Life Before Autobahn: Kraftwerk’s Chaotic Debut Turns 50

Ralf and Florian’s first LP has been out of print for decades. That’s a crime.

Kraftwerk 1970 (Art: Ron Hart)

This is the Kraftwerk album Kraftwerk doesn’t want you to know about. 

So, what’s the big secret? Well, for decades the band’s leaders, Florian Schneider (who passed away in April of 2020) and Ralf Hütter, engaged in revisionist history by effectively disavowing their first three albums, refusing to reissue them and positioning 1974’s Autobahn as the first “real” Kraftwerk LP. While it’s true that the forsaken trilogy presents a band in the processing of becoming itself, and is a fair distance from what we’ve come to consider the “classic” Kraftwerk sound, the early records are fully as vital, groundbreaking, and commanding. 

There’s nary a trace of the band’s signature synth-pop style to be found on their debut. In fact, there’s not a synthesizer or drum machine on the entire album, nor any vocals. In 1970, Kraftwerk was a fledgling band, with Hütter and Schneider having only just recently graduated from the kosmische experimentation of Organisation. That band’s only album, Tone Float, is a cult classic of Krautrock’s first wave whose place in posterity has been similarly smudged by its lack of reissue. When they cut their first album as Kraftwerk, Ralf and Florian (along with original drummer Andreas Hohmann and his replacement, Klaus Dinger) were still gonzo experimentalists in their wild and wooly phase, hippie freaks more interested in abstract sonic impressionism than succinct melodic/conceptual statements. 

Kraftwerk at 50 (Art: Ron Hart)

Hütter plays keyboards (but no synths) and guitar, while Schneider mainly contributes flute and violin, but there’s a lot of aural alchemy going on here — sound sources are transformed by electronic processing so it’s frequently hard to identify the origins of what you’re hearing. Further confounding any identification efforts is the fact that one of the instruments itself is an esoteric rarity. In addition to organ, Hütter plays a hoary old item called a Tubon. Manufactured briefly in Sweden in the ‘60s and seldom used elsewhere, it was an electric, monophonic keyboard used for bass lines, sounding like the lower register of a combo organ and worn across the torso like a keytar. 

Everything from the weirdo garage-sale tones of the Tubon to Schneider’s violin and flute becomes a part of the electronic masquerade ball, as now-primitive means of modulation (however state-of-the-art at the time) are applied to turn the whole glorious mess into a single instrument, or more accurately, sound tool. True to the band’s name (which translates to “power plant”) and the front cover’s construction cone artwork, the album offers the experience of being inside a machine as it buzzes, growls, revs up and eases off in its course of operation.

The record’s four tracks alternate between beat-driven and free floating. When Kraftwerk is in the former mode, e.g. most of “Ruckzuck,” we’re treated to the kind of maniacal thrashing that makes The Stooges sound like Steely Dan and offers hints of what Dinger would soon achieve in his equally revolutionary work with Neu. In beatless sections such as “Megaherz,” time and space turn elastic as we’re flung back and forth between ethereal atmospheres and in-your-face musique concrete-cum-industrialism. 

 

VIDEO: Kraftwerk at Rockpalast 1970

The album very literally ends with a bang, as “Vom Himmel Hoch” closes things out with an increasingly frenzied flurry of riffing that finally culminates in a very convincing audio approximation of a massive (quite likely atomic) bomb being dropped. If you’re out to change the world with your music, you might as well blow the damn thing up for a finale. 

Kraftwerk might not have caught the fancy of the wider world until Autobahn, but on the debut album they sought to shove under the rug they had already proven themselves to be at the front of something fiercely original. 

 

AUDIO: Kraftwerk (full album)

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