Synth-rock became huge in the 1980s as artists like Gary Numan (“Cars”), Devo (“Whip It”) and Harold Faltermeyer with “Axel F” placed songs in the Billboard Hot 100. And for many of these bands you can trace the sound (or at least the influence) directly to German band Kraftwerk.
“Autobahn” is the first real mechanized synthesized song to hit the American Top 40. And, not surprisingly, it took a German band to break through.
In 1974, Kraftwerk was an instrumental band making inventive electronic music. “Autobahn” was the first Kraftwerk song to feature vocals. And the vocals sound nearly as mechanical and electronic as the music as the singer in his monotone delivery sings: “Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” (or for you non-Deutsch readers, “We drive drive drive on the Autobahn”).
Throw in electronic percussion, Moog bass, vocodor on the vocals and some funky synth sounds and you have a song that sounds like it came from outer space compared to other 1974 hits like Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas and Please Come to Boston by Dave Loggins.
Although the single version of “Autobahn” was only four minutes long, the album version is 22 minutes. To my ears, the single is an exceptional editing job that takes the song from a sometime-tedious riff to its brilliant essence. American listeners agreed because “Autobahn” reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. When you figure that all happened without the benefit of MTV, music videos, YouTube or viral forms of music sharing, the song’s unexpected success is truly remarkable.
Kraftwerk had its one and only hit and “Krautrock,” as the music was dubbed by music journalists, was born. Few one-hit wonders have ever been so odd, yet so oddly compelling and thoroughly influential on the new wave and electronic music that followed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The band also released the exceptional Computer World in 1981. To my ears, that’s the Kraftwerk album you should buy. But for today, let’s simply celebrate the fact that a song as non-commercial as “Autobahn” could become a hit on American radio. It’s strangely compelling road (and head) trip music.
Listen to “Autobahn”
Watch video of Kraftwerk “Autobahn” performance from 1974
Filed under: 1970s · Tags: 1974, 99 Luftbaloons, Autobahn, Computer World, Devo, electronic music, Gary Numan, German one-hit wonder, Harold Faltermeyer, instrumental one hit wonder, Krautrock, Nena, novelty hit, novelty song, strange, strange one hit wonder, synthesizer, Synthpop