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Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” is a precision machine

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In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Car Seat Headrest’s new record: songs about cars.

Kraftwerk, “Autobahn” (1974)

“Autobahn” makes up the entire first side of Kraftwerk’s fourth album of the same name. It begins with a car door shutting and an engine revving up before sliding into a lengthy, dreamlike paean to road trips. Most of the nearly wordless 23-minute song maintains a simple, repeated rhythm—the steady thrum of tires on the road—which acts as a framework for the song’s languid synth textures: sounds to evoke rolling down the windows, turning on the radio, even the sun coming out from behind the clouds, or any activity or occurrence that can create variation in the otherwise controlled stasis of sitting behind the wheel. One stretch of the piece is defined by zippy boops and tones simulating the Doppler effect of other cars passing by. There’s even a little beeping horn.


There’s an inherent German quality to making a concept album based on a massive public works project. Even a band like Kraftwerk, pioneering a new and revolutionary form of electronic music, displays a Teutonic deference to order and engineering. It’s easy to imagine the different cultural mentality that existed in postwar Europe, where stability didn’t carry the same suffocating sense of repression as it did for the American counterculture. But while American music was turning over the old notions of love and government, Kraftwerk was crafting precise odes to stability and functionality and pleasant afternoon drives.

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