It was 1974. Glam rock was in its pomp and punk was about to dawn. Yet something far more influential was happening, far from Britain and the US, inside the Kling Klang studio laboratory in Dusseldorf. Four technophiles were busily experimenting with electronic instruments, learning the hypnotic appeal of repetitive beats and programmed drum rhythms. Kraftwerk, formed in 1970, decided to mostly ditch guitars and traditional instruments and hone a new sound unlike anything heard before. The resulting five-track album, Autobahn, would change the face of music forever. From it would flow everything from new romanticism to trip hop, techno to hip hop.
Kraftwerk, which means power station in German, emerged from the experimental German music scene of the late 1960s. The group was formed by friends Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider and went on to include a revolving cast of other members. By the time of Autobahn, their fourth release but the first to garner international attention, they'd been joined by Klaus Roder on guitar and electric violin and Wolfgang Flur, an electronic percussionist. Sound engineer Konrad Plank was also a major contributor to the sound of the album. But only Hutter remains in the quartet playing the AsiaWorld-Arena on Friday.
Autobahn featured just five tracks. The 22-minute title song occupied one side of the 12-inch vinyl release. It begins with the sound of footsteps and a car door slamming shut, then electronic beats kick in and take the listener on a metaphorical journey along Germany's efficient but monotonous motorways. Methodical but melodic, Krafterwerk's sound lodged in the brain like a dum-dum-bullet. It was the original electronic trance music, with the lyrics 'wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der autobahn' offering a lesson in cool, calculated pop hooks. A three-minute cut of the title track reached No25 on the Billboard charts, No11 in Britain and higher still in Europe.
The album was based around a Minimoog and Schneider's custom-built percussion pads, setting the standard for their future work. Although the sound was dominated by snynthesiser sounds, electronic drumbeats and vocoder vocals, Kraftwerk also fused guitars, violins and flutes. It was poles apart from the progressive 'kraut-rock' by many other Teutonic bands in the early 70s. The four tracks on the B side are minimalist, ambient soundscapes that bear the hallmarks of co-writers Hutter and Schneider. Collectors with a copy of the original German release have a coveted gem. The sleeve features a painting by the pair's friend Emil Schult. The album for foreign release featured a cover produced by record label Vertigo.
Echoes of Autobahn can be heard in countless other important releases over the ensuing decades, from the post-punk electronica of Joy Division and New Order to French luminaries Daft Punk and Justice. Kraftwerk would have more commercial success, but nothing ever matched the inventive genius of Autobahn.