INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut MARCH 2015 - by Stephen Dalton
THE LONG AND UNWINDING ROAD
Forty years ago, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider shifted their band, Kraftwerk, into a significantly higher gear. A sleek anthem to the open road, Autobahn also heralded a new idea of Germany, and a new era of electronic music. With help from Kraftwerkers and associates, Uncut tells the story of a musical revolution, from Tomorrow's World to Disneyworld, and of the "German Beach Boys". "People said: are you doing surfing on the Rhine? Yes, maybe, but we don't have waves."
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 bandmates 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 launchpad 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.
"It's not about cars, it's about the Autobahn," Hütter confirms. "People forget that, but it's very important. It's a road where we were travelling all the time: hundreds of thousands of kilometres from university to art galleries, from club to home. We didn't even have money to stay in hotels so at night we'd be travelling home after playing somewhere."
Since their pre-Kraftwerk incarnation as Organisation in 1968, band co-founders Hütter and Schneider had been restlessly searching for their signature sound in Germany's experimental art-rock underground, recording four freeform albums and working with multiple guest musicians. In 1971, Hütter bought his first primitive drum machine. "We were mostly like the art scene band, always on the same bill as Can," Hütter recalls. "We had jazz drummers, rock drummers, and I had my little drum machine. At one point, in one arts centre, nearly ten years before The Robots, I had this drum machine working, playing with feedback and strobe lights. We left the stage and people were dancing to the machines. We didn't have Kraftwerk, we didn't have robots, we didn't have The Man Machine album, nothing. But the concepts were there."
For most of 1971, while Hütter temporarily left to complete his architecture degree, Kraftwerk became a trio featuring Schneider, guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger. Rother, who would later form Neu! with Dinger, remembers that even this early lineup had a rudimentary electronic agenda. "We had very simple gear," Rother says. "Florian came from the flute, we were at the same school and he was in the classical orchestra, but at that time he was already manipulating sound with gadgets like equalizer, delay and fuzzbox. The results sounded electronic, but it was not anything near computers or synthesisers."
The combustible chemistry between Rother, Dinger and Schneider did not even last until the end of 1971. But the guitarist is thankful to Kraftwerk for introducing him to Konrad "Conny" Plank, the producer and electronic music evangelist who would play a crucial role in the success of Krautrock and synthpop. "We tried to record the second Kraftwerk album with Conny Plank, but there was so much fighting going on," Rother recalls. "Florian had all these tensions, he was quite the opposite of a relaxed person. And Klaus Dinger was also strong-headed, you see it in the way he played drums. He was the most forceful drummer. I looked up during one concert and saw blood flying across the stage. He'd cut his hand but he never stopped playing."
Rother and Dinger had already left to form Neu! when Hütter rejoined Schneider in 1972. Back to their core duo, Kraftwerk began their evolution from hairy cosmic rockers to refined, streamlined, electronic chamber orchestra.
Ralf Hütter already owned a Farfisa keyboard and basic drum machine, but the tipping point came when he bought a Minimoog, then a rare luxury which famously cost him the same as his Volkswagen Beetle. Released in 1973, Kraftwerk's third album, Ralf And Florian, saw only lukewarm sales, but it laid the groundwork for Autobahn with its programmed beats and polished synthetic melodies. Rother calls this style "Wohnzimmer" - living-room music. "We listened to quite a lot of electronic stuff," Hütter recalls. "We were brought up within the kind of classical Beethoven school of music, but we were aware of a contemporary music scene and, of course, a pop and rock scene. But where was our music? Finding our voice, that was the use of the tape recorder. It made us use synthetic voices, artificial personalities, all those robotic ideas."
In 1974, Hütter and Schneider recruited two new members from the Düsseldorf art-rock scene: Klaus Röder on violin and guitar, and Rother's former bandmate Wolfgang Flür on drums. The incompatible Röder left after a few months but Flür was a harmonious fit, his light-touch style complementing the increasingly minimalist, mechanised palette. Soon Hütter was proudly telling reporters, "Our drummers don't sweat."
Flür moved into the apartment on Berger Allee in Düsseldorf owned by Hütter's artist friend Emil Schult, who had briefly played guitar with Kraftwerk before becoming the band's longtime visual advisor and sleeve designer. Flür recalls long discussions about the shape and direction of the band, with "technique and romance" as their new motto.
Over the course of 1974, Kraftwerk cropped their long hippy hair and adopted smart business suits. It was a self-consciously German rebranding, mixing deadpan humour with serious artistic intent. An elegant riposte to Anglo-American pop hegemony, Autobahn was a defiant reclaiming of a rich cultural hinterland that spanned Schubert and Stockhausen, Bach and Beuys. "Ralf had a kind of German idea in mind," Flür recalls. "Germany also needed something like The Beach Boys. Something with self-understanding and immaculate presence, after the ugly wars that our parents had inflicted on the world. Something positive and youthful, that freed us from the stench of the past."
Autobahn is not quite a fully electronic album, though everything Kraftwerk recorded afterwards would be. Featuring vestigial traces of violin, flute, piano and guitar, it was mostly recorded over the summer of 1974 at Conny Plank's newly established farmhouse studio in Wolperath, twenty miles southeast of Cologne. Sometimes Plank would drive his sixteen-track mobile recording truck to Kraftwerk's fabled Kling Klang headquarters on Mintropstrasse in downtown Düsseldorf, parking in the yard outside and running wires from his mixing desk into the building.
Opening with a clunking car door and a churning ignition sound, the full LP version of Autobahn is a serene twenty-two-minute journey of swerves and curves, gentle gradients and blaring horns, tarmac-rumbling rhythms and doppler-shift effects that simulate the sensory whoosh of passing vehicles. Unspooling like a ribbon of road stretching to the horizon, it rolls on a warm rhythmic throb that accelerates and decelerates at different points, with a full breakdown midway through.
Plank and Kraftwerk painstakingly assembled Autobahn from multiple sound sources, primitive samples and field recordings. They made extensive use of Hütter's new Minimoog plus an EMS Synthi, ARP Odyssey and other early synthesisers. To suggest passing vehicles, they used tape-reversed bursts of white noise. The song's harsh, sibilant, sinister-sounding vocal chants came from a Robovox, a programmable speech synthesiser built by Schneider. A thousand harmonising details converged into a marathon artificial road trip. "The white stripes on the road, I noticed them driving home every day from the studio," recalls Hütter. "Then the car sounds, the radio - it's like a loop, a continuum, part of the endless music of Kraftwerk. In Autobahn we put car sounds, horn, basic melodies and tuning motors. Adjusting the suspension and tyre pressure, rolling on the asphalt, that gliding sound - pffft pffft - when the wheels go onto those painted stripes. It's sound poetry."
The simple, spare, circular lyric to Autobahn was composed by Emil Schult in a single day, then tweaked by Hütter. The seven-line nursery rhyme describes the view over a sunlit valley, the colours of the grey road with its green-edged white stripes, and the sound of a car radio which plays the song's refrain back to itself. A droll, selfreferential feedback loop. But of course, the lyric mostly consists of the single childlike chant "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn" ("We drive drive drive on the motorway") repeated over and over. Anglophone listeners were quick to make phonetic connection with the refrains in Fun Fun Fun and Barbara Ann by The Beach Boys. But although Kraftwerk were fans of their car-loving California cousins, Hütter insists Autobahn is not a sly homage.
"In the case of The Beach Boys, Fun Fun Fun is about a T-Bird," Hütter explains. "But ours is about a Volkswagen or Mercedes. The quote is really more ethnic. People said: are you doing surfing on the Rhine? Yes, maybe, but we don't have waves. It's like an artificial joke. But no, it's not a Beach Boys record, it's a Kraftwerk record."
Spanning the entire side of a vinyl album, the full-length version of Autobahn was defined by the limits of recording technology in 1974. The second side features four shorter pieces, all electro-acoustic instrumentals. The two versions of Kometenmelodie ("Comet Medley") were inspired by the Kohoutek comet, which passed close to Earth in 1973. The first is a doomy analog sound painting composed of sinister whooshes and whistles, the latter a joyous gallop of synth-pop fanfares over phased pneumatic percussion that lays the groundwork for Jean-Michel Jarre. Mitternacht ("Midnight") plunges the listener into a clammy subterranean world of dripping water, metallic clanks and distant moans. But the LP ends on a hopeful note with Morgenspaziergang ("Morning Walk"), an ambient pastoral of tumbling flute and rippling piano, bubbling streams and larks ascending. This airy coda also reprises a melodic phrase from the early part of Autobahn, bringing the album full circle.
"All the tracks are like film loops, short films," says Hütter. "Morgenspaziergang is what we wrote when we came out of the studio. We were always working at night, then in the morning, everything seems fresh and our ears are open again. Everything silent."
Besides penning the lyric to Autobahn, Emil Schult also painted the LP cover image of a motorway sweeping up into a glorious mountain vista lit by an explosively vivid sunset. Hütter's grey Volkswagen makes a cameo appearance. Both futuristic and nostalgic, the image blends contemporary Pop Art collage with the heroic landscape tradition of German Romanticism. A former student of artist Joseph Beuys, Schult's idea was to "create something timeless, out of time," like a vintage Bauhaus chair.
But the most iconic Autobahn sleeve image was an in-house addition by Kraftwerk's UK label Phonogram. Based on a blue-and-white motorway logo, this instant design classic became the default sleeve on future reissues. Peter Saville would later claim the cover "advanced my notions of visual communication enormously" and directly inspired his groundbreaking work for Factory Records. The monochrome band photo on the rear of the album, taken by Schneider's then-girlfriend Barbara Niemöller, initially featured Schult alongside Schneider, Hütter and a madly grinning, hippy-bearded Röder. But Schult was later given the unenviable task of superimposing Flür's face onto his own body to mark the percussionist's arrival as a full-time Kraftwerk member. A very Orwellian touch.
Released in Germany on the Phillips label in November 1974, Autobahn was a striking sonic progression for Kraftwerk, distancing them from their hairy Krautrock peers. "I was very impressed by the sound," recalls Rother, "but I would not have wanted to make music like that. There was not enough flesh and blood in it. It was a very conceptual approach to music."
To promote the release, the band began looking to expand their live lineup. Rother was invited to rejoin, but he was too busy with Harmonia and Neu!. Eventually Hütter and Schneider recruited the classically trained Karl Bartos, who was studying at Düsseldorf's Robert Schumann Conservatorium. Moving into Schult's Berger Allee apartment, Bartos and Flür brought a hint of marketable pop-star glamour to Kraftwerk. Both became longterm fixtures in the band, despite being hired hands on a monthly wage. "I would never have accepted a deal like that," Rother insists. "We didn't even get to that point, but I would have just laughed at them. Maybe it's just the old hippy in me, not wanting to accept that you can handle music with other people like a business."
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, interest in Kraftwerk was building. Noting that imported Kraftwerk albums were selling pretty well through Jen Records of New Jersey, the band's US label Vertigo gave Autobahn an official release early in 1975. They also made the bold decision to cut the title track down from twenty-two minutes to three-and-a-half minutes and promote it as a novelty radio single. It climbed to Number 25 on the US Billboard chart and Number 11 in Britain.
Ira Blacker, a tour promoter and manager who had been instrumental in breaking foreign acts like Rod Stewart and Rush in America, spotted a gap in the market for German artists. "I used to hit the import bins in Greenwich Village to get the Euro imports," Blacker says. "I bought Kraftwerk before it ever came out in America, Neu!, Harmonia, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, different things. So I took a trip to Germany, made contact with a bunch of bands."
Blacker signed a deal to represent Kraftwerk in the US, also steering them to a new contract with EMI. On first impressions, he found Hütter and Schneider "personable, upper middle class guys. Bright, intelligent conversation, a lot of joking around. I went to visit them in Düsseldorf and I gave them a 'sieg heil' at the gate... they got the joke."
Blacker booked Kraftwerk for a substantial spring tour of the US and Canada. Initially twenty-two dates, with more added. They drove through blizzards, sunned themselves beside Hollywood pools, played on Broadway, visited Disney World and even got to see The Beach Boys play live. Bootleg recordings and TV clips from this tour capture a band in transition from experimental boffins to left-field pop stars, confounding US rock fans with their electro-mechanical tone poems full of drones, crackles and ambient fuzztones. "It was totally avant-garde," says Blacker. "It was electronic. Not disco... disco hadn't discovered Kraftwerk at that point. But they were well-received wherever they went. I did a lot of announcing for the band, bits and pieces in German. I was onstage in Chicago and a few kids started yelling 'rock and roll!' Ha! They got their ovations... they did well."
"They did not understand," recalls Flür. "However, it was not necessary to understand it, they enjoyed it because it was so new and experimental. During the first US tour, we had problems with equipment. The PAs in the halls were not designed for our massive analog sounds and many speakers burst."
By the time they flew back to Düsseldorf in June 1975, Kraftwerk were international chart stars. Top 10 in Germany, Autobahn rose to Number 5 in the US and Number 4 in Britain. The band's live schedule began to fill up, with Blacker booking a debut UK tour for September. But Hütter recalls a chilly reception at home. "We toured with Autobahn for the first time outside Germany," Hütter says. "A long time in America, then a shorter tour in England. But Germany had to be cancelled as there was no interest. The record was a big success but nobody could imagine it live - is this a studio record? Or electronic?"
Conversely, Flür recalls positive reviews from America and Britain having a knock-on effect at home. "In Germany artists are often not well regarded unless they've scored great achievements abroad," he says. "Our success in the US finally brought good headlines in the German newspapers."
Autobahn also generated unprecedented interest in German music worldwide. Bowie relocated to Berlin, Eno worked with Rother in Harmonia, and Conny Plank became Europe's premier electro-pop producer. Meanwhile, music industry scouts came looking for the next Kraftwerk.
"Suddenly US record companies were coming over trying to sign everybody who could hold a guitar," laughs Rother. "We had several offers. Capitol sent us this huge contract, forty pages or more, and they offered quite a lot of money. In the end we didn't sign. But the impact Autobahn had on me was I started thinking about using voices, and on Harmonia's Deluxe you can hear an echo of that."
The success of Autobahn allowed Kraftwerk to break loose from Plank and take their production in-house, upgrading their Kling Klang base into an autonomous studio. When they began making the LP, Kraftwerk were underground experimental musicians. By late 1975, they were an unlikely chart act. "Strangely, we never felt like pop stars, I cannot explain why," says Flür. "We were natural guys with natural needs, nothing special. It felt at that time like we were real friends. Until 1981, at least. We had reached our Computer World tour and record, the peak. Suddenly there were other interests for most of us."
Autobahn became the first in an unbroken run of brilliant, progressive, highly influential Kraftwerk albums. Four decades on, it still stands as the Big Bang moment that ushered synthesisers, vocoders and sequencers into the mainstream. In 2012, Kraftwerk's twenty-first Century lineup began playing Autobahn in full around the globe, to rapturous sell-out crowds. But even before that, the epic title track was a fixture in every live show. This retro-modernist road trip sounds more vintage than avant-garde now, but it is still a timeless design classic and show-stopping reminder of when Kraftwerk went electric, composing the shiny soundtrack to tomorrow's world.
"THIS WAS THEIR VERY IMPORTANT INFLUENCE ON ME..."
David Bowie on the enduring importance of Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk's most famous cheerleader in the mid-1970s, David Bowie became obsessed with Autobahn during his stint in Los Angeles. A few years ago, Bowie spoke to Uncut about Kraftwerk in this previously unpublished interview. "This was where I felt my work was going," Bowie recalled. "My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk's Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further."
Although Bowie finally met Hütter and Schneider in person when he relocated to Berlin in 1976, collaboration was never on the cards. "We met a few times socially, but that was as far as it went. Kraftwerk's approach to music had in itself little place in my scheme. Theirs was a controlled, robotic, extremely measured series of compositions, almost a parody of minimalism." Conversely, Bowie explains, he favoured "expressionist mood pieces".
All the same, Bowie tried to enlist former Kraftwerk guitarist Michael Rother for the Low album sessions in 1976, but wires got crossed and the message never arrived. That same year, Berlin trilogy collaborator Brian Eno went on to work with Rother in Harmonia. "I took it upon myself to introduce Eno to the Düsseldorf sound with which he was very taken, Conny Plank et al," Bowie said. "Brian eventually made it up there to record with some of them."
In 1977, Kraftwerk gave Bowie a lyrical shout-out on Trans-Europe Express. He returned the favour with "Heroes"' V-2 Schneider, a sly tribute to Florian. Bowie still credits Kraftwerk for "their singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music. This was their very important influence on me."
REMEMBERING CONNY PLANK
A towering figure in Krautrock and electronica, Konrad "Conny" Plank was the hirsute giant who helped define the Kraftwerk sound on their first four LPs. Plank's production work on Autobahn inaugurated his new farmhouse studio near Cologne, but his liking for raw "organic electronics" was out of step with the band's newly regimented, streamlined sound. Autobahn marked his final collaboration with the band. Though widely acknowledged as co-producer of Autobahn, Plank's credit was later relegated to sound engineer. Many insiders believe he was short-changed. "The role of Conny Plank gets too little sunlight," argues Michael Rother. "Conny was starting his own studio and needed cash, so Kraftwerk offered him a deal. He accepted and later they sort of erased him from history." That said, Plank's association with Kraftwerk helped establish his reputation. Soon a stream of famous names began making the pilgrimage to his studio, from Neu! and Ultravox to Devo and the Eurythmics. According to rock folklore, Plank was also offered a lucrative U2 collaboration but subsequently declined. Plank died in 1987, aged forty-seven, but posthumous respect for his pioneering studio work continues to grow.
THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW'S WORLD
How accurate were the other scientific predictions on Kraftwerk's British TV debut of 1975?
THEN: Michael Rodd visits a brewery in Preston where acoustically absorbent fibreglass is being tested as a material to dampen noise levels.
TODAY: Fibreglass is widely used in industry, and is on the Health & Safety Executive's Top 10 list of noise reduction methods.
THEN: Raymond Baxter voices a report about veterinary advice to give pigs hoof pedicures.
TODAY: Pedicures are now a widely accepted part of pig care, to combat disease and crippling with age. Miley Cyrus recently caused internet "outrage" by posting a video of her pet pig pedicure online.
THEN: William Woollard visits a Swiss clinic where cells harvested from sheep foetuses are being injected into Down's Syndrome children, with disputed but allegedly therapeutic results.
TODAY: Cell therapy has been condemned as quack medicine, blamed for dozens of deaths, and banned by the US FDA.
THEN: Derek Cooper introduces a profile of Kraftwerk, claiming the band have plans to turn suit lapels into musical instruments by 1976.
TODAY: Sadly still no sign, but wearable, gesture-controlled instruments are now in development, including "drumpants" sensors that can generate sound from clothing items.
PREDICTION: Half true.