Next came Autobahn, named after another German invention. In spring 1975, a radio edit of its 22-minute title track became an international hit. Its synthesizers mimicked fast traffic and car horns; its celebration of driving clicked with western audiences. Soon after, Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos joined the band on electronic percussion. Electronic music suddenly had its John, Paul, George and Ringo, although they looked and sounded very different to the rock bands of the time.
It’s hard to appreciate how alien Kraftwerk appeared back then. The first advert for Autobahn in the black-and-white British music magazine the New Musical Express (NME) looks particularly shocking: a bright blue sign from the future, under a feature on country music divorcees. At the time, the song was dismissed as a gimmick by the press — but not by fans who made it a No 11 hit.
Then came the xenophobia. The war was still a recent, scorching cultural memory, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that a Barry Miles live review was headlined “This is what your fathers fought to save you from.” The NME reprinted a feature by US critic Lester Bangs, in which Hutter was asked if Kraftwerk was “the final solution” for music. The image with the piece was even more tasteless: a press shot superimposed on to a Nuremberg rally.
It’s not that Kraftwerk didn’t flirt with sinister ideas. Radio-Activity (1975) began with the sound of a Geiger counter, evoking nuclear dread. But their music also played with double meanings and humor. Ohm Sweet Ohm (say it out loud) took central European pop into the realm of technology, while Radio-Activity’s title track hinted at the utopian possibilities of the wireless. Throughout the melodies and lyrics, there is a touching innocence and simplicity.
Hutter often name checked the Bauhaus movement, and liked its internationalism. The band’s songs started to feature words in different languages; they got inspired by James Brown’s funk, and even punk (years later, Hutter admitted that the start of 1977’s Showroom Dummies — “eins-zwei-drei-vier” — came from The Ramones’ “one-two-three-four”). But a statement of Hutter’s from 1979, pinned to a noticeboard in Chris Petit’s cult film Radio On, reveals how Kraftwerk linked the past and the present. “We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun,” it began, naming the film director who fled the Nazis, and the scientist who made the V-2 bomb and the Apollo mission rocket, Saturn V. “We are the link between the 20s and 80s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality.”
This forward-thinking spirit had already started to infect pop. David Bowie adored Kraftwerk, writing the track V-2 Schneider for his 1977 album Heroes (the band would namecheck him back on Trans-Europe Express). African American DJs also found an odd kinship with the Germans. Keen to find a new musical language, they were familiar with the urban sounds Kraftwerk were using; 1978’s The Robots became particularly influential on the dancefloor, and in the burgeoning B-Boy and breakdancing scenes. Afrika Bambaataa fused the melody of Trans-Europe Express and the rhythm of 1981’s Numbers to create Planet Rock, one of hip-hop’s pioneering tracks. Trailblazing electro group Cybotron used a loop from 1977’s Hall of Mirrors; its founder, Juan Atkins, would create techno, and from there came modern dance culture.