Thursday, June 2, 2011

June 2: Kraftwerk, "Autobahn"

Artist: Kraftwerk
Song: "Autobahn"
Album: Autobahn
Year: 1974

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (will open in new tab)

Though they are one of the most rare occurrences in music history, there are a handful of moments that are so unexpected and so significant that they truly defy description.  It is this group of recordings or events that define much of the music that follows, and yet even with the high level of importance, a few of these moments have been somewhat forgotten with the passage of time.  Furthermore, there are often aspects within these occurrences that make them even more inexplicable, and this was exactly the case at the end of 1974.  This was the period in which electronic music would begin to take shape, and there was no group more important to this development than Kraftwerk.  Though the group had already released a handful of extremely experimental sounding albums, it would be the forth record from Kraftwerk that would truly change the entire world of music, and to this day, few albums can even remotely compare to the musical mastery found within the five songs.  The name Autobahn alone still carries with it a massive amount of musical weight, and from techno to ambient to synth-pop, the roots of nearly every electronic-based genre can be found within this record.  While they would go on to more pop-centric songs later in their career, it is the twenty-two minute masterpiece which shares its name with the album that proves the true genius that can be found within the music of Kraftwerk.

While the overall length of the song is intimidating and significant enough, it is the fact that even with such a run-time, the song never "feels" overly long that shows just what amazing musical craftsmen lived within the duo of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider.  It was these two who were responsible for nearly the entire song, and perhaps moreso than any other track in history, "Autobahn" is one which must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood.  The way in which Kraftwerk are able to transition the sounds of a car and traveling into a captivating musical arrangement is like nothing else in history, and there has never been another recording that can boast a similar sense of movement.  It is the way that the Moog organ dances across the track, creating a fantastic pairing with the synthesizers that is so entrancing.  The melody set into place early on "Autobahn" is one which proves to have a great deal of complexity within, and the group does a brilliant job of exploring every nuance of the song.  Yet it is the fact that Kraftwerk were able to seamlessly blend in so many sound effects that sets "Autobahn" further apart from its peers, and it is the way in which the car horns, windshield wipers, and other sounds play perfectly within the arrangement that enables the song to become more than the sum of its parts.  It is also this diversity in sound that helps the twenty-plus run-time to seem shorter, while it simultaneously re-wrote the "rule book" for pop music.

Yet "Autobahn" also marked a massive change for the music of Kraftwerk, as it is their first song to feature purposeful and complete vocals.  This proves to be the clinching factor in the songs' overall appeal, as it makes the overall mood feel far more complete, as well as adding another level of depth.  The way in which Hütter and Schneider manipulate their voices through various modulators furthers the "sci-fi" feel to their music, and yet somehow it retains a pop appeal.  "Autobahn" also set the blueprint for the groups' later vocal work, as they blend both more natural sounding vocals, as well as some which sound completely computer generated.  The way in which the vocal sections are placed throughout the track also help with the overall sense of movement, and even for those who do not speak German, the intent and mood of the vocals are not lost.  The main refrain finds the pair repeating the phrase, "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn," which roughly translates into "We drive drive drive on the Autobahn."  The direct and simple nature of these words prove to be nothing short of perfect, as there is a rhythm within the lyrics that work brilliantly with the sounds over which they are sung.  There is also a unique harmony within the vocals on "Autobahn," and it is this aspect that enabled the song to find a completely unexpected popularity across the globe.

Though it makes very little sense, "Autobahn" cracked into the top thirty on both sides of the Atlantic, and this was odd due to the fact that it bore no resemblance whatsoever to anything else being created within the world of music at the time.  The fact that the group pushed the boundaries of music even further by adding in flutes and guitars at points on the song makes it almost impossible to imagine how such an "extreme" song could have found such success.  However, it was not the album version that brought the group notoriety, as "Autobahn" was edited down to a staggering four-minute length (with another edited to a minute shorter than that) for release on radio.  While this condensed version certainly brings with it a sense of traveling that is similar to the album take, the full experience is far beyond words, while the "radio edit" was perhaps "too friendly" in comparison.  Yet when one steps back and inspects the album-release of "Autobahn," it makes little sense that the song caught on at all, as it is as non-traditional as one could imagine.  The looping arrangement becomes almost hypnotic at certain points, and in an era when extended jam sections and wild progressions were "in style," such repetition was almost unheard of.  However, one can argue that it was the fact that the song did catch on that cements the legendary status of Kraftwerk, and quite literally every form of electronic music can find its roots within their groundbreaking 1974 song, "Autobahn."

No comments: