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The Songs That Saved Your Life – The 70s: Autobahn

The 'Werk, as no-one called themIt wasn’t all ‘put ’em away love’ and dreadful haircuts in the 70s, you know. There was also a massive rise in STD’s. And some sublime music. Vespertine makes his case for Kraftwerk to get the recognition they deserve….


We are driving on the Autobahn
In front of us is a wide valley
The sun is shining with glittering rays
The driving strip is a grey track
White stripes, green edge
We are switching the radio on
We are driving on the Autobahn


The task given to me by ELM was an almost impossible one. “A song that defines the 1970s please” was the request. Where to begin? I decided to look at artists and songs which defined and time and a place, drew from the past and also pointed very much to how the future would look. The band that stood out was Kraftwerk.

As Florian Schnieder said “The Beach Boys are California in the early 1960s and we are Germany in the early 1970s.” The band captured a sense of a changing world….the completion of the German economic miracle; the end of the Vietnam war; the final collapse of the hippy ethos and its attendant era of excess; a world uncertain after the riots and terrorism of the period after 1968.

They were fascinated by machines, motorways, space flight: the future. And yet they also kept an important part of the past; rock’s constant yet almost unattainable need to be cool. They looked like teachers but they were drawing from the same well as The Velvet Underground.

They were taciturn, clever, wore black and utilised modern art and design to best show off their music. They also looked to give music a future by drawing on Stockhausen and ‘Elektronische Musik’ and stripping music down to its basics. They saw as clearly as the later punk movement how irrelevant stadium rock had become. They wanted music to be anonymous, and be about creativity rather than musicianship.

They tried to redefine live shows, recording processes and even composition itself. They perfectly showed man’s dependence on machines but strived to show how we could work with machines and use them to be creative, modern humans and not slaves. They had a huge impact on post-punk in particular – a movement which even more than punk gave birth to ‘alternative music’ as we knew it for decades.

Kraftwerk remained obscure until some years later but worlds collided: their producer Conny Plank later recorded with Bowie and his ‘Berlin trilogy’ brought German music into the living rooms of millions. Those albums fused Krautrock, electronic music, the paranoia of a divided Berlin and Europe, the anxiety of the 1970s and the promise and threat of technology controlling our future, and he took it global. The work of Bowie, Plank, Moroder and others led in time to disco, Studio 51, early rap and electronic music as a mainstream genre. But Bowie had not got there first. Kraftwerk had.

Why ‘Autobahn’? Their early records utilised ‘traditional’ instruments and arrangements and were rock music of a sort. This was a move towards fully electronic music, a new sound and a new attempt to mesh time, place, technology and temperament. And in the fluid, efficient German Transport system, there’s a direct synergy. Kraftwerk, and this song in particular, mattered.




3 Responses

  1. No Kraftwerk-No New Order-No Baggy-No Techno-No modern dance.


  2. excellent article, I agree about Kraftwerk -often underrated but well ahead of their time I reckon!

  3. this was the first electronic music my friends and I listened to…my brother still has the original album 🙂

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