Despite its slamming car doors, engine noises and evocative doppler shifts, Autobahn wasn't a route map of the future, it was a snapshot of contemporary life, more comparable to The Beach Boys' Fun Fun Fun than to any r'n'b driving anthem. The two young Dusseldorf music students at the heart of Kraftwerk, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, were fascinated by how Beach Boys songs, crammed with references to woodies, perfect waves and beach bunnies, conjured instant mental pictures of West Coast teen society. "In a hundred years from now," pointed out Hutter, "when people want to know what California was like in the 60s, they only have to listen to a single by the Beach Boys."
Autobahn was Kraftwerk's first attempt to do the same thing for their homeland, but Hutter’s perception of 70’s Germany was radically different from Brian Wilson’s vision of California a decade earlier. “Walk in the street and you have a concert - cars playing symphonies,” pointed out Hutter. “Even engines are tuned, they play free harmonics. Music is always there - you just have to learn to recognise it.”
Starting in 1970, Kraftwerk's early recordings had been ambient instrumental noodlings, similar to those of such German contemporaries as Tangerine Dream or Ash Ra Tempel, but with Autobahn, they turned a corner, and created a template for the cutting edge pop and rock of the rest of the century. “What we are doing,” suggested Florian Schneider, “is making sound-pictures of real environments, what we call tone-films."
The group worked out of its own whimsically named studio, Kling Klang, described by Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flur as "a big room in an old factory building with brick walls. There were some big home-made speakers, amplifiers and so on. Florian had his side, with his flutes and one of the very first Arp Odyssey synthesizers, while Ralf's side had Hammond and Farfisa organs and a Mini-Moog synthesizer."
By 1974, the group was sufficiently well-established to be touring regularly and, as Florian Schneider recalls, "We were on tour and it happened that we just came off the Autobahn after a long ride and, when we came in to play, we had this speed in our music. Our hearts were still beating fast, so the whole rhythm became very fast."
During the early part of that summer, various Autobahn journeys were undertaken with a portable tape recorder whose microphone dangled from the window of Hutter's Volkswagen to capture the sounds of passing traffic. The band's artist friend Emil Schult was soon roped in. "We just came up with this concept, 'Let's do a song like driving on the autobahn', he explains. "Ralf specifically asked me to write some lyrics, and it took me one day. Ralf went over them and corrected them a little bit, and it was singable, so it became a song."
The idea of creating an actual song was revolutionary for ambient pioneers like Kraftwerk who had previously been terrified of singing. It was this vocal element, combined with the rhythmic precision provided by their newly-acquired custom-built 16 step analogue sequencer, that transformed Autobahn from a fun idea into a musical quantum leap.
Released in November 1974, the 22 minute album track was subsequently edited down to make a single which, in May of 1975, reached 11 in the UK. “The preponderance of electronic instruments on Autobahn,” remembers David Bowie, “convinced me that this was an area to investigate.”
Ultimately though, it wasn't just Kraftwerk's oeuvre that pivotted around the change from ambient noodling to electro-mechanical rock, but it took several years before their influence made itself evident in the work of artists as diverse as Afrika Baambaata, David Bowie, Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark, Suicide, New Order, Orbital, the Chemical Brothers and Michael Jackson. After Autobahn, it was just a matter of time before nothing would ever be the same again.