Saturday 17 April 2021


If you were to read ’Future Days: Krautrock and the Rebuilding of Modern Germany’ (as we just were), you’d find David Stubbs is scrupulous in dealing with his subject. So much so, he’ll magnanimously dole out page counts to each significant band, sometimes over-riding his own taste. And at times this shows. 

The problem is of course not different preferences. He’s welcome to his claim the earlier Moog-based Popol Vuh outclassed the later years, even if I think the opposite. The problem is when he gets to those later albums, and is inevitably less interesting when he is less interested.

But the half-full side of this is when he gets to the stuff he does like. I am one of those too much of a Krautrock fan to really rate Kraftwerk, and inevitably prefer the three albums before ‘Autobahn’. (The ones the band themselves would seem to want erased from history.) Whereas he runs through them only looking for early glimmerings of future highways, wondering aloud when they’ll get their hair cut. It’s like listening to ‘A Hard Days Night’, but only for portents of ‘Sergeant Pepper’. You miss what’s there looking for what isn’t.

At its worst it’s like the guy in the next seat who loudly grumbles about the music you’d like to just listen to. Yet when he (finally) reaches ’Autobahn’ he writes one of the best pieces on it I’ve read, worth the wait and quite possibly worth the price of admission itself.

If you want a more traditional version of a road number, Bruce Springsteen’s ’Born To Run’ was released the same year. With overblown trying-too-hard lyrics (“at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines”), and an insistence road travel can be made into some sort of hero’s journey, the combination of cliche and self-importance is tiresome to take.

Whereas Kraftwerk don’t drive to celebrate their freedom or escape conformity. They start up the car and just go for a drive, to see the view as it stretches away from you, to hear the swish of the vehicles passing the other way. An experience millions of West Germans must have had every day. The transcendent doesn’t need adding to the banal, its already to be found there.

Better than Springsteen, look to the contemporary Berlin school to see electronic music being used to become metaphysical, to transcend human scale. ’Autobahn’, conversely, is wilfully literal. “As figurative and indisputable,” Stubbs points out, “as Emil Schult’s eerily bright deceptively banal and depthless cover artwork”. Which includes the dashboard of a car in the lower section, making clear what we see is a driver’s eye view.

Flip it and there’s the band in the back seats, as if a reverse image. In a splendid anecdote, he tells of how the press launch got journalists to ride the autobahn listening to… yeah, you guessed. It’s like music was thrown in reverse gear, and it was no longer the epic but the quotidian which needed capturing.

The straightforward lyrics, once translated, sometimes seem to be reciting what’s on that cover art more than conveying any actual journey. (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn/ Road surface is a grey band/ White stripes, green border”.) Stubbs correctly sees this straighforwardness as an artistic statement in itself, as something to champion. Smart people are not afraid to do simple things.

But they did pick up on and run with an underlying feature of road songs - the song is about the road. Roads aren’t there to take you somewhere, the road itself is the escape, motion is not means but end. Stubbs calls it “a lengthly journey that takes you no place but deeper into Germany itself”. Ironically it’s an American term, “interstate”, which best conveys this liminal state.

There’s a naive primary-coloured celebration of immediate things. And it seems similar to the joy of a child endlessly pushing a toy truck back and forth across the carpet, immersed yet straight-faced. As if the world was some giant child’s toy, built from bricks. But the accelerator-pedal exuberance of a three-minute road song is measured, spread across the twenty-two minutes. ’Autobahn’ doesn’t race, it glides. Even Neu!, the other great travelling band of Krautrock, have their moments of touching the accelerator. Kraftwerk are all cruise control. (An edited version became a hit single. But it’s really the equivalent of a trailer for a film.) If Krautrock had a penchant for combining the euphoric with the robotic, ’Autobahn’ is almost the definitive expression.

What could have inspired this? We’re used to reading histories of British music about kids growing up with bomb sites for playgrounds. Yet of course Germany’s war damage was far greater, in some estimates covering four-fifths of infrastructure. And then, in a bizarre twist, their post-war recovery was much faster than ours. And two seemingly contradictory descriptions of West Germany thereby recur in Stubbs’ book. One in which it’s a literal and cultural ruin, the ravaged residue of a diseased ideology. And another where it’s a consumerist Mecca, all shining and new. Both these things shouldn’t be true at the same time. In fact, they probably are.

Stubbs quotes Faust’s Jean-Herve Peron: “There was indeed a vacuum in Germany - not only a physical vacuum, with all these areas being bombed, all these anti-spaces - there was also an intellectual and emotional emptiness which had to be filled.” The end of everything that had gone before, that was already underway. The Germany outside Kraftwerk’s studio could be seen as a canvas scraped back to blank, to be rebuilt according to your liking. The panning of the synth lines suggests the open spaces spied from the car windscreen, but also the broad crenellation-free facades of modern architecture.

It’s a much-commented irony that Krautrock bands, though so concerned with creating a new German identity for themselves, had to get out of Germany to get noticed. This was normally Britain and France. But Stubbs point out Kraftwerk first got followers in America - the home of the road song suddenly took to imports! Perhaps partly because they had convinced the New World that post-war Germany was itself a new world.

Look again at that cover. Kraftwerk were openly indebted to the Bauhaus, but perhaps owed more to Pop Art. Jonathan Richman had sung, on his road song, “I’m in love with the modern world”. But he’s a romantic adventurer encountering the modern world and drawing inspiration from it, the way his predecessors might have from the great American wilderness. Kraftwerk’s vocodered vocals make them sound like a product of the modern world. Though Stubbs compares it to Hockney it reminds me more of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of Gas Stations. (See ‘Standard Station’, 1966, below.)

In an old post on Pop Art I quoted Eric M Stryker: “Two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Both the windscreen and the movie screen were… communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself.”

And while we’re on Pop Art, there’s another comparison…

The first Kraftwerk song I heard was ‘Pocket Calculator’, on the radio in 1981. At the time I found it annoying, largely because my young mind couldn’t figure it. Were these references to consumer electronics intended as celebration or parody? The band have offered contradictory responses to that over the years, but have mostly had the wisdom to stay schtum. And it’s very much in the spirit of Pop Art to raise such questions while refusing to answer them. Indeed, if the artists themselves knew the answer, they could probably stop asking and just retire.

Again Stubbs is on this: “Kraftwerk were new reduced to pure function. Total memory wipe, blood replaced with oil… However, there remained a sheen to them, a strangely romantic auratic resonance that amounted to way above the sum of their electronic parts.”

But the most Pop Art and the most prevailing feature of Kraftwerk would be their personal image. A decade earlier the Beatles had been celebrated for casting off those smart suits, a sign they were no longer fitting in with the poptastic world of showbiz but instead embracing self-expression. With Kraftwerk’s anonymised corporate look, it was like the suits had cast off the artists and gone solo.

To the point where they should probably be considered either a piece of conceptual art (where Kraftwerk existed only as a hook on which to hang the idea of Kraftwerk) or a Pop Art phenomenon, an image printed in order to be disseminated as widely as possible. Not for two albums after Autobahn was this new look first sported on the front cover of their own album, and it was the album after that, ‘The Man-Machine’ (1978), where they nailed it. It’s hard to recall the time where long-haired bands provided a shocking image. Now, just as people had got used to them, Kraftwerk’s short back and sides sit well above their shirt collars.

Despite all its baggage (and Stubbs confesses he avoided using it when approaching all his interviewees) Krautrock stuck as a term partly because it took head-on the question of the German stereotype. And who is ‘the German’? What comes to the British mind? A sober-minded engineer who drives his well-made car safely down well-maintained roads, arriving at work precisely on time. Is he going to rock out? Try and get him to throw a TV out a hotel window and he’d probably worry about voiding the extended warranty.

Can and Faust responded to that with indignant glee: “You think we can’t rock? Hold our schnapps!”

Kraftwerk’s reply was “danke fur die idee”.

Their deliberate playing into the German stereotype is more the stance you’d expect from a comedian. And indeed deadpan humour is a much overlooked aspect of Kraftwerk, somehow still overlooked after they titled a track ’Ohm Sweet Ohm’. And as ever deadpan jokes are all the funnier when someone else isn’t getting them.

I don’t think Kraftwerk really knew what to do after ’Autobahn’. A driving song that went nowhere didn’t really lend itself to follow-ups. It was a great change in direction, but at the same time the last of something. True it hadn’t yet gone fully electric, so is sometimes presented as a job incomplete. Yet some of us find that combination of flute and electronics appealing! (See also, early Tangerine Dream.)

Stubbs finds a good comparison in Marcel Duchamp, whose biggest art statement was his decision to give up art. Yet the point he chooses for their “logical creative terminus” is the one the band chose themselves, which is years too late. Ideally the ‘Man Machine’ cover would have been somehow associated with ’Autobahn’, after which they could have gone into splendid quietude. Their subsequent career has been less less Duchamp and more music’s George Lucas, tinkering and re-tinkering with your earlier work as technology hands you more toys. The original moment of insight gone, all you have left is your redoubled adherence to the things it used to inhabit.

And let’s remember what happened to Krautrock in general. Just as in America it was incubated in a counter-culture which was slowly but surely diminishing. Faust’s last album, in their first incarnation, ‘Faust IV’, was in 1973. As was Agitation Free. Harmonia’s last, ’Deluxe’, was ’75. And Manuel Gottsching’s ‘Invention for the Electric Guitar’, considered by some the last Ash Ra Tempel album, was the same year. Brainticket, if we’re counting them, closed with ‘Celestial Ocean’ in ’74.

But then bands don’t always have the wherewithal to break up when they should. Can carried on after ‘Soon Over Babaluma’ (yep, 1974), but returns diminished. Tangerine Dream made over a hundred albums after ’Atem’ (you guessed it, 1974) but really shouldn’t have bothered.

Exceptions admittedly apply. Cluster lasted to 1979 with ’Grosse Wasser.’ But the great exception, the band who most broke free of the Krautrock scene, were not Kraftwerk but Popol Vuh. In perfect time with Kraftwerk going uber-Modernist, they became the last great cry of German Romanticism, with tracks titles such as ’They Danced, they Laughed, As of Old.’ Yet I digress. Let’s get back to the point. Which is - ’Autobahn’ came out in 1974.

That’s often thing about music, the importance of the music gets over-rated. It’s often simply a means to create cultural icons. In different versions of the Fall song ‘Mere Pseud Mag Ed’ the no-hope protagonist would swap between vainly copying Kraftwerk and the Ramones. Two bands which will immediately create an image in most people’s minds, even those who’ve never heard them. And the Kraftwerk look now seems the more established, their anti-image one of the greatest images.

And, weirdly given its specifically German origins, it was widely taken up. Post-punks often affected its stiff and straight-laced look, as part of their ‘anti-rockist’ opposition to punk’s “mean-it-man” theatrics. David Byrne’s ‘twitch rock’ stage persona is impossible to imagine without Kraftwerk. Public Image’s first album rejected ransom letter text to sport a magazine-in-business-class look. For an early NME interview the Mekons wouldn’t permit a publicity photo of themselves, only of a puppet sporting a guitar, as “we don’t want to push ourselves as INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITIES”. And there lies the true lineage of Kraftwerk, not with posers pressing synthesisers to launch their pop career.

Those icons appear to us as commodified signs, record sleeves or posters to purchase. Visually Kraftwerk have pushed in that direction, re-releasing their albums with literal signs for covers. (‘Autobahn’, inevitably, being a road sign.) Yet they’re not always reducible to those signs. Bands were often about an aesthetic which, once hit on, they’d devote their lives to with near-monastic devotion. Just to make music in that spirit wasn’t enough, everything - down to your daily life - should be in thrall to it. Had Kraftwerk stopped sooner would they still be as ubiquitous and influential? The question’s foolish and misguided. They’d be more so. No-one actually makes biros or hoovers any more, but they don’t have to - they became something bigger.


  1. Dammit, Gavin, you're fascinating even when writing about music that I despise. I can see I'm going to have to actually listen to it now -- the whole wretched 23 minutes of it.

    1. It's honestly great and shouldn't be judged by the standards of later Kraftwerk!

  2. I did listen to it — every second. All I can say is that it's not my thing. But I appreciate your enthusiasm for it. (If that sounds patronizing, it's truly not meant to — I always enjoy enthusiasm.)