and also very dynamic." The lyrics of "Autobahn" were partially written by Schult, who was asked to write some lyrics by Hutter. The song's lyrics are in German. Schneider reflected on this stating that "Part of our music is derived from the feeling of our language [...] our method of speaking is interrupted, hard-edged if you want; a lot of consonants and noises" while Hütter stated that their language was used like a musical instrument and that ""we are not singers in the sense of Rod Stewart, we use our voices as another instrument. Language is just another pattern of rhythm, it is one part of our unified sound." In an interview with Simon Witter in 1991, Hütter stated that there was no expectations for the release of Autobahn, stating "We played it to our friends, and a few of them said 'Fahren auf der Autobahn!? You've gone crazy!'. We just put records out and see what happens, otherwise we'd end up over-calculating this or that."" The other tracks of the album feature four shorter electro-acoustic pieces. "Kometenmelodie" ("Comet Meledy") were inspired by Comet Kohoutek which passed by Earth in 1973. Hütter described "Morgenspaziergang" ("Morning Walk") as being influenced by the group leaving their studio in early morning after late-night sessions according and observing the silence of their surroundings.
Autobahn was released in Germany in November 1974. Autobahn was initially released on Philips Records, the and third and last of their three-album deal with the label. The album was released in the United States in January 1975 and was the first album released in the United States by the group. Autobahn charted for 22 weeks in the United States on Billboard's Top LPs and Tapes and peaked at number 5 on May 3, 1975. The British sleeve for Autobahn released by Phonogram featured a blue-and-white motorway logo opposed to Schult's painted cover. This cover became the default sleeve on later reissues. The albums were digitally remastered for released on CD, LP and cassette in 1985. In 2019, Autobahn, Kraftwerk remastered and released eight of their albums as part of a compilation called The Catalogue.
A radio station in Chicago was the first to play the "Autobahn" single which they had received as an import. This led to Jem Records in New Jersey importing a large amount of quantities of the studio album, leading to Capitol Records to release both the single and the album in the United States. The single for "Autobahn" became an international hit song in early 1975. When "Autobahn" was played on Top 40 radio, it was only a small portion of the album track. The single version of "Autobahn" is only three and a half minutes. Hutter stated cutting down the album's full-length song was simple as "Autobahn was "loosely constructed, so making a short version was easy because you don't have to worry so much about boundaries and continuity." Following the popularity of Autobahn in the United States, Vertigo Records released their previous album, Ralf and Florian (1973). A second single, "Kometenmelodie 2" was released by Philips.
Kraftwerk had a short tour in Germany at the end of 1974, where the group remained a foursome by retaining member Wolfgang Flür, but hiring Karl Bartos, who would replace Roeder in the group. Bartos was a 22-year old music student at Robert Schumann Conservatorium in Düsseldorf, hoping to become a percussionist with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. Bartos had previously played percussion at various concerts in Germany, with works by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel. Kraftwerk toured the United States for three months, starting in April 1975. The tour in the United States was followed by a seventeen date tour of the United Kingdom in September. Bartos noted poor ticket sales for the British shows, recalling that the group played in mostly empty halls in Newcastle, London, Bournemouth, Bath, Cardiff, Birmingham, and Liverpool.
During the tour, the material consisted mostly of music from Autobahn with some of their earlier material. The group had difficulties with their initial road crew, leading them to be fired and replaced during the American tour. Issues also arose with the group's equipment, with synthesizers having to be turned on in the afternoon to be tuned for the evening, and lighting from rigs would be strong enough to put the instruments out of tune. Further issues happened with the voltage differences between countries on the tour.
|The Village Voice||C+|
On its initial release in Germany, Kraftwerk biographer Uwe Schütte said the album was generally ignored by the mainstream German music press. The group invited members of the German rock press to drive with them, with "Autobahn" playing from the speakers in the car. Schult recalled the general response from these journalists was an emphatic "So what!" The only major publication that covered the album was in the November 1974 issue of German magazine Sounds. In the magazine, reviewer Hans-Joachim Krüger commented that the album was "varied, and above all entertaining jaunt which particularly impresses listeners wearing headphones." In a review of a later Kraftwerk album, a reviewer credited as "N.N." commented on Autobahn stating that "something like that doesn't even deserve to be released." Flür reflected on their reception originally, stating, "In Germany, artists are often not well regarded unless they’ve scored great achievements abroad" and "Our success in the US finally brought good headlines in the German newspapers."
Some English-language responses to the album were described as xenophobic in 2013 by Jude Rogers of The Observer. Rogers cited examples such as Barry Miles' live review of the band that was titled "This is what your fathers fought to save you from" and an interview between Hutter and Lester Bangs, where Bangs asked if Kraftwerk were "the final solution" for music. When the NME printed Bangs' interview, a press shot of the group was superimposed on to a Nuremberg rally. Among contemporary reviews, John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone gave the album a negative review, finding it not as good as Walter Carlos who "hasn't been in the Top Ten in months and months." Village Voice critic Robert Christgau gave the album a C+ rating, comparing it to the "Tubular Bells" creator Mike Oldfield, but "for unmitigated simpletons, sort of, and yet in my mitigated way I don't entirely disapprove." Bill Provick of the Ottawa Citizen was initially hesitant about the group stating that on first finding the album he mocked it, but upon listening to Autobahn and Ralf and Florian, he declared his initial reaction was "a bad mistake, a grave injustice and a sad example of the rock snobbery I always bemoan in others". Provick found the album "works on two levels – as pleasing background atmosphere" and "upon closer listening as lovely escape route for the mind" finding that "Kraftwerk opting for calm competence rather than spectacular gimmickry - a nice change in the world of electronic music." Gary Deane of The Leader-Post felt that Autobahn was Kraftwerk's "most ambitious and coherent [album] to date" with the tracks "Autobahn" being repetitive due to its running time but that "the effect is deliberate and the periodic familiarly of the Autobahn's scenery keeps the work together as a whole. It's really quite fascinating and offers a new dimension to most our musical lives." Van Matre found "Autobahn" as "an impression of the sounds and sensory perceptions of the road, at times nerve-wracking, at times as repetitious as the center dividing strip, but chiefly hypnotic." and declared "Autobahn" to be "bay far the finest and most accessible thing on the album" and noted that the remaining tracks on the album "more experimental, less catchy – but it makes the whole thing worthwhile." Some critics such as Gerry Baker of Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Wayne Robins of Newsday included the album in their Honorable Mentions on his best albums of the year list in 1975.
|Drowned in Sound||9/10|
|The Irish Times|||
|The New Rolling Stone Album Guide|||
|Spin Alternative Record Guide||9/10|
From retrospective reviews, Simon Witter wrote in the NME in 1985 that the album was not as strong as the four subsequent albums that would follow, but that it had "enormous historical significance" declaring that "In the glam era of glitter and guitars, Kraftwerk were four besuited squares playing keyboards" while the group was "Mentally and sonically decades ahead of their contemporaries" noting the unique rhythms, textures and melodies of the group. Simon Reynolds wrote in the Spin Alternative Record Guide (1995) that "Esoterics will claim they prefer the first three albums: they're excellent, but truthfully Autobahn is when Kraftwerk's muzak-of-the-sphere starts to matter". Reynolds spoke about "Autobahn" "sounds like a pastoral symphony, even as it hymns the exhilaration of cruising down the freeway".
David Cavanagh gave the 2009 remaster of the album a 5-star rating in Uncut proclaiming the main attraction to be "Autobahn" noting the tracks as being "freckled with warmth: sunny vocal harmonies (“…mit Glitzerstrahl”), a carefree flute solo (Schneider) and clever modulations (denoting gear-changes) to break the tension.", but declaring the remasters of albums a fiasco, and worse than the compact discs released by EMI previously. Mat Snow wrote in Mojo that the album was a "pop landmark" and a blueprint for their entire enterprise". Tom Ewing of Pitchfork commented positively on the album in their review of The Catalogue, noting that tracks on the album were a good showcase for Kraftwerk's "gift for simple, wistful melodies" but felt the themes explored on the album were done better on Trans-Europe Express. Other later album reviews were given generally positive reviews with no specific details on the album itself such as a four-star rating from The Irish Times and a three-and-a-half star rating in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Christgau would also upgrade his initial ranking of C+ to the album to a B-.
Kraftwerk would later sign with EMI to establish the Kling Klang company within. This worldwide licensing deal would have them with Electrola for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, EMI in the United Kingdom, Capitol in the United States and Pathe-Marconi in France. The group followed-up Autobahn with Radio-Activity released in 1975. Kraftwerk did not repeat the high sales of Autobahn on any subsequent album in the 1970s, but were among the most commercially successful groups in their style, specifically selling well throughout Europe. Hutter and Schneider would later dismiss Kraftwerk's earlier music, with Hutter stating that Autobahn was "really the first" and Schneider asserting the earlier music was "history, archaeology". Autobahn was the last release in which Conny Plank would work with Kraftwerk. At the same home studio he had worked on Autobahn, Plank would later work with groups and artists such as Killing Joke, Brian Eno, The Eurythmics and Devo as well as German groups such as Neu!, DAF, and Clannad.
In his review of Sequencer (1976) by Synergy, critic Michael Hooker noted the increasing interest in synthesizer composition since the release of Autobahn. Other artists began noting Autobahn as an influence, such as David Bowie, who found himself interested in European works with the release of Autobahn, noting "the preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further." Michael Rother stated that Autobahn has an impact on his band Harmonia, which led to him starting to think about adding voices on tracks and that "on Harmonia’s Deluxe you can hear an echo of that." Producer Arthur Baker first stated that he first heard Kraftwerk with "Autobahn" when working at record store in high school. Baker would later use the melody of the groups songs for "Planet Rock" for Afrika Bambaataa.
Patrick Codenys of the band Front 242 discussed the album, stating that in the early 1970s most "creative groups, were virtuosos like King Crimson and Yes whose music was based around sophisticated jam sessions. When I bought Autobahn I had the feeling that it was changing. For the first time, it was music that was impossible to touch - not being made up with the usual components of rock." Codenys felt that the music was done by only one person which helped encourage him to make music on his own. On discussing the future of popular music, British music critic Simon Frith stated that disco heralded the future of music, and specifically pointed out "Autobahn" as being the bridge between five minutes of unchanging rhythms of AM Radio and the 24-hour concerts by avant-garde musicians like Terry Riley.
All tracks are written by Ralf Hütter & Florian Schneider.
Credits adapted from the original album label.
- Ralf Hütter – vocals, electronics, music, concept, production
- Florian Schneider – vocals, electronics, music, concept, production
- Klaus Röder – violin, guitar
- Wolfgang Flür – percussion
- Konrad Plank – engineer
- Emil Schult – Cover painting
- Barbara Niemoller – photography
The 1985 re-release added:
- Klaus Röder – electric violin on "Mitternacht"
The 2009 remaster contained further changes and additions:
- Ralf Hütter – voice, electronics, synthesizer, organ, piano, guitar, electronic drums, artwork reconstruction.
- Florian Schneider – voice, vocoder, electronics, synthesizer, flute, electronic drums
- Wolfgang Flür – electronic drums on "Kometenmelodie 1–2"
- Klaus Röder – electric violin on "Mitternacht"
- Johann Zambryski – artwork reconstruction
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