The most important watershed moment in the history of popular music in post-war Germany came in November 1974 when Kraftwerk released its groundbreaking album Autobahn. Although the album was largely met with disinterest in Germany at the time, its title track is today considered to be the most iconic song in German popular music.
While the B-side featured atmospheric instrumentals in a vein similar to the band’s three previous, more experimental, albums — which were the result of the creative direction of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider — the entire A-side of Autobahn was taken up by the stunning title track, which ran to nearly 23 minutes. An edited three-minute version of the track entered the U.S. Billboard charts and also became a top 20 hit in the U.K. in 1975.
Scholars argue that, in a complex way, Autobahn “reflects upon the state of German cultural, artistic, and musical identity” and “explicitly addressed aspects of German identity loaded with references to the Nazi era and beyond.” After all, the German Autobahn symbolized individual mobility and freedom on a motorway system with no (official) speed limit. The Autobahn is further connected with car manufacturing, which formed the backbone of the post-war economy, as well as the quality of German engineering as captured by the marketing slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” [advancement through technology].
On its original cover, Autobahn featured a painting by Emil Schult which is full of references to Germany’s past. As Bussy describes, it “juxtaposes images of the countryside, mountains, an exaggerated sun, green grass, blue sky and floating clouds against the most potent symbol of the industrial era — the car on the motorway.”
As well as projecting this idealistic harmony between nature and technological civilization, the two cars in the painting are also loaded with symbolic meaning: while the black Mercedes, a make of car used by political leaders such as Adolf Hitler and West Germany’s first chancellor Konrad Adenauer, is shown driving towards the viewer, a VW Beetle, like the one Ralf Hütter owned at the time, can be seen driving towards the sunrise on the horizon, symbolizing the hopes of a younger generation for a brighter future beyond the troubled Nazi past.
The song, or rather the musical composition, differed greatly from the previous work of Kraftwerk and their Krautrock contemporaries. It emulated a car journey on the Autobahn and set out to mimic the boredom and monotony of driving through its repetitive rhythm and the recurrent refrain “Wir fahr’n, fahr’n, fahr’n auf der Autobahn” [We drive, drive, drive on the motorway]. This emulation was also enhanced by synthesized tooting horns, the simulated Doppler shift of passing cars and the mise en abyme of “Autobahn” being played on a car radio.
In addition to the cover art, Schult was also responsible for writing the track’s minimalist, rhyming lyrics, which relate directly to his cover image and further enhance the immersive, multi-medial setting of the journey:
Vor uns liegt ein weites Tal / Die Sonne scheint mit Glitzerstrahl / Die Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band / Weiße Streifen, grüner Rand
Ahead of us a valley wide / The sun shines with sparkling light / The lane is a grey concrete strip / White stripes, green ditch
Hütter repeatedly described Kraftwerk’s music as industrielle Volksmusik, a deliberate expression that resonates deeply in German culture. The phrase’s literal translation as “industrial folk music” does not do justice to the ambiguities in the German language. The use of “industrielle” here is not a stylistic reference to the noisy (anti‐)music developed by Throbbing Gristle. Instead, it refers to the highly-industrialized Rhein-Ruhr region in which Hütter and Schneider both grew up. In other words, it refers to a modern civilization based on technology, manufacturing and the use of machines. This further implies an association with the modernist notion that noise can be beautiful and hence typifies a contemporary musical aesthetic.
Likewise, what Hütter calls “Volksmusik” is not the “folk music” British or American audiences might expect. On the contrary, the term refers to Kraftwerk’s modern take on regional musical traditions in Germany and therefore suggests an originality which distinguishes Kraftwerk’s techno pop from the dominant Anglo-American cultural influences which pervaded post-war Germany. Furthermore, the term refers to the democratic nature of popular music, namely in the sense that it is music made both for and by the people. Overall, then, the label industrielle Volksmusik captures the band’s aim to challenge the dominance of Anglo-American rock music, whilst constructing a new, legitimate national identity in the wake of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
Throughout the track, “Autobahn” encapsulates Kraftwerk’s themes by setting out to reflect every-day life in modern West Germany or, more precisely, the Rhein-Ruhr area with its extensive Autobahn network. The music incorporates mechanical noise and was largely, although not entirely, produced using electronic music technology in favor of traditional instrumentation. The song and its German lyrics are deceptively simple, appealing even to children, yet they also constitute the central piece of a complex Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art] because of their connections with the music and cover art. The track updates avant-garde ideas and techniques (e.g. Russolo’s futurism) to create a contemporary, specifically German aesthetic that had a major impact on the development of popular music across the globe.