Songs of 74: Autobahn / Kraftwerk

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that were released in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music.

I happen to be in Germany at present, ahead of the RadioDays Europe conference for 2024. It felt appropriate to share Kraftwerk’s truly seminal 1974 album and song Autobahn while here.

For something so ahead of its time, and lengthy, it was remarkably commercially successful, albeit a shortened version. The album track runs at nearly 23 minutes. I can hear radio colleagues who have been around a while thinking “bathroom break song”. The single edit was cut down to 3:28, and an even shorter 3:06 in the UK.

It would make the top 30 in Australia and No 9 in Kraftwerk’s home of Germany, but it was the biggest hit of all, getting to No 4, in New Zealand.

The song is designed to recreate the sensation of driving down a highway, or in this instance the then famously not speed limited Autobahn.

Kraftwerk had already released three albums before Autobahn, in a genre that became known as krautrock, a broad umbrella fusion of rock, improvisation and experimental early electronic sounds. In 1973 Kraftwerk decided to try becoming fully electronic with more of a pop flavour with guitarist Klaus Roder leaving the band after Autobahn as they had not further need for such conventional instruments.

Co-composer Ralf Hütter described Autobahn as a ‘sound painting’. It had a Minimoog playing the bass line, flute played by band mate and fellow composer Florian Schneider and an pioneering analogue vocoder processed some of the vocals and the vehicular beat.

While Kraftwerk would later record vocals for their albums in English, this had German lyrics with the line, “fahren fahren fahren” frequently being misheard as a nod to The Beachboys’ ‘Fun Fun Fun’, which is also about the joy of driving, until Daddy takes the T-bird away that is.

Fahren means drive in German, with Wolfgang Flür from the band saying of the mondegreen:

“That is wrong. But it works. Driving is fun. We had no speed limit on the autobahn, we could race through the highways, through the Alps, so yes, fahren fahren fahren, fun fun fun.

But it wasn’t anything to do with the Beach Boys!

We used to drive a lot, we used to listen to the sound of driving, the wind, passing cars and lorries, the rain, every moment the sounds around you are changing, and the idea was to rebuild those sounds on the synth.”

This band from Düsseldorf are now considered one of the most influential of all time to the later genres of synth pop, electronic dance music (EDM), house, disco and even hip-hop. In 2021 they were the first German band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the album into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. Kraftwerk still tour and came to Australia and NZ at the end of 2023.

By Jen Seyderhelm – Radioinfo Writer, Editor and Music Trivia Buff.

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