“The joys of motoring are more or less fictional,” wrote Zelda Fitzgerald to Ludlow Fowler, a friend of her husband F. Scott, in 1920. But what an inspiring breadth of fiction they’ve inspired on the page and screen, mostly set along the seemingly endless road-miles of America. But look over to Germany, a land of drivers renowned for their love of and respect for the automobile, and you find a whole other sort of, as it were, driving-driven creativity. Most famously, 34 years after Fitzgerald wrote to Fowler, a young Düsseldorf band by the name of Kraftwerk looked to the joys of motoring and laid down their signature song: “Autobahn.”
Taking up 22 full minutes of the eponymous 1974 album (though less than three and a half as a single), “Autobahn,” which rock critic Robert Christgau described as emanating from “a machine determined to rule all music with a steel hand and some mylar,” uses the kind of electronic composition techniques Kraftwerk would go on to popularize to evoke the feeling of movement on the titular German highway system.
“We used to drive a lot,” percussionist Wolfgang Flür once recalled. “We used to listen to the sound of driving, the wind, passing cars and lorries, the rain, every moment the sounds around you are changing, and the idea was to rebuild those sounds on the synth.”
But as veteran road-trippers know, you aren’t really driving unless the driving hypnotizes you: not only should you spend prolonged stretches of time on the road, you should ideally do it to a rhythmically and temporally suitable sonic backdrop. And so we offer you this live 40-minute version of “Autobahn” which, in the words of Electronic Beats, “demonstrates what a musical force the group was back in the day,” taken from “a show in the German city of Leverkusen that fuses the group’s latter-era techno-futurism with its earlier free-jazz psychedelic freakiness.” To keep the road-robot mood rolling, why not fire up the animated “Autobahn” music video from 1979 we featured last year? But please, don’t watch while you drive — especially if there’s no speed limit.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.