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Date: 16/11/09

Thirty-Five Years On The Road

This month marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of the record which probably changed my life more than any other:

Picture of the UK sleeve of 'Autobahn' by Kraftwerk

(Yes, them again. I know, it looks like an obsession. But read on (dot, dot, dot)).

I'd been interested in electronic music before, having heard (and had bought for me) Hot Butter's rendition of Gershon Kingsley's Popcorn, and noted the early work of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte with Chicory Tip. Not forgetting, of course, the output of the BBC's famed Radiophonic Workshop; not just Dr Who, but its contribution to many another television and radio programme.

I may have been set in the right direction by two other sonic presences in my life. In the house I was born and brought up in, my bedroom window faced out in the direction of the steelworks, and so I was particularly used to hearing the hissing and clanking coming from there at all hours (even in the winter, when the window was - theoretically - closed, but was in such a poor state that it was as airtight as a lace doily). It was, in a strange way, comforting to hear it, and not just because it meant work for my father.

There was another element, slightly less easy to deal with. On Saturday afternoons, I would go to the football with Dad, and we'd often walk through the middle of the electricity substation at Pinfold (you could walk through the middle of it in those days, rather than go around the outside as you have to do now). Because the substation was stepping down from the grid voltage to something more usable, it contained a number of transformers. These gave off a rather disturbing humming which, quite frankly, gave me the willies.

So I had some sort of a background for what followed. I suspect I first heard the single of Autobahn on the radio, as there were no other available outlets for music at all in the late spring of 1975. As soon as I heard it, and having already developed an embarrassing penchant for 'novelty records' (all of which I still have, and have cringed through lately whilst digitising my vinyl), I knew I had to have it. My birthday was coming up so it went straight onto my presents list, along with The History Of The Bonzos, to which I'd been introduced by Roddy Williams.

When I got the single I marvelled at the sounds, and not just the traffic effects panning across from right to left and back again (stereo was still quite a novelty itself to me at that time). It had an immediately sing-along-able hook (even though it was in German).

My father, being the musical one in the house, wasn't entirely impressed, but I do have a clear memory of him borrowing the record one evening to put on his trusty old Grundig stereogram (of which more here). Unfortunately, he put on the B-side, the six-minute, slow, ambient Kometenmelodie I. To his credit (he was in his mid-sixties by this time) he sat through it all (albeit with a puzzled expression on his face) and, when the autochanger (remember those, kids?) clicked off, said, "I was waiting for it to start!"

But who were the people behind this strange delight? The label told me that the tracks were written by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, but I had no more idea about who they might be than I had of flying to Germany with a pair of wax wings. The label also told me, however, that the single was a 'highlight' from an LP. That sealed it; that was one LP that I just had to get my hands on.

Finances being what they were, however, that meant a wait of over six months until Christmas. Finally the day dawned, and I got my hands on the album. I delighted at first in the effective simplicity of the sleeve itself: the UK release had a unique design (see the picture above); other 'territories' ended up with an Emil Schult painting on the front and a montaged photograph on the back. OK in their way, but never as iconic to my mind as that roadsign (which was on both sides).

I dashed upstairs to put it on my record player. There was the next moment of pleasure; not the record itself, but the label! I'd never seen that famous Roger Dean 'spaceship' label before; it seemed entirely in keeping with what I was about to hear:

Picture of the label of 'Autobahn' by Kraftwerk

A note to the unknowing: the single of Autobahn was just over three minutes long (the US single - a different edit - was about thirty seconds longer). The LP version was over twenty-two minutes in length. So it was that I settled down to listen.

I was not in any way disappointed. I was bowled over (or perhaps 'run over' would be a more fitting description), especially by the second section which followed the first vocal part. The "BUM-di-dum, di-DUM-di-dum" bass line was something in itself, but with beautifully melodic flute and guitar lines over it (this was just before Kraftwerk abandoned 'traditional' instruments altogether) it rose up above the asphalt and soared above the landscape much like the spaceships on the label. In short, I was entranced.

It corrected an important false impression as well. Those who didn't know better (and one or two who should have) would dismiss electronic music at that time by claiming that it was cold, inhuman, sterile. I might have agreed with them until I heard Florian Schneider's flute wafting over the motorway of synth bass and Ralf Hütter's understated but highly effective guitar work. No, this was most emphatically not soul-less. It lived and breathed. The ambience is certainly stark, but in the sense of being clearly outlined, like a sunny day in winter; all is sharp and clear.

I sat there, and knew that my musical tastes were never going to be the same again. It was music I had been waiting for all of my short life.

Turning the LP over (yes my little ones, you had to do this to play the other side - and you only got twenty-odd minutes to a side as well if you were lucky; or unlucky if it was Emerson Lake And Palmer), I was reunited with Kometenmelodie I from the single, but now it had a jaunty companion in Kometenmelodie II, a faster, brighter version of the same theme. This was followed by two atmosphere pieces which (although I didn't know it at the time) were more typical of Kraftwerk's earlier output; the dark and dank Mitternacht (the five-note motif of which now turns up - slightly incongruously to me - at the end of live performances of Showroom Dummies); and the cheerfully pastoral Morgenspaziergang, with its electronic birdsong blending with Schneider's flute and gentle piano melody.

I missed out on Kraftwerk's next couple of albums, as my adolescent experimentation took me slightly elsewhere, but I have the DJ Mark Radcliffe to thank for my picking up on them again. In 1981, he presented a weekly programme on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester called Transmission, which went out early on a Saturday evening. I just happened to be listening one summer afternoon when he interviewed Kraftwerk, who were over doing some gigs. He played Neon Lights from the Man Machine album, which had come out all of three years before, but which I hadn't heard. Straightaway, I knew that I had to have it, and blew about £5 of my dole money on it at Cob Records in High Street, Wrexham the next week. Once again I was hooked, as Man Machine is, as a concept, a more complete entity than Autobahn. And so I found myself back on the road, where I've been more or less ever since, especially once I got enough money to buy the whole back catalogue. I'm on my third vinyl copy of Autobahn by now.

Almost as if to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of that crucial step forward, Kraftwerk have now released re-mastered versions of their last eight albums, beginning with Autobahn. They're available individually or as an eight-disc box set. I wonder if you can guess which version I've bought, boys and girls? Yes, I have; I'm waiting for it to be delivered any day now.

I won't get rid of my vinyl, though. For one thing, there's a different feel to the sound on vinyl as opposed to CDs; and for another, the vinyl copies are an integral part of the trail that has been My Life In Music, and trashing them would be the grossest of betrayals to these signs which have pointed me down this road.

Actually, I'm going to be frightfully naughty. If you click on the record label above, you'll hear that very same second section of Autobahn which captivated me when I was thirteen. It's from my vinyl digitalisation project (hence a few clicks and crackles which I haven't been able to get out without compromising the sound in other ways). Enjoy!

Update (17/11/09): It's here! Here I am with my copy of The Catalogue:

Photo of me holding my copy of Kraftwerk's 'The Catalogue' box set

All I can say so far is that if the sound quality equals the quality of the packaging, I'm in for a real treat!