Back in the mid 70s I was kept awake by the sound of the machinery that was thumping and bumping together the bypass that, 40 years later, continues to act as an artery between north and south Ayrshire. Despite my shut windows and curtains, I could hear the rumbles of heavy plant, as loud as it might have been had they been digging up our front garden and, if I lifted my head from the pillow, I could see between the gaps and swirls in the curtains a faint orange glow from half a mile in the distance, on the other side of the River Annick, beyond the field where the helicopter would land in a couple of years time in its vain search for the still-missing Sandy Davidson. They were building something – a new road, my Dad had told me – and it was keeping me awake. The work seemed to last forever and, given the pace of work wherever roadworks and the likes are concerned, it probably did, but I can also remember hearing the distant whoosh of traffic afterwards, when the road was complete and commuters went about their business in a faster and straighter fashion than before. We lived on the outskirts of the town. The sound of speeding traffic was a new thing, but you got used to it fairly quickly.
At the same time, somewhere beyond Ayrshire, far beyond the musical and literal backwaters of the UK, a brave new world was opening up. In West Germany’s Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk was barely 4 years old yet they were pioneering the sort of music that would influence a whole raft of acts in the way The Beatles had a decade previously. Embracing the future with Minimoogs, ARP synths and home-made electronic drums, they set about reconstructing their sound. Their fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, album was the result. A five track LP that featured the 22 minute title track on the entirety of the first side, it was quite unlike anything that had come before it. Listening to it currently, you can hear where Bowie nicked ideas for the second side of Low. You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation. And you can begin to appreciate the unique importance of it.
Autobahn, the title track, is terrific; futuristic and ground-breaking and happy and sad all at once. Opening with the clunk of a closing door, a revving engine and a parping keyboard, its modus operandi is to replicate the monotony of a long car journey on the motorway.
Kraftwerk – Autobahn (single eversion)
Elastic bass vies with vocodered vocal. Fahren, Fahren, Fahren auf der Autobahn, it goes, in a knowing, sarcastic nod to the sun, sun , sun, fun, fun, fun Beach Boys. Drive, drive, drive on the autobahn. There’s nothing fun about driving in a straight line for hours on end though, and Kraftwerk knows it. Propulsive, linear and never-ending, the entire 22 minutes (or 3 and a bit above) is driven purposefully by a pulsing electro bass and the same steam-powered drums that Stephen Morris would go on to replicate to great effect a few short years later on Unknown Pleasures‘ She’s Lost Control. Stop for a moment and consider just how influential Stephen Morris’s band was. Without Kraftwerk, it’s arguable whether Joy Division would’ve sounded quite as they did. No Kraftwerk, no JD, no post-punk discipline as we know it. Autobahn is, then, an important record.
That chiming keyboard motif, melodic yet melancholic, synthesised yet soulful is the tune that quietly worms its way into your head. Driving Kraftwerk forward into a new future where they’d eventually be considered kings, Autobahn endures to this day. Those unexpected airy whooshes – motorcars by Moog – that punctuate the repetitiveness transport me straight back to that bedroom in the mid 70s, the unforgiving sounds of Vauxhall Victors and Ford Cortinas keeping me half awake for hours at a time.
2 thoughts on “Electra Glide In Blue”
Another brilliant piece Craig. Conveys so succinctly what made the ‘Werk so special and original, and what makes Autobahn the glittering gem it is.
However its the richness of the period detail in the writing here that elevates this instalment into the upper echelons of Plain Or Pan-ology imo, the mentions of 1975-era Ford Cortinas and Vauxhall Vectors keeping you awake at night as a kid on the outskirts of the town is so evocative and where the reminiscence of Sandy Davidson is concerned, really poignant. Although Plain Or Pan and my own wee organ (The Keeley Chronicles for anyone who might be wondering) cover very different areas in terms of subject matter, I sense a real kindred spirit (especially in this instalment and the previous one) in the way you’ve woven your own life/past into the piece in a very singular and personal way that could be obscure but is actually very relatable.
This line is worth the admission alone: “You can ‘feel’ the embryonic glow of Joy Division’s glacial isolation”. Beautifully-put, and bang-on. JD are my favourite group but, as original as they were, as you say without the influence of Kraftwerk they simply would not have sounded as they did. Although the Kraftwerk influence was less overt sonically circa A Factory Sample/Unknown Pleasures than it would become by the time of Closer, both bands shared the same thrilling sense of spaciousness and sparse spaced-out-ness throughout, a glacial ‘otherness’ quite unlike any other bands (with the possible exception of Radiohead).
PS Hope you don’t mind me being a pesky pedant and pointing out that there’s a typo in your first mention of Kraftwerk in the piece (one t too many in “Kratftwerk”) x
Aw man – it was all going so well until you pointed out the typo!
Thanks, as always for your considered and lengthy comment.
Comments are closed.