Kraftwerk Diary Day One: Electronic Pioneers Play 1974's 'Autobahn'

Rolling Stone chronicles the German band's eight-night stand at the Museum of Modern Art

April 11, 2012 12:15 PM ET
Kraftwerk Retrospective
Kraftwerk perform during the Kraftwerk Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8, Autobahn (1974) at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Though it was opening night, the first evening of the Museum of Modern Art’s much anticipated "Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8" (henceforth to be referred to as "Kraftweek") actually honored the electronic pioneers’ fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, the record that really made the German group’s international reputation. Thanks to an online snafu back in February (it’s more fun to compute? – yeah, right), tickets for the performances were difficult to snag. Those 450 volks, er, folks lucky enough to make it through the MoMA doors were greeted by a set of lifesize Kraftwerk robots twirling inside display cases in the lobby, where each patron was given their own pair of cardboard 3D-glasses in an Autobahn sleeve.

Up in the second floor’s atrium, a scrim was raised at the appointed hour to reveal the quartet – led by 65-year-old co-founder Ralf Hütter, providing all the vocoderfied vocals – squeezed like bratwurst into matching Tron-style spandex body-suits. They launched the night with their de facto theme song, "The Robots" (basically a cybernetic version of "hey, hey we’re the Monkees"), before playing Autobahn in sequence. The heart of the record is the titular opening track, a 22-minute-long synthesizer symphony that evokes the sensations of a pleasant highway drive through the Ruhr countryside, welding a bouncy Beach Boys harmony to the hypnotic 4/4  "motorik" beat pioneered by their fellow countrymen Neu! (whose Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were part of an early Kraftwerk lineup). Despite its length, the song surprisingly achieved American radio airplay, and a three-minute edit reached Number 25 on Billboard’s singles chart in 1975, the group’s only U.S. hit.

The Kraftweek performances were sponsored by Volkswagen, no small feat of corporate synergy, since "Autobahn"’s lyrics – "Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn" (English: "We drive drive drive on the Autobahn") – are basically an advertising jingle, while behind the band on a giant screen, the 3D-enhanced animation of a VW Bug negotiated the winding curves of the album’s cover art with considerable fahrvergnügen. After the joyride came the calliope-like "Kometenmelodie" ["Comet Melody"], Kraftwerk’s contribution to Kohoutek-mania (which was the Lana Del Rey of late 1973/early ’74); the discordant "Mitternacht" ["Midnight"]; and "Morgenspaziergang" ["Morning Stroll"], complete with electronic bird calls but noticeably missing the lilting flute of co-founder Florian Schneider, who left the band in 2008. Since the album took only a brief 35 minutes to play, the group performed an additional hour of songs from their catalogue – including "Numbers" – as delectable teasers for the week to come. Exiting the stage with a wave, Hütter promised the crowd "See you tomorrow," though considering the thorny ticket situation, you could probably count the holdovers in the crowd on two hands: Eins, zwei, drei, vier, funf, sechs, sieben, acht. . . .

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